The #1 thing I did in my support Math Classes

I promise I do have a #1 tip for support/intervention secondary math classes in this super long post – if you need to know it right away, scroll down  & read the orange highlighted parts parts. To the rest of you, happy reading….

This post is written to every Principal/Leader/Administrator and Teacher who has contacted me in the last 10 years asking my advice of what they should do in a secondary students second math class.  In an effort to address test scores, tons of money has been put into offering ‘Support Math’ (intervention) to students in many, many schools.  These courses come with all kind of crazy names.  RTI has been a buzzword Du Jour for the last 5 years. Schools have been crazy to define the ‘tiers’.   These courses are sometimes full your courses and sometimes less time.  The structure of the course seems to change at sites every year and sometimes during the year in a disparate attempt to figure out the magic arrangement that will result in an increase in student achievement.

It seems like NO ONE has a good idea what we should be doing with students in these courses.  Every school/principal/teacher I’ve talked to about this (and there have been 100’s) all seem to have lots of questions, some ideas, but very few answers.  Occasionally, I will ask “What is your site using doing/?” and the person’s  face I am talking to will light up and they will say, “Oh, we are using _______. We just adopted it.”  When I follow up with follow-up question(s) of “Do you think this program is working?”, the face of the person i am talking to falls and they shrug their shoulders and either say “I don’t know” or “no”.  They often go on to tell me of the other things their school/district has tried over the last several years.  On the surface they are always hopeful in the latest new idea/program and disappointed in different things they’ve tried year after year.

Most people who contact me wanting my advice ask the same question, “What curriculum should we purchase for our support class?”.  ‘UGH ,’ I always think.  We are addicted to thinking that the solution to our students lack of success in math lies in finding the perfect curriculum, especially when it comes to intervention,.  This addiction is so intense that many districts keep changing curricula every 1-3 years.  Our methods for figuring out how to meet the needs of our most vulnerable students are no different than hanging a dartboard on the back of our classroom doors covered in the names of every possible intervention curricula and throwing a dart hoping it will answer our concerns. If the first dart misses its mark, we will shoot for the bulls-eye the next month or year or… There has got to be a better answer.  There has to be.


I spent 5 years in charge of mathematics for a large urban district  in MN.  3 years ago I returned to the classroom, but stayed in a role of math leadership through our state’s NCTM affiliate.  I have had time to research best practices in supporting secondary students who struggle.  I have looked at most intervention curricula/apps on the market in depth.  When I returned to the classroom, I was assigned to teach a support class (my district calls them ‘focus math’) to groups of 7th grade students. I was in a 1:1 iPad school and given on online program to use.   I got a chance to try out what I had learned in my years of research with the lowest performing students in our district.    I made mistakes but I also had successes.

In the last 3 years I’ve landed on Sara VanDerWerf’s opinion of what a secondary support/intervention classes (2nd math class) should look like – if offered.  As of May 2016, here is what I believe…

