Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Perfect Storm?

As anyone who has read my blog knows, I am a co-teacher in an inclusion classroom. Christine Southard, the special ed part of the program, and I are in our third year together, second full time. We have many successes to speak of, are often complimented by our colleagues for how well our students are doing, and hear very positive comments from our parents. We are frequently asked how we run our program...why we have such success. And Christine and I disagree about whether or not our program can be duplicated. Our assistant superintendent called us "The Perfect Storm." She is not so sure our program can be repeated by different teachers. I am not so sure I agree with her. I do believe that our program can and should be duplicated. But I do think certain factors have to be set in place.

1. Philosophy

Christine and I share a very important philosophy. It is one in which we believe that all the children in our class are part of the class. I know that sounds basic but what
it really means is that we have the same expectations for all our students. And we give all students what they need to meet those expectations. We differentiate instruction, provide tools, give additional help...all within the setting of a regular education classroom. And we both provide this service. Christine and I do not have my students and her students. We are both responsible for all the children.

Now it is true that we came by this philosophy ourselves. And not all co-teachers have this philosophy but I do believe this idea can come top down. If an administrator set up a program following this set up, the teachers would have to work under these constrictions. And the children would benefit.

2. UDL Helps Inclusion

Christine and I understand that certain children learn better using tools. One might need a slant board to eleviate writing fatigue, another might need voice activation on a computer, a third might benefit from using a digital recorder to get thoughts down. By making these tools available to all children, the children who need them don't stand out quite so much. If four different children pick up a digital recorder during writing time, the one that needs it won't feel so uncomfortable using it. Now it is true that some children need tools that cannot be offered to others, such as a wheelchair or hearing aides. Then it is important to speak openly about the situation. Let the child using the tool explain to the class how it helps. Make this assistive technology understandable instead of unusual.

How can this work for other teachers? Don't make technology available for only small parts of the day. Keep baskets of fidget toys, allow children to move around the room as needed to see better or be more comfortable, make computers available whenever possible. Teach children how to figure out how they learn best. Then allow all the students the freedom to use what tools are necessary to meet their needs. Don't just focus on the children who have been labeled. Give all the students the responsibility for their own learning.

3. PBL Also Supports Inclusion

While much has been
written about using Project Based Learning to help children better engage in content and have deeper understanding, Christine and I have found that PBL also helps all of our students meet with success. The child who struggles with writing can create a fabulous video demonstrating knowledge. The one who cannot yet read on grade level can be read to or can watch videos to learn the information that another can learn in a textbook. And the child who loves talking can create podcasts of information his classmates can use to learn content. By allowing all students choices in how they learn, the child who struggles in a particular area does not stand out so much for not reading well or writing well. This child, who normally fits into the bottom of the class, has an opportunity to shine and be the expert reporter, producer, or editor.

Administrators should spend staff development time and money to help teachers learn how to use PBL in their classrooms. Once again, when the top says do PBL, the bottom will do it. Maybe not happily at first but hopefully the administrators know how to encourage teachers so they will understand the benefits and want to try it out.

4. Children Work Better in Smaller Groups

Christine and I create groups for almost all subjects. We have leveled groups in math, reading, writing, and language arts. We preassess for skills and provide small group instruction to assist students who need support with these skills. We have found that often children move in and out of need groups as the skills change. The child that struggles with spelling might not need the punctuation group. By moving children in and out of groups, they begin to see that all of us need help in some areas and none of us need help in every area. Children get comfortable understanding that they are getting what they need, when they need it. We don't have "dummies" and "smarties" in the class. Just children who are learning.

There are three reasons this is easy for us to accomplish - so administrators take note. First, we are together full time. Christine is with me every day, all day. When we worked together only part time, it was much harder to have consistency with small groups. Second, we have a separate room into which we can move a group. This allows us to both teach at the same time. We don't always pull kids to the "break out room" but when the groups are large enough, it is easier to move down the hall then it is to move to a back table. We also take turns moving to the "break out room." It is not just the special ed room. And the third reason is that we work hard to avoid having students pulled out for extra help. We support our math, reading and writing resource students in class. Sometimes, a resource teacher will push in to the room, sometimes we provide the services ourselves. Keeping them in the room makes scheduling small group instruction much easier.

