Education Ask the Mentor

Co-Teaching in the Multi-Level Classroom, Part II

October 22, 2008 20 min read
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Mindy Fattig is a nationally-recognized educator and co-author of Co-Teaching in the Differentiated Classroom with middle school teacher Maureen Tormey Taylor, which was recently published by Jossey-Bass. Fattig is the director of special education for the Del Norte Unified School District in California, an instructor in special education at Humboldt State University, and an education consultant. Her multi-level instructional model, which transformed a middle school, won a California State Model School in Special Education and a National School to Watch for its co-teaching program.

In the last of two installments, Fattig discusses how to move away from the pull-out classroom scenario and breakthrough student frustration in the multi-level classroom.

1. Mindy, WOW. Where do I start? I would like to think that two heads are better than one. But, I do not know where to start. This is my first year with a co-teacher. We have 14 students. Differentiation is so hard. So much of what I read is too vague. I think I could benefit by getting ONE specific lesson plan and how it will work in this environment.

Differentiation is a huge topic and can be so overwhelming. Remember, though, that true differentiation is not an individual lesson plan for every student. When I first began trying to differentiate I started with the simple Bloom’s Taxonomy questions and this is where I recommend starting because it is easy to do and yields a great result in student learning. Let me walk you through an example.

Let’s say you are studying fairy tales with younger children. Let’s use “Three Little Pigs” with the assumption that the students have read another fairy tale, in this case “Hansel and Gretel.” The following is a guidepost for creating three leveled questions for the different levels of learners in your class.

Level 1 uses the first two levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy (Knowledge and Comprehension). It seeks an answer to a question that can be found directly in a book or story. In this instance, I would ask, what was each house that the pigs built made of? Because the student can open the book and find the answer, I call this first level, “Find it.”

Level 2 uses the next two levels of Bloom’s (Application and Analysis). In this level, students compare external characters or actions to the character[s] at hand. In this example, students could compare the wisdom of the third pig in “Three Little Pigs” to Hansel and Gretel. Because the answer to this question is not directly in the book, I call this level “Compare it.”

Level 3 uses the final two levels of Bloom’s (Synthesis and Evaluation). The answer to this question requires the student to get outside the story and consider whether she would make the same or choice as the character. For example, what would you have done if the wolf came to your house? This level is called “Own it.”

Leveled questioning is the easiest place to start. Once the students have written their answers, you can walk around the room quietly and indicate to specific students if you want them to answer additional questions. A couple of cautions: Do not always ask the lowest level question first or last, but mix them up. You need to guide the students to the appropriate level based on their academic ability; however, never limit the lower level student to the lower leveled questions. Once you have mastered the art of leveled questions, you are ready to develop contracts and menus since they, too, are based on leveled questions. Good luck, start slow, and work together.

Your story is encouraging to say the least. I am student teaching in a Chicago public school classroom. I am working on adding a special education endorsement to my K-8 teaching certificate. What are your thoughts on the role I can play in assisting students?

The door is wide open to you and working with special needs students can be so rewarding. You are on the right path as far as advancing your learning. I received my general education teaching credential before I continued on for my special education teacher credential. By having your general education curriculum and special education credential, your knowledge will be helpful to every student. With the general education background, you are aware of the state standards and what a student should be doing in order to be deemed “working at grade level.”

Special education students are not typically working at grade level but your degree will give you the framework to help students get as close to grade level as possible. I have seen many situations with learning disabled students where the expectations were set too low in a pull out environment. In this scenario, the teacher has no frame of reference for expectations. I was guilty of this when I was teaching in a self-contained pull out situation.

With your credentials I think you are best suited for teaching in a general education classroom that includes special education students with or without a co-teacher. Every teacher’s goal is to maximize the student’s education potential regardless of disabilities and you will have the advantage of understanding each of your student’s needs.

I do not have a co-teacher, but I have students in my math class ranging from the 3rd grade to Algebra 1 level. I try to differentiate with a common lesson, but the class is getting more and more out of control. They are all angry. The lower level students feel stupid and the advanced ones, who are not challenged, are mad that they are in classes with those of lower ability. I am a SPED teacher and the advanced kids are emotionally disturbed. Not all of the students are SPED in this class though. What shall I do?

