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'Amazing What You Can TeachIn 5 Minutes Alone With a Child'

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As the "regular-education initiative" gains increasing attention in the special-education community, confusion over how such an approach would work has grown. In particular, classroom teachers are asking what strategies they might use to effectively instruct both mildly handicapped and normally achieving students.

The following article describes one such program.


Verona, Pa--In one corner of the 2nd-grade classroom, a boy named Donald has just finished cutting out drawings of the parts of a fish and is pasting them together. When he finishes, Donald says, he will do a page of math problems.

Just outside the room, two 2nd-grade girls are seated at a computer, figuring out how to abbreviate the days of the week. If they answer incorrectly, the robot on the computer screen loses a limb. A correct answer prompts the computer to flash "Right!"

On the floor across from them, Diane, a 1st grader, is busily trying to piece wooden blocks into the shape of a trapezoid. She fails and starts over again.

This scene and others like it occur every day at Verner Elementary School here. Since 1978, all the school's students have spent half of every school day taking part in an experimental program called the Adaptive Learning Environments Model.

Developed by Margaret Wang, a professor of educational psychology at Temple University, the program has been cited as a successful model for serving all children--the mildly handicapped, the gifted, and their normally achieving peers--in one classroom.

Managing the Classroom

Of the 287 children at Verner, 50 have been identified as handicapped and 8 are considered gifted, according to the school's principal, Felicia J. Renard.

Ms. Renard describes alem as a "classroom-management strategy" that allows teachers to spend more time working one-on-one with students and less time giving them directions, reprimanding them, or shuttling them off to resource rooms for special help.

"It's amazing what you can teach in five minutes working alone with a child," she says.

'Self-Scheduling Board'

The foundation of the system is a "self-scheduling board" at the center of every classroom.

When Donald, Diane, and their classmates come in each morning, they go immediately to the board and choose an activity--math, reading, science, social studies, art, or some other subject area.

From the folders they carry, the students take a cardboard tag and place it in the pocket on the board that signifies their choice. Their teacher then "signs them in" to the activity--a practice that gives teachers an opportunity to talk with children and keep track of the amount of time they spend on a task.

When they complete a task, the pupils set a "teacher-call card" on their desk to let the teacher or an aide know it is time for their work to be checked, so they can go on to the next activity. Pupils also carry review work in their folders to do while they wait for help.

"The system really allows kids to progress at their own rate," says Brian Miller, a 1st-grade teacher, as he "travels" among the students at work in his classroom. He stops to review a child's work and discuss her next activity choice.

"It allows us to focus first on the kids that need extra help," he says, "and it lets the kids who are able to accelerate keep on working, rather than treading water."

Avoiding Labels

For handicapped children, teachers at Verner say, the biggest advantage of the alem program may be its avoidance of stigmatizing labels8such as "learning disabled" or "mildly emotionally disturbed."

While their classmates work on their own tasks, the handicapped children often work with a special-education teacher. For the most part, however, their activities are indistinguishable from those of their peers.

"Some may know they have a problem in reading, for example, and that they need a lot of extra help in that area," Ms. Renard says, "but they don't consider it a negative and I don't think they know they have a label."

She says the method also helps handicapped students get the extra help they need without missing lessons in their traditional classes, which take place in the afternoon for 1st and 2nd graders here. One result, she notes, is that an average of two to three special-education students each year are "decertified," or determined no longer to need special-education services.

"Before," Ms. Renard says, "none were getting decertified."

She says Verner's staff members were attracted to the program because they saw it as a chance to provide extra help for their "gray-area kids"--those who were having trouble but had not yet fallen far enough behind to legally qualify for special-education services.

With alem, Ms. Renard says, special-education teachers can either work with those children or advise their classroom teachers on how to teach them.

"Now, we don't have to wait for a child to fail," she says, noting that, because of the program, fewer "gray-area" children are eventually referred for special education.

The program at Verner is one of more than 100 such models around the country, according to Ms. Wang of Temple. Though the methods may vary from school to school, she says, the key elements of alem are the same.

"Nothing there is very different from what we know from research works," she said. "The difference [with alem] is that we put it all together in a coordinated way."

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