(originally published in June, 2016)
As an end-of-year project, and in preparation for me going on maternity leave early next fall, I’m having all of my students with IEPs create a slide-show presentation about themselves. They’re including information about their likes (multiplication, video games, playing outside) and dislikes (spiders, homework), their accomplishments this year, their IEP goals, and whatever else they feel should be communicated to their next year’s teachers. I rolled out the project this week with three of my second and third graders, and they are completely in love with it.
One friend who has a high impact communication disability spent most of her first grade year sitting silently and passively in the back of the classroom, unsure how to communicate with her teachers or peers. With love, support, and hard work on her, her family’s, her teachers’, her classmates’, and her clinicians’ parts, she is now a very chatty third grader. She asks questions, initiates and sustains conversations, makes friends, tells stories, and advocates for herself in two languages. She is a total delight. She is thrilled with this self-identification project, and asks me multiple times daily when she will have her next opportunity to work on it. She is problem solving, talking and writing about herself, reading and summarizing her IEP, and expressing her fears and hopes for the future.
Another friend is brilliantly creative and surpasses her peers in most academic areas, but struggles with impulsivity and anxiety that sometimes mask her true abilities. She may refuse to start or finish an assignment if she worries that she won’t perform to her standards. She may pretend not to know how to do a familiar, mastered skill so that she can get attention from an adult. With this project, she is writing more than I have ever seen her produce! She loves the spell check option. She’s writing about spiders, tree houses, the dogs she’d like to have, her impulsivity, her worries about having a new inclusion teacher when I’m on leave, and a list of about a dozen (so far) things she’d like to learn in 4th grade.
While my students are working on their projects during reading centers time, their peers without IEPs sneak away from their read-to-self spots to peek over shoulders at the screens. They are full of questions – what are you writing about? Why are you doing this project? Can you read it to me? Can I make one? Universally the students who check it out think this is cool stuff and they want in on it. Certainly there’s some allure to being able to use tech to work on a special project, and the ability to put in Pokemon pictures wherever relevant (spoiler alert: they are relevant everywhere), but the kids are genuinely interested in hearing their peers’ stories.
One friend in particular has been on teachers’ watchlists since early on in school. He struggles with reading and math, his emotions are big and hard for him to handle, he makes progress and regresses in unpredictable bursts. This year his general education teacher and I worked hard to document our work with him to bring up to the special education department for a possible case study. His parents are supportive and I suspect that we will have a full evaluation in the fall to figure out just what precisely he needs to be successful. He in particular has been interested in the slide show project. He asked me why he couldn’t make one, why only a few students were working on it. I told him that the ones working on it have a special plan that says I need to work with them (a pretty good explanation of an IEP for a third grader who doesn’t have one).
“Can I have a plan?”
I remind him of when I did some academic assessments earlier in the year, and said that I had shared them with his teachers and parents so that we could talk about making a plan. I let him know that we have scheduled a meeting for early on in the school year where his parents and teachers will decide if we need to make a plan. If he gets a plan, I say, he’ll be on my team.
“Yes! I want a plan!”
A middle schooler with whom I’d worked closely several years ago, and for whom I had made extensive documentation in the hopes of finding her eligible for special education services, finally received a learning disability label and an IEP this past month. I found her after the meeting and gave her a big hug. She smiled and said she was glad she had a plan that would help her when she goes off to high school. I told her that I was proud of her for working so hard, and that she needed to know that her struggles were not her fault.
A few years back, I showed a middle schooler her IEP for the first time. She’d been receiving services since kindergarten, but was not totally sure how or why the whole system worked. She helped set her goals and plan her accommodations, and was really pleased to see the inner workings of her education in a (relatively) neat, organized format. This year, on a Friday evening, she knocked on my apartment door. She told me that she was scheduled to take the selective enrollment high school placement test in the morning. She had a copy of her IEP in hand, and told me she wasn’t sure where to look to see if she was able to use a calculator on the math exam. I helped her find the relevant information, gave her a hug and wished her well on her test.
This is how I love to make special education work. I do the professional teachery things (assessments and targeted interventions and goal setting and progress monitoring and just loving loving loving my kids) and I help the students figure themselves out. Even my youngest students (second graders this year) know they have a plan and share their input in the final documents. I read the plans with them to see if they agree, and support them to evaluate and advocate for their appropriate accommodations. Special education shouldn’t be a deep secret or an embarrassment for my kids. Of course I respect their privacy and right to self-identify, but once my students know what their plan is, most advocate for themselves confidently with their peers and teachers.
In the coming weeks, I’ll share the template I used to get my students writing about themselves and advocating.