Building Relationships in the Beginning of the Year
Getting to know your students, what makes them tick, understanding their strengths and supporting their areas of growth is the most important thing a teacher can do in the beginning of the year.
Rita Pierson talks about how every kid needs a champion in her viral TED talk, stating “You won't like them all, and the tough ones show up for a reason. It's the connection. It's the relationships. So teachers become great actors and great actresses, and we come to work when we don't feel like it, and we're listening to policy that doesn't make sense, and we teach anyway. We teach anyway, because that's what we do.”
I’ve never heard a more true statement. The relationship between you and your students is what keeps them showing up every day, it’s what keeps them motivated, and it’s what they take away from that school year. Children hardly remember what you’ve taught them, but they will never forget how you made them feel. So, how do you do this? It’s a balance.
Step One: Check Your Bias at the Door
Everyone has biases, it’s what makes us human. We use our experiences, our understandings, and our observations to make assumptions. It’s our brain’s way of attempting to categorize people, places and things in order to organize and understand the world around us. However, our job as teachers is to challenge those biases every day, check ourselves and walk in with an open mind. This is active work!
When you feel yourself making an assumption about a student or their ability, pause. Check yourself and ask “Why am I making this assumption?”. Challenge your brain to give that child a clean slate every single day. Every day is a new day in your classroom. You can hold students accountable for their actions without holding a grudge or forming a permanent bias.
When a negative thought or assumption pops into your head, pause. Find 5 things you like about that student and recite them in your head. Pick one thing to share with that student. Thank them for coming to class, tell them you’re happy to see them. Find the positive and live in it.
Step Two: Share Information About Yourself
Students love to learn about their teacher. Younger students really think you live and sleep at the school, so showing them you’re a real human that has a family and goes grocery shopping and sees movies in the theatre helps them bond with you in an authentic way. Share your interests with your students. You can do this in many ways.
Hang up things in your classroom that represent you. Hang your college pennant, your favorite movie poster, pictures of your children, significant other, friends and family. Post your favorite quotes. Print out pictures of your favorite book covers or movie characters. Your classroom is an expression of you as a person just as much as it is of you as a teacher. If you don’t have a classroom because you travel, decorate your cart, clipboard, laptop of binder.
Keep it balanced. Only share things you feel comfortable having students share with their parents or their peers, because they will! There is definitely power in being vulnerable with your students about your experiences, especially in an effort to help them understand they are not alone in their experiences. Just be prepared to defend your decisions should anyone question them, and be prepared to be asked by another student because kids love to share!
Step Three: Learn About Your Students
Encourage students to share their likes and dislikes. Ask them lots of questions and listen actively to what they say. Take notes on students remarks so you can follow up with questions or thoughts later on in the year. For example, you hear a student mention they love Marvel characters. Great! When the new Marvel movie comes out, ask them if they are going to go see it. If you see a Marvel character t-shirt or stickers, take a picture of it and show it to them the next day in class. Say “I thought of you immediately when I saw this!”.
Find your students strengths, and spend time building upon them. If you see that a student is always on time, praise them for this small action. If students are social butterflies, help them build this strength rather than seeing it as an annoyance or something to fix. Always find something positive to say to students.
If you need to give them critical feedback, use the “complement sandwich”. For example, “Lauren, I’m so excited that you are making friends so quickly and that you have so much to share with your peers. Let’s focus on our task at hand for the next 15 minutes until lunch, when you can share again about your movie date this weekend. Thank you so much for pausing your conversation! I’m looking forward to hearing more before we head to lunch.” or “Henry, I noticed how much you’re improving your writing! You’ve been able to go from writing one paragraph to consistently writing three! Next I’d like to you focus on making sure your sentences always start with a capital letter and end with a period. Awesome job with those descriptive words! I’m excited to read more about your story.”
Step Four: Plan Time for Fun and Games
Learning isn’t just a sit and get experience. Plan in times for fun and games! These can be really quick getting to know you activities or they can be lesson based review games. Social Emotional Learning is just as important (if not more important) as content based learning.
Plan immersive experiences such as videos or games that allow students to step into the shoes of the character or person in history they are learning about.
Plan engaging content! Focus in on what motivates your students and use that information to help them learn new content. For example, if your students are obsessed with Dinosaurs, use dinosaur themed content to teach them new reading or math skills. Plan a thematic unit on geology and the dinosaur era.
You can do this, teachers! Building relationships with students in the beginning of the year and working to maintain those relationships throughout the school year is an investment in a stress-free year. Those relationships will help you motivate your students to do difficult things and will help them continue to feel safe taking risks in your classroom.
The 30 Day IEP
Teachers, the time is here! Those 30 day IEPs can get really overwhelming, especially when you are in those crucial changing grades like 3rd, 6th and 9th. Follow this guide to help you get through this trying time.
Steps to a Successful 30-Day IEP Season:
Review that IEP! Check out the goals, present levels and accommodations. Think about what you might already know about the student, then plan to interview them about their experiences.
Interview the student. Ask them what they already know about having an IEP. Ask them questions about their experiences in the grade before. Review their goals and accommodations with them and ask them if there is anything they would like to change. For students under grade 5, it’s suggested you reach out to parents before engaging in this interview to determine their level of comfort with this.
Review the Present Levels in depth. See if there are any assessment results you can review. There may be beginning of the year assessments that have been given by teachers within in the first 30 days. Compare those results to determine if anything needs to be changed, added or deleted.
Gather information from the current teachers. Ask them if there is anything additional they’d like to see the student accomplish or work on. Review the accommodations with them to be sure they understand what is needed on their part to help the student be successful and ask them what types of behaviors or academic trends they’ve seen from the student. Ask them if any additional accommodations need to be added to the student’s IEP.
Reach out to the parents. Introduce yourself as their child’s new Special Education teacher and ask them if they have any feedback about the current IEP. If you have changes you’d like to make, discuss them with the parent first and get their thoughts on the matter. Share the data you collected during your interview with the student.
Draft the changes to the IEP (or accept it as is). Reach out to the parents again and send the draft IEP. Decide when to hold the meeting and be sure to invite the parents and student to the meeting.
Breathe! This is a challenging time in the school year. You are just getting to know your students and need to determine if the IEP they came to you with is appropriate for this school year. It’s important to put things into perspective.
