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Idea: Intervention Table

April 4, 2015

The other day, MissCalcul8 asked me on twitter about ideas for setting up an intervention table. The exact text was: “Any ideas for setting up an intervention table? Mostly for students who don’t even know how to begin.” Twitter’s great for networking, but I’m far too verbose to fit my thoughts into 140 characters. So here are some thoughts on the idea of creating an ‘Intervention Table’.

When I’ve seen others try something like this – a designated intervention station in the classroom – I’ve seen two variations. One type of station is designed for students to use during the lesson as a signal to the teacher that they’re not understanding and need some help. Another variation is a designated station designed to be used during an assignment (such as bellwork or homework time or stations). There are some practical things to consider with these, but also lurking the background is creating a culture where advocating for yourself doesn’t have a negative stigma, and being careful to frame either of these interventions as an opportunity rather than a punishment.

Ideas for an Intervention Table to be used during a lesson

I once worked with a teacher who had a designated desk near the front of the room labeled the “Help Desk”. The idea was that if a student was struggling during a lesson – there was a step they didn’t understand or they couldn’t make it through a class problem – they could move to this designated desk with the promise that they’ll get help sometime soon from the teacher. This desk was right next to the teacher’s desk and had a direct line-of-sight to the board.

When presenting this idea to students, he framed it by giving a speech to his class that was something along the lines of: “If you’re paying attention to a lesson and you feel like you’re not sure what’s going on, feel free to come sit in the Help Desk. It’s near the front of the room so you can see easily, it lets me know that you need help so I’ll make sure to check in with you, and once you feel like you’ve got it then you can move back to your seat”. In this way, students were encouraged to advocate for themselves that they need help with the promise that the teacher will give them a little extra attention while they’re sitting there to help make sure they understand. It also lets the teacher know immediately that there’s a student who doesn’t understand in a way that doesn’t directly interrupt the lesson (related: Red, Yellow, and Green Cup Stoplights).

If I were to try this (which, in writing this, I don’t know why I’m not trying this), I’d want to add a ‘Tutor Desk’ next to the ‘Help Desk’. Both desks would be left empty during the start of the lesson and, If someone needs help, they’re free to move to the Help Desk to get some extra help. But also, students who feel like they know what’s going on can sit in the Tutor Desk as a signal that they’re available to help people too. I know that I have at least 2-3 students in each class who genuinely like helping others out, so offering them a subtle way to do so could be something that’s very appealing to them. I think I’d also find some subtle positive reinforcement to encourage students to act as tutors and to encourage students to ask for help (something along these lines).

Ideas for an Intervention Table to be used during an assignment

A Digression: Suppose you’re in a unit on Solving Systems of Equations. Suppose you’re on the topic of solving via substitution. As a scaffold to get students used to the concept of replacing variables with expressions, you’ve got a bunch of problems with the variable already isolated – for example: y = -2x + 8 and y = 5x – 22. Let’s say that, in working through these problems, you discover that a student understands that they’re supposed to set these two equations equal to each other (ie: -2x + 8 = 5x – 22), but then has no idea how to do the remaining algebraic steps to solve for x.

This digression also tends to happen during graphing lessons (can set up the expression but can’t plot the points using x and y), or during coordinate geometry (can plug into the formulas but can’t evaluate the integers) or during polynomial operations (knows they need to combine like terms but can’t evaluate the integers & get the right signs).

These situations are probably the motivation behind this idea of a designated ‘intervention table’ – a place for students to work on the underlying skills that they need before they can continue with the current class content. These situations were also the motivation for my Wall of Remediation, which I still use in my own classroom. Part of addressing these issues is deciding how you feel about the following statement: If a student can’t do the underlying steps to a problem (integers, algebra, graphing, etc), then there’s no point in having them keep trying these problems that are above their head. In other words, instead of a student learning integer arithmetic and algebra and systems (and, depending on your unit, graphing systems) all at the same time, why not just reduce it down to integers and then build back up to the other stuff?

Adopting this mentality is scary because, at times, it means throwing away your objective for the day. On the other hand, its relieving for the student since it means they can focus on the real roadblock to their learning and feel like they’re making tangible progress. It also means that you, the teacher, need to be really prepared for when these roadblocks manifest. You need to be ready right away with a worksheet or set of notes or something to be able to give to the student to say “Try these – just these – then we’ll build back up to what we’re working on today”.

