Bowling… and supporting struggling students…

We recently went bowling. It was my nephews’ birthdays. We brought the whole family. I have a three-year-old who doesn’t take well to being left out of the fun, and he shouldn’t have to. Bowling is for everyone.

But he’s little. Really little. A 6-pound ball is about 16% of his body weight. That would be like a 200-lb man throwing a 32-lb bowling ball. No one bowls like that.

So, we provided a support to make sure that he could meaningfully engage.

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It’s a ramp. He put the ball on the ramp. The ball rolls down the ramp and now he’s bowling.

My son just plain ol’ isn’t big or strong enough to roll the ball down the lane. His body doesn’t have the capacity to provide enough energy to the ball. That said, there are still things he can do. He can’t supply kinetic energy, but he can provide gravitational potential energy by lifting the ball up to the ramp. The modification is the ramp facilitating the conversion to kinetic energy that ends with the ball rolling toward the pins.

In this case, we haven’t removed the responsibility to pick the ball up, carry it toward the lane, and add energy to the ball. We’ve also not stolen from him the experience of seeing his ball head toward the pins, to compete with the other children, and to have fun.

All we’ve modified is the conversion to kinetic energy that he is unable to do. And if you think that he was feeling unfulfilled because we modified the activity, then think again. He was hopping around like he had springs in his shoes every time he knocked down some pins.

And the progression toward full participation was visible. My six-year-old daughter was bowling, too. No ramp. She would get a running start and heave the ball with two hands.

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Not exactly a textbook technique, but effective as long as we include a different modification: bumpers. (Full disclosure, the three-year-old had bumpers, too.) We were setting the standard that the the ramp isn’t HOW you bowl. It’s a modified way to bowl until you grow strong enough to no longer need the support.

I thought these things as we watched him bowl. And I considered the implications for our students who need their classroom experiences modified to be full participants. Like a student who is still developing fine motor skills needing someone to dictate his/her spoken words. Or a student who doesn’t sit still well being able to work standing up and helping that student develop the ability to produce quality work while standing.

Take the effort that the student is able to give and provide support in the areas that… well… they just aren’t there yet. The expectation is that the student will be given support in their areas of weakness at another time to facilitate their growth, but at the moment they are in your class, it is important for them to be able to participate as fully as possible with the classroom activities. There are learning outcomes that don’t depend on their weaknesses.

For example, there will be a time when that student works on developing the ability to work sitting down, but the teacher is currently leading an activity on the civil war, and “learning while sitting down” isn’t one of the stated learning goals for that activity.

Or consider a student who is in Algebra I, but has a weakness in basic computation. This is a fairly common weakness among our Algebra I students, wouldn’t you say?

If we could create a structure whereby those students are receiving the specific supports in the area of computation (perhaps a 15-min per day intervention right before school… or something), would it be possible to allow strategic use of a calculator to support students who are weak in computation. They’d still have to know what numbers need to be computed. They still need to be able to check their answers and apply them back to a situation, but the calculator acts as the bowling ramp. It supports their effort until they grow strong enough to heave the ball down the lane themselves.

I think it’s important that we consider ways to help our students find success in our classes despite their weakness. The alternative is watching those weaknesses become bigger and bigger barriers until our students are sitting in the back of the bowling alley watching everyone else have fun.

3 thoughts on “Bowling… and supporting struggling students…

  1. Pingback: Very Inspiring Blogger Award | Life Through A Mathematician's Eyes

  2. Learning while sitting down isn’t a standard for this lesson…. We forget that, don’t we. I teach students with ind ed programs (sped). These students are so beautifully intelligent. Many need ramps of different sorts, but otherwise they are learners! My kids rebel against the small resource classrooms because they feel a stigma. I expect them to learn to grade level, modifying my teaching and their “ramps”, not the curriculum. Thank you for the reminder to wean them off the ramps! (My kids are HS – I wish there had been more judicious use of the calculator – I do mental math with them daily to build those atrophied or missing muscles!)

    • For sure… calculators (along with any other tool) are a tool like any other. There is no universal tool. Mental math and pencil-and-paper algorithms are tools, too. When the learning outcomes aren’t really dependent on the tool, then there’s no sense setting up an arbitrary barrier by forcing students to use this or that method.

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