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Guest Post on MiddleWeb: Straddling the Co-teaching Fence

Co-teaching can be challenging, but it’s not without its rewards. Students’ academic gains aren’t the only improvements teachers may see in a co-teaching environment. Confidence, contentment, and risk-taking are all attributes that can soar when students are given a chance to experience success with their peers…

Read More on MiddleWeb

If you have specific questions that you would like to have answered that are related to this topic, feel free to ask them in the comments section below. For more information about the author, please visit: J.M.Cataffo’s Author Website

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Station Teaching: A Better Approach to Classroom Teaching


Station Teaching is like a set of pulleys, you can accomplish so much more with it than with teaching alone. The more stations, groups, and activities, the easier your job becomes. As we learned earlier, stations is not simply putting kids at tables or groups and doing activities related to the lesson. Stations goes far beyond the concept of centers. Stations takes your lesson to levels you never though possible before. But it takes a lot of planning and a lot of practice before you become good at its use.

Using stations you can ensure that all your students’ needs are met without the need to constantly be in charge of each and every thing that is happening on your classroom. Stations can be used in a variety of creative ways to ensure that not just your highest kids’ needs are met, but your lowest as well. Free up your table for the students who need it the most.

Remember the antenna analogy? Keep that in mind as we move forward. Imagine traditional teaching like that antenna, information flowing outward, most of which never connecting with anything of consequence spreading out into the depths of space. You’re nodding your head, aren’t you? Trust me, I’ve had those classrooms too. What we want to do is focus the information in such a way that our “signal” isn’t just being broadcast into thin air. We need a way to make sure that we’re capturing more receivers. In keeping with our antenna reference, think about something you might know that can accomplish this very task. A broadcast, that by definition is extremely short, specialized, and designed to elicit a response from its viewers. Got it, yet? No? it is something we’ve all become so accustomed to we almost rarely think about them directly, and yet there they are in the backs of our minds haunting us with slogans and jingles. 

Following me now?

That’s right, commercials. Think about the power of advertising, the effectiveness of those 60 seconds of information and how pervasive that information is to our daily lives. You can’t tell me that when you drive by McDonald’s your first thought isn’t, “I’m lovin’ it.” There’s a reason commercials are so powerful and why companies are willing to invest billions of dollars in their use. They convey a concept so completely and effectively that one 60 second spot can make you want to buy a burger.

it is this concept that we want to tap into in the classroom. How can we create activities that are so powerful, so memorable, that students can’t help but learn the concepts they are meant to convey? it is really not as difficult as you think. it is just a matter of honing in on three principles:




Pretty much spells out commercials in a nutshell, doesn’t it? Commercials are extremely short, so much so that many are as short as 20 to 30 seconds in length. And yet in that short span of time we are so engaged as to be introduced to something we didn’t even know we needed. Then we see a single commercial, on average, 6-7 times a day, reinforced by billboards, signs, colors, and sound. We’re bombarded with images which have one purpose: to get us to buy their products. What if we could recreate this experience, get students to buy into what we’re teaching them?

An example of station teaching with two teachers (or paraprofessional)

Creating activities is pretty simple once you get down the basic of stations. Generally speaking we create assignments with the goal of practicing a single skill. Then on the next skill, we create an entirely new activity. The problem here is that we’re waisting our energy because in reality the activities that we’ve created aren’t really focused on one skill. Many of the grade level expectations outlined by states are a conglomeration of skills, expectations that students will take what they’ve learned and apply it to new situations. This, of course, is the ultimate goal of our teaching but not the purpose for centers. Centers takes those overall skills and breaks them down into smaller tasks.

Let’s take reading, for example. Reading is broken down into 5 areas: phonological awareness, fluency, vocabulary, spelling, and comprehension. If you address all five of these areas every day in every lesson, can you imagine the growth your students would achieve? Many classrooms neglect these because they assume that students have already learned it, focusing solely on the grade level skill. I can tell you from experience, this is rarely the case. If you can design activities that hone in on these specific areas, you will be amazed at what your students will achieve. Your stations should reflect activities in these areas. For example: One station can be for vocabulary practice and spelling, while another is solely designed for phonological awareness and fluency. Students engage in meaningful and quick activities that reinforce these essential skills. The best part of this approach is the activities can be tailored specifically for each group of students in your class. Homogeneous grouping can provide you with a means for enabling students to engage in the activities that are appropriate for them.

