Developed by
Dr. Judith M. Newman

Action Research Course


Debbie Maybee

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 useful work.


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, resentment.
Programs full of goals you don't care about.
Skills mastered and forgotten.
Preparation for the "real world" -- which real world is that?

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