Each week, an educator takes a stand or shares an Aha! moment in the classroom in the Education World Voice of Experience column. This week, educator Janice Robertson shares how she looks forward to integrating special-needs students into her sixth-grade science classes. But that was not always the case. The simple modifications she made to her usual teaching practices benefit all students in her classes.
"Absolutely!" I agreed without having to think twice.
Part of me couldn't even believe what I had just said. At that moment, I thought about how far I had come. A couple years ago, I couldn't have imagined having to "include" special students in my teaching -- but having those students in my science classes for the past two years has had a major impact on my teaching practices. The changes I have made to include LD students in my teaching have made me a better teacher and benefited all my students!
I have to give Gail Tyler, the learning disabilities teacher, a lot of credit for my transformation. Her students are not usually mainstreamed, but she saw an opportunity to capitalize on their high interest in science subject matter. She recognized that much of my teaching is hands-on, another big plus for her students. But in looking back on the first day after those students showed up in my classes, I shudder at the thought of how poorly prepared I was to receive them.
I floundered my way through those first class sessions because I had taken so much for granted. I had assumed those students would be able to record what I wrote on the board. I assumed they could keep an organized notebook and correctly record homework assignments. I even took for granted that they would be comfortable sitting at whatever empty desk happened to be available. Those first classes were eye-openers for me. I am embarrassed now at how ignorant I was of their needs and how to adapt my lessons for them.
My science classes are heterogeneously grouped. I have always had classes with a mix of students from gifted to below average. But I was blind to the needs of special students who had difficulty copying down vocabulary words from the board. After some consideration, adapting for those special students was actually quite easy.
For starters, I created a list of all the vocabulary terms and definitions that would be part of the current unit. I gave that list of words to the integrated students. But what happened next was very surprising. Several of my other students asked if they could get a copy of the list "like the students from Mrs. Tyler's class." I couldn't think of a single good reason why all students couldn't start the unit with a list of those words.
To help the included students organize their science notebooks, I started a "master notebook." That master notebook was always available in the classroom. When work sheets were distributed, I always added one to the master notebook. If I did significant board writing, a word-processed copy of that board work was included in the notebook. That master notebook served as a model; it helped my integrated students figure out which loose pages went where in their notebooks.
It was only a couple weeks after the master notebook was in place that a regular student who had been absent for four days came into my classroom with his mother. We walked right over to the master notebook. We compared his notebook to the master and knew immediately what was missing.
Soon, all students were in the habit of checking the master notebook when they needed to get caught up. Once again, a process initiated to help my integrated students benefited all students, and it saved me some time too!
Many of my integrated students seemed to have stronger oral than visual (text reading) skills. To help make those students understand the connection between what I was saying and the written word -- and to help develop their reading and visual abilities -- I started writing the most important things I said on the board as I said them. By providing important information in oral and visual forms, I was providing the best instruction for all students.
I even let my students in on what I was doing; they came to understand and appreciate how people have different strengths and learn in different ways. This almost became a game within my classroom -- students enjoyed trying to catch me at a moment when I was not delivering something important in two modes!
I also made some adaptations in how I seated students. Most students didn't care where they sat. Some, including many of the integrated students, wanted to sit with new people -- but they didn't have the social skills to make it happen. My solution was to make seating a random event for the entire class. I numbered all 35 desks in my room and numbered blank cards from 1 to 35. Once a month, students randomly picked their seats for that month by drawing a card. In the case of really bad combinations, I reminded students -- and even myself -- that this arrangement was for only 16 classes.
Early on in my experience with the integrated students, I found they didn't always have the organizational skills that other students might have; they frequently left their agendas [assignment books] in their classroom. Without their agendas, they were unable to record important dates. To address their organizational needs, I purchased some window chalk -- the kind of chalk car dealers use on car windows to announce special deals -- and wrote pertinent science information on my windows. All my students, and even my students' parents, appreciated this visual reminder.
As I look back on my experiences integrating special-needs students into my classroom, I am amazed at how simple it has been and how seamlessly it has worked out. I've made some minor modifications to the way I teach; those modifications, made to benefit the learning of my integrated students, have benefited everyone.
Will I be happy to have Mrs. Tyler's students in my classroom this coming year? You bet I will!