Say you have the typical mix of students: some low, most average, a few high-performers. With homogeneous grouping you can ensure that the activities at each center are tailored for that particular group. Your low group may need practice with sounding out single-syllable words, while your high group may need to work with multi-syllabic words with prefixes and suffixes. All of this can be accomplished with one center. It takes more creative planning initially, but in the long run it not only saves you more time in the end, it also can produce significant results.

I know this is a lot to take in, especially if you’re new to the concept, but stations really are worth the effort and time. You can incorporate activities that meet students with IEPs while still having time with guided practice to teach the grade level content. As students rotate through stations, they are engaged, giving you less interruptions while you’re working with your small groups. If you meet the three principles stated above, you’re stations are sure to be a hit with your students.

If you have specific questions that you would like to have answered that are related to this topic, feel free to ask them in the comments section below. For more information about the author, please visit: J.M.Cataffo’s Author Website

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Why Co-Teach?

You can’t teach a child to swim by taking them out of the pool.

 – J.M. Cataffo

The Unsightly Truth of Pullout Services

The most used service delivery model in Special Education has always been to remove students from the general education environment and into a special education classroom: the old reliable pullout model. It offered a way for teachers to meet the needs of their students without the distractions of the classroom. As much as we’d like to believe this to be the primary reason for pullout services, the real reason for the adoption of the pullout model is far less altruistic. Pullout services were necessitated by a lack of personnel in smaller schools and districts. It was a way to provide services despite insufficient funding. Pulling the kids from multiple classrooms into a special education class allowed special education teachers to see multiple kids on multiple campuses and serve their needs as defined by the students’ IEPs.

It is true that pullout provides some significant benefits over the general education classroom environment, the most notable being small group instruction in a less distracting setting (although, I can tell you from my own experiences, this wasn’t always the case). Often times, students were placed in these programs with little discretion and they became a free-for-all environment. Teachers would scramble to try to meet the multiple needs they were given. Students would come to them on varying degrees of academic need and even more varying degree of physical challenges. Behavior issues, physical limitations, even students who were deaf and blind. A resource room was a catch-all, teachers exhausting all resources to provide what they could. Even in the best of circumstances where small groups and well managed groups were provided, NCLB exposed a glaring oversight. If children were not in their classroom, how were they learning what they were supposed to? This became the primary question for districts when NCLB went into effect. All of a sudden students who were multiple years below grade level were expected to pass statewide assessments. Special education teachers were now frantically trying to learn how they were supposed to meet their students’ needs and provide grade-level content as well.

A new understanding of service delivery emerged. Research began to show the effectiveness of inclusive settings where students were pulled less often for services and in some cases not at all. Student performance rose and special education teachers were baffled by what they saw. So long had they relied on the tried and true method of pulling students out of the classroom that never had they considered the effect of leaving them in.

So polarizing was this idea of inclusion that people began to take notice of its effects. Teacher were now taking a new hard look at the concept of LRE (Least Restrictive Environment). The simple question asked at every IEP Meeting began to take on new meaning. Does the benefits obtained by removing the student from the classroom outweigh any negative effects? A new factor was brought into that equation: grade level expectations were now a factor in those negative effects. It had previously been assumed that because these students had a disability that they were only partially able or unable to meet the expectations in the classroom.

So began the revolution for the best place for students to receive services. The debate rages on about where the most “appropriate” environment for students might be. Surely not all pullout services are bad, right? But then again think back to the mandate of IDEA which states that students services should happen within their LRE. So how does one answer the question above? What defines negative effects? How exactly do you balance the benefits? Before we dig deeper into these questions, let’s look at the benefits of Co-Teaching. A deeper understanding of how providing services in the classroom will address these questions and give you a sense for why this is such an important push.

Here’s some interesting data to consider:

A student can spend anywhere from 5-12 minutes a day transitioning to a pull-out class. That’s a total of 2,160 minutes of instruction.

  • 36 hours
  • 5 days
  • 1 week

And that’s just time lost to transitions.

A student who is pulled for instruction a minimum of 30 minutes per day misses 5,400 minutes of instruction in the classroom.

  • That’s 90 hours
  • 12 days
  • 2.5 weeks

Add to that the time for transitions and your pull-out kids have already missed 3 weeks of instruction. Can you imagine the effect of a student if they’d been gone from your room for 3 weeks? And that’s with only 30 minutes of pullout a day! Many of our students with special needs get so much more!

