The process of transforming the way we work with our students is gradual. One of the first things we have been working on is moving away from the ‘resource room’ model where kids who are not reading/writing at grade level miss classroom instruction to be involved in extra instruction to work on their areas of weakness. We continued pulling kids but only in short-term focus groups set up for a specific purpose (this term it was phonemic awareness). Some kids who are on our support list did not need this group so the only support they received was to monitor their progress. Interesting thing – all of the kids who received in-class only support made great progress since their last assessment. Below are my musings about why this may have happened…
I used a series of tests but the most exciting results were in reading. Many of the students have made more progress than would be expected over the time period measured. Some made more than a year’s progress since the last assessment.
This is far more impressive progress than we typically see for this subgroup of students. It really got me thinking about what we have been doing differently as we work towards developing Universally Designed learning activities for our students.
In the past we have determined which students needed support and have pulled them out a few times each week to work on helping them acquire the skills they are missing (we were trying to ‘fix’ them). During the pull-out time I taught various things – reading, phonemic awareness, sight-word practice, writing, etc. etc. etc. This year we are providing support for these students quite differently…
Short-term Pull-out groups with a purpose
When we wrote our students’ IEPs in October we noticed a subgroup of students at the grade 4 and 5 level who lacked phonemic awareness. Being that this is a skill that they would not naturally receive support for within their classrooms, we determined that a pull-out program was necessary. I instructed these students using the Vowel Circle (part of Lindamood-Bell’s LiPS program which has a strong research base). The group meets about 3x per week but is scheduled daily so we can skip so they don’t miss special classroom activities.
Most of the students who have been involved in this group are currently demonstrating an improved understanding of sound-letter relationships. Some of them are spontaneously beginning to apply these skills while others are not yet. In the next term students who need this type of support will be involved in a small group which will learn to apply the Vowel Circle to reading and spelling.
In Class Support
What was most interesting to me about the progress made by our students was that many of the students who made the largest gains received only occasionally pull-out support to monitor their progress. How do we account for the success of these students???
Classroom teachers are working collaboratively (with special ed teachers and other classroom teachers) to build supports into their lessons in order to make the learning experiences are accessible.
Using Technology as a tool
Our teachers and students are experimenting with a variety of software tools (much of it freeware) to ensure that students are able to access the curriculum (see Paul Hamilton’s blog “Free Resources from the Net for Special Education“). For example, if we are working on comprehension within a story, students who are not able to decode at grade level may use a text reader so that they can participate fully in the learning activities.
Visual Information & Background Knowledge
Many of our students’ Psycho-educational testing recommends that they be provided with visual information along with verbal, and/or that they be provided with background information. This has become so much easier to do through the use of technology. The teachers of these students use their Interactive Whiteboards (IWBs) strategically to embed the visual information and background information the students require into their lessons.
I also believe that many students with diverse learning needs benefit from the ‘joint attention’ environment the IWBs create which increase the likelihood that all students are attending to the salient details within the lesson.
In our district staffing is allocated to each school based on a funding formula. Schools then determine how much will be used for classroom teachers and how much will be used for student support ‘resource room’ type services. This year we decided to put as much staffing as possible into classroom teacher positions in order to reduce class sizes. This year our grade 4 and 5 classrooms average 23 students (they are usually up around 30). While this greatly reduced the amount of learning assistance / resource support classroom teachers could expect, it provided them with more time to support students within the classroom setting.
Shift in Paradigm (for teachers and students)
I truly believe that the most powerful change we have made is the message we have communicated to our students. In the past we have inadvertently taught our students with diverse learning needs that the instruction they needed to be successful could not be found in the same learning environment or be provided by the same teacher as their peers. What they needed was special instruction provided in an alternate setting.
Our students are now learning that their teachers can teach them, and that they can learn throughout the day in their classroom alongside their peers. They are learning that there are tools they can use to in order to access the curriculum. They are learning that being different and doing things differently is not just acceptable, but that it is encouraged by their teachers. They are learning that they are valued and supported members of their classroom and their school. They are learning that they belong.
The next steps on our UDL Journey…
What about the kids who are not making great progress?
While the data in the graphs of our students’ reading achievement indicate overall success, there are students that have not made much progress. For those students we must continue to experiment in order to find effective tools for them, and effective interventions.
Short-term Pull-out groups
Many of the students now understand phonemic awareness but need assistance to apply their knowledge. A group has been formed that will focus on applying the Vowel Circle to spelling and reading.
Project-Based Learning & Self-Directed Learning
We have focused on and made great progress in providing our learners with Multiple Means of Representation, and Multiple Means of Engagement, we are now investigating methods for providing Multiple Means of Expression. One of our teachers has been involved in a District learning team investigating Project-Based Learning and she is sharing what she has learned with us. Others are investigating Self-Directed Learning models. It will be exciting to see where this takes us next…
The process is gradual but it is nice to see some success in our first few steps!!