SALT LAKE CITY — Noodle this middle school math problem: Napoleon Dynamite and his friend Pedro walk down the hall of their high school. If we know there are 500 lockers in their school, how many are there of each color based on the pattern we see in the movie clip?
A movie clip to teach a math concept?
Why not, says Lori Gardner, retired Park City School District associate superintendent of teaching, learning and technology, addressing 36 middle school teachers taking part in the start of a yearlong training on co-teaching.
It's a new take on story problems, "using a problem-solving activity they can relate to," she said.
Gardner was among a handful of instructors providing professional development on co-teaching Tuesday at the office of the Utah State Board of Education. Co-teaching pairs a general educator and a special educator in the same classroom with the objective of using newly learned instructional concepts and techniques to improve math proficiency among students with disabilities.
Ultimately, both teachers will teach in the same middle school classroom, with the special educator employing improved skills in math instruction and the math teacher better versed in special education practices to better meet the needs of all students.
Given the average attention span of a human, for that matter a middle school student, Gardner recommended offering instruction in 10 minute "chunks" followed by an opportunity to "chew" new information.
The chunks can be visual, which can be a chart or a movie clip; auditory, such as a song or a speaker; or body movement that helps reinforce the concept.
"These kids are wired very differently. We need to remember that," Gardner said.
Ryan McLelland, a seventh-grade math teacher at Matheson Junior High School, co-taught this past year and is enrolled in the professional development course to further refine his skills.
"I'm hoping to be a better teacher. I'm hoping to be able to reach all of the students that I teach. A lot of the kids who are in special education are really smart," McLelland said.
"I did it last year for the first time. I had a lot of kids it was really successful with, and then I had a lot of kids I couldn't quite get to, so I'm hoping to figure out how to get to all of the kids and teach them," he said.
Having more special education strategies to draw from "is nice," McLelland said.
"Now when I run into a problem, I can actually solve it. Now I can actually help this kid. It's like, 'Oh, he's giving me the look,' but now I actually know how to reach the kid."
Becky Unker, education specialist for the Utah State Board of Education, said the professional development was designed for educators who teach grades six through eight.
"Our state systemic improvement plan in special ed is focused on cutting the achievement gap in half for students with disabilities over five years, and we're into year three," Unker said.
"We're 1 of 5 states in the nation that chose mathematics. We're the only state of the five that chose to go with middle schools. All of the other schools are doing K-3 or three through five, but we are the only state that's tackled the middle school," she said.
The other reason to pair teaching math with co-teaching is that "special educators are not content people. They didn't go to school for content" meaning a specific subject areas such a math, language arts or science, Unker said.
"Yet, we're putting them in classrooms and they're pulling these kids out (for small group instruction) and they're relying on the way they were taught," she said.
When a math teacher is paired with a special educator, instruction is differentiated according to students' levels of mastery, Unker said, but "it's mostly really good math teaching."
While all teachers who graduate from teacher preparation programs know how to teach, teaching as a team takes some guidance, said Unker, who was a co-teacher for seven years in the elementary school setting.
"We call it a work marriage. You have to gel with your partner. We have maybe one or two teams a year that it just doesn't work," she said.
Unker said she entered a co-teaching arrangement with trepidation, but the arrangement worked out well.
"I was scared to death to work with her. We're the best of friends 26 years later," she said.
There are 18 teaching teams in this particular group of teachers, including teachers from charter schools and traditional middle schools from Salt Lake and Weber counties.
The group will meet a total of 10 days throughout the year, with most of the time devoted to math instruction and the rest to co-teaching techniques.
This is the fifth year the Utah State Board of Education has provided the training opportunity, said Kim Fratto, education coordinator for the state board.
Fratto said the instruction helps students, but it also helps teachers broaden their perspective about students' abilities.
"Our teachers really talk about how their belief systems about what kids can and can't do change. It helps them look through a different lens on both sides. It helps benefit the special ed teacher by having more interaction with the grade-level content and other students. It helps the general ed teacher to learn to differentiate and really break down skills and present things in multiple ways that maybe they haven't considered before," she said.