September Experience Reflection:
North Hill Elementary School, Highline School District
K-6th Grade Integrated Learning Center (ILC)
James W. Becker
Seattle Pacific University
September 16th, 2011
My “September Experience” was combined with my new job as a Para-Educator at North Hill Elementary in the Highline School District. The position is in an Individual Learning Center (ILC), which is a self-contained special education classroom though there is an amount of inclusionary practice. There is one ILC classrooms for grades K-3rd grade and another for 4th-6th.
The first day was a planning day prior to the students attending. The morning was separated into two separate meetings, one with the special education department and one with the entire school staff. First the ILC staff met to discuss a new strategy for the 6 Para-educators that were shared between the two classrooms. Each Para-educator would be assigned a “home room,” but we will not stay separated in each distinct room. Instead we will switch working areas through a preset schedule to equalize the time spent with the more time intensive and challenging students. This would hopefully alleviate “burn-out” of staff and give everyone an opportunity to work with all of the students. During the next couple of days I realized how much time and personnel management was involved in the special education field. Instead of a single classroom schedule I need to be aware of 10-20 unique student schedules, 1-6 staff schedules (breaks, lunches, etc.), as well as where I must be. I observed my mentor teacher having to work with logistics, meetings, and visits from parents, staff, and therapists. This was a whole area of the position I had not realized before seeing it first hand, and I was amazed at the poise and demeanor of my mentor teacher throughout the hectic start of the year.
Then I met with the entire school staff to discuss the upcoming year, and I was surprised at the humor and camaraderie throughout the staff. The principal seemed approachable and easy to engage while most of the teachers seemed genuinely glad to be back. We spent the rest of the afternoon setting up our classroom, and making final touches. During this time I found several ideas as to how to organize and model my future classroom. I discovered a software program called BoardMaker that will be indispensable in the future. It is used to create picture exchange communications (PEC’s), calendars, and visual schedules, which are prevalent in special education classrooms. My mentor also used a curriculum termed Structured Teaching, which was started at the University of North Carolina as Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication handicapped Children (TEACCH). This program is a multi-level curriculum that helps children of all disabilities learn independent learning skills, and is a good base for how I might start setting up my future classroom.
The second day (first day with students) started off a little rough, but it was an important lesson for me. Our ILC staff greets the students at the bus drop off every morning, and I learned that if a student isn’t on the bus at arrival to ask the bus driver is student boarded that morning. I spent 20 frantic minutes looking for a student whose father drove in for the first day of school. We then greeted and introduced the children to the classroom. One of the first things I noticed was the diverse levels of learning and communication. We have students who are non-verbal and in a wheelchair but we also have students who at first appear to be typical developing but have more subtle learning disabilities. At one point during a recess I noted one student rolling on the mats, some children were spinning seemingly oblivious to everyone, and most others playing independently. I had to smile at the seeming chaos, and thought how lucky I was for the opportunity to work with such a variety of children.
On a personal note I have even more respect for the teaching profession. Unless you’ve actually been in a classroom over an extended period of time I don’t think you realize the pace of the schedule and the lack of planning or “down” time. A half hour lunch is about the only break most teachers get in a day. Finding time to use the restroom or to write an email to a parent becomes a creative venture. This day was also my first exposure to certain tasks of special education, such as taking students with profound disabilities to the bathroom, but I actually found it very useful to prepare myself for what I may encounter in the future. In this way, and others, it shows how some of the more profound students require some of the most time and attention, but I found that there were lessons to be learned from all the students.
Much of the third day pertained to assessment, so we could break the class into small group learning. In the younger class we worked with fine motor skills by drawing and cutting along preprinted dotted lines, writing their names repeatedly, and using the online resource Starfall (a multilevel reading website). I started one-on-one teaching reading with a student using a curriculum called High Noon, which stresses basic reading skills such as the order of events in a paragraph. I also started instruction with a student using a curriculum called TouchMath, which I used in my Field Experience last spring, and it seems to work extremely well. In the preliminary levels of TouchMath we try teaching counting points on the numbers, which will aid in learning counting, addition, and subtraction. I also integrated manipulatives to help with concrete thinking (thank you Dr. Young!), and it really seems to helps.
Because the ILC’s have multiple grade levels there doesn’t seem to be as much of a transition for the students and classroom compared to my spring experience as there might be in other classrooms. The exceptions are with students that are new to the school (usually kindergarten) or students moving form the younger class to the older. One of the main differences between spring and fall was the amount of regression by the students over the summer. Many typically developing students have a noticeable behavior or academic decline due the summer break, but in a special education environment the reversion seems to be even more exaggerated since behavioral and academic challenges tend to be more prevalent. My mentor teacher told me that with new district guidelines it’s very difficult for students to qualify for extended summer courses.
In summation I am excited and a bit intimidated by the fact that I might be preparing my own classroom at this time next year, but I have learned that if I want to succeed in this setting I will need to use teamwork and delegation to provide a safe and learning atmosphere. I will also need to continuously search for new techniques, ideas, and curriculums for individualized instruction.