Blending Regular and Special Ed in a Flipped Classroom

Christine does not have today’s homework because she forgot about it but she totally thinks she knows where it is. When you ask Devon about it he just shrugs “Sorry” and keeps scribbling spirals on a notebook. Tina missed your engaging preview activity in yesterday’s class because she was at the nurse with a stomachache (again!); she says she didn’t really know how to do it, and can she get a pass to the nurse? You just read an email from Mitchell’s parents that says he only got halfway through it last night, and to remind you his IEP entitles him to extra time for homework.
“Did Christine and the other students work on this during yesterday’s support period?” you ask the special ed TA (when you finally get the chance). But you know this TA doesn’t really like or understand your subject, so you are not surprised when she says, “Well, they have that other project due tomorrow so we did that instead…”
It has been like this all year. If you could talk with their special ed case manager that would be great, but he always has meetings and classes during your prep time. You feel it’s unfair to assign low grades for these students with disabilities, so you put a B- or maybe a C+ on their report card — just to keep the parents and admins off your back. That grade does not accurately show their learning, but it seems like the right thing to do for now. You breathe deep and promise “next term we’ll do this better” but you are not sure how.  Then another email pops up from Mitchell’s mother…
That is a barely exaggerated anecdote of my former life, and perhaps it seems familiar to you. I have taught middle school ELA and Social Studies for 16 years in several districts. Every school I worked has at least one special ed program, and some class sections have 40-50% students with disabilities (on an IEP or 504 plan). These are heterogeneous un-tracked classes. I usually have a teaching assistant in the classroom to support children during class and report back to the case manager about current assignments, lessons, etc. We have had assistants of varying levels of quality — from phenomenal to frightening. My students’ needs are also diverse, from executive-functioning deficits to manic depression to language-processing deficits. [Full disclosure: My wife works is a special education teacher for another district, and I have two school-age children with neurological disabilities.]
My colleague and I started flipped teaching in 2013, primarily to serve our diverse learners more effectively and to improve connections with special education staff. Those 2 goals are intertwined. Best practice (and almost every IEP) calls for ‘pre-teaching’ content knowledge, opportunities for additional time to absorb/recall information, and modifying the modes of instruction. In reality, these are difficult to achieve whether we use a student-centered approach like PBL and role-play simulations, or a teacher-centered model with textbooks and/or lectures.
Here are 4 ways that flipping helps me and my colleague to connect better with special education programs:
  1. Align our instruction more effectively.  Because they know exactly what the students are being taught (presentations don’t vary from class to class), the support staff can prepare and modify the work more easily than before.  Often they display our videos during a small support class to preview the information, give direct reminders about note-taking skills, and vividly remind students about their assignment.  Conversely, I feel more confident that the special ed support classes are effective and helpful.  The staff of one program developed a single format for all note-taking tasks (a 2-column T-chart) which they model and enforce for all classes, not just the history videos. That method should be useful for students to apply in most courses next year and beyond.

  1. Simplify the modification process.  The support staff can watch the homework videos before we assign them and design special note-taking sheets for students (if needed).  When we used textbooks and printed handouts, certain students had to get different sheets of paper … an organizational nightmare that is no longer necessary.  For students with severe cognitive deficits, we make a parallel curriculum with different videos like Brainpop Jr.  In other cases we have split a video assignment in half: “Watch the first four minutes by Tuesday, and the rest by Thursday” or eliminated a couple topics from their required notes sheet or assessment. Those students still watch the whole thing, but they are accountable for a smaller portion of the information — whatever their disability and IEP dictate.

  1. Avoid unhappy parents!  In 2 ½ years of teaching this way, I have suffered very few parent complaints about homework or grades (none this year that I can recall), and the flipped systems avoid notes like “Mitchell’s mother” in the opening anecdote. I get many more thank-yous from parent conferences and emails. The homework assignments seem purposeful, their format and expectations are predictable, and parents can better help their children at home.  Long-term projects are the bane of every family, but especially for children with executive-functioning and other learning disabilities. Now those projects get done (mostly or entirely) at school, where we can break down big tasks and make other appropriate modifications more consistently.  Flipped learning keeps parents calm and quiet, which also delights the special education teachers!

  1. Ultimately: improve the working relationship between special & general education.  I almost always get along well with support staff (full disclosure: my wife is an autism/behavior specialist who works special ed in a different district), but it’s not always like that. Sometimes you find a tug-of-war about the best interests of children; we get confused about “my” students vs. “your” students. Who’s really in charge? Are the assistants just doing the kids’ homework for them?  For all the reasons described above, flipped teaching has narrowed gaps between the adults.

Reality check: my colleague and I are not magicians, and we don’t claim that our classes are perfect. A few students do fall between the cracks sometimes.  We must devote energy and time in the first few weeks to help students adjust to flipped homework. (New TAs also have some learning to do.) Furthermore, the interactive and independent nature of our classroom time can be a struggle for highly distractible students; we needed to tighten some class management techniques. Nevertheless, I would never go back to my former life with “Christine” and “Devon” and disconnected TA/babysitters.

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