Take time for yourself. Do something for yourself each day you find yourself buried in paperwork. Make a home cooked meal, grab a smoothie, get a manicure, buy something small. Reward yourself for this hard work, but remain in budget!
Take time to spend time with your students - away from the paperwork. You became a teacher to spend time with your students, so make sure you do that! it heals the soul and is a powerful way to build relationships with your students.
Reach out to IEP&Me if you have specific questions or would like help with your IEPs! We are always happy to be a resource. Email [email protected] for help!
SXSW EDU Presentation - IEP&Me Needs Your Vote!
IEP&Me has submitted a proposal to present at SXSW EDU in March 2022. We need your vote to show the panel that student voice is needed in the IEP Process!
We’ve submitted a proposal to help participants Increase Student Voice and Transparency in Special Education. Learn more about our session by clicking here.
Participants will be able to understand the IEP document and use it as a foundation for conversations with students & families.
Participants will learn strategies to provide, or advocate for, ways for the whole IEP team to have easy access to student accommodations & goals.
Participants will understand the purpose of student-led IEP meetings and know how to differentiate implementation by age & ability levels.
How to Vote
Click this link. Create an account and then vote “up” our session! Share this link on your social media page and ask your friends and family to vote as well! VOTING ENDS AUGUST 26TH!
5 Tips for Preventing the Summer Slide
The Summer Slide, best known to teachers of elementary grades, is the research proven backslide that happens to every student over the summer. It’s the reason why year-round schools exist, and it’s the reason teachers send their students home with packets, book lists, and other activities. Just like any muscle, a child’s brain needs to exercise or it will lose what it gained during the school year. In fact, a recent study showed that students lose an average of 20% of their yearly gains in reading and 27% of their yearly gains in math over the summer. Below are 5 tips to help mitigate the effects of the summer slide.
Choose the Right Materials: Ensuring your child has an interest in what they read or complete over the summer is crucial. You’re competing with friends, vacation, pool-time, television, and games! The books they read over the summer should be engaging, yet not too difficult to digest. Take your child to the library and let them pick out lots of books. Encourage them to choose books that are on their grade or reading level, but don’t push them too hard or tell them they can’t try reading something that might be difficult. Any reading is good reading - including graphic novels and audiobooks! If you don’t know where to start, here is a great summer reading list for K-8. For math, you can get creative with how you incorporate it throughout the day! Create a new addition- or multiplication-based game with a deck of cards or Uno, little challenges for adding up the groceries, dinner bill, or sports score, or giving them more traditional logic books. Here are some great resources for math practice as well.
Set Goals and Make it a Contest: Create a summer reading chart and put it on your refrigerator, get some stickers and set some page goals! For example, task your child with reading 10 pages per day and completing 2 math activities. They can receive two stickers on their chart for each goal they reach. Find some fun rewards for your child like pool time, smoothies, an extra 30 minutes before a scheduled bed time, etc. Try not to make the rewards centered on items, but rather activities and experiences. Here are a list of participating retailers that will give out free stuff for books read!
Make it Fun: Set up a book scavenger hunt, take books on vacation, go to the library and participate in their summer reading activities; make up games! You don’t need to be home all day with your child in order to ensure they do their summer reading or math work. Encourage them by making it fun for them to do. For example, grab a pile of books and write out a list of things for them to find while they’re reading, or hide math problems around the house for them to find. If they find them all and get them correct, maybe they even get a prize. Read with your children at night before bed, or have them read to you or their younger siblings!
Read Together as a Family: Find things you can do together as a family. Go to the library’s free activities, do a family scavenger hunt, practice your times tables on the way to get ice cream. Show your child the books you are reading! Reading as a family can be so powerful. Spend 30 minutes during the weekend to read outside on a blanket or read before dinner time each night. You can also brush up on your math skills while they are completing some worksheets. (You might need the brush up for the new school year!)
Read Every Day: 5 pages here, 10 minutes there. The research suggests that reading for 30 minutes every day will not only sustain your child’s learning but even help them grow over the summer! Encourage them to pick up a book every day and read a few pages. Every minute counts! Skimming the pages of their book to get some insight into the story so you can have a conversation with them about their book is a great way to make it feel like less of a chore (and it teaches them to think critically about their reading, too).
The Opportunity Myth and Special Education
The Opportunity Myth - have you heard of it?
It is founded in research coming from The New Teacher Project (TNTP) that has gained more notoriety as the COVID-19 pandemic has threatened students’ access to graduation, credit recovery, and basic skills. Many students with disabilities have gone with significantly fewer services and accommodations, making the grade level curriculum seem out of reach. Schools across the country are looking towards next year with more questions than answers. How can we support students with basic skill deficits while ensuring they receive grade level instruction? The answer is complex, just as you expected.
First, let’s talk more about the Opportunity Myth. Research states that students with mild to moderate disabilities, intermediate and advanced students learning English, and students of color spend over 500 hours on instruction that is below their grade level, even during grade level class time. Some might read this statement and think “That makes sense, these students need additional support!” However, this means that they are being deprived of precious time to learn material at their grade level. When this happens year after year, the amount of grade level material they miss out on grows exponentially.
A majority of students with mild to moderate disabilities spend 80% - or more - of their day in general education classrooms. This means they are expected to learn and master grade level material, they are expected to graduate high school, and often expected to pursue post-secondary options. However, the report from TNTP found that nationwide, nearly 40% of college freshman take a remedial course. This means that, at least 40% of our students that graduate high school, are not prepared for college. And much of it has to do with the Opportunity Myth.
The New Teacher Project found that, in order to access grade level work and succeed, students need access to four main resources in the classroom: 1- grade appropriate assignments; 2- strong instruction; 3- deep engagement; and 4- high expectations.
These are all largely education buzz words and phrases. So, let’s review some of the TNTP research and break them down and dig into them.
Grade appropriate assignments: In classrooms where access to grade level material was consistent, students gained an average of two months of additional learning. During the general education class, students should be provided scaffolds to access grade level instruction. They should be expected to turn in the same assignments as their peers, but with additional supports such as graphic organizers, sentences starters, word banks, multiplication charts, and more.
Teach grade level content. Give 6th graders access to 6th grade level text. Give 3rd graders access to 3rd grade math. The data shows that especially when students enter the school year behind their peers, when provided with grade level instruction, they were able to close the gap by 7 months. This does not mean you give them the assignment and leave them alone, but it does mean we need to stop giving students work that is below their grade level because we believe that they need to “catch up.” This might require a shift in thinking, and that’s ok. Let’s trust the research.
