IN MY SPECIAL EDUCATION CLASSROOM
I have been working in the area of program support since
I started teaching. I have worked with hearing impaired and visually
impaired children, physically and mentally challenged children, children
with autism and medically fragile children. Every child comes with
his or her own set of very unique needs and circumstances. Had I been
collecting critical incidents before this course, I'm sure I would
have dozens for each child. The children I teach bring me moments
of joy, frustration, anger, sorrow, delight and satisfaction. Our
successes are hard won.
This year, in particular, I have had a class of nine
very involved students. They range in age from 13 to 20 and offer
many different types of challenges. I have had five full time teacher
assistants working with me and have just been assigned another. This
year, more than any other, my most obvious headache has been the organization
of the classroom. I expected that my critical incidents would reflect
what I thought was the main cause of the stress I feel this year.
But although organizational tasks and planning have kept me extremely
busy (and testy!), and communication with my assistants has been a
big issue, my 'tensions in teaching' come from elsewhere. These past
two months have been eye opening. Two themes emerged.
The first issue that made itself visible was how I was
actually programming for my students. I was choosing the activities
for each of my students based on my understanding of their needs and
interests. The activities are highly structured and sequential and
are designed for skill development. As I listened to people talk during
our conversations in class, I began to think that the way I structure
my students programs was somehow 'wrong'. I felt my classroom was
too teacher directed and 'engagement' became a big issue for me. So,
I went back to watch a while longer.
After three weeks of collecting critical incidents I
noticed something else--that I was often annoyed or surprised by the
parents of my students. At first, I rationalized this by thinking
that I have more involvement with parents than do other teachers,
so I have closer relationships and more opportunities for daily contact.
Then I looked deeper. There are some parents on whom I expend a lot
of energy and some who I talk to once in a while. I work harder with
some parents than others. I made some guesses as to why this was happening.
Then I went back to watch for a while longer.
In the meantime I read and read and read and searched
and searched and searched.
Frank Smith (1983) (1
)helped me think about student learning. His
idea that learning takes place with demonstrations, engagement and
sensitivity really intrigued me. I thought about whether this was
true for my students. Yes, I do demonstrate for my students in many
ways. The TAs and I model attitudes, appropriate social talk, manners,
and how to do the activities. That aspect is taken care of. Next is
engagement. I began to watch my students closely for evidence of engagement.
To my relief, I saw and felt lots. During an activity, the students
make eye contact, vocalize, reach out stay on task. My TAs and I change
approaches instinctively as the studentís interest fluctuates.
I went on to think about 'sensitivity'. Are my students free of any
expectation that learning will not take place? Sometimes. We work
hard to increase their confidence. I design activities carefully so
that they can meet success. I catch myself once in a while saying
'I know this is a little hard, but you can do it!' I am more aware
of that now.
The fact that my classroom is 'teacher directed' is
appropriate in my situation. Judith (5
)explained this to me in the following way:
Negotiated curriculum is more complicated than just
involving students in establishing the directions in which the instruction
will go. Think about what I've been doing with you -- I've established
the opening directions -- I sent out some readings and asked you
to do some 'homework' before we even met. So the teacher deciding
what is going to be taught clearly isn't a BAD thing. What I keep
an eye out for, once we get underway, is engagement -- who's engaged
and who isn't and then I see what I can do to find some way of having
anyone who is holding back find something to get them involved.
I imagine it's the same for your students. The 'curriculum' has
a definite beginning point which I establish but once we get going
the way things play out are definitely affected by your participation.
So you need to think about how you've been sensitive to your students'
responses and how observing / interpreting / hypothesizing / etc.
can help you do that better.
This made a lot of sense to me and I feel confident
that I am on the right track with facilitating my students' learning.
Engagement is an issue that I will continue to deal with and think
about in the future. It will help to shape my curriculum for any program
support work that I do. I am far more aware of the 'sensitivity' component
and know I need to observse my students further. I have not been able
to find any discussions of student engagement in the Special Education
literature. The research is primarily skills oriented. However, Smith's
ideas are clearly relevant and applicable.
On to the issue of parents. I would also like to take
the idea of engagement to a different place. With my students, so
much of what they achieve depends on what happens for them at home.
I mentioned briefly my frustrations with parents and I am beginning
to explore the notion of parental engagement. I would argue that it
is beneficial for all students and critical for some to have their
parents engaged in the child's learning. I am thinking primarily of
the population that I teach since most of my students will live at
home for many years, and much of what I teach them needs to be related
to their home life. But, it has been my experience that many parents
are anything but engaged in their child's program. I have just begun
to explore this idea. I want to try to look at this in the context
of Smith's 'demonstrations, engagement and sensitivity'. Where is
the process breaking down? Do they see the demonstrations? Do parents
see the activities as relevant and useful? Do they believe that their
child can master develop some skills?
Over the years I have worried about the parents who
have been disengaged with their child's education. I did not have
the skills, in many cases, to help these parents engage. Many times,
I gave up and I'm sure they felt guilty. I would like to think about
how to look into parental engagement more closely next year. I usually
get to know my parents very well and have had many good relationships
develop. But I can recall only a small number of true partnerships
between parents and me where we worked effectively on a child's program
together. I'd like to do better.
As I read Darling-Hammond's 2
in "Reframing the School Reform Agenda"
and Frank Smith's "Collaboration in the Classroom" 3
I hear the same message. Smith talks about
teacher-teacher collaboration and Darling-Hammond advises peer coaching,
team planning and teaching as well as collaborative research. I find,
as a Special Education teacher, I am in an isolated position. I don't
work with other Special Education teachers. I have input from and
consultations with other professionals (speech and language pathologists,
psychologists, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, doctors,
etc.) Also, my TAs are a great source of information and insight.
I think, however, that it would be enormously helpful for the few
of us who do this kind of work to get together regularly. Diane Stephens
HT strategy 4 would
be a great way to share information and get ideas on our observations
of students. This is something I plan to do next year.
We have had such a short time together and so much learning
has happened for me. All the reading and conversing have helped me
to focus on two issues of concern. I feel like I have barely scratched
the surface but I do have a plan for further work. And it will be
PARENT TEACHER INTERVIEW
We sit looking at each other across the table
You, the parent.
Me, the teacher.
I like the meetings to be this way,
not a CASE CONFERENCE, just an informal meeting.
I don't wish to intimidate you.
I sense your wariness, your cynicism, your defensiveness.
So many years of hope, despair, love, envy, fear,
Programs full of goals you don't care about.
Skills mastered and forgotten.
Preparation for the "real world" -- which real world
I understand. Let's try again.
I need your knowledge and experience
I offer my knowledge and experience.
The program will look good on paper --
Impressive looking forms from my computer.
It will look good in action -- interesting, fun, challenging.
I know how to engage your daughter.
Can I engage you?
Darling-Hammond, Linda 1993 Reframing
the School Agenda. Phi Delta Kappan, June: 753-761. Return
Newman, Judith M. 1998 email correspondence,
May 22. Return
Smith, Frank 1983 Demonstrations, Engagement
and Sensitivity. In: Essays Into Literacy. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann
Educational Books: 95-106. Return
Smith, Frank, 1988 Collaboration in
the Classroom. In: Joining the Literacy Club. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann
Educational Books: 64-79. Return
Stephens, Diane et al 1996 When Assessment
is Inquiry. Language Arts, 73 (Feb): 105-112. Return