So – with all of this in mind, if I were to have a designated intervention table, it would have:

—A collection of worksheets with isolated skills that are also curated and checked by me. Here are most of the ones that I use currently. I also get worksheets from (I like that their answer keys show step-by-step solutions) and rarely from Kuta. I would also have an Answer Binder for students to check their answers immediately. When possible, I would have an answer bank for students to check their answers even more immediately (something like this). I let students turn in any remedial assignments like these for points to make up past homework assignments, but I always pick the assignments they complete.

—Number lines. Grids for multiplying numbers or polynomials. Positive & Negative tiles. Graphing squares with the numbers written on the sides. Whatever other tangible representations that are usually used by elementary and middle school teachers to give concrete representations to the things that high school teachers have made abstract. These are things I can grab easily and quickly show a student how to use to solve problems, using it as a temporary scaffold that eventually gets removed. If I can find good procedural guides for how to solve problems, I’d have those too (I’m thinking of things like multiplying fractions or graphing coordinates) for students to look at and reference.

—Whatever notes or definitions or formulas they need for the lessons, even if they’re ‘supposed to know it’. For example, I recently stole Sam Shah’s folder system for organizing myself, but I’ve been added notes and definitions to the center of the folders for students to reference:

2015-04-04 09.26.09

This could also be included at an ‘intervention table’ – not necessarily printed versions of your lesson, but the bare minimum important diagrams/definitions/notes/etc that students can reference quickly. This goes a long way in giving students that entry into a problem, especially those with high absence rates.

Working at the Intervention Table

So – let’s say you’ve set up your intervention table and you’ve got a student sitting there with a basic assignment to work on. Let’s say that assignment is on basic 2-step equations and you’re working on the problem below:


In working with this student, you feel torn – you want to provide meaningful help that is worth their time, but you’ve also got a class full of students who are also working on an assignment and would like your feedback. The issue is: working meaningfully with this student could take at least 10 minutes and means addressing all of the misconceptions in this one problem, such as: which number do you start with? why that number and not the others? my teacher always told me to start with the number on the left. my teacher always told me to start with the positive number. my teacher always told me to start with the smallest number. why did you add the numbers instead of subtract? why is the answer negative and not positive? why are you dividing by -5 – why not 16? why is the answer positive? am I done? how do I start the next one?

The Tension: You’re trying to help this student in a meaningful way that they will remember for next time, but you also need to bounce around to everyone else in the room to help them with their assignments and for just basic classroom management sanity. If you spend a long time working with this intervention student and honestly addressing all of their questions, you’ll feel obligated to get up and walk around once you’ve done only one problem in depth – but the student at the table will probably need some reassurance before they can work independently and so, once left alone, will not have the confidence to do a problem completely. On the flip side, you could try to rush through a problem in order to get back to your classroom, but then the misconceptions and underlying questions are never really addressed, so the student can’t transfer this ‘band-aid’ fix to any of the other problems, and usually won’t remember the first step and can’t get started.

Here’s How I Navigate That Tension:

First, we’re never solving just one problem – we’re always solving at least 8. And, especially at the beginning, we’re not doing one problem to completion – we’re doing five or six problems one step at a time. The trick for me is to break this problem into pieces that are general enough to be applied to most problems and can be applied quickly to several problems. Once we do the step for the first problem, I make them repeat just that step for several more (allowing me to do a quick pass around the room). Along the way, I’m checking for understanding on just that step before moving on to the next one. Here’s a pretty much word-for-word account of what I would do with this struggling algebra student to navigate this tension:

1) “In an equation, the most important thing is the equal sign. Find the equal sign and put your finger on it. Now draw a line through the equal sign, splitting your problem into two pieces. Now do this for the next 6 problems” (Walk Around – come back – check work)

2) “Which side is your x on? If it’s on the left side, write an L. If it’s on the right side, write an R. Now do this for the next 6 problems” (Walk around – come back – check work)

3) “We need to get the x by itself, so I’m going to look at the other number with the x and that is still on the same side as the x. Find that number an underline it. Now do this for the next 6 problems” (Walk around – come back – check work)

4) “We need to find the opposite of this number so they can zero out. What number is the opposite? Write it underneath on both sides. Now do this for the next 6 problems” (Walk around – come back – check work)

5) “These terms zero out and we’re left with _____. On the other side, we need to do some math. What do you get when you combine these numbers?” (At this point, if they’re struggling with integers, we stop the algebra and start working just with integers). “Good – now do this for the next 6 problems” (Walk around – come back – check work)

6) “Now we need to get the x by itself. What does it mean when a number is next to a variable? And what’s the opposite operation? So what do you think we should divide by? Just on this side? What happened on the side with the variable? And on the other side? Good – now do this for the next 6 problems” (Walk around – come back – check work)

7) “Great! Now do these last 2 from start to finish” (This is important – that you always save a few problems to do completely on their own from start to finish).