Teach organizational skills, note-taking and study skills, and teach students how to access platforms and other resources. These skills are crucial. You can take time in the beginning of the year and when you introduce new content to teach and review these skills. You can teach Cornell Notes, flashcards for studying, binder organization, how to use an agenda, how to craft an email to ask for support, and many others. The AVID program is a great resource for teachers to teach these skills. You don’t need to teach skills that won’t be relevant to your class, but if you expect students to study for tests and remember when an assignment is due, teach them those necessary life skills.
Teach accommodations. I use the calculator on my phone all the time. I also use spell check, online dictionaries and I prefer when captions are on when I’m watching YouTube or Instagram videos. I know how to use these accommodations because I was explicitly taught by my teachers or I took the time to teach myself. Teach your students how to use the text to speech feature on Google Chrome, teach them how to make their own graphic organizers, teach them outlines for writing essays. Teach them how to use internet search features, how to use an online or phone based calculator and how to turn on captions when watching videos. These are necessary life skills, not opportunities to cheat.
Intervene as necessary. As teachers, we also have the responsibility to ensure students are gaining those crucial basic skills that will improve their reading and math performance. So when can we provide those interventions? There are a few options. Ideally, your administration would be in support of adding an intervention and enrichment hour to your schedule so that students can receive intervention without missing out on electives. However, if this is not an option, teachers can add in time for students to work on these basic skills before or after grade level instruction. This might look like a stations based model with computer based interventions and options for small group instruction. Read more on stations based instruction here.
Strong instruction: In the research, strong instruction refers to experienced teachers who are considered proficient or sometimes “master teachers”. In classes with these strong teachers, even students who started the year behind their peers will close the gap faster than students placed with first year or inexperienced teachers. Strong instruction also refers to using data to drive instruction. Let’s break this down even further.
Collect and disaggregate meaningful data. Classroom assessment data, formative data, summative data, exit slips, professional assessment data, attendance data, data from parents and past teachers, the list is endless. However, one rule of thumb - if you don’t spend time disaggregating and interpreting the data, then the time it took to collect it was not the best use of instructional time. Use this data to drive your instructional decisions. Take some time to seek out and learn from outside resources. HERE is a great place to start.
Seek out the experts. Not everyone is an expert in everything. Seek out those in your school that can help you master new things. Look to your colleagues for support and offer support when needed. The “Closed Door” mentality should be a thing of the past. You can seek out experts on Instagram, LinkedIn, Clubhouse, and Facebook Groups. Start a book club at your school and read a professional book together with the common goal of improving one specific thing. The future of education is collaboration.
Ask for feedback. When your Principal or admin comes in your room for observations, ask them for specific feedback. For example, you can ask them to give their thoughts on a new method you’re trying out, or ask them to take data on how often you ask open ended questions, or call on specific students. Although it can be difficult to hear at first, receiving feedback will help you grow in your career and grow as a person. Check out this article on giving and receiving meaningful feedback, and share it with your colleagues so you can develop a positive feedback culture.
Deep engagement: In the research, classrooms that kept high levels of engagement on average had students gain two and a half months of learning over their peers in less engaging classrooms. But what does engagement really look like? What does it mean?
Build meaningful relationships with your students. Get to know your students in a meaningful way by asking them about their interests, their families, their culture, their futures and what their everyday lives are like. In addition to getting to know your students, it’s important for them to build meaningful relationships with their peers as well. Focusing on relationships is research proven to have a positive effect on academic performance. Check out the research from the BARR Center for more. You can foster this relationship building by participating in getting to know you activities and by encouraging positive group work. It’s important to remember that at any age, students need to be shown what positive relationships look like. You can work on these skills during group work by explicitly teaching and practicing turn taking, academic conversation skills, splitting up work equitably and resolving conflicts in a positive way.
Encourage student talk. Research shows that students who talk about their learning, ask questions to learn more and who share their thinking process, have higher levels of comprehension and critical thinking, leading to better academic performance. Ask open ended questions of students such as “Why do you think that?” “How did you come to that conclusion?” “What was the process you took to get to that answer?” This will help students get familiar with their own thought process, encouraging them to learn about how they learn, how they think and how they conceptualize information. Read more on student talk vs. teacher talk in this article. Encourage students to ask questions, and develop a culture of risk taking.
High expectations: Every student can achieve. Say it with me, EVERY student can achieve. It’s up to us to find the right key to unlock the learning for them. When we hold students to high expectations, more often than not, they rise to the occasion. Children are resilient and their brains are literal sponges. They can learn multiple languages simply by exposure and they absorb what is happening around them through continuous observation. When we challenge students to achieve at high levels, they do. But how do we walk the fine line between challenging and overwhelming students?
Growth mindset is key. Carol Dweck has been the leading researcher in what she calls growth mindset. Simply put, growth mindset is changing the way you talk about, see, and act towards students in the classroom. For example, asking yourself “How does this child learn best” rather than questioning whether or not a student can learn or master a task.
Provide opportunities for specific feedback. When having students write an essay, normalize receiving feedback from the teacher and implementing that feedback to improve their writing. When giving students feedback, make sure it is specific and includes ways the student can improve. Additionally, avoid giving answers to students, like telling them they should put a period here and a capital letter here. Instead, ask “Is something missing here?” These are just some examples for an essay, but feedback is important on every assignment.
Provide ample support. Step away from the thought process of “unfair advantage”. Remember that providing accommodations is simply leveling the playing field. Though these accommodations are legally mandated to be provided to students with IEPs, there is nothing wrong with providing these scaffolds to any student who might need them. In addition to providing scaffolds and accommodations, provide opportunities for students to meet with you in small groups or 1:1. This can be before or after school, as part of a center, during independent work time or during lunch or recess.
Help students set goals. Setting goals is linked to self-confidence, motivation and autonomy and is research proven to be an effective tool for accomplishing tasks. Teach students how to set a goal for themselves and be specific about breaking down the goal into bite size pieces. For example, your high school student is missing 17 out of 24 assignments and is completely overwhelmed and lacking next steps. Sit down with the student 1:1 and look at the grades together. Show them which assignments will take the most time and help them break those down into attainable tasks. Help them schedule out their time so they can accomplish their task and then celebrate with them when they reach their goal.
