However, all of my students are intellectually capable of learning. They may have been academically deprived of developmentally appropriate instruction during their early schooling. Most students are classified as learning disabled and receive related services, such as speech and language counseling. The majority of the students are males from the Dominican Republic. Students may have spent much of their early development negotiating between two languages. Very often the students rely on learning English at school. They develop oral fluency in Spanish and English but do not learn to read or write well enough in English to be in a general education classroom where high stakes testing is a requirement.
In addition to cultural and linguistic differences that have contributed to severe academic delays, there are students, as developing adolescents between the ages of 15-18, who face social and emotional issues from the stigma of being in a self-contained special education class.
While deciding whether I wanted to become a full-time teacher in the public school system, I worked as a school aid/classroom assistant. During that time I had opportunities to observe best practices of expert teachers. I was particularly inspired by the work of a special education teacher who used picture books to improve the literacy skills of her middle school students. In 2001, at the age of 43, married with three children, I began my journey towards becoming a certified special education teacher by enrolling in a master's program at Bank Street College of Education
in New York City.
As a parent and an educator, I had already read hundreds of picture books. Reading and sharing all those well-crafted stories and illustrations inspired me to write my thesis about the use of picture books for struggling readers.
I became a special education teacher in the spring of 2004. I was hired to work at a K-8 public school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. While working in grades seven and eight, I “pushed in” to classrooms, “pulled out” of classrooms, or co-taught with general education teachers in all subject areas. While teaching in middle school, I shared books with students that were written by such authors as Nikki Grimes and Walter Dean Myers.
I also had professional development opportunities during my middle school teaching years that included Schools Attuned
and the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project
. Eventually, I returned to Bank Street College
for an advanced master’s degree in special education leadership. After wrestling with the idea of working with older adolescents, I accepted the offer to join the staff at the Brown High School.
The Learning Context
Brown High School (pseudonym) is a small public high school located in Manhattan. Ninety-five percent of the students at Brown High School (BHS) are Latino. The school has received recognition for closing the achievement gap. The special education students that I have worked with at BHS are English Language Learners at the lowest end of the academic spectrum. They are in the least restrictive environment and are designated a "Special Class in a Community School." The classifications on their IEPs are Learning Disabled, Speech and Language Impaired, or Emotionally Disturbed. Most of the students also require related services for counseling to help them develop coping skills.
The students in a Special Class at BHS do not participate in high stakes testing. Instead, they are mandated for New York State Alternative Assessment. Although the students in a Special Class are significantly below high school grade levels, they have strengths in a variety of areas that can be used to motivate them to rethink their attitude about school. Students in the Alternative Assessment Program at BHS recieve an IEP diploma which is essentially a certificate of attendance. Prior to graduation, students are required to enroll in a state run vocational training program to prepare for future employment. These students are generally discouraged when they reach high school and discover that they will not be able to attend college at the same time as their general education peers.
Most students, whether they are general education, general education with special education support services, or full time special education, can be motivated to learn when they are reminded of their strengths instead of being hammered because of their struggles. They can become the beneficiaries of proactive instead of reactive teaching.
It is important to note that one instructional strategy does not fit all students. The initial step for creating a learning community that includes the needs of diverse learners is establishing clear expectations within the classroom. Another step for developing a community of learners is to examine and share student work for the purpose of monitoring progress. A third, but by no means final step, is culturally responsive teaching. Culturally responsive teaching is pedagogy of inclusion that speaks to students’ needs to have a cultural bridge between home and school.
As an African-American female who grew up in New York City and attended public schools, I am an advocate for culturally responsive curriculum, and have long been a reader of such writers as Julia Alvarez and and Richard Wright.
At the age of 53, I am still a special education teacher at the Brown High School. My professional development opportunities have included being a participant in the Teachers College Inclusive Classrooms Project (TCICP). My participation with this project has provided me with new tools in the face of budget cuts and limited resources. I now have access to user friendly internet technology that will enrich cultural relevant pedagogy. I have also had the opportunity to work with some of the best teachers in New York City. Through TCICP, I now have the opportunity to share the work of my students.