The team of four fifth-grade teachers sat around the table at Applewood Intermediate School planning an upcoming science project. How could their students help the community become better recyclers?
“This should be fun,” said Rosa Rodriguez, the project chair. “Kids will be interested and they can be creative, artistic, and learn environmental science concepts, too.”
“Something for everyone,” Bob Baxter said. “Well, almost everyone.”
“What do you mean?” Rosa asked. “Who are we leaving out?”
“We aren’t leaving anyone out, but I’m not sure how well we’re including our special needs kids,” he replied.
“Yes,” Mary Darnella chimed in. “And we run the gamut of special needs: hearing impaired, visually impaired, emotional problems, ADHD.”
“That’s cool,” Chi Wong said. “Lots of special needs means lots of special opportunities.”
The team looked at her, perplexed.
Rosa spoke up. “We’ve got to provide the least restrictive environment for all of them.”
“And we have to abide by their plans - accommodate for some with computers, large print books, and other gizmos and gadgets,” Bob lamented.
“And modify programs for others,” Mary added.
“Hey, is this glass half full or half empty?” Chi responded. “Let’s not focus on their needs, but instead focus on what they can do well. Each one of those kids is an asset!”
The team again looked at her in silence.
“Take Hugo, for instance,” Chi continued. “He can’t see very well and even needs that special reader, but what else do we know about Hugo?”
“He’s an incredible artist!” Bob said. “Have you seen the perspective in his aerial view drawings of cities?”
“What about Sally?” Mary challenged. “She’s so emotional that it’s hard to keep her focused for a lesson.”
“Have you seen her turn that drama into an improvisation? I wonder how she’d portray someone who was resisting recycling?”
“Really well,” Rosa responded. “I get your point.”
The group laughed, then got to work planning the project team activities that the classes would do to address the recycling problem. Instead of thinking about how to work around the special needs of some students, they began to focus on what the special needs students could do for the teams. They considered both needs and assets and strategically placed students in teams based on their strengths rather than their deficits.
Special needs students often flourish in project-based learning, because projects provide a variety of learning modalities for students to show their understanding.
There is no shortage of special needs students in our schools. Some have gone so far as to say that we all have special needs, some of which show up in academic settings and others in different aspects of our lives. Nobody’s perfect.
In today’s schools, we are charged with helping everyone learn to the best of their ability. The federal and state special education laws require that children be placed in the least restrictive environment. This has come to mean that, where possible, special needs students should be in learning environments with regular students. This requires teachers to be skilled at providing additional help to these students within the context of a traditional classroom.
These goals can be accomplished through accommodation and modification. You can accommodate special needs by providing tools like recorded books, voice amplification systems, and text-to-speech software. Accommodation can also mean placing an ADHD student in a location in the room which will minimize distraction or providing a student with reading challenges extra time to take a test or complete a project. Students with accommodations address the same content and activities as other students, they just need assistance.
Modification occurs when students cannot use the same material as the other students because of its level or presentation. Providing documents at different reading levels or audio adaptations of stories or text requires more planning, but allows you to cover the same standards as regular programs.
The Individual Educational Plans (IEPs) that address the special needs of students often only tell part of the story, focusing on what we need to do to address deficits. However, these plans can also tell us what the student’s strengths are and offer suggestions for how to engage them. If we follow Chi’s line of thinking in the story above and embrace the assets our special needs students bring to the classroom, all learners benefit.
Special needs students often flourish in project-based learning, since projects provide a variety of learning modalities for students to show their understanding. Projects often stretch out beyond reading, writing, and responding as a means of expression. While the learning outcomes are the same, during project work students can present their ideas through art, podcasts, video, drama, music, and many other means.
Here are some things to consider when developing project teams that are designed around the assets of students:
All students, no matter what their needs, also bring special assets to projects—talents and skills that other students may not have. If we recognize and capitalize on these talents, we can design teams that will dig into the content of a project and produce exciting results.
To help all students succeed at project work, consider:
We can approach team formation of students with various assets the same way a baseball coach selects players. Some players are good pitchers, some hit well, some can run well and steal bases, while others are terrific fielders. No player can do it all, but by carefully placing each player in a position that capitalizes on that individual’s strengths, they can construct a winning team.
We can perform an asset inventory of all our students in the early months of the school year and use it throughout the year as we plan projects and other activities. This helps us meet the needs of our students, and it helps each student realize that we all have strengths and weakness. We can lead students to the understanding that when we capitalize on our strengths we can more easily overcome our weaknesses.
The bottom line for project-based learning is student success. We can come closest to reaching this goal when we know our students, provide a definition of excellence and the means to reach it, and build upon students’ strengths. Through thoughtful planning and careful execution, we can reach this goal with all students.
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