Future Reflections Fall 2014 MATH
by Jim Franklin
From the Editor: Because the teaching methods used in math classes tend to be highly visual, many blind and visually impaired students have trouble grasping math concepts and keeping up with assignments. However, math can be taught using hands-on methods that benefit all students. In this article, Jim Franklin explains how he developed the Slide-A-Round Math Manipulatives to teach students how to round numbers. Jim Franklin is an inclusion elementary special education teacher at Elm Street Elementary School in Rome, Georgia. Over the past fifteen years he has taught students in inclusion, resource, and self-contained settings.
For years students have been rounding numbers up to ten million. Most teaching strategies involve the use of paper and pencil, dry erase board, and markers. Students are expected to master the skill of accurately drawing a number line and to understand the concepts of rounding and estimation. However, with the implementation of rigorous Common Core Standards across the United States, students now are expected to meet more complex standards in a shorter amount of time than they were allowed ten years ago, regardless of economic status, vision and hearing impairments, language and cognitive deficits, and other disabilities. Our country's best and most experienced teachers frequently state that they need more time to help their students achieve mastery in class and on state standardized assessments.
Less than three years ago, my elementary students struggled with the pressures of mastering math standards and objectives and with standardized testing expectations. One day my system assistant special education director called and wanted to bring a group of teachers and administrators to observe my class. We were working on rounding numbers, so I started to look for an approach different from the same old number line that only goes to one hundred. I consulted with our math specialist—nothing! I talked with the math teachers from varying grade levels—nothing! I searched "rounding math manipulatives" on the internet—again, nothing! I was frustrated that students are expected to grasp abstract concepts with a "one size fits all" instructional mentality.
As I walked down the hall to my classroom, an idea came to me. Instead of using a number line as a visual teaching tool for rounding, what if I created moveable slides? The students could change the number increments to help them solve a variety of rounding problems. I got to work creating a number line that would do just that. I made a basic, generic number line with half circles to help the students know which side of the figure to "fall down" in rounding by tens. Then I created slides with a window on each end to help students place the numbers correctly. I had the basic plan for the Slide-A-Round Teaching Aid.
My colleagues loved my idea, so I looked for a way to create a sturdier version of my paper model. I started by cutting up an old garage-sale sign. I located a local printing company willing to apply printed stickers by hand. Needless to say, this was not a cost-effective way to create a student-friendly, durable product.
I continued to get feedback and advice from others—students, math teachers, special education teachers, teachers of the visually impaired, occupational therapists, etc. The students gave me by far the most relevant feedback. They helped me see my manipulatives with a much-needed difference in perspective.
The first student to use my manipulative was Michael, a fourth-grader with a diagnosis of EBD (emotional and behavior disorder). He was very withdrawn and had an extremely low tolerance for frustration. Academically, he was one to two years below grade level in math calculation and math reasoning, and he was served in my inclusion math class. Despite his difficulties, Michael was a student who usually wanted to please his teachers.
Michael and I went to a table at the end of the hallway to work on his classwork. At the time, students were expected to round numbers to the nearest ten and one hundred. As usual, Michael got to work immediately. However, after four or five problems, I began to see "the look" on his face. His head drooped, and his eyes started to water. He refused to respond or to ask me any questions. I offered encouragement to boost his self-confidence. I watched him struggle to remember the strategies he had been taught.
I also noticed that Michael attempted to draw several number lines, but they were incorrect. The numbers on his paper had an extremely short life span; he would write, then erase, over and over again for every problem.
After about thirty minutes he finally reached #20, the last frustrating problem. It was a painful experience for both of us. But I knew I had something to help him, tucked in a folder on the chair beside me.
I asked Michael if he was finished. He nodded, with his eyes staring at the tile floor beside his chair. I reached over to get his paper to grade. It was very easy to grade because several parts of his number line were incorrect, and some math problems did not have answers. He knew that he did not have a passing grade, but when I wrote a "40" on the top, it was as if a truck had hit him.
I tapped on the table to get his attention. "Michael," I said, "if you listen and watch me for five minutes, I'll give you something to help you with these math problems. Tomorrow, we'll redo this assignment. Are you willing to do that?"
He gave me a sniffling "yes."
The next day at fourth period, we went to the same table. Briefly I demonstrated my manipulative to Michael, and he began to work. This time, when he was finished, he handed me his paper and proudly stated, "I think I did better, Mr. Franklin."
He watched every move my pen made as I corrected his paper. Reluctantly he asked, "Well ... How did I do?"