Giving students access to these resources will lead to improved success, especially in students who enter the classroom below grade level. What are your thoughts on the Opportunity Myth and the research that supports it? In what ways have you seen your students be successful?
Invisible Weights - The Importance of Diagnosis
Mar 8, 2021Disabilities
Going through school with an undiagnosed disability is like running a race with invisible weights strapped to your ankles. You run as hard and fast as you can to stay with the rest of the runners, probably even harder and faster, but while the rest of the runners aren’t breaking a sweat, you’re out of breath and on the verge of collapse.
“But those weights will surely make you stronger,” I hear many parents say, trying to find a silver lining on behalf of their struggling child.
However, you don’t know the weights are on your ankles. When you look around, you decide that the reason you’re struggling must be a result of your inadequacy. The weights can make you stronger, build resilience and character, but what’s the purpose of such an exercise if it’s not being utilized properly? In order for that child to thrive, they first must see the weights.
I was diagnosed with ADHD, depression, and a severe anxiety disorder at the age of 21. I had gone through all of my schooling up until that point with weights strapped to my ankles, while being told it was my own fault if I wasn’t as fast as the rest. As far as my parents and teachers were concerned, I was a good student. I got good grades, I was polite to teachers, and I didn’t misbehave. What they didn’t see, however, was how I would break down crying in the bathroom between classes, how I had to dig my nails into my bloodied palms during class to distract myself from overstimulation, and how I regularly contemplated sticking needles into my ears so that I couldn’t be bothered by frightening noises anymore. The worst part of it all, though, was the fact that I couldn’t see the weights. I thought that, above all else, I was a failure because I struggled so much to do what my peers seemed to do effortlessly. What good am I as a person, I thought, if I can’t even sit still in a classroom without buckling into a panic attack?
By the time I was diagnosed, medicated, and accommodated, I only had one semester of college left to go. I wasn’t expecting such a radical difference in my experience, but that final semester was far and away the best one in all my years of education. I no longer struggled to stay in the classroom, I could ask questions and get involved in subjects I didn’t even care about (which was a foreign concept to me until then), and I didn’t have to take absences out of fear that I would intentionally crash my car on the drive home. I got straight A’s in all my classes, and my senior thesis, a short animated film, was voted best in show at the end of year presentations. Despite this, I don’t feel pride when I look back at how well that last semester went for me. Instead, I feel disappointment at how much easier my schooling experience could have been, and how much I could have accomplished if someone had told me about the weights sooner.
The weights did make me stronger. I’m resilient, introspective, and empathetic in ways I wouldn’t be without them. But, I’m also tired. Decades of telling myself that I’ve failed as a person don’t go away overnight, no matter how I try to prove the opposite. I can’t help but mourn for all the happiness I missed out on, on all the confidence I’d have now if I didn’t have to fight tooth and nail to hang onto scraps, and for a childhood that didn’t make me feel like a burden.
A diagnosis doesn’t make the weights go away. It does, however, tell you they’re there. What you and your child can do after that is up to you, whether you medicate, go to therapy, seek accommodations, or even just talk about what it means. No matter what, though, you can’t begin to work with a problem that you don’t know is there. Disabilities can even be a benefit to children in unique ways, and give them unique strengths. For example, ADHD has a fun little side effect called “hyper-fixation” that allows a person to, as the name implies, hyper focus onto a particular task, and usually allows them to perform that task very quickly, efficiently, and diligently. I have learned to utilize this tool myself in my freelance work, which allows me to complete work for clients in days that may take another artist weeks. I was only able to do this, though, through the use of appropriate therapy and medication, which can only come after the proper diagnosis.
Children with disabilities can and will thrive when they have the right tools at their disposal. You as a parent are not stifling or discouraging your child by getting them diagnosed, and a diagnosis is not something to be feared. It is far more dangerous to run with those weights without knowing about them, than to be told they’re there so you can use them to your advantage.
Helpful Tips for Surviving (IEP) March Madness!
Mar 2, 2021Teachers
March is always a busy month for writing new IEP goals, gathering data, and scheduling and holding meetings. This is partially due to the timelines for RTI or SST teams, and results in about 80% of your annual IEPs occurring in or around the month of March!
Not only does this mean you have a stack of paperwork, it also means you need to tweak your schedule to accommodate many meetings. Not to mention, you also need to be sure your students are supported in the classroom while you are busy.
Here are 5 quick tips that helped us survive the busy season!
Use a calendar. And I mean use it. Take the month of March and schedule out everything you need to do each day. Schedule in your breaks, too!
A tool that we find incredibly helpful to coordinate all the meetings is Calendly - or something like Doodle - that allows you to set time options for parents to see and choose one that works for their schedule. So much better than a few emails back and forth for each student!
Communicate with your administration that this month will require more time out of the classroom. Work with them to find some times - either half days or entire school days - that you can request a substitute to cover your classes so you can use that time to either work on IEPs or schedule IEP meetings. We have also loved having a ‘roving’ substitute that pops into classes for general education teachers to allow for all teachers to join in the IEP meeting, if it’s during the school day.
Gather as much information as possible from parents about when they are typically available, and attempt to provide 2-3 possible date and time options. This will help you avoid meetings getting cancelled, or being unable to find a common time to meet.
Find and repeat your best strategies. Just because a calendar and breaks work for me, doesn’t mean they work for you. Some teachers find it easiest to write one IEP at a time, while others are ok with working on several and going piece by piece. Do some exploring and see what helps you be most productive!
Stock up on essentials & Celebrate Yourself. Get all of your favorite snacks and beverages stocked and ready to go to help keep you fueled and motivated. Celebrate all the teacher wins - the big ones and the small ones.
Everyone on time to the meeting? Win!
Parents happy with the school and their student’s progress? BIG Win!
Remember to take breaks and be kind to yourself! What are your best strategies for keeping calm when you’ve got a long list of things to do? Comment and let us know!
The Power of 1:1
Feb 22, 2021Teachers
Let’s talk about student check-ins. Are you doing them?
Checking in with our students is crucial, especially during remote learning. Students are not able to socialize in the same ways as before, and it’s taking a toll on our nation’s youth. We’ve been home now for almost a year, and still some teachers I know have yet to know what their students’ faces look like. Students don’t want to turn on their cameras, they don’t want to talk out loud, and some even refuse to type in the chat. Hello? Are you even there? Teachers everywhere are struggling to build relationships with their students, and students are feeling disconnected from their peers, their teachers and school in general.
