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What’s so special about special education?

16 August 2015

Published on the Boston Teacher Residency blog, October 10, 2012

. . .

I co-teach three substantially separate special education classes, and my one general education class includes several students with IEPs [Individual Education Plans]. As a result, I have spent the first month of school entirely relearning how to talk to students. The basic questions I was accustomed to asking students didn’t cut it. With a kid facing a word problem, the question “What is the problem asking for?” is likely to yield a blank stare or a frustrated “I don’t know.” Same with “What information are you given?” and “What did we do before?”—because when it comes to students with cognitive delays or learning disabilities, you cannot get away with mediocre teaching. Many high school students can memorize an algorithm, memorize the context in which it is used, and then apply it ad nauseam. Most of my kids cannot do this: they struggle with retaining information, or their scaffold of preexisting knowledge is insufficient to support too many new things at once. When every aspect of the material takes longer to get through, teachers must focus on the topics and skills that are most important, and design lessons that emphasize those skills while covering the basics that standardized tests and future math classes will expect our students to know.

This kind of teaching requires a significant amount of pragmatism about what students can and should do, and often demands creativity. Last week, one of my classes was working on a group project. We gave them five days of class to work on the problems, make a poster, and prepare an oral presentation. Each day, we gave each student three “question chips”—they could ask each other anything, but a question to any of the three teachers would cost a chip. The first day, the students sat and chatted for the whole period, reveling in the freedom to allocate their own time without us prodding them to do work. On the second day, we reminded them of the deadline, and students started working through the problems. They asked yes or no questions—“Miss, can you check my work?” “Miss, can you help me?”—to which we would quickly answer “Yes” and take one of their chips. By day three, they had learned that yes or no questions were not productive. They asked each other for clarification and assistance. One student used a chip to ask for seven ways to ask good questions about her project. The next day, she was asking me, “What is your opinion of my project?” and “What would you suggest I add to this?” The math concepts in the project are still very difficult for my students. They still have trouble remembering and using the relevant formulas. But they learned about helping each other and asking high-level questions, and those skills will help them in math class and in life much more than the techniques they were practicing in the project.

Students with disabilities show us how little we know about what math is, what reading is for, and what success means. As a result, they teach us how to be more interesting, more honest, more hardworking, more different.

Many of my students do not “play school” the way a lot of teenagers learn to. My students are less likely to go through the motions of sitting still and working quietly, perhaps because the work is difficult for them, perhaps because they don’t value the constant compliance most high schools expect of their students. They don’t always look like “good” students, and that shows me how ridiculous we are if we think that a roomful of teenagers sitting still and working quietly is a laudable goal. Because my kids will do the work when it’s interesting. They’ll do the work when we don’t insist on controlling every detail of their speech and behavior. They’ll do the work when we show them that in our classroom, we care about what you know and what you can do, not the neatness of your handwriting or your ability to memorize formulas without meaning. They’ll do the work when they know that in our class, every person matters. Special education is incredible because my students hold me accountable for maintaining these ideals every day.

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