The fear is even more prevalent in the special education community, and with good reason. I spent 15 years in the classroom as a special-education teacher, and I would have been terrified if somebody told me, “We want you to teach math and science and health this year. Not only that, but we want you to teach in a way that goes deeper and requires more mastery from students than ever before.”
While special-education teachers do a wonderful job of helping students gain access to information in various subjects, they’re not necessarily experts in particular subject areas. As I’m sure you can imagine, they’re now tasked with an incredibly overwhelming burden.
In my new role as a special education academic support teacher — SEAST –, part of my job is to listen to and empathize with these teachers’ frustrations. But my next question is, “I know it’s going to be tough — so where do we go from here?”
A new perspective
Getting past a teacher’s mental hurdles is a daunting task, so I try to help them see common core in a new light.
If you’re familiar with special education at all, you might be familiar with the buzzwords “universal design for learning” — an educational framework that has been around for several years. UDL is very popular in the special education community, and it’s starting to catch on in mainstream classes as well.
Essentially, UDL suggests the most effective way to design a lesson plan or a classroom is by thinking about how it will affect every student, including students with disabilities. If you’re building a new classroom, this can save you costly retrofitting down the road. And if you’re writing a lesson plan, it saves special-education teachers the stress of rewriting their lesson to fit their students’ needs.
Naturally, special-education teachers love UDL. Their students are being considered from day one, instead of being added as an afterthought. But most teachers are a little surprised when I tell them UDL isn’t all that different from common core. In fact, I’d say a UDL teaching model is essential for common core success. Like UDL, common core tells teachers, “We want you to reach these kids in multiple ways. We don’t want you to just stand up and lecture to them.”
Teachers are also being asked to give students a variety of ways to show that they have mastered something. So instead of just telling students, “Write what you know,” excluding students who aren’t good writers, teachers can allow students to demonstrate mastery in a way that makes sense to them.
That could be by creating a PowerPoint presentation, making a Prezi, shooting a video — or, if a student wants to dance to a song they wrote about the Revolutionary War, more power to them! Common core asks students to represent what they’ve learned in their own way, instead of treating every student the same.
When you understand the goals of common core, it’s easy to see the connection between these abstract standards and UDL. For common core to work, teachers across the country will need to weave UDL principles into their instruction. If you’re a special-education teacher, that should be cause for celebration.
What you can do
Once my teachers have a new outlook on common core, I give them resources to make this transition a little easier.
We’ve found our professional learning communities to be incredibly helpful in this regard. I’ve started bringing general-education teachers to our SPED PLC meetings, which allows the general-education teachers to talk about the common core standards they’re focusing on in class and equip special-education teachers to take that information back to their students. At the same time, the special-education teachers can share some UDL principles to help the general-education teachers design their lesson plans more effectively.
We’re also relying on new educational technology, particularly products that are designed specifically for the common core. As an example, we’ve been using Learning Upgrade, an online math and reading curriculum that uses catchy songs and fun games to address common core standards in a relatable way. The courses also have built-in reporting features that make them ideal for case management.
We have so many great tools and great minds right at our fingertips, and we’re trying to pull them together so the transition to common core will be successful.
Out of all the educational movements that have been thrown at teachers over the years, I strongly believe common core has the most potential for the greatest growth for our students. Change is always a little scary, but I’m so glad I have the chance to help teachers see the big picture and inspire them to make a difference in their students’ lives.
Christine Fax-Huckaby is a special education academic support teacher (SEAST) in Sweetwater Union High School District. She has worked in special education for 18 years and spent the first 15 years of her career in the classroom.
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