For a Good Day

Check in with your students.  I teach special ed students…ED, ASD, and ADHD.  What just makes the day start out great is talking to each one of them and letting them know that what they have to say is more important than the clock…or the ringing phone…or the attendance person knocking on the classroom door.

For the first ten to fifteen minutes of class everyday students in the special ed program I teach in like to tell me about what they’ve done since I last saw them.  I use the first 15 minutes of the day to allow students to get breakfast (and bring it back to our class) and I check in with each one of them.  A short greeting or a longer question/answer session happens for each student.  It’s the time we use to assess how kids are and how ready they are for the day.  It’s probably the most important 15 minutes we spend because if students don’t feel welcome and accepted then they won’t be good learners for the day.

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I Want More Time

As I begin a position at a new school after 18 years, it’s hard enough to get things organized, let alone having to get things organized and begin a new (and unfamiliar) job.  I used to know what to expect in the first few days of inservice training.  I knew when I would have time to set up my classroom and plan the lessons for the first few days of school.  This year is the first year in at least 16 years that I’m not sure what is going to happen on the first day of school.  I feel like a brand new teacher (except I have miles of experience to help me).

Over the last 3 days (and we still have 1 more), I haven’t had a chance to work with my co-teacher to really establish what we are going to do next week when students come back.  We’ve put a lot of time into setting up our classroom space (off contract time, before we were required to be back at school) so that our students can feel welcome in our special education classroom.  We’ve also spent countless hours collaborating online via Google Docs to make sure that our first unit is up-to-speed.  But with all of the meetings and trainings at the beginning of the school year, we don’t have time to finalize our plans.  That must be done on our own time.  And many people don’t realize that teachers work well beyond their contracted time and hours in order to help students or to finalize plans so that things run smoothly.  We want what is best for kids, but with all the villianization of teachers in the headlines, I don’t think people realize this.

We have your child’s interest at heart.  We have your child’s strengths at heart.  We know your child’s weaknesses and work hard to accommodate them.  We are here for your child.  We want your child to succeed.  We are teachers.

Beginning A New Special Education Program

Over the summer (yes, the summer “vacation” that teachers get) my co-teacher and I took a well-known in-school special education program and developed it into a whole new thing.  She and I have been working together for the past 5 years, and we were both hired to work in a new school for this year, in an already established program.  What we came up with takes a little bit from where we used to work, and mixes it with some new concepts.

We collaborated online in order to make sense of, and establish a behavior management program for our high school students (who are mostly emotionally disabled, but also may be on the Autism spectrum).  By hiring two teachers, the school doubled the amount of students in our program, so we needed to fully establish our system.  We come from a school program that has been well-established (and respected) since 1981, so it was important for us to make sure we have a tight system.  We first decided what our core values would be:

  1. Demonstrate and foster compassion, respect, responsibility, and integrity.
  2. Work cooperatively and collaboratively with peers and adults within the school and greater community to support academic, personal, and social development.
  3. Make decisions that will positively influence social, emotional, and physical health and well-being.
  4. Understand choices have consequences
  5. Understand and exhibit citizenship in order to be a contributing member of a democracy and of a global community.

Then we found state standards and transferable skills that would help us be able to measure our core values:

Based on the following from the VT Framework of Standards:

Respect 3.3 Students demonstrate respect for themselves and others.

Healthy Choices 3.5 Students make informed, healthy choices that positively affect the health, safety, and well-being of themselves and others. This is evident when students: ddd. Assess personal health in terms of stress, and develop an approach or plan for managing stress;  eee. Demonstrate refusal and negotiation skills to enhance health, and to avoid potentially harmful situations;

Teamwork 3.10 Students perform effectively on teams that set and achieve goals, conduct investigations, solve problems, and create solutions (e.g., by using consensus-building and cooperation to work toward group decisions).

Interactions 3.11 Students interact respectfully with others, including those with whom they have differences.

Conflict Resolution 3.12 Students use systematic and collaborative problem-solving processes, including mediation, to negotiate and resolve conflicts.

Dependability and Productivity 3.14 Students demonstrate dependability, productivity, and initiative. This is evident when students: a. Attend school on a regular basis; b. Complete assignments on schedule; and c. Participate in classroom and group discussions.

Taking Risks 2.8 Students demonstrate a willingness to take risks in order to learn.

Persevering 2.9 Students persevere in the face of challenges and obstacles.

Vermont AOE Transferable Skills/Graduation Proficiencies and Performance Indicators

Clear and Effective Communication

Self-Direction

Creative and Practical Problem-Solving

Responsible and Involved Citizenship

Informed and Integrative Thinking

Next we wrote our statement of purpose, which took many drafts to complete:

The SOL Program is committed to creating a classroom environment that is built on the principles of being safe, respectful, and productive. By creating an environment that values each student as an individual and as a collective member of the classroom community, we are helping students achieve mastery in the skills and knowledge that are essential to becoming empowered citizens of a diverse and ever-changing world.

Then we created our rubrics based on our three core areas (safety, respect, productivity), which was not an overnight process (you know what I mean if you’ve ever developed rubrics from scratch).  Our rubrics referenced transferable skills and state standards as well as social competencies developed by teams at the high school which our program serves.  We

What took even longer was developing scales which we and our students will use to rate our three core areas.  We plan on using our behavioral data to be 10 or 20% of a student’s grade in the core areas we teach (that hasn’t been fully decided yet).  While we want the students to earn their grades through academics, we strongly feel that behavior plays a role as well–as it does in life.  Think about the people who get job promotions:  they are the ones leading others or putting in extra time and effort; they are the ones with good social skills–so using behavioral data as part of a student’s grade is realistic.

We also plan on doing standards based grading–which also took a chunk of time to develop.  We have a 4 point grading scale; students will rate themselves, but we will also rate how well they meet the standards for each skill within the projects we do in class.  Our rating scale transfers to letter grades (since our school still uses that system for transcripts).  We still have work to do to further develop our rating scales (and I’m sure there will be much tweaking), but we have a great start and we will be ready to work with students in two weeks when school begins.

Simple Common Core Literacy Standards for Grades 9-12

My co-teacher and I will be teaching special education students who are in our alternative classroom for part of the school day. Since we will be using Common Core standards, we felt that it would be important to put those standards into language that the students can understand, that way they can learn to evaluate themselves using concrete criteria.

We want to move away from letter grades and move toward standards-based grading and having the Common Core in language students and parents can understand is an important first step for that.

Here is a link to the chart we created for our students; please feel free to use it and change it as needed: CCStandardsinLaymansTerms

Community Service Learning

Service learning with middle school students in special education can be a challenge.  I teach in a school with 100% free and reduced lunch students and all of my students have significant emotional and behavioral challenges.  They always ask me before I take them out to do community service, “why do we have to do this?”  I tell them because it is a privilege for the taxpayers to provide them this special school to attend so they should help the community in return.  That is usually enough of an explanation for them.  They have a hard time focusing and staying on task, but when they get outside they become decent helpers.  I know that this is also the beginning of teaching them a work ethic, persistence, initiative, and cooperation.

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2 students dig out an invasive tree.

The skills students learn from participating in community service are not the kinds of skills that get assessed on tests, and they are not skills that are part of the Common Core, but they are skills that are necessary for getting along well in the adult world and keeping a job.