One way to mitigate this issue is to schedule weekly or bi-weekly check-ins with your students. Sound overwhelming? That depends. There are a few different ways you can fit this into your schedule, even if you are hybrid or remote! Here are some tips to help you start this powerful practice.
Always have a goal in mind - and questions to help guide the conversation. What is your goal in talking to this student? Are you hoping to build a relationship? Are you worried about their academic performance? Maybe you’ve noticed a dip in their behavior or grades and you want to know if everything is alright. IEP&Me has created a Student Check-In Form for both Elementary and Secondary students. Take it and make it your own!
Schedule quick check-ins. Schedule 15-20 minute individual check-ins, and send students a calendar invite or let them know when the check-in will happen. Make sure you make the student feel comfortable, not like they are in trouble. If you are in remote learning, here are some tips I found to be successful.
Zoom drop-ins: Does the student attend Science class but avoids your English class? Ask the Science teacher if you can drop into their class and be put in a breakout room with the student for 15 minutes.
Zoom meetings: You can schedule a meeting through zoom, this is successful only when you send reminders!
Class time: If you have independent work time, or group time, you can pull your student into an individual break out room. If you need an adult to watch your class, be sure to schedule that ahead of time.
Consistency is Key! Checking in with students 1:1 takes time, but it will become an easy practice with consistency. Your students will also benefit from the consistency and will even start reminding YOU that they have a check-in coming up. If you need to cancel, reschedule, or are running late, be sure to communicate that to students so they aren’t left waiting.
Thank the student for their time. This might seem like second nature to you, but maybe it’s not! Thanking your students for the time they’ve given you is so important. They are humans too! They could have been doing something else, but they are giving you their time. Say thank you!
Reimagine Learning Spaces
Since late March, when most schools closed for the remainder of the school year, parents and children have had some opportunity to engage in virtual learning with little guidance, support, or best practices. Depending on local circumstances, children may be back at school permanently (or until an outbreak sends them back home), at school part-time, or learning at home for the foreseeable future. As we settle into the new school term and distance learning becomes the new normal, many parents struggle to find the balance between home and school. Although switching from a traditional classroom to virtual schooling can be a big adjustment, Melanated Pearl Corporation founder Crystal Perry has been able to support families by providing the instructional tools and personalized support to address these challenges.
“Simply stated, as we move into a new system of schooling at home, maximizing your child’s virtual classroom experience requires you establish a learning zone of space in house.”
Let’s be clear, the parents and children most impacted did not sign up for this, but there are some ways to make schooling at home work better for your family. The following tips can help families manage the change, deal with the stress, and succeed in the new educational reality as they Reimagine Learning Spaces.
Let's start by stating the (not so?) obvious: schooling at home is not the same as homeschool. Schooling is about much more than academics. Very young children learn fine motor skills, how to share and take turns, and older ones work on more socialization, time-management skills, and so on. Many families use less formal ways of educating. Keep in mind that many teachers are learning an entirely new skill set in teaching remotely. They're relying more than ever on parents and children reaching out to ask for help when they're struggling. Every child has unique interests, as well as different attention spans, adeptness at using technology without distraction, and so on. Compared to classroom-based learning, home-based learning allows for greater individualization. Start by getting familiar with the four elements of learning environments. A learning environment can be divided into four elements:
“These are the building blocks that a designer can define in the learning experience while designing customized learning environments. If you have some closet space you can design an academic space for yourself or your child.”
Start with a Family Learning Center
A typical school day rewards children with opportunities to show independence, help friends and overcome challenges. The shift to learning from home still gives children the chance to develop autonomy, practice empathy and use their skills, particularly when parents set up structures, then stand back to let kids shine. Consistency is key. Consistency helps children focus, and helps build organizational skills, goal setting, and time management.
You can start by building a Family Learning Center. Create a family bulletin board, and a schedule for each member of the family. Skilled teachers often begin the school year with a great deal of structure, because kids learn most easily when they know what to expect. A schedule also allows parents and other caregivers to share duties. By building in breaks, choice and a range of activities, parents can tailor plans to meet children’s individual needs.
Include dedicated spaces for different activities. You can create a reading nook or a content corner to encourage independent reading or classwork.
Classroom In A Box
Get rid of distractions while your children work! You can create a grade level classroom or workstation using a cardboard box. Most educators and homeschoolers are familiar with the idea of a curriculum in a box. If you didn’t know, boxed curriculums include things like teacher guides, books, study sheets, tests, activities, and some include report cards. The classroom in a box offers an opportunity to teach organization, while ensuring your child has easy access to the things they need on a daily basis.
The classroom in a box is a mobile customized workstation for your child. Customized Classroom in a Box gives your child a private workspace. Remember, virtual school takes place at home, on the road, or wherever there's an internet connection if you are willing to ReImagine Learning Spaces.
Bulletin boards serve multiple purposes. They can convey a variety of information from meeting announcements and parent news to curriculum overviews and displays of child work. They can also make learning visible.
Create a family or school bulletin board that familiarize your children with the standards, teachers, volunteers, and librarians, as well as support staff.
Create a space for your child to post reminders, and other resources as the school year progresses.
Start by creating a Learning Wall! Check out the 8th grade math Learning Wall. Learning Walls are visual classroom displays that centre around a LEARNING INTENTION and include elements such as text scaffolds, word walls, and bump it up walls.
An 8th grade math course should cover all the math strands, not just arithmetic. The major math strands for 8th grade curriculum are number sense and operations, algebra, geometry and spatial sense, measurement, and data analysis and probability.
A content corner focuses on one subject area. Similar to Learning Walls that support children on their learning journey, a content corner is a reference point for children as they work towards knowledge, understanding and application of skills. Anything that builds on your child’s knowledge as they work towards their learning intention can be included. Check out this 5th grade Learning Space. Is your child about to enter what’s often considered the last year of elementary school; and will soon be exploring middle school curriculum? That’s why 5th grade is an extremely important time for children to cement the skills they have gained throughout the upper grades and lay a solid foundation for the years ahead.
The 5th grade year is all about helping children practice, refine, and grow their skills. Children build on what they learned in 4th grade by analyzing material in deeper ways, and write structured, clear, and detailed pieces about a variety of subjects. They are encouraged and expected to be more independent in their learning, and to require less guidance and support from teachers and other adults.For instance, when a child is asked to research a topic, they should know what to do to accomplish that (even if they need a little help from a teacher along the way).
The content corner is not linear like a Bump It Up Wall – it grows in any direction, depending on your child's needs.
Teachers! You are not alone.
TEACHERS, you are not alone. We've seen your social media posts, we've read your texts and emails and we've listened to you on the phone. You're frustrated and exhausted, and you're working all hours of the day and night. And, we’re right there with you! Whether you’re in the classroom all day, at your computer all day, or in that hybrid, in-between model, this school year is the most difficult school year we have seen.
When you start to feel stressed, take a step away and take a deep breath. Below are some great ways to relieve stress and improve productivity.
Focus on what you can control. There will be millions of things that are outside of your control, but if you focus on those things, you will lose sight of what you need to accomplish and cause stress.
Create some quiet time. Okay, what I’m saying is meditate. The big ‘m’ word seems unrealistic to some people, but it helps! Even for 5 minutes at a time: in between classes, right at the end of your day on Zoom, before you get out of your car, in the bath or shower, walking around the neighborhood — whenever, wherever (as Shakira would say). Calm, Headspace, and Insight Timer have either free options, or free-for-teachers programs.
Get enough sleep. If you are lesson planning until 2am and then starting class at 7am, you are not getting enough sleep. Reevaluate your to do list and accomplish what you can until a certain time, then turn off your computer and focus on you.
Drink water. Keep it at your computer and keep it filled. Have your coffee, then switch to water.
Eat healthy foods and remember to eat 3 meals a day, or keep snacks like nuts, fruit, and granola bars at your computer.
Create a calendar and start to schedule to do items over the week and create a routine. I like Asana.
Find someone to talk to that will validate your experiences, and help you destress. It's therapeutic to vent sometimes, but you also need someone who will help take your mind off of your job. If you feel like you don’t have someone in your circle that can, or will, be that person consistently, I cannot stress enough the benefits of some type of therapy. (For real, this year is like no other, do what you need to get through!) Talkspace and BetterHelp have text- and video-based versions, and I believe some insurances have partnerships with them.
Check in with yourself on a daily basis. If you don’t feel you have the time, make the time. Schedule it on your calendar if you must. Find a quiet space, or put on headphones, and ask yourself these questions.
What went well today? (Did something make you smile? Any celebrations? Feelings of pride?)
What did I learn today? (You learn something every day. Sometimes it’s just something small, but small celebrations are just as important as large celebrations.
What do I want to improve for tomorrow? (Choose one thing. Yes, one. If you need to make a list of everything you want to improve, then do so. Then rate them and pick the most important thing. Yes, one thing.)
What do I need to be successful? (Do you need to research? Ask someone? Do you need time alone, or time with friends?)
What am I excited about for the future? (What is happening tomorrow, the next day or the next week, that is exciting?)
Focusing on yourself is, and should be, your top priority. You may experience some bumps along the way of putting yourself first, but once you do, the cloud of uncertainty will lift and you can feel ready to tackle each day.
Take care of your body, and check in with your mind - every day.
Check It Out
During your check in, did you find something you want to research? Check it out! Ask questions, join groups, and use Google. Attempt to find at least three sources or opinions, then blend them together and make your own. Why? Because four minds are better than one. Joining several ideas and resources together can make the perfect resource for your students.
In the age of remote learning, which will be here for a while, new products are becoming available every day. As students and teachers return to school, new ideas, resources, products, and apps will continue to develop. Set aside some time each week to research, and be firm with your time limits. Whether it’s 30 minutes or two hours, set a timer and then move on to something different.
Check It Off
There are some great studies that show you are more productive when you are awarded for your effort. I use Asana to build my to-do lists. When I mark something complete, a rainbow unicorn dances across my screen. You think I’m kidding? It’s extremely rewarding. It’s ok to reward yourself for completing your daily tasks. You’re not a robot! You can take time to enjoy yourself. Have that glass of wine, go for that walk, or read that book you’ve been meaning for finish. Check it off your list, and move on to you!
What do you do to unwind? How do you manage your hectic life? Drop a comment below!
Remote Learning Series - Building Equity in Our Schools
Equity discussions have traditionally been about providing what each student needs to be successful. For example, if a student needs a pencil, provide one. If the student needs to sit in the front of the room, move their seat. Rarely, did equity discussion dive into the systems that seek to uphold racist values. This year is different, and it’s about time things change.
We are not experts in racial equity here at IEP&Me, so we’ve gathered resources for you from prominent race and equity leaders. However, we are experienced in building equity for students with disabilities. We’ve gathered our best ideas and resources for you.
Building Social Equity
Building relationships with your students is incredibly important, in fact, it is a teacher’s top priority. Only when students feel that their classroom is a safe space, will they be able to learn effectively. However, a safe classroom requires fostering relationships between the teacher and student, as well as between the students themselves.
Students with disabilities are often left out of activities and games by their peers, and sometimes, their teachers. This is due to multiple factors, but the biggest one is fear of the unknown. A student with a disability might look differently, talk differently, or act differently from their able-bodied peers, which can cause confusion to children. They might ask questions, disengage from the student, or say something hurtful. Teachers might make an assumption that a student can’t do something based on the way they look, talk or act. These are the teachable moments, where we insert equitable education and open dialogue to explain that every person is unique and different in their own way, and it’s those differences that will bring us closer together if we work to understand them.
The Community Circle - No matter the age of your students, a powerful time to hold discussions, especially difficult conversations, is during circle time. The conversations you hold during circle time vary depending on the age and cognitive levels of your students. This is a time in your day where you are focused on building relationships with students, learning about their likes and dislikes, and encouraging peer to peer interaction through games and team building activities. The Resilient Educator has resources for circles, and there are many other easy to find resources to help you add this to your classroom, even virtually!
Restorative/Social Justice Circles - When students do something in class that hurts the class community, it is important to ensure that the student is able to apologize and make it up to the community. It allows students to express their feelings, and allows the student that left the community to re-enter the space in a safe and supportive way. This is never a time for punishment, or forcing a student to apologize, or taking things away from the student until they do what you’ve asked. This is a time for students to engage in conversation about what happened, how it made them feel, and how they can feel safe again. It is important to incorporate community circles with restorative circles so they do not start to feel punitive. Check it out in action.