You are not alone. Rest assured that the situation that you are trying to teach in is the exact same one that I found myself in about 11 years ago and it can get better. The first thing that I recommend is to really spend time creating a positive classroom community. Do some multiple intelligences worksheets so the students know what kind of learners they are and are recognized for not all being the same. Build in some math games where they have to work together as a group. One that works well is challenging them to see who can build the highest tower out of tissue paper and Popsicle sticks. Connect it with a math standard that you are working on.

Once you establish a community where the students understand that they each bring different skills and abilities to the table, but that they are working towards a common goal, your classroom will run much smoother. I would look at which lessons you are differentiating because it seems like they haven’t been very successful.

I would suggest starting small with the lessons, such as using differentiated exit cards or warm ups. Level the difficulty of the problems (only three-six problems are needed) so they appropriately challenge each student. Finally, give pre-assessments. Place the students into three groups based on their knowledge of the upcoming unit.

Level 1 does not have any prior knowledge. Level 2 knows some but not enough of the material. Level 3 has mastered the skills and needs to go on. By breaking into three groups, you only have to come up with three lessons. The students can either work independently on the leveled worksheets or in groups. Leveled homework also works well as long as it remains practice and not new information.

Please remember that as long as the students recognize their own strengths and differences and they know that you recognize those as well, you only need to differentiate a few lessons a week at most.

First, I would like to say, thanks for understanding a teachers’ nightmare! Now, I would like to know, how I can successfully join your team in order to effectively meet the needs of an inclusion setting? Please help, so I can pass the word!

Every situation is different and unique just like our students and we need to keep that in mind when planning inclusion strategies. When beginning any new program, start small and offer praise every step of the way. Praise the students for their small successes and, equally important, share their successes with others in the staff room. Success is contagious. The more administrators and teachers know about the great things happening in your classroom, the less resistant they will be to embracing inclusion strategies.

The most important item to focus on for a successful inclusion setting is to teach the students to recognize differences and be supportive of those differences. There are some great programs out there such as Circle of Friends that help foster that welcoming environment. It is so crucial to spend the time and energy in creating this environment, otherwise classroom control and instructional control will become a major issue.

We just started inclusion in grades 7 and 8 with no preparation or instruction. As a special education teacher, I sit and watch the regular teacher bore and confuse the class of lower tracked students. Classrooms are crowded and the teacher says it’s too distracting if I talk to the students. The administration didn’t want this co-teaching arrangement in the first place and blocked efforts to have a presentation on inclusion at a teachers’ meeting. I stick my neck out to encourage modification of tests, writing at least something on the board for visual learners (page number/teacher name/date...), and feel that the kids are becoming disaffected. Teachers and teacher aides are sent in for this inclusion indiscriminately. What can a teacher aide or twenty-something teacher do without clear guidelines, authority, or training?

In short, not much. You are really swimming up creek without a paddle. It is tremendously difficult to implement effective inclusion with co-teaching if you do not have the general education teacher and/or administrator buy-in and support. For the long term benefit of the program, however, there are a couple things you can do. First, you need to have a discussion with your administrator and let him/her know what you see happening. Phrase it in a way that respects your co-teacher since he is only doing what he knows how to do. Explain that successful inclusion is not about warming up a seat in a general education class, that it has to be meaningful and appropriate. If your administrator is one that responds more to the law, you might want to site Daniel R.R. v State Board of Education. The 1989 United State Court of Appeals decision which found that “… mainstreaming requires more academic benefit than simply sitting in a classroom with non-disabled peers…” Offer some suggestions, as well, in your meeting with your administrator. Suggest a training on differentiation, inclusion, or co-teaching. Even better would be if you could find a beneficial training and ask if you and some other teachers can attend.

In every school, there are teachers who are more willing than others to differentiate and/or co-teach. Perhaps you could offer to help schedule the classes for the special education students for next year since you know their needs better than the administrator who may typically do the scheduling. You may know which teachers are more open to differentiation and making accommodations for special education students. You might even be able to suggest which instructional assistant would be best suited for a math or reading class. It may help to find an article on inclusion and co-teaching that you can leave with your admin after your talk so he/she can have access to further information. In my book, there is a section written just for administrators which would be helpful for giving your administrator some guidance on how to begin an inclusion and/or co-teaching program. It was written with the help of a former administrator who went through all the pitfalls and successes of beginning a co-teaching program. Learning from others and having a reference to model, is always a great way to begin a new program.

Now, what to do in the immediate time frame. I would speak to the general education teacher about possibly doing groups one day every other week to see how it goes. Approach him from the perspective of someone wanting to help. The perfect time to suggest grouping students would be when a new section or unit is coming up. Ask him if you could give the students a pretest (could be the one from the textbook on a unit that you are just beginning or ending, if appropriate). Offer to grade the assessments and then group the students based on their needs. You could both take a group to teach and the remaining group could work independently on worksheets, homework, or another pretest--assuming they showed understanding of the material. Teach the students whisper voices and quiet working-time rules and procedures for maximizing their learning time.

All you can do is offer teaching suggestions that may be more effective than the current set up. Sometimes general education teachers need to be reminded that you are there to teach, not be a glorified aide and you have skills that can help not only the students, but the GE teacher as well. You want to make his job easier and when he understands that, he will be more open to trying new ideas such as groups. Good luck and don’t give up. The students need to rely on someone.

I am a special education teacher working in an inclusive classroom with a general education teacher and a para. My question concerns an inclusive math class taught by a wonderful woman who spent the last 8 years teaching 4th graders. The district is small and urban with little parental support. There are a few boys who have begun to sit in class and do no work. They don’t bring books, claim they’ve lost their classwork, homework, planner, etc. They act out. I don’t want to always take the disciplinary role, and frankly don’t have experience myself with this type of student. How can we work together to solve this? One of the boys is math-savvy, the other two are low functioning. Neither is in special ed.

It sounds like you have already identified why they are acting out – one is bored (math savvy) and two are frustrated since they have few skills. Since you have a wonderful teacher who sounds willing to work with you, I would begin by asking your admin for a half-day release so you two can plan the next month or so of lessons. If the release time and getting substitutes is an issue, then find some time where you can meet, at least to plan for the next week.

Plan to give a pre-assessment or simple warm-up to the students so you know what their skill level is. Since you have the resources of teachers and a paraprofessional, I would recommend starting with teaching in a group setting. After analyzing the data from the pre-assessment, you can take the students who really have no clue what to do. The other teacher can take the advanced group. The group in the middle (grade level, essentially) can working on something independently with the para circulating to help them as needed. Then in a few days, try groups again. This time you switch groups with the other teacher. That way neither teacher is associated with helping the low group. If the students connect either teacher to a particular group, it can become a self-esteem issue for them.

The next step is to make your classroom “excuse proof.” Have additional copies of every possible book that students are going to need and have copies of certain pages of the planner that students will need. If a student forgets his planner, give him a blank planner page and tell him to copy the information down from another student’s planner. Set a timer and explain that since it’s costing him instructional time to copy the planner, he owes you that amount of time after school or during break. After a few times of doing this, he will remember his planner and his books. In short, find time to plan together with your co-teacher, organize your environment, and discuss with the class new polices and procedures. So when the boys choose to act out or forget things, both of you are enforcing the same policies and procedures.

We are thinking about using the inclusion model for our school for the Early Intervention Program. What are your suggestions or references that might help us move in the direction. We know that is what would be better for all kids!

Early intervention program is absolutely the best and most rewarding place for inclusion. For successful inclusion to work you need to have support personnel in place. Ideally, you will have a special education teacher along side a general education teacher or, at minimum, some instructional assistant support. Whoever is in the classroom should be aware of some vital steps that will lead to a successful program: Planning/collaboration time is vital to the success of each student. Planning time needs to be built into the teachers’ day and should include, at least once a week, a planning time with all instructional assistants that are in the program. The special education teacher and general education teacher need to share their expertise and support each other to ensure that their program accommodates each student’s needs. The classroom teacher knows the curriculum materials; the special education teacher may know how the special needs child learns best. In a planning session, they combine that knowledge and discuss the class objectives, content and modifications that may be required for particular children. By combining their skills, the teachers can make sure that the children with special needs are included in all aspects of the program and that they have a positive impact on the non-disabled children. It takes time to develop the collaborative relationship but once you do, it is so worth the effort.

Next, every stake holder in EIP needs to be well-informed of the success of the program. Usually, administrators are only called in when there is a concern. Invite them and the other teachers into the classroom to read a book or to be in charge of a center activity once a month. This way they can see first-hand the benefit of inclusion in a natural way. Finally, I would visit other EIP inclusion programs so you can brainstorm with teachers who have already experienced some pitfalls and challenges and learn from them. There are also many wonderful books on this topic on sites like Amazon.

