Get OUT of the BOX! Our Kids Aren’t Succeeding

Posted
9/6/2017
Mary McLaughlin
Special Education Teacher
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Horrified. Saddened. Ticked off. Annoyed. Frustrated. Angry. Stymied. Discontented. Foiled. Irked. Dismayed.

These are the words which sit heavily upon my mind today. Ya see, as my good friend (I wish) Jimmy Buffett and his pal Martina McBride once sang, I've made a "trip around the sun" enough times to know a thing or two. I don't brag, I don't embellish much EVER, I have seen what is new become old and then new again more times than I care to count. I'm not naïve enough to say I've seen it all but I have seen a LOT (and I'm not embellishing). But here's one thing which I am SO TIRED OF HEARING ABOUT:

Our Kids Aren't Succeeding

No duh.

Why not?

If we wanted to go into the socio-political arena, we could spend too long arguing about the effects of lots of different things like the struggles induced by poverty, the implications for children of single parent low-to-middle income families, racial inequalities, school funding inequities, crime, unsafe drinking water in homes, all of which negatively impact our nation's children.

If we wanted to step into the world of education, we could really knot the noodles of a lot of Educrats (a word I made up a long time ago when I had a debate with a professor who had not been in a grade school classroom in 25 years but was trying to teach me-a current practioner-about what was best, and while yes, I believe it is important to consider all information, there are truly things which DO change over the years and if you're not in the trenches, you just don't know! Irksome. I digress…) who. while well-intentioned, seem to have little to no true idea about the impact of the current state f society on our children.

Then we have my favorite bunch: the policy and law makers. They're the ones who aren't educators. They're politicians. The best we can hope for is their significant other is a teacher. In the classroom. Now.

Why has this burr festered so heartily under my saddle? As I wrap up a master's in special education, I have several major projects to do during this final semester before graduation. Part of the project requirements is to observe special education students in their classrooms.

I recently observed in a classroom in a community not too far from my own. I observed a student in an eighth grade language arts resource room class. The teacher was lovely, kind, and like so many, is on an emergency certification. Some states call it an alternate learning credential. In either case, the teacher is certified and highly qualified in their grade level and content area, but they are attending school to obtain the special education credential necessary to be highly qualified to teach special education. Trail by fire as they say.

I observed my subject student slumped down in his chair and bored to tears. Since the classroom paraprofessional was nearby and seemed willing to answer my questions, I asked to see a sample of my subject's work. Yep. Exactly what I thought: clearly an unmotivated learner. His writing was literally scrawl, not because he couldn't write-but because he didn't want to write. The student reads at a Second Grade level and as I sat there pondering this whole scenario through my lenses of being a kid who didn't read until fourth Ggrade, I thought, WHAT ARE WE DOING TO OUR KIDS??

The assignment for the hour was one which was necessary-understanding subjects and predicates. But I thought I would die of boredom, too and my love for grammar and the English language runs deep in my veins.

I thanked the teacher and the paraprofessional for their time and for allowing me to intrude on their afternoon and then I drove off wondering why our methods of delivery are so…so…BORING.

If our children aren't inspired, especially our Special Education students, how the mo'fizzle are they going to retain ANYTHING? Many of them already struggle with memory issues related to their disabilities, so my simple question to everyone here is ARE YOU LIGHTING UP THEIR HIPPOCAMPUS? ARE YOU HELPING THEM TO LEARN BY USING THEIR HANDS, FEET, EYES, EARS, AND MAYBE EVEN THEIR TASTE BUDS AND NOSES??

WE HAVE GOT TO START TEACHING OUR STRUGGLING LEARNERS IN SPECIAL EDUCATION WITH A VIGOR AND EXCELLENCE LIKE NONE OTHER IF OUR CHILDREN ARE GOING TO FIND SUCCESS.

Are we looking for perfection?? NO! We are looking for teaching that requires teachers to take those standards and make them interesting and create sensory-driven lessons for our learners who learn differently.

My take-away from these observations has centered around the one question generated by that one point: if a child is in special education, it is because they learn differently-for WHATEVER the reason. If a special education teacher is unwilling to try and figure out ways to create lessons which resonate with their kiddos, then they ought to step back and consider if this is the right place for them.

Teaching special education is HARD. I'm not going to lie. IT'S HARD. But it's ONLY hard if you don't put yourself into a pair of sympathetic shoes. I'm not talking about the fact you yourself should have been a special education student but I DO challenge you to remember a time or times when you just did not understand what the heck it was that you had to learn. Your brain just couldn't connect with the information. It may have taken many attempts to synthesize the material.

For the kids who walk through our doorways each day, they may feel as if they have on dark glasses and even though the lights in the room are turned on, their glasses are so dark that they cannot see no matter how brightly the lights shine. Those very same dark glasses may also be smeared with petroleum jelly, dipped in wood dust and grizzled by sand paper.

Their brains, in many cases, work differently.

