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Hitting Reset for All Kinds of Learners

For educators of students with and without disabilities, distance learning has been a chance to try new tools and practices.

June 10, 2020

Mary Jo Madda

Mary Jo Madda

During my first year as a middle school science teacher in Houston, one of the most amazing concepts I got to teach was ecological succession. This term describes the phenomenon by which an ecological system is reborn after a disturbance in the habitat. And oftentimes, what comes after is stronger and more adaptable than what came before.

The coronavirus school-shutdown “disturbance” made clear how many schools are underprepared to support many students with disabilities, even as schools ramped up virtual case management, telecounseling, and other remote services. At the same time, as educators began to test the possibilities of distance learning and incorporate practical frameworks like Universal Design for Learning, they were finding tools that they believe will not only improve outcomes among students with disabilities, but could help all students.

One of those teachers, Molly Orner (Bay Area ’98), says she is using tools like “Padlet to post materials, Flipgrid to encourage students to connect with each other, and Screencastify to walk students through activities that require more explanation than is possible through written text or slides.” Orner, who teaches humanities to students with and without disabilities at Gateway High School in San Francisco, says, “I think a real shift is in terms of the pacing. Now that all of the learning materials are posted to Google Classroom, students can access and review instruction and materials as often as they need to support their learning. Whenever we return to ‘normal’ school, I intend to continue to organize my materials this way.”

Speaking recently on a virtual forum hosted by Leadership for Educational Equity, Rhode Island’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, Angélica Infante-Green (N.Y. ’94), who is raising a child with autism, said she’d witnessed online teaching that “actually works better for some kids in this environment.” While there are many students with disabilities “who we are not doing enough for, who we will have to figure out compensatory service for when we go back,” Infante-Green said in April, “[we’re] seeing this as an opportunity for our differently abled students as well as our multilingual learners … to expand their horizons.”

To capture more practices, we talked to a range of folks—from a dual language teacher in Buffalo, New York, to a college student who speaks nationally about disabilities—to hear about their discoveries and recommendations.

Adopt New Frameworks: 

The Hybrid Model and Universal Design for Learning

Consensus is emerging among educators that many schools moving forward will likely blend live and virtual instruction. Ben Gurewitz, associate director of the Diverse Learners Coalition and a nationally recognized student advocate (he’s a senior at the University of California, Davis), is advocating for every targeted student service to be made accessible anytime, anywhere, online as well as in person.

As a student with dyslexia, dysgraphia, and slow processing disorder, he is excited to see many teachers recording every lesson for video playback, and others creating a “learn from home” equivalent for every in-person lesson, assessment, or intervention. “If parents cannot drive their students to receive services because of work, they can now receive them online,” he says.

Gurewitz’s top recommendation:  Record every single lesson as part of a hybrid online and live-teaching model.

Jean Pallister (N.Y. ’06), who directs the Learner Variability and Special Education Initiative for Teach For America, believes this could be a turning point when more districts and networks adopt the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework as part of a hybrid teaching model. First defined by David H. Rose at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, UDL is built on the idea that flexible learning environments are crucial to any student’s success.

Pallister has been watching teachers use that framework during this sudden shift. They’re varying the ways they teach in virtual spaces (offering both videos and written instruction, co-teaching with general education teachers, and breaking out small groups through Zoom) and increasing the number of ways students can choose to show their work: via audio recordings, typing, or uploading pictures of handwritten work.

Pallister sees how this could lead to less missed learning for many kinds of students. “A student that might have a physical disability that means they really can’t move—they have the option on some days to work from home,” she says. “And then, if you universalize that for all students, some can choose to work from home on certain days when they need to. That means when a family in a rural area doesn’t have access to a car that day, that student doesn’t have to miss school.”

Pallister’s top recommendation: Apply the UDL framework to online and offline environments in every classroom and subject matter.

“Now that all of the learning materials are posted to Google Classroom, students can access and review instruction and materials as often as they need to support their learning. Whenever we return to ‘normal’ school, I intend to continue to organize my materials this way.”

Molly Orner

Another consensus emerging among teachers of general education students and variable learners is that connecting with students is not enough. It’s just as important to be in constant touch with parents, guardians, grandparents, older siblings, or whoever is partnering on learning.

Miriam Kagan (Buffalo ’18), a dual language teacher at Frank A. Sedita Academy in Buffalo, has been calling family members or guardians daily. Among her second graders are many linguistically diverse students whose families came to Buffalo from Puerto Rico, Colombia, and other Spanish-speaking communities. Many of their parents are learning English as well, so she is employing her Spanish fluency to help them along with online learning and even to help get them online.

“One night, I just started calling, family by family,” she says. “I would say, ‘Do this first, click here, then do this.’ If I just assumed before that parents knew how to help—now I have more families consistently working with students.”

Kagan communicates with families however they choose, including through WhatsApp, texting, and ClassDojo, her school’s platform.

Kagan’s top recommendation: Connect with families each day, as well as students, using apps with translation features, and give families the choice of what technologies they prefer to use.

Lara Speights (R.G.V. ’10) teaches grades 6-12 as a literacy specialist for YES Prep Southwest in Houston. She has seen an overwhelming number of “Use our company’s tools!” emails coming at her fellow teachers. She’s concerned that students’ families have faced a similar information overload.

Speights’s suspicions are correct, says Jason Lehmbeck, the co-founder of Los Angeles-based start-up Special X, which connects families who are raising kids with disabilities with tools and a platform to help them access care. He says it’s a particularly confusing time for them as “families raising kids with disabilities are getting flooded with endless lists of resources, webinars, and Pinterest-ready ‘perfect’ schedules that are generally not tailored to children with disabilities.”

Speights decided to do her own quality testing. She logged in as a student and vetted a number of reading apps, looking for those that could best support students including the linguistically diverse.  She then posted her recommendations on LinkedIn for easy access.

Speights’s top recommendation: Vet any edtech products alongside your students. She considers if the program is free (no credit card required) and related to accommodated reading and/or language learning; if it's easy to log in and use; if it's engaging enough to independently sustain an adolescent’s interest; if it provides multiple practices and error feedback; and if it's easy to track student progress.

Pedro Carreño (N.Y. ’09) is the Senior Program Manager, Leadership Development at Innovate Public Schools, a nonprofit focused on improving schools in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. He notes that before kids can learn, their families’ basic needs for food, housing, and mental health support must be met.

Innovate recently published an exhaustive “Advocate’s Guide to Transforming Special Education.” Carreño says that what’s become clear is that schools have to function as community hubs in partnership with other organizations. He’s also calling for schools to provide virtual case management support to students with disabilities and to not let up on lifting the voices of students and parents and holding high expectations.

“This is a big moment,” Carreño says. “[It] will help us rethink how systems should work and how we could really advocate individually not for our own children, but for all children.” 

Mary Jo Madda is a program manager for several education and diversity initiatives at Google. She can be reached on Twitter at @MJMadda.


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