I just read an article entitled, “Am I providing ‘appropriate’ special education” * and this is something I have been thinking about often lately. As I worked with my mentor and team of mentors my work with my students improved and I moved away from struggling with behavior all of the time and moved towards teaching. For the first time in my two years teaching students with EBD I started to actually teach, to follow units of study and observe growth and learning in my students. I was most successful in the area of math. I found units that focused around first grade standards, bought the units and taught them. I began to create my own units on the Civil Rights Movement and its ties to what is happening in our communities today. But literacy, what I feel may well be THE most important thing I should be teaching, was something I continued to feel completely lost with.
I had many of the same students for two years and hardly focused on developing their reading skills. This feels shameful to me. I try to comfort myself in realizing that you can not teach something that you have very little skill in teaching but sometimes I feel that is a very weak excuse.
Last week I was trained in the districts new literacy curriculum. It felt like such a relief to me to see a curriculum that walks through reading instruction, phonics and writing and has it all laid out so clearly. I learned that I will receive all three grade levels of the curriculum that I will be teaching next year which was also very exciting. This will be the first full curriculum I will receive that I have been trained in for elementary school teaching. Part of what was so hard about teaching literacy over the last two years was that I had a ton of (what felt like random) books to access to teach various aspects of literacy but none of them seemed to walk me through exactly how to teach the scope and sequence of learning to read and write. This new curriculum makes me feel like I have a path to follow and one that it is safe for me to stray off of a bit here and there, including things of importance to my specific students while still progressing us through. I have started getting excited and telling myself that my goal will be to progress ALL of my students AT LEAST two reading levels on the F&P (Fountas and Pinnell) next year. Perhaps this does not sound very challenging to some or rigorous to others but if I move my students at least two F&P levels up next year I will have taught more literacy in one year than I have my entire time teaching elementary school students. That will feel miraculous to me!
Returning to the article though, I think about the words ‘appropriate’ and ‘rigor’ and I feel overwhelmed. In the article as in every place special education and differentiation are discussed it is stressed that we teach first to the grade level of the students and then differentiate during our small group instruction. Okay. Well, what if you have 2 kindergarten students, 3 second grade students and 2 first grade students and that is your entire class. Which grade level do you teach when you stand up in front of them and teach to the whole class? And don’t tell me that I should only teach to small groups all day because it was amazing to see my class work together and learn together when we finally got to that point last year and I see way too much value in that to give it up.
So, seriously, how do others who have a self-contained classroom with multiple grade levels within the class teach to EVERY grade level? Perhaps I am missing some magic answer.
Yes, inclusion can be a very helpful way to have this happen. Ideally each student would attend their mainstream class for the large group instruction time and then return to my room to learn their differentiated material in small groups. Yes, that seems to be the perfect picture of how this should work. But then you are faced with reality: students who can not handle their mainstream classrooms and a lack of enough adult support to go with all students into their mainstream classrooms and support them while also supporting those who may be having a crisis back in the self-contained classroom. OH and one of the big ones, different grade levels teach academic content at very different times that NEVER match up to my students’ schedule.
So, unless someone comes up with the magic answer, my plan for next year is to teach the kindergarten literacy curriculum to my entire class. I chose this grade level because the students I know I will have next year all read at a pre-A level. Why not start from the ground up? And then as my students make progress I will look at each one’s grade level material and begin to weave that into our daily small group lessons. But I just can’t fathom sitting down with my second grade students who I have taught the last two years and presenting them with work that is far beyond their ability level and have them run out of the room or tear it up because they know they are unable to do it. I would much rather build their confidence so that I can present that work eventually. So, will I be providing appropriate and rigorous lessons? I really hope so. But like Dr. Pamela Hill says at the end of the article,
“We must also ask questions of ourselves. Are we challenging our students? How much growth are they exhibiting? Are we providing the most appropriate program for each of our students?
Be vulnerable and be willing to change. This is what we ask of our students. We need to model that we are willing to do the same.”
At least I know that I have got that part down.
* I am not sure why I can not get the link to the article inserted above but here it is: