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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Assisting Students With Unique Needs as Schools Close Down

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 26, 2020 20 min read
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(This is the eighth post in a multipart series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, Part Three here, Part Four here, Part Five here, Part Six here, and Part Seven here.)

The new question of the week is:

How can we best support students when we teach online?

In Part One, David Sherrin, Lorie Barber, Janelle Henderson, and Cathleen Beachboard contributed their experiences.

In Part Two, Amy Roediger, Dr. PJ Caposey, Michael Silverstone, and Jeremy Hyler shared their reflections.

In Part Three, Matthew Johnson, Joseph Jones, T.J. Vari, Deb Blaz, and Cindi Rigsbee offered their ideas.

In Part Four, Nick Fotopoulos, Helen Vassiliou, Cornelia Okraski, and Sam Olbes discussed specifically how they were teaching their ELL classes online.

In Part Five, Maurice McDavid, Holly Spinelli, Ashley Wallace, and Kristen Koppers talked about what they were trying to do with their classes.

In Part Six, we revisited teaching English-language learners, with commentaries from Sarah Said, Sandra Mings Lamar, and Linda Heafey.

In Part Seven, Sara Cooper and Susan Scott used their very recent experience to write about what to do—and what not to do—when transitioning to online classes.

I have also written about my own online learning plans, and you can listen to a 10-minute podcast conversation I had with several contributors to this series.

Today, Elizabeth Stein, Alexsandra López, Christine Kellogg, Mirna Jope, and Ceci Gomez-Galvez share advice for those who are working with students with unique needs.

How special education teachers are responding to school closings

Elizabeth Stein is a special education and UDL instructional coach, consultant, and author. Connect with her on Twitter @ElizabethLStein and her website www.steinelizabeth.com:

As a result of conversations with teachers across the nation, I found the stories are consistent. Special education teachers are eager to support, to create, and to connect with families, students, and colleagues. Yet many feel frustrated as they are placed in a position to wait. They are waiting to hear how to proceed within their district during these very uncertain times. The question is: What do we do about it?

These times are calling for us to be in the present moment. There is just no way anyone can actively plan too far ahead. We must allow ourselves to be with this moment-by-moment learning process. Let’s pause. Take a slow deep breath in ... and out ... right now—together.

Deep breaths can help us think more clearly and realize what we are already doing is enough. Sometimes waiting is the thing we need to do to help a process surge ahead when the time is right.

Let’s put ourselves in a position of inquiry and think about the opportunities that emerge from this current situation. What is it that we can do? Here is a list of some powerful actions shared by many special education teachers. Hopefully it will validate and spark your current and next steps through the waiting.

Check-in Communications

  • Take care of your mind, body, and spirit—stay connected with loved ones.
  • Communicate with your students and their families through email.
  • Engage with colleagues through email and videoconferencing.

Prepare for Teaching and Learning From Home

  • Review how your students’ IEP goals relate to your district’s learning plans that are in place through April 1, 2020.
  • Consider accommodations needed for some students and embed the support for all learners. Check out these ideas for making online learning accessible for all learners.
  • Consider these six Universal Design for Learning tips for designing barrier-free online learning that serve all learners.
  • Support students and families via email to participate in learning activities.
  • Keep communication open with your administrators.
  • Collaborate with colleagues and gather resources for transitioning your class to an online-learning platform.
  • Virtually meet with IEP teams to proactively plan for specific accommodations students will need. Accommodations could include:

    • Provide flexible due dates
    • Set weekly goals and break them down into daily goals
    • Create visual weekly and daily schedules toward achieving clearly visible goals.
    • Provide a variety of formats for presenting material. Email documents or arrange for students to have hard-copy packets of materials. Use images, text, and video to provide options for students to perceive and begin to make sense of content.
    • Provide options for students to express their understanding. This could include art/drawing, writing, speaking/recording, and any other way that supports their unique talents to motivate them to internalize information and express information.
    • Consider options for keeping learners engaged. Be sure to balance academic tasks with activities that connect with their need to be relaxed and attentive. Provide school/class spirit activities to maintain your classroom community. Provide coping skills through mindfulness activities.

The key to educating students with disabilities through this time is to first embrace they are first and foremost always a natural part of general education. As supports are proactively in place from the onset of creating our online-learning spaces, we can see clearly what additional accommodations or modifications are needed. It is critical for special education teachers to stay closely connected with students so additional adaptations for individual needs may be applied as the learning unfolds. The collaboration of IEP teams is critical in ensuring the success that individual student needs are met along the learning process.

In these moments, stay patient, connected, and be well as we move forward with clear, collaborative steps...one step at a time.

