When I went down to 65 Court Street in Brooklyn to apply for my teaching license in the summer of 1985, I hadn’t studied education in college. I graduated with an art degree from Cooper Union but discovered that I absolutely wanted to make education my career after being inspired by the public high school students I taught illustration to on Saturdays during my senior year.
There was a brutal teacher shortage in New York City at that time, so I was able to secure a Temporary Per Diem (long-term substitute) license and would have to take general and special education courses. As a result, I wasn’t quite sure how to answer a particular question asked of me at the Board of Education.
In a scary, echoing room, two older Board of Examiners sat before a table as good cop/bad cop, pressed a tape-recorder button and questioned me about art pedagogy. All was dandy until they inquired as to how I would make use of a parrot in my classroom.
Actually, they said, “para,” but since I hadn’t studied education, I was unaware that the question was about a paraprofessional. I proceeded to talk about birds in education to the best of my ability. Luckily, the two gentlemen did not hear me say the ‘t’ sound at the end of “para.”
“I think any addition to the classroom is beneficial. Students can work in small groups with the parrot. They can take the parrot on field trips. Students can talk and listen to the parrot to improve their verbal skills and have lunch with the parrot. And if it’s an older parrot, students can learn about the aging process.”
“Very good, Ms. Nodel!” they said.
Twenty-seven years later, I still agree that any addition to any classroom is beneficial and that students should work in small groups, strengthen their communication skills, learn beyond the four walls and examine the human condition. But with classes bursting at 34 students, the challenges of meeting the needs of students of diverse academic ability and emotional maturity levels, varied learning styles and different degrees of home support and quality of life can be daunting.
We deal with this every day not just at my school, Millennium Art Academy in the Bronx, but at other schools throughout the city.
This heterogeneous diversity calls for differentiated instruction in both general and integrated co-teaching classes, which includes making the best use of two licensed teachers, one in special education, as well as a paraprofessional as needed.
That’s the same paraprofessional I was asked about more than 20 years ago.
The integrated classrooms of today have both general students and special education students. For such a classroom to be successful, it means creating differentiated learning pathways for students, which more schools are doing through an instructional method called Universal Design for Learning, which is based on neuroscience research that suggests that how we learn is “as varied and unique as our DNA or fingerprints.”
Universal Design for Learning is in the process of becoming the city’s ubiquitous blueprint for ensuring educational equity and access for students with disabilities, primarily.
The expectation is that general and special education teachers in the integrated classroom will abandon one-size-fits-all pedagogy and tailor their curriculum and assessments based on where each student “is at” in terms of academic skills, previous knowledge and learning style.
Teachers using this method try to assist students and set goals based on that students’ preferred modality for learning. For example, a struggling student who might be a visual and auditory learner may use technology to access information and later synthesize it by drawing a picture for the purpose of fathoming a broader concept, which will, hopefully, enable that student to pass a mandated state Regents examination that requires developmental writing.
Unlike years past when the norm was to refer all “difficult” students to special education and then to confine them to self-contained classrooms regardless of their Individual Education Plan classifications, the expectation now, thankfully, is to provide the majority of students with disabilities, as well as English Language Learners, with the least restrictive learning environment along with all proper supports and supplemental services.
However, one significant aspect of tailoring a learning plan for each individual student in integrated classrooms is not being taken into account, and that is time.
Since a major component of Universal Design for Learning requires teachers to identify a student’s learning process, and since process correlates to time, many students with disabilities, and English Language Learners new to this country, need significantly more time to learn.
Requiring schools to graduate all students in four years is a one-size-fits-all accountability expectation, which contradicts the Universal Design for Learning precept that learning should not be one-size-fits-all.
Requiring teachers to differentiate instruction, therefore, creates a pedagogical paradoxical quagmire. Albert Einstein declared that time is the fourth dimension.
Unfortunately, time is a dimension not being realistically addressed in the differentiation and state accountability equation.