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April 2017 | Volume 74 | Number 7
Differences, Not Disabilities
Last year, a boy showed up to audition for our school play who appeared to be on the autism spectrum. I have to admit that I was nervous about how he would do, but he had an opportunity to show his stuff like everyone else—and he was great. He brought an energy I had never seen in an actor before, and he wasn't afraid to go over the top. As educators, we worked to avoid overstimulating him and to help him handle social situations. When another actor dropped out of the play, I got a little panicky. But lo and behold, our new actor stepped in and delivered the lines perfectly—acting the part, not just droning lines out. I was amazed and asked whether he had the whole play memorized. He said, "Pretty much" (meaning yes, he did). He gave the audience a real gift with his excellent performance. And he gave me the gift of a more open mind.
—Art Lieberman, Nacogdoches Independent School District, Nacogdoches, Texas
I have my 8th graders read Stuck in Neutral, a novel by Terry Trueman about a boy who is born with cerebral palsy. In the world of young adult literature, this book cuts new terrain. The protagonist, Shawn, who neither walks nor speaks, is given a voice via a first-person inner monologue. Readers are privy to the articulations of a beautiful mind "trapped in a useless body." Shawn's greatest antagonist is his own father—a man whose deep ambivalence about his "brain-dead" son catapults ethical decisions akin to a Greek tragedy.
Through Socratic seminars, my students probe issues raised in the novel. Students share their mistaken judgements about those who look, speak, and move in "other" ways. Some of my students who have disabilities are able for the first time to voice their challenges. This book reminds me that the content we present can honor students with disabilities and simultaneously raise other students' consciousness.
—Judith Freeman, English teacher, Kenmore Middle School, Arlington, Virginia
Our goal as teachers is for all students to make progress and behave appropriately. This does not always occur. I use the following guidelines to address these situations with families and students: Hold face-to-face meetings. (It provides more opportunities for feedback.) Remove jargon and acronyms. (Instead, provide clarity for others who are not well-versed in your day-to-day language.) Focus on students' potential growth. (Make sure the disability is only the beginning of the conversation.) Put students' progress in context. (Use graphics and visuals to demonstrate progress or lack thereof.) Choose your words carefully. (Talk about the significant issues you see and what changes you recommend.) Allow time for questions or another meeting. (Not all issues will be addressed in one meeting.) Correct misconceptions. (Otherwise, progress will not be made.)
—David Bateman, professor, Shippensburg University, Shippensburg, Pennsylvania
Principal Amy McCaulley of Loganville Christian Academy in Lawrenceville, Georgia, begins each staff meeting by having teachers share "good things" they have noticed about their students. In a world where we hear so many negative stories about young people, this activity reminds us of the great work occurring in classrooms every day. Teachers at the school now insist that meetings begin with "good things." Some teachers have even transferred the practice into their classrooms so that students share "good things" as well. There is always something to celebrate in each child; it's important for us to remember that by sharing their stories.
—Mary Martin, associate professor, Moody Bible Institute, Chicago, Illinois
At Tulpehocken Area School District in Berks County, Pennsylvania, every student in grades K–6 is given the opportunity to participate in "STEAM Hub and Tinker Time," during which they use the engineering-design process to invent, journal, and problem solve. Students with special needs have found many successes in this program. For one project, students were instructed to identify a problem they encounter in their lives and to use design thinking to invent something to solve the problem. One boy with emotional challenges used the engineering-design process to invent the "Pet Scratcher 9000," a gadget made with a Little Bits technology kit, because he has several pets who love to be scratched. In another example, all 5th and 6th grade students participated in Hour of Code. Three students with emotional and behavioral challenges persevered and were successful in creating codes. We celebrated the successes of these students and acknowledged their accomplishments schoolwide.
—Lisa Kiss, director of special education, Tulpehocken Area School District, Bethel, Pennsylvania
When I taught language arts to middle school students with disabilities, I required my 8th graders to create a pamphlet to give to their high school teachers. The students wrote about their disabilities, strengths, and what helped them learn best. For example, one student wrote about being good at hands-on assignments and learning best from demonstrations. This was a great opportunity for my students to learn about themselves, talk about strategies that would help them succeed, and advocate for themselves.
—Susan Langdon, special education supervisor, Sturgis Public Schools, Sturgis, Michigan
In our school's Institute for Collegiate and Career Studies program, we have a unique way of honoring our students with learning differences. All of these students are young adults who are studying for a career, practicing independent living skills, and improving their social and executive functioning. Through a carefully crafted internship program, students gain valuable exposure to vocational opportunities that not only lead to a résumé full of work experience, but also enhance their future earning potential.
Because it's important to reward hard work, one student is recognized each month as the employee of the month. That student's biography is added to the program's website, and his or her photo is displayed on our employee wall of honor. This strategy has boosted students' self-esteem and motivation on the job. Similarly, employers have reported an increase in self-advocacy and productivity while at work.
—Jennifer Scully, assistant head of school for postsecondary studies, Maplebrook School, Amenia, New York
Allowing students to make academic choices empowers them to value their own learning preferences (as opposed to feeling different from their peers). In our 4th grade classroom, students can choose between auditory, kinesthetic, verbal, and visual resources. At any time, you'll see students opting to work alone or in groups, and to learn from an article, a video, the teacher, or a student-led mini-lesson. In our classroom, learning is not one-size-fits-all, and differences are not viewed as disabilities. We are both a family and a team, feeling comfortable taking risks, working together, and valuing our differences as we work toward a common goal: becoming 21st-century, real-world learners.