  • ALL students, no mater what their current proficiency level should be enrolled in a rich grade level math class in which they can make growth on grade level standards – ideally your school is working to make these courses heterogeneous.
  • If a student is significantly behind in math, then your site needs to find ways to extend the students time on math each week – get creative in how you will do this if your site does NOT want to offer a 2nd math course – you have to do something.
  • If a student is in a 2nd math course during the school day, then it is great if it is not a class that meets everyday.  If you’ve been unsuccessful in math, imagine being told you will have 2 hours of math every single day.  Ugh.  The school I worked at had A/B day electives and I saw students every other day – that was a good amount.
  • I don’t recommend enrolling students that are nearly proficient in a 2nd math course.  These students needs can be met in their core math class with great math teachers dedicated to differentiating instruction.  Instead, enroll your students who are the furthest behind in a 2nd math class.  They need more time on task.
  • Make sure the person teaching your support classes is NOT your newest teacher, not an ELL/SpEd teacher teaching them by themselves (though they would be amazing co-teachers in a 2nd math class, but instead be sure the teacher in this course is one of your most experienced.
  • If possible, make sure the teacher teaching the student’s 2nd math course is the same person teaching their core math class.  This allows the teacher to connect current learning with skills and concepts that they need more time with.  it also allows teacher to build deeper relationships with students.
  • A class size of 16-22 is ideal, if possible.
  • As a site – again this is my opinion – you can weigh down this course with countless assessments (MAP and countless other weekly assessments) and wast tall the students time assessing what they don’t know hoping to see incremental growth (don’t choose this) OR you can limit assessments of students to the bare minimum and free students to have time to spend improving their skills  and understanding of concepts.  (do this).  To be blunt – I refuse to teach a second math course to a student if I am going to have to prove student growth every week or two with assessments.  I am happy to prove it with our year assessments or with their improvement in core math courses – but if you fill up support courses with tests, you are wasting the students time and killing their souls telling them what they already know.  If you must asses, make it super short (15 min or less).
  • Similarly – don’t waste your teacher’s time filling out RTI documents almost no one will ever read to make yourself feel better that you are documenting something.  The teachers time would be WAY better spent tutoring students or planning lessons for their students.
  • Don’t give homework – except for what I describe below.
  • Send your secondary math teachers to math training.  As secondary math teachers, we were NEVER trained how to teach the math our lowest performing students struggle with the most.  We were taught how to teach finding the area of a circle or calculating a derivative.  What students who struggle need support in boils down to just a few key things
    • #1:  A flexible understanding of the base 10 number system.  (number operations using strategies like decomposing numbers…..and so on”
    • #2:  How students develop Proportional Reasoning skills beginning in elementary and into middle school
    • #3: Fluency with rational numbers.

OK….so this is lots of structure stuff and I could probably list more things, but let me get to what I found worked as my day to day curriculum along with my…

#1 best idea for support math courses….

Here is what I know for sure about the majority of the students I’ve taught a support math class to…

  1. They struggle with confidence and work really hard at hiding what they don’t know on a day to day basis.
  2. They have rarely had ‘how to do school/math classes’ taught and/or modeled for them.
  3. They rarely have sought help/tutoring outside of class.  They have no idea how to ask for help.

If I were to design your curriculum for your support classes, here is what I would do.

  • Do a NUMBER TALK every single day.  Spend 10-20 minutes of your time leading a math talk with students to build fluency.  This can morph into using problem strings or other forms of number talks, but make this your non-negotiable.  Seriously.  I could do 50 posts on how to do this and why it is so important.  Despite this being so important, this is not my #1 tip to you because many of you know you should be doing this, many of you are and those that are not need  to start now.  Start by reading Cathy Humphry’s “Making Number Talks Matter” (ideally with some other teachers).  Use Fawn Nguyen’s online resources – Visual Patterns and Math Talks.net
  • Use an online individual program for part of class, allowing you to free up time to work with students individually or in small groups.  Choose a program that values concepts and not skills (to be blunt – don’t use something like IXL, you can do better).  Here is a recent blog post that has great ideas in your choice.
  • Occasionally use time to pre-teach core material to empower students in their core classes.  Give them the mathematics vocabulary and skills to have a head start on their peers.  Tell them the questions you will ask in class so they can plan what they will say.

LASTLY, and might I say  most importantly, here is my #1 tip to you.  Your students are struggling because they lack confidence and don’t know how to ask for help or afraid to.  It is your job to model for them how to do this and have them practice this with you.  Here is how I did this in my classes:

