A few years ago, I had a student with severe math anxiety. She had generalized anxiety, but math was a particular trigger. At the start of the year, she had unlimited time on all math tests, which resulted in her redoing the first problem that she encountered on any given test, over and over and over again. She would literally erase so many times that she would just erase holes into her paper. This was all without cause, at least from the point of view of the content, because she was fully capable of doing the work at grade level. It was all due to her anxiety.
After a few incredibly frustrating tests, where no amount of reassurance on my part made it better, I came up with the idea that we should try taking away unlimited time. At least for this student, the unlimited time was the cause of the anxiety. I also tried other strategies, such as giving her the test one question at a time, giving her a time limit on each question, and taking away the paper, whether she was done or not.
It was so hard to implement these strategies. I felt horrible, like the worst teacher EVER. But, slowly, one painful test after another, the student began completing the tests, scoring 100% consistently. She simply wasn’t given the time to erase her paper into shreds, not if she wanted to complete the test. Somehow, the threat of not being able to finish was enough.
This year, I have another student in a situation that reminds me, in some ways, of my former student. This year, the student has a diagnosis of anxiety, yes, but also of a specific math disability. At the start of the year, her mother emailed me to say that “my daughter doesn’t do math with other students,” which wasn’t actually what the IEP said. I began with a compromise – staying an extra ten minutes between classes to work directly with her on the instructional-level math indicated in her IEP (three years or more below her grade level). But I also insisted that she engage with the grade-level content. When I found that she was not following along, I used a strategy I had stumbled across last year: she became the student who regularly shared her screen so I could monitor her participation.
I have struggled daily with my guilt about this situation – I literally require a student, who was working on 3rd grade material, to attempt the 6th grade content. I prompt her through the private chat during math class, I have her share her screen and scribe sample work for the students in the pull-out support class, I ask her targeted questions that I know she can answer with success. And I expect her to do all of that at grade level, even though, prior to this year, she had not even learned how to divide. What am I doing?!?!?
On Friday, February 11th, just past the half-way point in the year, we took a math test on percent at the 6th grade level. I sent kids to breakout rooms and popped in to see this student, thinking she would not do the test. On a whim, I asked her what she wanted to do….and she asked to try the test. All students had some targeted notes and everyone had access to a calculator. And she did the test, largely on her own until I had time to return and check-in with her.
She chose to take a grade-level math test.
Does she understand percent? No, not deeply or well. She sometimes forgets that the division sign on her calculator is not an addition sign. But this student, the same one who simply did not participate in math class with other students until the start of this year, was willing to try. And her attempts were actually within the range of reasonable, which they were NOT at the start of the year. (At the start of the year, she would fling numbers at me, hoping one would stick, spaghetti-like.) On Friday, she was a little off, but she knew she needed to multiply (but forgot to multiply across) and then divide. She also knew to divide the percent by 100 to get the decimal. She answered my prompts with her microphone on, with confidence.
I cried when I left the session with her. It is going to take years to build up and to back-fill her content knowledge, but I finally have a whisper of confidence that it could actually happen, given time and a few years of teachers who believe in her ability to be more.