Some things that are done intentionally: Each step has something tangible for the students to write/draw/circle/etc for me to check later. Each step is broken up so its manageable, but also lets me check for all of those tiny misconceptions that can crop up. And, by doing several problems at once, I can see a specific misconception that I may miss if I do only one problem at a time (for example: if the first 5 problems all have the variable on the left side, It’ll be a while before I uncover misconceptions a student may have about variables on the right side of the equal sign – but, if we’re solving several problems at once, I’m more likely to notice and ask questions about the one problem with a variable in a ‘weird’ spot). Last intentional thing: the decision of which number to work with first in solving that problem is not a trivial decision – I purposefully add scaffolds to help make that decision more concrete and logical rather than a series of special cases that feels closer to memorization than algorithmic problem solving.

A lot of times I come up with these strategies on the spot as I’m trying to navigate this tension between meaningful help that applies to several problems, while also managing my classroom. My guiding principles are: have them do something tangible, have them break decisions into smaller pieces, try to isolate the steps where I know most misconceptions can occur.

A Completely Valid Point: But the student still doesn’t really know what they’re doing or why they’re doing it! You’ve just given them a procedure to follow to get the answer!

Response: Yep. If we’re still talking about a single student in the middle of a class who needs a very targeted intervention, then yes – that’s exactly what I’ve done. It’s not perfect, but it’s how I’ve reconciled the cost-benefit game of these moments. There’s the benefit of trying to explain the conceptual underpinnings of algebra with balance scales or developing a real-world analogy, and then there’s the challenge of competing with their attention span, my resources at that moment, their motivation in that moment, and the time I have with them – all of these lead me to conclude: it’s not realistic that I can fix years of conceptual misunderstandings in a small moment that takes place in the middle of another classroom lesson. If I’m lucky, a student who suddenly gets the procedure will start asking “but why does this work?”, which can lead to that conceptual conversation, but it doesn’t always happen.

There is a place for these conceptual conversations though – its either a more in-depth tutoring session, or a dedicated intervention class (which is what I usually teach). This is when I try to build that conceptual framework and hold them accountable for it – but the middle of a lesson on a totally different subject is not the time or place for that.

So…. there are lots and lots of thoughts and ideas and opinions. Thanks for reading.


From → Intervention

  1. First of all thank you for the treasure trove of worksheets from your Wall of Remediation.

    I don’t have a Help Desk but in the past at the end of a whole group lesson I have tried saying something like, “OK, now I am going to stop, but if you want to see another example or work through the first few problems from your class work with me, meet me at the back table.” What invariably happens next is that they all look around the room, and see if there is anyone about to make a move. If they don’t see anyone, then It works out OK because I can see from the way certain students are looking around the room who I need to check in with, but it also means that my help desk would just sit empty all throughout my lesson.

    I teach sixth graders, and I just don’t know what more I can do (SBG, praise effort, the whole lot) to improve the culture in my room so that asking for help is more socially acceptable. Ideas?

  2. Thank you for posting these ideas. I really appreciate your thoughts – two in particular…
    First, the help/tutor desk. I love the idea of getting students to take the responsibility of assisting each other. In my classes, we work in some sort of cooperative grouping (which changes frequently) almost daily where interdependence of each grouping and the class as a whole is stressed. I really like the idea of getting students to see if someone asks for help – by moving to the desk – then someone should help if they can. I have used the “help desk” idea during an assignment but I really like the idea of adding the tutor desk.
    Second, the idea of having students work one piece of a problem at a time. This is a very interesting idea that I am going to ponder. I do have issues that this strategy because the way that you described it addresses math as a series of steps that are prescribed by the teacher – suggesting that there is only one way to solve a problem. But there is something here in this strategy that peaks my interest and needs to be considered further.
    Now that I have said that – I do appreciate that you address the my concern above with the Completely Valid Point and I do agree that there is a time in our instruction where we revert to the steps and pray that a student will evidently “get it” from enough practice.
    My focus this year is working on getting my students to question why and to see the importance of understanding why. Not always an easy thing when they have been conditioned to think that the only important thing is the answer and math is about a series of step where understanding is not important. If you have any ideas – I would appreciate them.
    Again thank you for sharing 🙂


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