Do other factors come into play?

We both work very hard to make our classroom engaging, fun, and supportive. We spend a great deal of time teaching the children acceptance and respect for each other.

We both are capable of showing our students that we are learners, too, and as such, have our own struggles to overcome.

We both believe in telling children the truth. We want them to understand their struggles so they can compensate. And so they can understand that others might also have the same struggles.

And we are very different types of learners and, therefore, different types of teachers. While Christine, the Queen of the Graphic Organizer, is demonstrating how a graphic organizer can assist the students with their writing, I, who cannot work with graphic organizers, am supporting those who find them confusing by showing them how I organize my writing. This allows the students to see more than one way to tackle a situation.

Do I think these factors help create the Perfect Storm? Well if they do, then maybe our program can't be duplicated. But I am still an idealist. I see how our students thrive. And I want that for all students. So I want to believe that it can be duplicated. And I want to believe it is relatively easy. So when people ask how, I want to keep telling them. But I also want to make sure Christine and I stay together for as long as we are both teaching. I don't want to take any chances.

'rayo 3'
Jeff Bezos'

'Fellow Commuter Enjoying Adam Curry's Podcast'

'Fernando explaining something'


Martha said...

You two have developed a powerful program. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on what makes it work.

narrator said...

US educational "leaders" are fond of claiming that almost anything "that works" is "magic." "That's a math kid." "That's an artist." "She's a born reader." "Those are just exceptional teachers."

And in every one of those situations - no matter how true the specific sentiment - this is being said as an excuse for educational malpractice.

In other words - it can be done but we don't really want to do the work - to help that kid with math, to support that kids' reading, to give those teachers the tools, time, and supports they need to make the leap.

You two are modelling a solution that works - a leader committed to improving education should - must - be doing everything possible - everything conceivable to both duplicate success and to allow others to take chances on creating other paths to success. Actually, if they are not doing that they are not leaders at all, and really, they should go find another job.

- Ira Socol

Paul Bogush said...

You start off by saying that you have the same philosophy. Howabout a different word. I think that for two or more teachers to work together effectively they need more than a shared philosophy, they need the same morals. You and Christine make me jealous Lisa....

Skip Zalneraitis said...

Excellent analysis and very encouraging. Thank you.

Lisa Parisi said...

Martha, I hope our program can be duplicated in your school. Let me know if it comes to pass.

Ira, thank you for saying it so perfectly. I don't believe what we do is magic but I do believe it requires a great deal of effort. Not everyone is willing or able to put that effort into their classrooms.

Paul,morals is a great word...I trust Christine to deal with children the same way I would deal with children. And that is important.

Skip, thank you.

Jenny said...

I'm exceptionally lucky because what you've described happens in my school everywhere. We're not so blessed to be able to team teach for entire days together, but we do team teach for large blocks together. We do look at all kids as 'our' kids rather than by their labels. It's true from kindergarten through fifth grade. It took a strong administration and a few true believers to get it started. Now it's an institutional expectation. And it creates powerful learning for all students.

Reading your post made me a bit jealous. I'd love to have the special education teacher I work with in my room all day rather than just half a day. However, she spends the other half of her day in a kindergarten classroom. Reading your post also made me feel great because it was so validating. Your students are so lucky to have you both.

Karen Janowski said...

This is one of the most important posts I have read this entire year. You have explained what successful learning looks like and have explained it in a way that CAN be duplicated so that all students benefit.
It is not a mystery; it is an understanding of what works for kids based upon your wisdom and experience. The fact that you shared your insights benefit all of us.
When does the book get published?
one of your biggest fans,

Paul Hamilton said...

Just as every learner has unique learning needs, every classroom, every teacher, and every set of circumstances is unique. That said, I believe that the principles and practices that you and Christine have adopted can and should be implemented everywhere. I will do my part to share what you have written here as widely as possible. You are setting a wonderful example, and you've done terrific job of articulating it.

Marie Coppolaro said...

Thank you Lisa for an excellent reminder on how facilitating learners' needs can be achieved.

Excel Gymstars said...

I am a special ed teacher and one of the kindergarten teachers and I are trying to convince our Principal to let us co-teach in a Kindergarten classroom next year. We both see all of the advantages but want to give her some concrete evidence. Do you have any suggestions?