I wrote an "80" and circled it. I looked up at him and saw the most self-confident grin I had ever seen. "Do you want to show Mrs. Phillips, or do you want me to show her?"
"I do!" he exclaimed, and dashed up the hallway. The look on his face was priceless. At that moment I knew I had an idea with the potential to help students, not only in Rome, Georgia, but in other parts of the United States.
The basic concept surrounding my math manipulatives with interchangeable slides generated several other manipulatives based on the same principle. I created a number line to ten million and manipulatives that address elapsed time, weight, money, decimals, and equivalent fractions. A few of these manipulatives were created because other teachers approached me with "Do you have anything that will help students with ...?" My reply was always, "Let me think about it and see what I can come up with." When they tried the new tools in their classrooms, I was excited by the results and the positive feedback.
At this point, I knew I was ready to find a manufacturer who could quickly produce a product that parents, classroom teachers, and school systems would be able to afford for their children. I located a manufacturer in Montana who built a steel mold for the student versions. Next I began searching for a way to create a 32-inch teacher's aid for each manipulative. I knew that the approach of using a steel mold was much too expensive. When I spoke with the owner of a manufacturing company in Arizona, he suggested machine-cut sturdy plastic with printer-applied labels. I was glad I decided to go this route, especially after I consulted with a teacher of the visually impaired in my school system. She sat down with me to offer advice about which manipulatives could be converted for the use of blind and low vision students. I learned that Braille dots would need extra clearance on the moveable slides, so changes had to be made in the 32-inch, table-size versions. I also recognized the need to add a 24-inch version (individual desk size) for students with low vision.
In May 2012 I visited the Alabama Institute for the Blind. I discussed my manipulatives with the director, Teresa Lacy, who suggested that I also contact Will Evans at the American Printing House for the Blind (APH). It is amazing to me how many people have gone out of their way to offer suggestions and advice on how to help our students be academically successful. APH agreed to have its math consultants do a product study of effectiveness. Even though I had already seen firsthand how students responded and achieved, it was pretty nice to receive affirmation through APH on its "Fred's Head" blog for November 2012. "This is a great product for students who are blind and visually impaired. It gives tactile representation to abstract concepts in mathematics."
My first true experience working directly with a blind student came at the Ohio "Out of Sight" Assistive Technology Conference in Columbus, Ohio, in April 2013. I was invited to exhibit and present by Paula Mauro, the director of CISAM, the Center for Instructional Supports and Accessible Materials. For many of the attendees, this was a conference; for me, however, it was an opportunity to gain valuable insight into how visually impaired students would benefit from my manipulatives.
A fifth-grade student and his mother visited my exhibit booth. While I discussed my manipulatives with the mother, I noticed that the boy's eyes were about a foot above my VI Fractions 16ths manipulative displayed on the table. When the boy began to talk about fractions, the conversation moved quickly to involve him. While he was moving the slides, he stated, "If these labels were in yellow and black, I would be able to see them better."
At the next break I called my manufacturer about the possibility of customizing the colors of the labels. I was delighted with the response! Since the Ohio conference, the customization of labels for my VI manipulatives has been a popular topic with parents, teachers, and administrators. With shrinking school budgets, my goal is to provide time- and cost-effective ways to meet the individual needs of all students. Teachers have the option of making their own Braille labels, which they can apply themselves on the appropriate numbers. They can also use tactile dots from a crafts store, placing them on the proper lines. Raised lines can be made with thin-cut strips of masking tape. A TVI from Illinois suggested using larger, "mailbox type numbers" on some of the manipulatives.
The freedom to individualize my manipulatives provides flexibility and increases the likelihood that the manipulatives will be used effectively to increase student achievement.
Since I received the endorsement from APH, representatives from many school systems and schools for the blind have inquired about my manipulatives and strategies when I present/demonstrate around the United States, via email or by phone. I continue to stress one of my most important teaching strategies: "The best teaching is when students are being taught future standards that they do not know they are being taught at that time. When the students eventually reach those standards, it seems like review." That strategy is not only part of my everyday instruction, but also the driving force behind how my manipulatives were created.
I want to close with a comment I received from Dr. Barry L. McDaniel of Student Support Services at the Louisiana School for the Deaf and Blind after I presented at the Southeast Regional Assistive Services Technology Center. "Slide-A-Rounds could be a useful teaching aid for teachers, allowing for meaningful learning situations for students regarding time, fractions, weight, decimals, and money."
You can learn more about Slide-A-Round Math Manipulatives at <www.slidearoundmath.com>.