Getting Students to Engage and ENJOY Math

This is my first year working as a full time special education teacher and only my fourth year working exclusively with middle schoolers. I am in a new position, a new school, and a new district. At the start of the year I had two goals for myself. Number 1: figure out which student on my caseload I could work with on a my first ever Student Led IEP and after the first day of school, goal number 2 came quickly to me: figure out how to get my 7th grade level math class to engage, enjoy, and learn some math.
To set the scene, here I was excited but more than slightly terrified to be teaching any level of middle school, let alone special ed math. The class is made up of 12 students, the content level is 7th grade math. 2 of the students are 6th graders here for enrichment. 4 of the students are 8th graders here for remediation. The other 6 are actually in 7th grade but only one is performing on grade level, according to district assessments, and over half of my motley crew is on an IEP.
Needless to say, my first days and weeks with this crew was a challenge. Here I had a group of students who had seen limited success in math and school in general, with the exception of my two 6th graders here for enrichment, but terrified of the loud 8th graders, and had made up their minds this class had nothing to offer to their life. As an Alaska transplant originally from the Sunflower State, my running joke to myself was "I'm not in Kansas anymore."
My first quarter was primarily spent building relationships with these students. Think of the stereotypical middle schooler who has always struggled, that's my class. They're loud, they say what's on their mind, and will look teachers in the eye and say "I'm not doing this." I think my favorite quote is "Oh my God, I am LITERALLY going to die from this class!!!!!"
With a good dose of humor, a lot of sitting right next to students, greeting them at the door with a smile, and music that I was told "I can stand this," I began to gain their trust, but more importantly, they began to actually like me. After being gone to a conference for two days, upon my return, my loudest, most challenging student caught sight of me and shouted across the hall "Mrs. Ownbey are you here today?!?! Oh my God, thank goodness. I was LITERALLY going to die from that sub!!"

So now that I had a crew of students who liked me and could stand my music, I could start getting down to the business of creating some real math learning and growth. I started by doing stations based learning. My students were broken into three groups, rotating every 15 minutes to three different stations. 15 minutes were with me for small group, down and dirty direct instruction and guided practice, 15 minutes were with a parapro to work on independent practice, and 15 minutes were spent using online tools to dial in on their weak areas. By the time our winter district assessments rolled around, all but two of my students scored the highest they ever had, many blowing past their predicted spring level of achievement. YES!!
Things were going in the right direction, but I knew there was so much more I could do with this group. Since they are millennials, I needed to continue finding ways to change it up. I would throw in Kagan cooperative learning activities for skill reinforcement, we'd do Kahoot!, and we started using Google classroom.
In February I attended the ASTE conference and was blown away by the sessions with Alice Keeler.
Her focus is on using Google apps for education, but her mindset of filtering everything done in the classroom through depth of knowledge levels as well as the 4 C's completely resonated with me. Then she began showing HOW to use google applications to create collaborative, critical thinking opportunities for students, and I knew I had found the missing piece I needed to take this motley crew of mine to the next level.
I began creating shared slide decks for my students to demonstrate their learning while collaborating and creating.
My students began uploading videos of themselves teaching how to solve linear equations, receiving and giving feedback from their peers.
As I sat in Alice's sessions back in February, and began catching her excitement and love for google sheets, I spent my spring break browsing her templates determined to get over my fear of spreadsheets.
Coming back from the break, I decide to go for it. I created my first shared google sheet for my students to share their background knowledge on angles and lines. Oh my goodness!!

Not only did the level of engagement skyrocket, so did the quality of the communication. I was watching with my mouth hanging open and my heart exploding with happiness as my 12 were collaborating with one another using math language! What's more, they were ENJOYING the learning! This has been a total game changer for me.
I can say no matter the demographic, sped not sped, enrichment or remediation, loving school or hating school, creating opportunities for our students to access one another in meaningful ways will always lead to higher levels of learning. My favorite line from that same student who is always "LITERALLY going to die" as we were finding angles in a virtual tour of Machu Picchu: "This place is so lit!"

Teach in the way they are smart