As visitors enter our classroom, it’s not uncommon for them to look around and not be able to find me at first glance. It’s also not uncommon for one of my first graders to meet their confused look with a pointed finger, showing them where, among the students, I am crouching. I am not exactly sure when it was I started crouching by students’ desks, but the faded knees of my pants suggest that I have been teaching this way for a long time. It didn’t take me long to realize, in order to make academic content accessible for every student, I had to find a way to get down on their level, I had to find a way to differentiate academic content.
Rocketship’s inclusion model was new for me. In all of my teaching credentialing, I had only had one class that focused solely on students with disabilities. During that semester, I was required to observe in a Special Day Class, where kids with learning disabilities spend most — if not all — of their day in a separate classroom from their general education peers. I saw kids who had intricate systems built around their daily schedules by teachers and aids who loved and invested in them, that much was clear. But I couldn’t help but wonder, why was their portable classroom so far away from the general education rooms? I think as with any important educational notion, it would be naïve to say that there are not pros and cons to both models. Yet having worked in the inclusive model, I truly believe, that with the right supports in place, our students with disabilities can thrive in the general education setting.
This year, at Rocketship Alma, I have four first grade boys who qualify for special education support through their academic IEPs. While their needs are unique, I have been able to work closely with our Integrated Special Education teacher, the boys’ parents, my instructional coach, our school psychologist, our occupational therapist and our speech pathologist to focus in and plan for ways to make grade level content more accessible. And the social and academic growth our boys have made has been impressive. They’re all on track to meeting their reading growth goals, which are ambitious, just like their classmates’ goals.
Isn’t it too difficult?
What do you do with your other students while the kids with special needs need you?
Can they really get it?
All are valid questions that I often receive from friends and former colleagues. And although I am still working on perfecting my craft, I do believe that the key is fine-tuned planning and differentiation. While student teaching in a classroom where my mentor teacher had opted into a “push-in” instead of “pull-out” pilot, he gave me this advice, “When you’re planning, keep the student who will have the most difficult time processing the content in your mind. If you can reach that student, you’ve already captured the others.” My teaching practice has been shaped by this idea, as I build our daily schedules with visuals, pencil in stimulatory breaks, add kinesthetic movement to our vocabulary practice and strategically support peer relationships. And I’ve learned that teaching and planning with my four boys in mind, makes me a better teacher for all of my students.
The first time one of our boys raised his hand to answer a question, our entire class cheered. They play together at recess, they are learning to respect each other’s differences and they share in daily victories. And these boys are growing, in every sense of the word.
I am wearing the knees out of my pants crouching down to check in with my students — something I am sure most teachers relate to — but it sure is worth it when our students’ abilities outshine their disabilities.
Caitlin Adams is a first grade teacher at Alma Academy, where she joined the founding team in 2012. She graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo with a BS in Liberal Studies, emphasis in Child Psychology. Caitlin grew up in Pleasonton, CA and has been teaching for three years. Outside of school, you can find her spending time with her family, online shopping, and planning her next trip.
Caitlin is a regular contributor to beyond. See her first piece, Not Just a Teacher.