The writer is part of a team that started Project Excel, a brand new

year-long special-education program at Sandwich High School in Sandwich,

Massachusetts. Project Excel is tailored for students who suffer from social

anxiety or other behavioral issues that make it difficult for them to learn with

others. Because of the students’ special needs, Project Excel’s class sizes are

small, but the math strategies explained here are useable in any educational

setting.

I teach math at Project Excel. At the start of the year, we

had no data about each student’s past level of achievement; we had no set math

curriculum. I knew we’d be developing Individualized Learning Plans for each

student and would regularly assess progress, but none of this was in place when

the school year started.

**Small but challenging**

Our program is

tiny: we started with five students ranging in age from 14 to 17. None had had

much success in a traditional school setting, but a ll hoped to complete their

high school diplomas. Two were motivated to graduate and move on, which tended

to keep their challenging behaviors at bay. The other three had special needs

and were extremely difficult to manage. Labels abounded among them: ODD,

Asperger’s, ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, and MMH topped the list. They began the year

constantly interrupting each other, rolling eyes, and smirking. Most

problematically, each of the three came in with negative self-views. They saw

their futures as bleak, if not hopeless. Consequently, getting them focused on

traditional math was challenging.

In my work with the Developmental

Designs approach, I learned that the most important adolescent needs are

competence, relationship, autonomy, and fun. When problems arise-when the

learning process is disrupted or cannot even get started-we can troubleshoot by

thinking about which of these needs are not being met and coming up with

pro-social ways to positively meet them. I kept this idea in the back of my mind

as the year began, but I wasn’t clear how to use it effectively.

**What
do they need?**

Two things serendipitously helped me chart a path toward

success during the height of my “fall of frustration.” First, one of our parents

baked us a cake. Our English teacher was eager to turn the cake into a math

lesson on area and perimeter. Part of me thought her idea was corny or cliché.

But as I looked at that cake, something dawned on me: math really is all around

us.

**K-Math is born**

The next day, failing to get anything going

academically, I prepared to head outside with the students for a few minutes to

kick a soccer ball around and regroup. We hadn’t taken an outdoor break in the

middle of a lesson before, and I noticed the students were really excited to do

this. A new vibe came over everyone. Especially excited were the students who

usually were moving around in class when they needed to be focused and sit

still. Kinesthetic Math, or K-Math, was about to be born! We went outside,

spread out, and began kicking the ball around. As we did, we guessed how far

each pass would have to travel to make it from the kicker to the receiver. Math

was all around us. Our first, improvised K-Math session was done!

When

we returned to class after our soccer break, students sat down and a

near-miracle happened. They appeared ready to focus! They watched me as I wrote

on the white board. They broke out of their old patterns: S didn’t start

doodling, D didn’t grab a worry stone, and even K, our biggest math-hater, was

paying attention and got right to work. After my lesson, they worked quietly for

14 minutes. Fourteen minutes! It was the most beautiful 14 minutes of my young

teaching career.

**Fleshing it out**

We did K-Math for a short

block of time each period thereafter. We started at about 10:15 every day, when

students needed a break from sitting quietly. I kept the time frame a little

flexible; I didn’t stop the flow at exactly that time if the learning was going

well. We used different areas and objects around our campus-math is all around

us!-and incorporated them into our physical games. K-Math became a routine the

students could rely on as I worked to develop course materials. Here are several

examples of K-Math activities:

- Measure the perimeter and area of the basketball court.
- Measure the circumference of the imaginary circle drawn by a tether ball at

the tetherball court. - Record shot statistics for floor hockey, Frisbee golf, ping-pong rallies,

and basketball, and then draw graphs to represent the data. - Enter shot statistics into Excel spreadsheet and create graphs
- Calculate Wiffle Ball batting averages.
- Create a circle with a 10-foot-long rope and discuss the circumference,

diameter, and radius, and the relationships among these. - Make snowballs and measure the volume and density of the snowballs. Melt

them overnight and then measure the volume and density of the resultant water

the next day. - Predict the probability of pulling a blue-colored poker chip out of a mixed

bag of blue, white, and red chips. Analyze the results.

These provided abundant possibilities for future lessons. The rope could be

changed to any shape; there’s no end to the “collect sports statistics” idea.

And there’s no reason why some of these lessons couldn’t be repeated. I think

the K-Math approach would work well in larger-sized classes, too. In fact, the

statistical sampling for shots made or ice cream preferences or whatever would

increase the validity of the math, because the sample size would be

larger.

**Let’s move!**

The students had a voice in deciding what

the physical component of each K-Math activity would be. At first, I tried to

persuade them to do math projects that were less kinesthetic and more sedentary,

like creating a board game from our statistics, or creating surveys and using

the answers to these to create a Family Feud game. Every time I tried to lead

them in these directions, they balked, opting instead for more athletic

pursuits. They did, however, welcome my suggestions for ways of working math

into the physical activities they wanted to do.

**It’s what they
need**

The key to K-Math’s success: it keeps students engaged in learning

because it meets students’ needs for fun, competence, relationship, and

autonomy, and the information learned is relevant.

The need for fun is

powerful. We talked about how each K-Math activity should meet the “fun

standard.” We quantified the success of each K-Math lesson by keeping track of

student-generated “fun” ratings after each activity. After measuring some

Frisbee golf shots, for example, we came up with an average “fun” rating between

1-5, and logged that score into our “K-Math activity fun quotient” sheet. The

more fun a K-Math activity, the more engaged the students were. And as the fun

kept happening, I could see relationships improve. The need for relationship was

being positively met during K-Math, and this was spilling over into the regular

math time.

Once I let students have input into the decision-making, I

realized I hadn’t been meeting their need for autonomy. Looking back, I wondered

at the start of the year whether this group really wanted and needed autonomy,

considering how they were so used to sitting back and passively letting their

teachers do all the work while they resisted. The autonomy they embraced during

K-Math showed that they certainly do. I now see that meeting needs is essential

to all students’ learning, regardless of how challenging each student’s

situation may be.

**Academic and social growth**

Was K-Math

helping? One day in mid-November, I assigned six problems for homework from a

page of 20 problems. The student with Asperger’s syndrome handed the assignment

in the next day with all 20 problems completed! He pointedly looked away from me

and said in his strained cadence through clenched teeth that he was anxious and

wanted to get through math and pass the MCAS test. I looked at him and told him

I would do my best to help him. Later, during wrap-up time, we did our tradition

of giving acknowledgments. We delivered each acknowledgment verbally and with a

small piece of chocolate. This student handed me a piece of chocolate, flashed

me a grin, and said I was a good math teacher. It was clear that day that both

his motivation and our relationship had improved.

**Wicked
fun**

Since we started K-Math, other math is being done by all my students

with a much more positive attitude and better effort. I also noted that although

I have pretty regular attendance and homework compliance, there was a slight

bump up in both after students had had an especially good time in math. I

believe that through daily kinesthetic explorations I was also better able to

build relationships with the students while at the same time modeling how much I

love math. Math is fun for all now. K-Math is wicked fun.

*Susanne Holland is a math and science teacher in the Project Excel program of the Sandwich Public School System in Sandwich, Massachusetts.*

This article first appeared in *Developmental Designs: A Middle-Level Newsletter,* Spring 2011