The work for this project took place in a 4th grade ICT classroom at P.S. 503: School of Discovery and Exploration, Sunset Park, Brooklyn, New York. P.S. 503 is a Title I elementary school with a student body that is predominantly low-income. There are roughly 1,100 students in grades Kindergarten through 5th grade and our school shares the building with another large public elementary school. P.S. 503 is home to a high proportion of English language learners and nearly all students speak a language besides English at home. Sunset Park is an immigrant community and the school is a mix of new arrivals and students who were born in the United States to first generation immigrant parents. The students and their families are mostly of Latino and/or Asian descent. The largest populations include heritage from Mexico and China. Second largest populations include heritage from various Central and South American countries (e.g. El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Colombia), Caribbean countries (e.g. Dominican Republic), and Arabic-speaking countries (e.g. Egypt, Yemen, Palestine). P.S. 503 prides itself on having a strong community of families with high family involvement. Our families are hard-working and resourceful, dedicated to their children, and often maintain strong ties to their country of origin.
The 4th grade ICT classroom where this work took place consists of 29 students ages 9 through 11 years old. Of the 29 students, 12 are mandated to receive ICT placement as per their IEP and 15 of the 29 are mandated to receive ESL services. The class is co-taught with a general education teacher (a veteran teacher of +20 years) and myself, a special education teacher in my third year of teaching. An ESL co-teacher also pushes in for 2-3 periods per day, 5 days a week, and a math co-teacher pushes in for 2 periods per week. Finally, there is a full time crisis paraprofessional who is mandated to support two students in the classroom but who has formed relationships and works with all students in the classroom. General models of instruction used are one teach/one assist, parallel teaching, station teaching, alternative teaching, and team teaching. All of the classroom teachers (general ed., special ed., ESL, math co-teacher, and the 2:1 paraprofessional) teach all of the children in the classroom.
This year’s class of 4th graders was challenging, to say the least! Seventy five percent of the class is considered level 1 struggling readers (as measured by the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project Running Record Assessment) with most of those 75% performing over 2 years below grade level by standard measurements of literacy. Meanwhile, a smaller but important subgroup of students is performing at or above grade level academically but is struggling in social-emotional areas that are critical for success in 4th grade. This 4th grade class proved to have a very special cast of characters right from the beginning; we had a number of students with high social-emotional and academic needs who did not respond well to or outright resisted (!) traditional methods of schooling. In just my third year of teaching, I set out with the goal of making the 4th grade curriculum more accessible and engaging to the dynamic students in front of me. This was no easy task and involved much trial and error and continued reflection, evaluation, revision, and work with TCICP.
Stephen is an English Language Learner with a disability classification of Hearing Impairment. Stephen’s first language is Spanish and he received the mandated support of a language paraprofessional until this year. He is of Mexican descent and was born in the United States to immigrant parents. Stephen represents a large group of learners in my classroom. He presents as having dyslexia/dyscalculia or other print-based literacy reading disability. The traditional method of accessing, processing, and demonstrating content knowledge simply does not work well for Stephen or do justice to his many abilities. 75% of my students (22 out of 29 students) are reading below grade level, according to standard assessment measures. 41% of my students (12 out of 29 students) are reading more than two years below grade level in reading. Stephen frequently appeared disengaged during lessons and disinterested in our curriculum. Increasingly, he began showing oppositional defiant behaviors and was spending a lot of time avoiding or simply refusing to do schoolwork. These behaviors likely stemmed from a combination of low self-esteem, a history of struggling in school, curriculum that was inaccessible or not playing to his strengths, and attempts to mask his misunderstanding of the lesson. Stephen loves to draw and make comics to express his understanding of concepts and is a comedian and a performer. He has the ability to play the room and students gravitate toward him. He has high social status in our classroom. The increasingly anti-immigrant rhetoric and recent presidential election has affected all of the children in the classroom. Stephen has expressed a lot of anger surrounding these issues.
Michael is a fourth grade student with a disability classification of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Michael presents as a student on the autism spectrum. Michael’s first language is Mandarin. Michael is of Chinese descent and was born in the United States to immigrant parents. He spent the first five years of his life in China with his grandparents before being reunited with his parents in the United States. Michael receives the support of a part-time 1:1 crisis paraprofessional this year. Michael struggles most with language and communication. Similar to other students, he has trouble communicating his thoughts, feelings, and ideas using words and phrases, particularly orally and particularly when he has become overwhelmed or upset. Michael also struggles with sensory regulation. He benefits from increased tactile sensory input and holds fidget toys throughout the day (e.g., matchbox cars, lego people, fidget spinners). Michael is a resistant writer, although his writing skills are excellent when applied! He does better when writing is structured in a clear-cut, formulaic way than when it is more open ended and ambiguous. His strength is informational writing. Michael also struggles during partner work and is resistant to working with new partners. At the beginning and through the middle of the year both of these areas were leading to crises. Huge parts of the day were entirely overwhelming as well as unproductive for Michael and often affected the functioning of the entire classroom. The classroom structures and environment were simply not working well for Michael and he appeared anxious throughout the school day.
Tom is a fourth grade student with no disability classification. Tom’s first language is Chinese and he was born in China. Tom moved with his mother to the United States when he was five years old to be reunited with his father and to live here permanently. Tom presents as academically “gifted” and is a super fast child in all ways. When class activities and discussions don’t move at Tom’s speed, he may become bored and begins to act out (calling out, playing/distracting peers, whining, etc). Although Tom is at or above grade level in all academic areas he truly struggles in social-emotional areas. Tom had a lot of changes at home this year: Tom’s toddler brother was sent to live with grandparents in China because his parents could not afford to pay for childcare and Tom’s mother went back to work. Both of these major changes at home affected his happiness in all areas. Tom also struggles with making friends and maintaining positive relationships with others in general. Throughout the year, Tom’s partnerships frequently crumbled into bickering or tears. Tom seems to have a hard time taking on others’ perspectives and often expresses that he “never gets [something]...” or that “things aren’t fair!” He seems to crave attention from adults and students alike but seems to get that attention through disruptive and negative ways.
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I set out with the goal of making the 4th grade curriculum more accessible and engaging to the dynamic students in front of me. I knew from the very beginning of the school year that my class was going to challenge me. There was a wide range of academic and social emotional variance within the group and I had no idea how I would reach and challenge all of them at the same time. I worried about how to include a student like Michael, who frequently withdrew from the group and did not seem to have a way of communicating with the class in the ways we had set up. I worried about challenging Tom at a pace where he wouldn’t be bored while helping him learn the communication, self-awareness, and empathy skills needed to successfully interact with others. And I worried about Stephen, who was beginning to identify as a “non-school kid” and spend much of the academic day either lost or disrupting the rest of the class
One thing I did learn through this process was that teaching is never perfect and you can’t always reach and challenge everyone at the same time. You make a lot of mistakes as you work to get to know the students in front of you and it takes time to build the relationships you wish you had right from the start. But over time, through a lot of trial and error, a lot of reflection, a lot of reminding yourself of what is most important for each child at each moment, and a lot of building relationships with each unique individual, you start to have moments where it does work, where it does all come together, where kids are learning and engaged and feel valued and safe. And I think that is what responsive teaching is. It’s not perfect, it doesn’t happen every moment of every day, and it takes a lot of work, but you know it in your gut when you’ve accomplished it.