Partner Assignment - One way to prevent students from not being picked for a team or partnership, is to have partners assigned ahead of time, or provide an equitable way for students to find their partners. There are many ways to pick student groups. Teachers can use online random group selection apps, or create something like “Compass Partners”, where students (or teachers) choose a North, South, East and West partner in the beginning of each of month. When it is time for partner work, the teacher calls out a direction and the students know to find their compass partner.
Structured and Unstructured Social Time - More important than ever, ensuring students have structured and unstructured social time is essential. In a normal school day, students have hallway transitions, lunch, beginning and end of class, recess, snack, etc. to engage in unstructured social time, but now students are alone and only interacting with their peers on a computer screen. Plan time for games, team building activities, conversation questions, team puzzles, and other structured activities, directly into your daily schedule. Learning breaks are important, especially because there are far more distractions that a student needs to work past, in order to succeed. When planning unstructured social time, allow students to choose how they would like to spend their time. Give them choice boards or provide them with ideas. Encourage students to engage with their peers.
Building Academic Equity
To achieve true academic equity, every student (on a diploma track) would have equitable access to grade level content. There are a few things to unpack in that statement to understand it fully. A diploma track student with special education, or 504, supports is participating in general education classes, with accommodations. Accommodations are things that we provide for students to ensure they can access the content (glasses, calculator, guided notes, etc.). They are not provided for everyone, just those that need them.
When we talk about grade level content, we truly mean grade level content. If the science class is learning about microscopes, then students with IEPs are learning about microscopes, with accommodations. Some accommodations are only used in certain classes, some are used in every class, and some are Universal Designs for Learning, meaning every student benefits from them. To be super, super clear - accommodations work for any student that needs them, regardless of their IEP status. IEPs make those accommodations mandatory, but there are many positives to making accommodations available to all. The important thing to remember is, every student should be learning grade level content, unless they are on a “Certificate of Completion” track.
What if the students are unable to access the grade level material because of their reading level, frustration level, skill level, etc.? Start from the LEAST restrictive accommodation, such as a graphic organizer, a sentence starter, or an example of a similar problem with its solution. Provide more structure to the task to increase the support.
Here is an example. An assignment requires students to write a five paragraph essay on climate change. They can choose the topic, and must provide and introduction paragraph, three body paragraphs, and one closure paragraph.
Least restrictive: Five paragraph graphic organizer, list of potential topics (if not already provided), and way to collect and organize research.
More restrictive: Five paragraph graphic organizer, list of 3 topics, with research provided, research collection template, and sentence starters. (In the Arctic, climate change is…)
Even more restrictive: Five paragraph graphic organizer, list of 3 topics, with research provided in multiple formats (video, infographics, articles), research collection and organization template, and sentence starters that require students to fill in the blanks to complete the sentence. (Polar bears need ____ temperatures in order to _______.)
Did you notice how in all of these examples, students wrote a five paragraph essay on climate change? Even when we get more restrictive, the expectation is the same: a five paragraph essay on climate change. Why? Because students are learning research and paragraph writing skills, that they need to practice and perfect. Giving students multiple opportunities to practice research and paragraph writing skills will help them improve so they no longer need the accommodations. When the student has demonstrated they no longer need the accommodations, slowly fade them away. This is just one example of how you can accommodate a student, but here is an additional list of ways to differentiate and scaffold for students.
Building Culturally Responsive Teaching Practices
What is culturally responsive teaching? Incorporating students’ culture into your classroom on a daily basis. This looks like having a diverse library with authors from every culture, and with characters of every race. This looks like providing materials that describe the human experience by those experiencing it, and searching for inclusive curriculum. This looks like providing students opportunities to express themselves and their culture in a safe and welcoming environment. This looks like incorporating decorations, flags, posters, pictures, artifacts, and teaching learning practices from as many cultures as possible.
More importantly, culturally responsive teaching is not teaching Black history during February, it is not stopping at MLK and Rosa Parks, it is not using white washed history textbooks, it is not appropriating cultures (like dressing up in costumes), it is not teaching students using only the practices that worked for you when you were a student, it is not making decisions about a student’s education based on their background.
There are many definitions for culturally responsive teaching (CRT), but we found this graphic to be the easiest to understand and implement. There are 8 competencies for CRT according to New America. Their article breaks down these competencies further and includes examples for teachers ready to do the work. Becoming a Culturally Responsive Teacher costs almost nothing, but will provide you academic and social gains in your classroom at a rate higher than anything else. It’s important to remember, that building culturally responsive teaching practices is not Black history month and Cinco De Mayo. It is honoring a student’s culture by learning about, and engaging with, it’s aspects.
Remote Learning Series - Teaching Moderate to Severe Special Education
This fall many of us are diving into virtual learning. While some schools are planning for in person instruction, I imagine that at some point virtual learning will be a need for all schools. Below I have included what I found to be the most important aspects of teaching virtually to our students that generally require the most hands-on instruction, including tools for teaching daily living skills.
While I find these to be successful for my students, I fully understand that all of our students are different and I know that most of my students are more independent than many others in moderate to severe settings or on a modified curriculum in general.
Parental involvement is the key to successful remote learning. For students with moderate to severe needs, parents tend to be more involved because, well, they have to be. Now every parent needs to be involved. Right now, parents are at home with their children and can be easier to reach, but that also means they are busier than ever. One of the best things we can do as teachers is to provide helpful and meaningful communication to families, including tips on the best ways to support their children during remote learning.
Just like our students, parents will need to be familiar with the technology platforms, forms of communication and the academic expectations of their children. Create screencasts so that parents and students can watch you explain the directions multiple times. Provide parents with the necessary information so they can log in and check weekly assignments, usernames and passwords, and any class messages.
Having parent video conferences to touch base and coordinate for certain life-skills activities is extremely beneficial. Check in with families for: scheduling the number and timing of Zoom calls and connections, the resources that students have at home, pros and cons of their virtual learning experiences in the spring, opportunities for parent or family support for life skills activities (ie: cooking in the kitchen, cleaning, going for walks or exercising). I did this using Zoom calls and one-on-one parent emails and phone calls.
