It’s the start of a new school year and the air is full of promise. I’ve set up my room, made my copies and attended all of my meetings. As students flood into the school, I’m charged with positive energy and hope.
But as I peruse my class list and the academic data that accompanies it, anxiety sets in. I’ve committed to personalizing learning, but how can I do that for every student in my inclusion classroom when the range of abilities among them is so vast?
This is my third year teaching at William Penn High School in the Colonial School District in New Castle, Delaware. Dually certified in special education and English Language Arts, I teach an ELA inclusion class to 11th and 12th graders, which means I serve students with and without Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) in the same setting. Additionally, I manage a caseload of 18 students with IEPs, and enter goals and progress for over 60 other students.
A core element of my job has always been to consider how I can tailor instruction to meet the needs of each student—that’s the crux of special education. IEPs are legal documents designed to include specific goals, objectives and strategies for how to modify instruction to meet each student’s needs. Personalized learning doesn’t seem that far off—but meeting the needs of every student in an inclusion class when some have IEPs and some do not can get hairy.
It also raises some questions around where special education practices and personalized learning intersect. Does personalized learning mean every student gets an IEP? Does it mean that students who had an IEP no longer need one because now every learner is receiving tailored instruction? Can I use the same measuring tools to gauge growth for all students? Should it be different than how I was teaching before?
Special education is a gray area when it comes to personalized learning, so it has been a learning curve.
Class Makeup: Rules and Ratios
There are different types of learning environments that serve students with special needs. Some of them are separate settings, and others are inclusive, which means that general education and special education students are served in the same learning environment. There are laws and regulations that exist to ensure that the ratio of students with and without IEPs maintains a specific balance for some special education settings in Delaware—but they don’t apply to my classes.
I am a “SAM” teacher, which stands for Single Approach to Mastery. It’s a relatively new position in the Colonial School District. In many ways, it resembles a Integrated Co-Teaching (ICT) classroom—but I play the role of both special education and general education teacher. The position was more widely assigned out of necessity after state budget cuts, and currently, there is no law that explicitly states how many students may be enrolled in an inclusion class like mine.
However, in most states by law, “the number of students with disabilities in an Integrated Co-Teaching class may not exceed 40% of the class with a maximum of 12 students with disabilities.” That means the makeup of an inclusion class is required to have at least 60% of students without IEPs. But that’s not always the way it goes down.
Enrollment, funding, and a slew of other factors push administrators to build classes that don’t quite add up to the ideal 60:40 balance. In my classes the ratio is closer to 55:45. Most of the students I teach have failed several classes, so they are already behind the 8 ball when it comes to graduation. Many of my students need to take two English classes simultaneously—which is difficult considering their schedule is usually overloaded with repeat classes across all subject areas.
Teaching students with learning gaps is daunting. To be successful at it, it’s important to recognize that there are a number of reasons why a learner might be delayed. Attendance struggles, a difficult family situation, a learning disability, a set of behavioral challenges, becoming a parent—any one of these obstacles could set a student back, and each one warrants its own unique set of instructional approaches.
I teach three sections of English III to juniors and three sections of English IV Contemporary Literature to seniors. All of my classes are inclusion sections and I work with over 120 students a week—so I see quite a spectrum of learners. My students with IEPs have unique needs with special education classifications including learning disabilities, emotional disturbances, blindness, and medical conditions diagnosed by physicians such as ADD, ADHD, anxiety and depression. Their IEPs have accommodations such as behavior charts, extra time on assessments, reduction in answer choices and opportunities for revision or re-testing.
Though my general education students do not have IEPs, they still have learning gaps and require special consideration as I plan curriculum and assessment. About 20 percent of my students are reading on grade level according to SRI College and Career Ready Assessment, and are planning on going to college. I get the occasional overachiever who is reading above grade level, but the bulk of my students are reading texts that range from a first-grade reading level to ninth-grade reading level.
Recognizing the range I’m serving is always my first step to working with students. To set myself up for success, I will likely need to differentiate the workload based on student ability, or give some learners extra time to grapple with higher-level texts.
How Tech Has Helped Me Reach the Spectrum
I used to do everything manually—differentiating curriculum and assessments, providing student feedback, and managing hard copies of classwork and homework.
For each class section, I found at least six different texts and made all of the copies so students would have a choice regarding what they read in class. I created multiple versions of tests, quizzes and classwork assignments, and I manually gave feedback using a pen and paper. To combat the inevitable student response—“but I turned it in, you must have lost it”—I developed systems for managing hard copies of classwork and homework.
It wasn’t sustainable.
Accepting technological support has been pivotal for me. There are two tools that have allowed me to scale differentiated supports for students: Google Apps and Schoology.
Google Drive has helped me manage student work and provide more efficient feedback for students. Texthelp’s Read&Write app lets me scaffold the texts I use, making higher-level texts accessible to students with lower reading levels. The app has eliminated the grunt work of manually differentiating texts. It has features that support struggling readers and writers including word prediction, text-to-speech, talking dictionary and picture dictionary. Students can pop any text into the app for extra support when they need it, which means that I don’t need to generate alternative versions of every text we use.
Schoology has allowed me to experiment with pacing. I can differentiate the workload for each student, which helps me individualize pacing for each lesson. It also allows me to assign work individually or in groups—this feature helps me meet the specific needs of each learner discreetly, without damaging anyone’s dignity.
With these tools, I’ve been able to increase student choice in my classes. I always knew offering choice was a good thing—but it’s no easy feat. Offering more choice means finding more texts, preparing more materials and making more copies. But Read&Write helps make texts accessible, and Schoology lets me curate materials that are appropriate for each learner and present them all in one place so students don’t get lost in web surfing, which is enticing for teenage students. This makes it possible for me to create more opportunities for students to select which text to read, choose what topic to investigate and make decisions about the sequence in which they learn.
The Struggle is Still Real
Although I’ve had a lot of success over the past three years, there are some unresolved challenges.
There are logistical difficulties like the school server failing, internet connectivity issues and lagging wifi—which apparently is a common occurrence when more than 400 phones are on Snapchat. Last year during a critical lesson with high-stakes due dates, the internet on the entire Eastern seaboard went down. These issues make working online frustrating for students who just want to get their assignments done. To complicate things further, device and internet access at home is quite limited for some students, which makes homework a whole other animal.
Managing pacing is always a struggle—with or without technology. This is even more difficult in an inclusion class because many learners have accommodations for extended time, which often applies to curricular activities as well as assessments.
Of all the challenges, tracking goals and progress is what keeps me up at night. It’s my responsibility to support all students with goal setting, to gauge growth, and to accurately reflect student progress for every student. This means entering goals and assessment data on Schoology. For students with IEPs, it also means measuring progress toward each IEP goal, updating the document four times a year, and collecting hard copies and digitized versions of work samples as evidence.
Codeswitching between managing IEP goals and the personalized learning goals that every student has remains sticky. Making sure that every IEP folder in my trusty filing cabinet is up to date and double-entering some of that data into Schoology isn’t ideal—but it’s what needs to be done.
Down the road, I’d like to see special education take a front seat in conversations about personalized learning. When used correctly, IEPs should play a role in guiding instruction and supporting the learner by ensuring that specific accommodations necessary for student growth are in place. The IEP is a sacred document—there are legal issues and privacy issues that every teacher needs to consider. And my hope is that schools, districts and the entrepreneurs building tools to support personalized learning models consider them as well.
Stefanina Baker teaches 11th and 12th grade English Language Arts inclusion classes at William Penn High School in Colonial School District in New Castle, Delaware.