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Personalize the math environment

Differentiating math instruction used to be impossible. How one teacher has made it work.

3 min read


Personalize the math environment


Every year my classroom and the needs of each student become more diverse. Just teaching my grade-level curriculum is not enough to close the gaps for struggling students or to keep my advanced students moving ahead. For every student to make at least one year’s growth, I have to find ways to individualize their learning.

But how? Here are three ways that I am personalizing the math experience.

1) Group students. Differentiation in math class requires you to know your students very well. I use several assessment tools to identify my students’ strengths and weaknesses. Using these tools and teacher observation, I am able to group my students into three groups: on grade level, below grade level, and above grade level. These groups are flexible and are reassessed often.

2) Customize pathways for each student. I have been using the Wowzers math program to help meet the unique needs of my groups. This program has helped me to customize a pathway for each student or groups of students. Students who are 1–2 grade levels below work on intense remediation of foundational skills that they must master before moving ahead. My RTI students are making substantial progress and closing those instructional gaps.

For students who are working at grade level, I strategically assign lessons as a preteach. They work through lessons on a topic before I teach them in class. The goal is to expose them to the vocabulary and to practice the skills in a nonthreatening and fun environment. This allows me to jump right into a whole-group lesson at a much higher level without having to devote class time to the basics. This strategy has helped build students confidence and taken the fear out of working on a new skill.

My advanced students work on skills above grade level. These students are independent learners and are able to move ahead in the curriculum without much direct instruction from me. Some students may be working on skills just a bit ahead of the class, while others are working several grade levels ahead.  

3) Practice, practice, practice. Creating this personalized environment requires an effective use of time and resources.  Since I don’t have a device for each student, I use a rotation system. Each student works on Wowzers for 30 minutes at some point in the day.  Many students also continue their learning at home to get additional time on the program. Making every minute count is definitely a key to success.

I think back to the days of standing over the copy machine making packets of work to keep my advance learners busy or going to the first-grade teacher down the hall to get some remedial work for a student.  It was an impossible task. Now, with the right tools and some careful planning, I am better able to differentiate for every student in my math class every day.

Kelly Rust is a 3rd-grade math and science teacher at Wiederstein Elementary in Cibolo, Texas. She has been teaching very diverse learners for 18 years.

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