Strong communication and opportunities for involvement will be the key foundation for continuing to teach and support our students with the highest needs. The lift of teaching families how to get access to the materials makes the long-term access for students so much more effective.
Continue Using Visual Supports
As moderate to severe special education teachers, we know the immense value and importance of visual supports. Visual supports are used in our everyday lives, from the new 6-feet distance markings in the parks and grocery stores to the picture directions for furniture building. Google Classroom, in my opinion, is not super user friendly for higher need students. Instead of using Classroom as a resource dump for students, creating a Google Site that is very intentionally outlined is a great way to create a strong visual that they can easily navigate through. My school uses G-Suite, so Google Sites is the easiest option for me, but there are others. Here is a reviewed list of the options, if needed.
VISUAL SUPPORTS FOR SOCIAL STORIES
Right on the homepage of the site - a visual social story that kids can see that reminds them of how and where school will take place, and why. Here are some other scenarios that I have included social story visuals for on the website:
wearing a mask at the store
expectations for Zoom calls
eating meals with family
taking turns during a virtual game
VISUAL SUPPORTS FOR LIFE SKILLS
During our school day we spend a lot of time teaching life skills. With virtual learning, the weekly cafe, community based instruction field trips, volunteering, and so on are not possible. Instead of dropping this teaching completely, take those wonderful Boardmaker visuals - or whichever style you use - and update the site daily (or every few days) with a new life skills visual for them to follow at home. Examples I have included on our Google Site are:
Folding & putting away clothes
Making a bed
One of the greatest ways to teach students (again, and again) is to use a video model. Many emails and posts are being shared about all the great virtual tours, rides, and museums to use with kids, but that does not mean students can access it independently. Using Zoom to record a meeting to share directions and have students follow along with your screen is super easy. There are several other ways to do this as well, including Google Meets, Quicktime, and likely several others that I am not yet aware of. Using a site to share video modeling for life skills tasks is another way to create access for students to learning and practicing at home what teachers would normally support with at school.
Keeping as many Schedules & Routines as Possible
Schedules and routines are an important part of a student’s day, especially when students have Autism or other learning disabilities that make their world more confusing and chaotic. Without the regular routine of going TO school, we try to make their school day at home as similar to their schedule at school. Here are a few things that I have kept consistent throughout virtual learning:
‘Clocking in and out’ (on a Google Form): With high school students, I created this routine to start to build the idea of clocking in and out of a job. It addresses life and vocational needs that they will need in the next few years.
Morning Meeting: While the meeting is over Zoom now, the structure of the meeting remains the same. We have a ‘virtual’ Do Now (on a Google Doc), we rotate around the ‘room’ asking each other questions, and we review our service providers, homework, and announcements for the day.
Individual TEACCH Schedules: this Autism-focused method has different leveled systems for creating student schedules, based on need. I have three levels of students, on three styles of schedules - some with icons and pictures, others with words. They now have a virtual version of their schedules that they update each day.
Computer-Based Programs: CNN10 and Raz-Kids (Reading A-Z) use were structures that my students had in their day. Since most of my students were independent with this, it is an easy structure for them to complete while they’re home - including the Google Form for comprehension checks.
Hands-On Activities: In the spring we scrambled to get packets, binders, and sensory kits together for our students before we left on the last day and we used Amazon to get kids extra supplies, as needed. This fall, we are creating a more structured system of getting materials to our students each week that they can do without a computer. This will look different for each student across subjects.
Life Skills Activities: Each Monday at school we hopped in our school van and picked up supplies for our Tuesday cafe and Friday cooking lessons. Instead of going together to the store, I use Zoom on my phone to ‘take’ the students with me to the story, asking guiding and follow up questions so they can ‘instruct me’ on how to navigate the shopping experience. We continued our Friday routine but are now ‘at home, cooking together’ via Zoom, and use our parent communication to ensure we all have the right materials and supports in place.
Daily Agenda and Parent Signature: The physical agenda check is not possible in virtual learning environments, so I created a ‘Daily Checklist’ on Google Forms that is a homework assignment each day for the students. They check off boxes for activities they have completed and their parents ‘sign’ at the bottom before submitting it, including and comments or questions they arise.
Use Something New or Often Forgotten
An evidence-based practice that usually falls off my radar at school is exercise. Students can have Adaptive PE and walking breaks, but daily exercise is not generally a part of our schedule at school. Take this time to dive into the plethora of online platforms and videos geared towards kids. I update my site with a daily one, but you know your kids best!
This year, given that we have a bit more planning and structure, I have also reached out to our administrators and staff to coordinate some reverse mainstreaming or peer-mediated instruction and intervention. Many schools have ‘buddy’ programs for their high needs special day classes. With virtual learning those programs, and many general education push in classes, have fallen to the wayside. Peer intervention is an evidence-based practice, and giving our students these neurotypical peers as models and supports is something that can be continued in virtual classrooms -- it just takes logistical coordination. Plus, exposure and interaction with our kids with differences is great for the general education population, too!
In my classroom, reverse mainstreaming will include general education students (no more than 3 at a time) joining our afternoon group activities that focus on social and life skills building: Zoom calls for cooking, games, show & tell, science experiments, virtual field trips, and more.
Shifting ‘Coffee Carts’ and More to Virtual Opportunities
Brainstorming how my students can shift their life skills activity in their weekly cafe has been a creative task for me. Here are a few things I have come up with that might be good for your classroom setting:
Volunteering: There are many food banks that have shifted their work from one central location to others. Working with my paras and leadership team, I am coordinating logistics for students to be sent materials to make brown bag lunches and hygiene packages that we will pick up and deliver to organizations around our school.
Cafe for Families: Most of my students have several family members living with them. Instead of making coffees and cookies for teachers, I will be asking family members to make ‘orders’ with their students that we can make at home, together.
Food for Staff: Even though teachers and families are at home, I am asking teachers and staff to request food delivery through a Google Form. This will allow students to practice reading an order and use certain delivery sites (Yelp, Doordash, Instacart, etc) to order food on their own.
As distance/online/virtual learning continues during this weird, chaotic, at-home time, I am sure that we special education teachers will continue to rise to the occasion and use our creative minds to reach our students. We always do, no matter the obstacles; we are superheros in that way!
If you have any other ideas, suggestions, or questions, please do not hesitate to comment below or reach out to us! It would be great to hear about all the amazing things happening.