My subject student was not unmotivated. He was in a room where the teacher had not yet learned how to clean those glasses, so to speak. More importantly, no one had shared with him an understanding of how he learned best.

So, how do we fix this?

Please understand, I'm not implying that ALL teachers are not seeing this as an issue…contrarily, I know for a fact that many teachers truly understand this issue yet are stymied by a system-be it an internal building issue or a district-wide issue-which precludes them from delivering the type of instruction that is, by many, perceived only as "fun," not instruction that is loaded with merit both from a practical standpoint and from a research-based/supported standpoint. Whatever. We have to make this work for our kids who cannot learn by simply staring a book, listening to a lecture, be expected to take notes, and then pass an assessment. I giggle at the very notion that many can find success in this routine.

Here are some practical suggestions…

Teacher Tube makes the following suggestions on their website and I must say, I agree:

  • Keep objectives clear (and I will add be sure the kids know what they are!)
  • Keep the pace brisk
  • Encourage collaboration
  • Use meaningful materials and manipulatives
  • Prompt for answers and provide extra wait time…seems strange when keeping a briskpace was suggested, doesn't it?
  • Have the students recite and repeat major points-put them in a rhyme, put them in a chat, put them in a "piggy back" song (take a popular melody and create your own lyric)
  • Give the students a semi-completed outline and have them fill it in on the Smart Board, white board, or whatever other tool you're using. This will not motivate ALL kids to sit up and take notes, but it will encourage a few more from the non-participant aggregation in your class.

Some points I have learned over the years from my own trial-by-fire as well as from others:

  • Your energy is contagious! If you're excited, the students will capture some of it-or a lot of it!
  • Remind them that mistakes don't matter. My kids feel a sense of relief EVERY TIME I tell them that spelling DOES matter, but that we're all here to learn, so write it the way you think it sounds, then we'll fix spelling later. CONTENT is what matters most for my kids.
  • There was a teacher in my building years ago who played guitar. He was clever enough to know that not only was this a great way to sooth and calm, he used music to cue transitions. If they did them in less than the time it took the music to stop (one minute or less), they were given a marble to add to their class jar. When the jar was full, they had a special reward day. Those kids KNEW how to transition effectively, efficiently, and without fussing or fighting. Oh, and they were special education students…and they were littles (K-2).
  • An oldie but a goodie: Yes, centers. You'll have to kick it early-elementary style and find ways to make center-based activities for those kids, especially the older ones, which will drive home the instructional point. Chances are rock solid that if they're special education students, using games to teach the basics of parts of speech and math principals CAN be done with center-based supplemental learning.
  • Another oldie but good: tracking their own achievements. When most children see their rates of improvement or dare I say it-failures-they are included in their own learning and growth. When I graduated high school and went to college, do you think I loved NOT being allowed into a regular college level Math class? Uh, no. I also did not love having to go to the "Math Lab," pull my assignments from a plastic bin with file folders in it, complete them, turn them in for a grade, then wait. What I DID love was seeing my "Personal Learning Score Chart" reflect an overall upward trend in my scores and knowing that soon enough, I'd be able to register for a "real" Math class, not the Pinocchio class to which I'd been assigned ("I'm not a real boy!")
  • Are students attending their IEP meetings? Do they KNOW what an IEP IS? Do they know they HAVE an IEP?? Last year, I decided to make it a practice to include the third and fourth graders in on their meetings. When we all returned to school this year, my fourth graders (the oldest grade level in my class) had a very different attitude. This year, by the end of next week, they will each have a sheet in their Math/Reading Fluency binder which has their IEP goals and we will have a discussion each week about their progress toward their IEP goals. These guys are in grades 2-4. If you teach older kids, I promise this will be an impactful effort. PROMISE.
  • Play games! Play games with lesson and content objectives at the heart of them. I'm from Michigan, the land of Corn Hole where we all firmly believe all of life can be related back to this simple game. A thought on how to adapt Corn Hole to the classroom: ask a question related to the objective, answer it right, your team gets a toss. Win the game, get a pre-established prize (extra computer time, time in the reading nook, etc.).

In my humble but not very kept-quiet opinion, our babies in special education often are victimized by lack of expectations from the world around them. Hold them responsible-if you know a child is capable, why would you even THINK of stealing their struggle? If something is challenging, allow that struggle, encourage and support them in their struggle, and celebrate when their struggle yields an aha! moment.

Rigor is NOT just for general education classrooms, but rigor doesn't always take the same form (paper and pencil, online assessments) for kids with special needs. In the majority of students who've crossed my path over the years, rigor can come from the simple act of learning to hang up their backpack in their cubby and doing it daily with success. I'm just as proud of that kiddo's successes as I am of the child who eventually moves back into general education with resource support as I am of the student who no longer needs special education supports and services. Each child's goals are unique to them, but their struggles are definitely real. We need to fire them up, be excited about helping them to learn, celebrate their hard-earned victories, and make sure we are thinking beyond paper and pencil.

Have a wonderful week at school!

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Mary McLaughlin

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