Experiencing Disabilities in the Math Classroom

irizarryRegion 4 Educational Service Center hosted their annual Math Conference, and they usually offer a handful of sessions addressing students with special needs (EL students, students with IEPs, struggling learners, and more).

This year, I attended a fantastic session by a new presenter, Leximar Irizarry. The heart of Ms. Irizarry’s session was a cluster of five stations that attempted to replicate the effects of various student traits, such as visual impairment, speech impediment, autism, or discalculia.

Similar activities have been around for a while (the website understood.org comes to mind as well as a scene in Tony Danza’s short-lived reality show, Teach), but Irizarry drew out some of the richest discussion I have heard around students with special needs.

One participant described his experience at the “speech impediment” table, saying, “It was funny when someone else talked, but really frustrating when I tried.” Do you think we have students like that?

As my table struggled with a math problem written in Base-5, some of us shut down and clowned around, some of us struggled down the wrong path, and some of us demanded attention. Our teacher pointed out that we had the supplemental aid at our table. Do we have students who have never been taught how to use a supplemental aid?

I know these activities can never truly replicate what someone else is experiencing, and that was not the presenter’s goal. Rather, she wanted us to discuss how we reacted to obstacles. As one participant said, “I can leave the table when I get fed up, but our students have struggles that are always with them.”

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