There Is No “I” in “Teach”
This summer, I had the opportunity to pilot a personalized learning model with a group of students. I am not your typical general education teacher with a classroom of 22 to 28 students who are at all different levels and are working towards a set of grade level standards. Instead, my job as a special education teacher is to carry out the “Individualized Education Plans” (IEP) that come with my students. My caseload normally ranges from 10-15 students at various grade levels who also work with multiple teachers in other classrooms.
Prior to completing my summer pilot, through CityBridge Foundation’s 2014 Education Innovation Fellowship, I had the opportunity to travel to Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay area, and Detroit to observe and learn about personalized learning practices in schools in those cities. In every school we visited, the general education teacher was leading the way, using innovative personalized learning models in the classrooms. When I asked about the role of a special education teacher within these models, it seemed clear that special education instruction was still separate and designed according to a student’s IEP.
As I thought about what I saw in the classrooms we visited during our travels, I wondered how I could incorporate innovation into my classroom instruction while still executing against each of my students’ individualized learning plans. The online content that was used in the classes we saw — Lexia, i-Ready, and ST Math — met the needs of the students with disabilities within the learning targets set for them. And they still got direct instruction in small groups with general education teachers. It was like differentiation on steroids!
Still a bit unsure about the role of a special education teacher in personalized learning, I launched a pilot this past summer using a station rotation model that had three rotations: independent work, teacher time, and online content. The online content I used was Ramps to Reading, which helped develop the cognitive skills that go along with becoming a reader. It was engaging. My students loved it, and I was able to meet the very specific needs of my students who varied greatly in their abilities.
In my summer school session, I had students who were non-verbal along with students who were on the verge of breaking through to grade level skills. Two boys in my class, who were nonverbal, were more challenging and required constant attention and teacher support. Having the station rotation model in my classroom ensured I could give those boys the necessary amount of direct teacher instruction they needed, knowing that the my students with a greater ability to work independently were still engaged in the academic learning they needed.
The next challenge was making this work for my students and my classroom peers in new coming school year. How could I show that personalized learning practices could meet the needs of every student in a class, not just my students with disabilities? How could I get my peers,—any or all of the four general education teachers I work with—to adopt this station rotation model?
All of these questions continue to come up as I work to define my role as a special education teacher and figure out how I can bring innovative ideas into the classroom for my students. I know that there is no “I” in teaching. I cannot make this innovation happen alone. What I have come to understand is that personalized learning can bridge the gap between the work of general education teachers and the work of special educators.
The school year is still new, and I look forward to continuing this journey and teaming up with my colleagues to implement a personalized learning experience for all students. Together, we will create innovative experiences that meet the needs of all students. I hope you will stay tuned to see how our teamwork will make the dream work!