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Vocabulary: More Than Words

During the 2012-2013 school year, which was also my first year of teaching, I worked as an ICT (Integrated Co-Teaching) teacher in English, Integrated Algebra, Earth Science and SETSS (Special Education Teacher Support Services, previously referred to as Resource Room) at my high school in the South Bronx (9th and 10th grade). I began working with the Teachers College Inclusive Classrooms Project as a way to learn about how to improve literacy in my various classrooms in a way that could be applicable across all contents.
 
Working in District 9 proved to provide a population of students with labeled disabilities who were used to associating school with failure and reading with frustration. A lot of my assumptions of what I needed to teach and what would work for my students with disabilities went out the window when I met my students. I was quickly faced with the fact that many of my students who had come from very small class settings (8-12 students) in middle school were now sitting in an ICT classroom of between 25-34 students and were lost. They often had reading levels on the elementary level and lower middle school level, lacked many necessary basic math skills, and were overall frustrated with how their education was going.  Many struggling readers were not only students with disabilities, but also English Language Learners, making it even harder for them to adapt and thrive in the classroom.
 
In the first half of the year as a special education department my colleagues and I worked on collecting basic reading and math levels for all our students through baseline tests as well as classroom observations and analysis of student work. By the time January came around we decided that more needed to be done for our lowest student with disabilities (SWD)/English Language Learning (ELL) readers. These students were shutting down in class, not producing meaningful work, and not able to follow along with the lessons in their ICT classes.  
 
These students were unable to identify key terms in each content that were essential to making connections and analysis required to see success in a high school level regents-geared ICT class. They had trouble following along with topic descriptions and conversations in class and did not have a strong vocabulary base. Furthermore, many of our students who had come from self-contained classrooms in middle school were seriously struggling to survive in a classroom full of 25-34 students despite various co-teaching methods implemented. Something needed to be done in order for students to see success within the school year and give them more of a chance to survive in an ICT setting.
 
We decided as a special education team that we would tackle this issue by implementing a shift in our instruction that focused on vocabulary, summarizing, and small-group instruction in all ICT classrooms. Our hope was to provide our struggling readers with “survival skills” to see success in the ICT classroom and to improve their reading levels.  
 
This is where my year-long inquiry for TCICP began to really form. Through this shift in our instruction, we were able to implement various vocabulary techniques in an alternative teaching setting and saw an important impact on our students struggling most with literacy.  Meeting with fellow TCICP inquiry teachers each month provided me with additional resources and discussion with teachers who noticed similar trends in their own classrooms, which helped guide the inquiry process as well.