  1. I had 3 learning targets I graded students on in my support classes.  The one I loved the most was “I CAN ADVOCATE FOR MYSELF IN MATHEMATICS CLASS.”.  If you grade this, model this and expect this….students will start doing this and you will see amazing things start happening in their core math classes.
  2. MODEL how students can advocate for them selves a lot.  A lot a lot.  Really.  You need to model raising a hand.  You need to model walking into a classroom and asking for help.  You need to practice writing down and then saying out loud what they need help with.  You need to have students practice asking for help over and over again.  Don’t say ‘ are you struggling with ______?’ when you go to help them or tell them what they need help with, Make students articulate what they don’t understand.  They need to practice this.  Model how to google vocabulary terms and other things they don’t know….Read THIS POST for more information on googling.  Model everything.  Model how to do what most seem is obvious in ‘how to do school’.  Model how to do homework.  Model how to do homework if you go home and don’t even know how to start.  ……
  3. cover of advocate(THIS IS REALLY THE #1 TIP…I HAVE SEEN THE GREATEST CHANGES IN STUDENTS CONFIDENCE ONCE I STARTED DOING THIS) The only homework I assign in my support math classes is found in this form4th Quarter 2015 Advocating Forms) I hand out on the first day of each quarter.  I expect students to get 10-15 minutes of one on one tutoring in math 4 times each quarter OUTSIDE of class time. (Note:  It is really important you make it mandatory that this is done outside of class time – you will want to make it easier on students who ‘have a tough life outside of school’, but you are not doing them any favors if they don’t extend their learning day by 10 minutes every so often)   I work individually with students to brainstorm when they will do this.  I work to make sure there are multiple adults they can choose to get help from.  I make sure that there are times during lunch to get help if coming before or after school is a struggle.  I work with families to figure out how they can come b/4 or after school.  I use interpreters to work with families who do not speak English.  I also have to spend LOTS of time making sure they complete this homework.  Most students will avoid this FOREVER – will make every excuse not to do this.  Since they can not pass the support class without doing this, I win almost all of them over through sheer will and persistence on my part.   Here is what the form I used with students looked like.  

Tutoring Form

Here is part of it a bit larger so you can read it.  Again you can download the entire thing HERE: 4th Quarter 2015 Advocating Forms

Tutoring Form top half

HERE IS WHERE THE MAGIC HAPPENS AND WHY YOU MUST DO THIS.  Once students start coming for help (just 10 minutes at a time) more than 2 or 3 times, the magic starts happening.  All of a sudden, they start understanding just a little bit of what is happening in core mathematics.  This is enough for them to start engaging their brains more.  I just re-watched some videos I made of students reflecting at the end of the year and most talked about how coming and getting help was the turning point for them to feel like they were getting smarter in math.  On young man said, “When I came in for help I felt smarter and I started understanding more math in class.  I don’t know why math is so much easier this year.”  He may not know, but I know.  He has become empowered to advocate for himself when he does not understand vs. sitting there hoping it will make sense some day.  (oh what a type of hell he must have lived in during math in prior years).

This year I work 2 hours in my High School Math Center.  Students of all levels of proficiency come for help.  In my core math classes I have demanded students who are struggling must utilize the math center (which is open all day and after school).  I have worked with their families to make this happen.  My students that have used this space to get help saw huge gains in math. One of my students who was well known as the school’s biggest screw up last year used it at last count 135 times this year and raised his GPA from less than 1 to a 2.5 this year and received his first straight B’s or above in all classes- he received a B+ all year in math – it makes me cry to think about it.  Another student with lots of accommodations for focus issues (she can be distracted by the sound of a marshmallow dropping) struggled big time in class.  When she started coming for help 1 to 2 times a week, she started getting A’s on assessments.  A’s.  This from a student who had grades of C at best.  Here is a snippet from an email I received from her parent.  

PS  _________was talking to her Cousin in CA and he must have made a comment
about her not being “good” at Math.  She said “oh no I’m smart at Math.  I just have
to be able to completely focus and have it explained to me one on one.”   Well of course
that isn’t possible but I was thrilled to hear her describe herself as “smart” instead
of the put-downs she’s labeled herself with in the past.  Progress!

It was not enough for me to spend time persuading these students to come for help.  Even HS students need to be taught how to ask for help.  They need to have this modeled for them.  I make space for this in my class and in my interactions with students.

I challenge you to NOT ASSUME students know how to advocate for themselves.  Make this a part of what you teach.  Watch what happens when the students you teach start asking for help.  It’s amazing to literally watch their entire auras change .  They become more confident and engages.  Don’t believe me, try it.  I dare you.





Sara VanDerWerf

I am Sara Van Der Werf, a 24-year mathematics teacher in Minneapolis Public Schools. I have taught math in grades 7-12 as well as spent several years leading mathematics at the district office. I currently teach Advanced Algebra at South High School and I'm also the current President of the Minnesota Council of Teachers of Mathematics (MCTM). I am passionate about encouraging and connecting with mathematics teachers. I'd love to connect via twitter.  Join the community.  Tweet me @saravdwerf.

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