Pushing for equity

Alexsandra López, Ms Ed, TSHH, CCC-SLP/Bilingual, has spent close to two decades providing culturally responsive/relevant/sustaining education and assessment to bilingual and English-language learners with special needs as a bilingual (Spanish) speech-language pathologist for early intervention, preschool, and school age students. She also serves as a professional developer for teachers and administrators in culturally responsive/relevant/sustaining practice and has served as a community activist in equity for the Latinx and immigrant communities for close to three decades, while also being an English-language learner herself:

I don’t think the unprecedented pandemic that we are experiencing on a global scale could be predicted. One thing that it has done is exacerbate the marginalization of certain groups, such as students with disabilities. The marginalization may be exacerbated when considering the intersectionality of students with a disability in addition to being an English-language learner, a student of color, a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, and/or experiencing certain insecurities/lack of access to essentials: health care, food, shelter, financial, transportation, etc. Many of us, whether we want to admit it or not, consider internet access as an essential.

When providing access to students, school districts must comply with certain federal laws/mandates. Their respective state and local laws must be in alignment with that federal standard, or higher. When considering students with disabilities, one such law is IDEA (Individual with Disabilities Education Act), which was originally enacted by Congress in 1975, with amendments in 2004, 2006, and 2011. One of the primary provisions offered by IDEA was FAPE (free and appropriate education). This was to ensure that all students, including those with a disability, are entitled to the same access as their peers, including online learning, at no cost to the parent.

Online learning for students with disabilities might be accessed differently depending on their needs. For example, those with visual or physical impairments might need modifications to their equipment, while those students with learning disabilities or speech/language impairment might require an accommodation. Currently, there is a lack of clarity on federal and state guidance and general unpreparedness for an event of this scale. When IDEA was enacted, it was written at a time when a pandemic of this magnitude, its implications, and how to provide access were not considered. It has left school districts struggling to equitably meet the academic needs of their students.

Many students may not have access to electronic devices and the internet, and those with disabilities might need accommodations and/or modifications to their device or the content. Telepractice/therapy has been explored for the last decade in primarily rural areas to provide special education services in areas where there was a personnel shortage. But it was never explored large scale.

While it is important to address the needs of our students academically, it is not necessarily paramount. I would invite us to consider the work of Abraham Maslow, 1943, and his hierarchy of needs. His theory consists of five tiers. Needs must be met at each tier for a person/student to progress to the next tier.

  1. Psychological needs, examples include: air, water, food, shelter, sleep, clothing;

What it looks like for students: Do students have access to food, shelter, water, and adequate sleep?

  1. Safety needs, examples include: security (employment) safety, resources, health, owning property

What it looks like for students: Are students physically safe, sleep safely, and are they emotionally safe to talk about their concerns?

  1. Love and belonging, examples include: friendship, intimacy, family, a sense of connection

What it looks like for students: Do students have emotionally safe relationships within their family, community, peers, and teachers?

  1. Social needs/esteem, examples include: respect, self-esteem, strength

What it looks like for students: a positive school/classroom culture, emotionally safe to offer and receive feedback.

  1. Self-actualization, fulfillment of one’s potential

What it looks like for students: Once we have met student needs on the first four tiers, NOW that the student is in a physically safe environment with their physical, social, and emotional needs met, they are now AVAILABLE to learn!

What’s good for ALL is essential for the most marginalized. We are expecting and planning online learning as if all students can self-actualize independently. We have not considered how they are feeling at this loss of connection and safety and how we might support them at this time so that they CAN self-actualize. If we as adults are feeling lost, consider that our student might not have the words for how they are feeling. Students with speech and language difficulties are often offered the scaffold of a social story to help them cope and talk about daily routines. No one could have imagined we would have to craft a social story around a pandemic!

We should be gentle with our students and ourselves at this time as we all navigate what has become our “new normal.” Most cultures embrace collectivism, working as a group for the greater good, while the United States embraces individualism. We can learn from native peoples and communities of color who work collectively to problem solve for the greater good. It is the hope that having put a spotlight on the inequities that are further isolating the marginalized that we can collectively begin to develop new ways to combat this. We must extend our table and add more chairs for those who have not typically had a seat as we begin to embark on this new journey, collectively. Then, as a society and as educators, we can offer equitable access for ALL students!

Should you want to view IDEA and its provisions, I invite you to visit the U.S. Department of Education’s website dedicated to IDEA here. The office for civil rights, a division of the Education Department, has also developed a webinar to address questions, a fact sheet, and a letter for protecting students’ rights at time, all which is accessible here.

Four strategies for inclusive learning

Christine Kellogg is an English-learner teacher in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools in North Carolina:

English-language learners are a unique set of learners today in our schools and account for almost 10 percent of our students in the United States as of 2018 statistics (Pew Center Research, 2018). They have specific needs in addition to the typical needs of general education learners. Many ELs (English-learners) are not only learning new content in the subject areas, they are acquiring English, which can take up to seven years or even longer if you add in academic vocabulary.

To meet the needs of these learners, one must consider the following, especially in times of distance learning.

Distance learning and online learning should look like the following:

  1. Keep it simple. Directions and explanations should be concise and if possible, simplified. In some cases, for novice students, directions could be in language one and language two.

  2. Keep it community. With the climate today, it is important to remember that most news sources are in adult language, and our students do not need to be inundated with the details of the planet. Reassure your ELs that you are still a classroom community and are still meeting—just virtually now. If possible, create a video of yourself talking to your students as you would on any other typical day. This will provide consistency and reassurance for your students. I used Screencastify, and it was so easy. Use chat functions and daily journaling in your learning-management systems. Keep the communication flowing as in any other classroom.

  3. Keep it interesting and engaging. In your deliverables, provide interactives such as Edupuzzle, Quizlet, Kahoot, Quizziz, Commonlit, Activelylearn, and more fun applications.

  4. Keep it safe and positive. Let your students and parents know that you are available for them if they need anything. Consider the social, emotional, and academic possible needs. Use email, remind, and learning-management systems to keep the lines of communication open showing your support. If needed, include support staff such as counselors and social workers. Remind students of free breakfasts and lunches.

  5. Keep it flexible. Knowing that ELs sometimes have jobs and contribute to their families, it’s important to be flexible in your expectations and allow time to be fluid on learning experiences and assignments.

Best to all you awesome educators and stakeholders who are rock stars! Together, we can make a difference.

Staying personal while teaching remotely

Mirna Jope is currently employed at a Sacramento public high school to teach English-learners:

I love technology. Ever since the Apple IIe and hangman games in the late ‘80s, I have tried to use tech with my students. As we face today’s health crisis, the majority of our lessons will now utilize online resources. This situation will be especially difficult and stressful for those used to a tech-free classroom.

This past week, it’s been beautiful to see how so many entities and individuals have been generous in removing paywalls and providing curated resources for those less tech-savvy. As we dive into these, I think that there are three major issues to address so that we come out of this experience with educational and societal improvements:

  • Use technology to ENHANCE the educational experience; don’t just upload PDFs of worksheets. The silver lining to being out of the classroom is that we are throwing out the bell-to-bell necessity of an identical and synchronous experience. This is a time for exploration and creativity; forget about standardized seat time.

  • Different strokes for different folks—allow students to find their UNIQUE way to show you that they understand the material. Don’t get caught up in the nitty-gritty semantics of a multiple-choice test; identify your power standards/objectives and let go! I was amazed when, about 10 years ago, a student actually created a computer game that showed me his command of French.

  • Finally, it’s so important to CONNECT and stay in contact with each other. I have a daily @Zoom_us meeting scheduled that students can pop into (or not). ALL of my English-learner students are enrolled in a single Google classroom (@GoogleForEdu) in order to enable better communication. We use @FlipGrid to read our journal entries out loud and respond to each other. We play @Quizlet Live—a little tougher when we can’t see each other’s screens but still so much fun. I use @TalkingPointsEd to text to parents in their home language. And that’s just the third day....who knows what we’ll get up to in the weeks to come?

This is a global emergency, but we will come out stronger and better because that is what humans do. We stick together and help each other out; don’t be afraid to ask for help. A lot of things that have been deadened in today’s youth through an over-reliance on social media are going to bloom again once we get past coronavirus. I’m seeing it already with the uptick in folks enjoying the great outdoors (while still practicing social distancing). I’m looking forward to the paradigm shift that will come from this experience. Take care!

Successful components of virtual learning

Ceci Gomez-Galvez is a collaborator, co-teacher, and coach who empowers educators to create learning opportunities to suit multilingual learners’ needs. You can follow her on Twitter @cecigomez_g and look at her professional portfolio on cgomez.strikingly.com. Collaboration credit to the amazing Grade 1 Team @SSISchool, Greg Nonato, Josie Bodreaux, Lee Wong, Cath Curran, Sana Abbas & Natalie Rouse:

I read somewhere recently (it must’ve been a meme of some kind, I get hundreds of those daily nowadays) that the reform education has needed in the past half century is being jump-started by current events.

I couldn’t agree more.

In the past eight weeks, I have been involved in pedagogical conversations about the redefinition and reimagination of curriculum, assessment, and practice unlike ever before. There are few (if any) educators saying we need to rely on traditional ideas to carry on providing high-quality education for our students within our current distance/virtual learning context. The reform is happening. Education as a whole will never be the same.

Currently I work as an EAL (English as an additional language) teacher with a phenomenal team of 1st grade teachers at Saigon South International School. This is my first year here, and needless to say, it has been a year like no other. Before coming to Ho Chi Minh City, I worked in Shenzhen, China, for nine years; at an international school in Milan for five years; and before that, in a small international school in my hometown of Guatemala City for four years. Throughout my career as an international school teacher prior to the coronavirus pandemic, I had only experienced school closures due to typhoons, political unrest, and snowfall, which only affected maybe one or two school days. When schools reopened, our focus was on “catching up” our students or modifying a weekly plan for the class; none of these instances called for any educational reform.

As my team and I gear up for week eight of virtual learning, “catching up” and lesson-plan modifications left our conversations a while back, and the question has shifted from how we do things and what tools we use, to why is what we’re doing important. Currently, there are three key components which have enhanced the quality of virtual learning for our kiddos.

Spearheaded by our learning-support specialist, our team collaborated on creating differentiated reading tasks focused on fluency and comprehension. Exploring differentiation didn’t come until later in our virtual-learning journey. At first, when students started their “study leave,” we were planning week by week, always with the mindset that students were “coming back on Monday.” As the reality of the situation settled more, our learning specialist led us in reflecting on our intentionality for support. So based on data we had acquired from students prior to closure, and in combination with responses on virtual platforms, we have been able to determine the most up-to-date specific needs for our growing readers and tailor skill-building tasks for each of them.

Sample video of a differentiated fluency activity:

This constant conversation and collaboration has been key in creating valuable learning experiences for our students. Never has collaboration been more authentic, organic, or vulnerable amongst educators worldwide, and this is especially true within our small teaching and learning community. Our team has created what feels like an unbreakable bond, and within that care and empathy we have for each other, our collaboration has led to some phenomenal and engaging experiences for our students. This doesn’t mean we haven’t had bad days, disagreements, misunderstandings, and everything that comes with a healthy, functional team. In fact, it has been the willingness to be vulnerable that has really helped us grow as teachers and friends in an almost impossible situation for anyone.

A video we collaborated on to introduce our Traveling Teddy, Hero Bear:

It is because of the strength cultivated by the respect and care we have for each other, we have put our students’ wellness at the forefront. While we have had the previously mentioned conversations about curriculum, what we have increasingly acknowledged is our students’ needs for pastoral care. For the past six weeks of distance learning, our kiddos have been following kindness and wellness calendars where tasks are set for each day. Just like all the virtual-learning experiences we have designed, our calendars have evolved. What was first a simpler kindness activity for the day, has now become a daily wellness routine starting with yoga and encouraging outside play. We have also connected the calendar to Sustainable Development Goal 3: Health and Well-being.

In a contemporary educational environment, these components seem like no brainers: Differentiation, collaboration, wellness. But what makes them transformative is that they are happening in what is arguably one of the hardest times in our humanity. We are teachers and mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters, co-workers, friends, humans ... so are our students, their parents, and our community. Yet we continue to strive for best practice, even in the face of such ambiguity and adversity.

When the conversation about reform is brought to the table, I hope I’m invited to it. I will tell of how teachers, students, administrators, parents, and community members reached into their toolkit of resilience and creativity and started the reform without even knowing it.

Thanks to Elizabeth, Alexsandra, Christine, Mirna, and Ceci for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first eight years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. The list doesn’t include ones from this current year, but you can find those by clicking on the “answers” category found in the sidebar.

This Year’s Most Popular Q&A Posts

Race & Gender Challenges

Classroom-Management Advice

Best Ways to Begin the School Year

Best Ways to End the School Year

Implementing the Common Core

Student Motivation & Social-Emotional Learning

Teaching Social Studies

Cooperative & Collaborative Learning

Using Tech in the Classroom

Parent Engagement in Schools

Teaching English-Language Learners

Reading Instruction

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Education Policy Issues


Differentiating Instruction

Math Instruction

Science Instruction

Advice for New Teachers

Author Interviews

Entering the Teaching Profession

The Inclusive Classroom

Learning & the Brain

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Teacher Leadership

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Professional Development

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Best of Classroom Q&A

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Mistakes in Education

Project-Based Learning

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.

Look for Part Nine in a day or two ...

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.