I am a 3rd grade teacher at a Title I school in North Carolina. Pullout students have been a source of concern for me since I started teaching six years ago. I’ve had at times as many as seven students pulled out of class at different times of the day. This has been an instructional planning nightmare. Can you offer any advice?

I completely agree that having students pulled out not only disrupts your teaching schedule, but it naturally disrupts the children who remain in the classroom. It also creates a negative feeling for the children who are leaving. I am not sure if you are opposed to pull out, or if you need to have a better system for pulling students , so I will try to respond from a few angles. Either way, I would first speak to the special education teacher and let her know your concerns. Ask if there is any other time she can pull them and offer her some times that work for you. I would also look at each child’s IEP to see how much time is allocated for special education support. This will give you a sense of how much time they need to be pulled out.

If you are concerned about the pull-out model and want the children to have more class time, I would sit down and talk to the special education teacher about it, looking at every student. Perhaps some students can stay in your class and receive differentiation services from you. Ideally, you both want what is best for the student and you both want the student to achieve. How and where and with whom this happens really shouldn’t matter. The best resolution would be instead of her pulling seven children out of your class during the day, the special education teacher would come into your class and run a center for an hour, which would also address the student’s IEP needs.

You can begin by compromising. Have her come in to teach a center once a week and have the children pulled out once a week (all dependent on the IEP time of course). Either way, you need to approach the special education teacher in a way that conveys you want to help. Recognize that she has a difficult job scheduling all the students that she sees and meeting all their needs. Propose the “push in” model with her coming to teach in the class and let her know that she can help in planning the lessons or she can bring something in that she wants to teach the group. Discuss the possibility of mixing up the groups in the future so that all the IEP students are not always with her. She could give you the lesson and you can teach them while she teaches a different group. If she is absolutely stuck in her ways and will not budge, talk to the principal. I am sure the principal would love to hear that you want the students in your class more and you want to work with the special education teacher on finding a way to meet their needs in the general education class which after all is part of IDEA ’04: Least Restrictive Environment.

We’ve dealt with many of the issues you mention with success (management, planning, grading). But, many times the issue of behavior is glossed over when speaking of differentiation. Even if material is leveled correctly, even if lessons are engaging, even when there is a great behavior intervention plan in place, there are still students that are dealing with emotional issues that cause learning to slow or stop...and often end up taking up one teacher’s time completely (or cause them to have to leave the room). How have you dealt with this issue in your schools?

Definitely. There are always going to be certain students who have behavior challenges for whatever the reason--medical, emotional, or social. In these situations, you really need to look at it child by child. You mentioned all the factors to look at already and all the things that need to be in place, such as an engaging appropriate lesson and behavior plan. However, if the behaviors are still occurring, then the function of those behaviors probably has not been correctly identified or there has been little success with the replacement behaviors. A student needs to see his behavior as a choice.

It is not about us enforcing the rules and making the child behave. It is the child’s choice. We are merely responding to his choices. If you are constantly dealing with one child over and over at the expense of the other children in the room, you need to look a new behavior plan and address what the function of that child’s behavior is: attention from peers, attention from adults, escape from the situation, or avoidance of work among others. Once you have isolated the function of the behavior, it is important to document what does and doesn’t work. It helps to have a school psychologist involved at this point as well. That said, there have still been times when--regardless of how many times we met and redid the behavior plan--the student still made poor choices in class. The psychologist and I exhausted all resources that we knew of. At that point, when a student chooses to disrupt the learning of others, it is best to send him to another class or a quiet area under supervision with his work.

One strategy that worked well for me with a particularly difficult student who acted out and also refused to talk me was to seek him out. Every day I went out of my way to find out which way he walked down the hall to class or during recess. I would purposely walk by him and just say, “Hi Todd.” I did this every day for two weeks until finally I got a head nod back. Then I said, “Hi Todd. Glad you’re at school today.” Again, every day for three weeks until I got a “thanks.” I continued to seek him out in the hall. I would mention something that he liked, “Hi Todd. I watched a cool skateboarding competition last night,” and kept on walking by him. After two months, he finally began to respond to me when I spoke to him and his behavior drastically improved. This particular student just wanted to feel cared about. This may work for your very challenging student. At least, it’s worth a try.


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