—Dominique Musacchio, 4th grade teacher, Fernbrook School, Randolph, New Jersey
A strategy I've used to recognize students with disabilities is to highlight good character, improving grades, consistent attendance, and other strengths as often as I can. I have also made sure that special education teachers have an opportunity to participate in department-wide recognition assemblies to acknowledge students for their positive contributions. Students with disabilities deserve recognition, especially when they are working twice as hard to cope with their disability and compete academically with their peers.
—Patrice Harris, assistant principal, Moreno Valley Unified School District, Moreno Valley, California
As an early childhood teacher and school principal, I advocate for meeting children where they are, as well as valuing who they are and where they come from. If a child learns best while seated on a pillow on the floor or balancing on an exercise ball, we set up classrooms with these choices in mind. If a child needs to rest per the family's request, we provide a time for that child to nap. The more we meet each child's needs and respect family values, the more children will engage in learning and connect with their caregivers. Without responsive care, young students will not learn.
—Kelly Etu Stanton, principal, Cutler Jewish Day School, Columbia, South Carolina
My students' favorite part of the day is when we do "number talks" in math. To ensure that all students actively participate, I use "fair isn't always equal" strategies. Some of my students use whiteboards and markers to solve the problems, and others do not. In addition, after students have independent thinking time to figure out the problem, they have the opportunity to discuss their strategies in math discussion groups before sharing with the whole class. During this time, learners use sentence stems, question stems, and the standards of mathematical process to assist one another. Students encourage their peers to ask questions in the small-group and whole-class settings and are also able to ask for a peer coach at any time. Creating a positive and safe classroom environment honors the different rates and ways in which students learn.
—Tika Epstein, 5th grade teacher and student success advocate for ELLs, Clark County School District, Las Vegas, Nevada
Our school decided to invite students with limited social skills to be part of our weekly staff breakfast. The students make and deliver breakfast items and talk with staff members every Friday morning. As a result, they now interact more with staff members during the regular school day. It's a positive and reaffirming experience for them all.
—Catherine Gutierrez, assistant principal, Round Rock Independent School District, Austin, Texas
Working with students who have severe or profound disabilities can be challenging. To help bridge the gap between them and their non-disabled peers, I have incorporated technology into my lessons on a daily basis. This keeps students engaged in the learning process.
One of my students' favorite apps is GooseChase, which we've been able to use on the iPad. Using the app, students go on scavenger hunts and take photos of items they locate. The photos appear on the SMART Board screen back in the classroom like a Twitter feed. This helps students who are unable to get out and about to see what the others have found on the hunt.
We also use technology to build job skills, such as learning how to take photos or videos and to control different items in the classroom (for instance, the shedder and pencil sharpener). Because students don't always have control over other aspects in their school day, they appreciate having control over these items and their learning experiences.
—Rebeckah Hauss, SAC teacher, Metro School, Charlotte, North Carolina
Each student, no matter his or her learning difference, has the ability to bring something unique to the classroom. My learning-enrichment class participated in an activity called "A Gift of Words" before the December holiday break. Each student chose a phrase that held a special meaning in their life. Students wrote or typed their gift of words on a piece of paper, along with the source of the chosen words, and decorated it. Afterward, students put their gift of words in a box and wrapped it in holiday paper to be exchanged with another student in their enrichment class. I had nearly 100 percent participation in this activity, with all students expressing themselves and their choices of words with care and honesty. In turn, students listened intently and got to know their grade-level peers. As a teacher, it was a gift to share in the joy of this activity with my students.
—Susanne Hannigan, LEAPS (Learning Enrichment at Anchorage Public School) literacy teacher, Anchorage Public School, Louisville, Kentucky
Here's a lesson idea to celebrate students' differences: Invite students to draw a picture of themselves and then write a list of their unique characteristics under the drawing. (Alternatively, students can draw symbols, such as a peace sign or heart, to represent their attributes in a collage format.) Display the students' work on a bulletin board and have the students explain their attributes to classmates. Challenge students to identify both shared and unique characteristics, and discuss how these attributes contribute to a strong and diverse classroom community.
—Savanna Flakes, manager of special education professional learning, District of Columbia Public Schools, Washington, D.C.
When completing math assignments, I allow each of my students to use various materials to show their understanding, including whiteboards, pencil and paper, and the chalkboard. In other cases, students choose to move around the room and whisper answers to their classmates. My students appreciate the opportunity to learn what their peers are doing and to show what they know in a way that best suits their learning style.
—Melissa Brandenburg, special education teacher, Intermediate District 287, New Hope, Minnesota
A boy in my class has limited vision, so when he works on writing activities, he uses the voice-to-text feature on his Chromebook. After he has voiced his ideas, the computer types his dictation. He can increase the font size to view the words and edit his work. To support his work with the keyboard, he uses a magnifier sheet and assistance from others.
—Tamera Musiowsky-Borneman, teacher/student action coordinator, ISS Singapore, Singapore
Celebrating students' learning differences means supporting teachers as they differentiate instruction. Teaching is the hardest job in the world to do well–requiring educators to meet the wide ranging needs of their students. Without the encouragement of instructional leaders, teachers may be pushed into "teacher-proofed" packaged curriculum materials designed for the middle-of-the-road learner.
—Melia Franklin, director of secondary learning, Ozark R-VI Schools, Ozark, Missouri
I've served as a math teacher in alternative education for 10 years. In these settings, students most often work independently toward their diplomas. I've found that the methods that allow for the most independence are those that are both standards-driven and inspire creativity. For instance, I use Pinterest and webquests as student research tools to teach real-world applications for math.
As a math team, we've also found success with creating assessments that are more authentic than multiple-choice tests. For example, students recently created a scale drawing of a new education center being constructed in our district. With tasks like these, I find that students learn best with authentic, standards-based learning.
—Nyla Mitchell, math teacher, Northeast Metro Intermediate District 916, Fridley, Minnesota
Copyright © 2017 by ASCD
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