Consider Sarah. The pullout services Sarah received were small, at first. She was pulled for 30 minutes a day in Language Arts and thirty minutes in Math. This was justified by the fact that she struggled in the classroom and needed support. It was standard practice then to recommend Resource services as a general rule, and while students were expected to have some exposure to grade-level content, the expectation wasn’t such that they be included with due diligence. It was therefore acceptable for Sarah to be pulled for her services. It seems so innocuous, doesn’t it? It makes logical sense: a child needs specialized help, pull them into a room where a specialist can help them. The problem in this particular instance was this: I could teach Sarah all the things she needed to become a better reader and do better in Math, OR I could teacher her grade level content in a less distracting setting. In 30 minutes, how could I possibly do both of those things. Easy solution, right? Like most resource rooms, I took care of her remedial needs and relied on the fact that she would go back to the classroom for grade level content. 

Problem solved!

Except then you have to consider what actually took place when she returned to the classroom. Generally speaking, we did our best to ensure that students were pulled during a time that was most convenient for the teacher, so that Sarah didn’t miss too much of the lesson. This meant a time was chosen and Sarah was pulled at that time each and every day. As most teachers will attest, however, things don’t always work out the way you had hoped. Sarah was not as included as one would expect. She would return to class, but would have missed the guided reading portion of the lesson. The teacher would give her a worksheet, but Sarah wasn’t able to complete it without having read the story. Given that he reading level was slower than average, by the time she did finish reading the story the rest of the class was ready to move on. She had also missed the short lesson on the key skill for the day, so the teacher would have to pull her to the back table and re-teach the skill to Sarah. The same limitation was a problem as if she had been pulled to resource and had gotten a lesson there. While the teacher can cover the concept, what was missing was a truly authentic experience. None of the rich questions that the students had asked during the presentation were repeated for Sarah. The discussions that had taken place, she had missed, the rich experience of collaboration had been lost. There is no way for the teacher to reproduce these essential snippets of learning. Sarah may gain a basic knowledge of the concept, but she will lack in the in-depth understanding that she will need to be successful.

In time, the minutes she had missed added up as illustrated in the examples above. She had begun to miss so much classroom instruction that her understanding fell further and further behind. She had become a victim of the process put into place to ensure that she didn’t become the victim. 

Special Education services have become a double edge sword. While skills may be mastered in such settings, more are lost in the wake. The answer truly lies in keeping true to a student’s Least Restrictive Environment. If you want Billy to swim, you can’t take him out of the pool.

If you have specific questions that you would like to have answered that are related to this topic, feel free to ask them in the comments section below. For more information about the author, please visit: J.M.Cataffo’s Author Website

Posted in Education Tagged with: , , , , ,

Modifying Lessons for Students with More Severe Disabilities


As I’ve said before in previous posts, one of the challenges with a Co-Teaching model is what to do with your students in Special Education who have such severe disabilities that it becomes necessary to modify their curriculum. Because of the nature of their disabilities, these students can’t perform on grade level standards and therefore teachers must adapt to their individual needs. Some teachers see this as a daunting and difficult task and typically rely on those students to be pulled out of the classroom and instructed in a Special Education class. The problem with this is that these students gain nothing from this model and wind up further and further behind their peers. 

When exposed to grade-level learning in their natural setting, these students pick up on more material, and have a higher success rate than students who are removed from the classroom. Many are under the false assumption that a smaller environment with more intensive instruction is effective for these students. The reality is that this isn’t the case. Students learn best from their peers. When students are removed from the classroom, they understand that the expectations are different for them and most often live up to those reduced expectations. When students remain in the classroom they understand that, while we don’t expect them to do everything the other students are doing, we do expect them to have a basic understanding of what’s being presented. Many students may only get the gist of what’s being taught, but because of the exposure and interactions with other students, that gist is more comprehensive than the basic skills taught in a resource room. This has been shown time and time again in research on inclusion practices.

So now the big question comes: How do we ensure that students receive the right amount of instruction and the right amount of modifications to measure what they are learning?

First Co-Teachers must determine the nature of the student’s disability and how it affects their ability to participate in the classroom. Even more students with more severe disabilities can participate in group activities and whole-class instruction and benefit greatly from hands-on learning. In order to assess a student’s ability to participate in the classroom, the Co-Teachers must review the student’s Full and Individual Evaluation (FIE). This document outlines the cognitive and academic assessments done by an assessment professional and clearly defines the areas where the student is going to need academic support in the classroom. From here, teachers can make decisions on how to modify assignments and assessments to meet the student’s needs. If a student is multiple-years below grade level, it is often necessary to incorporate remedial skills into the instruction presented to meet those needs without taking away from the grade-level skills the student needs as well. This can be tricky at times and is the reason for two teachers to be present in the classroom and why a Co-Teaching environment is so effective. Lessons can be broken down to provide both remedial and grade-level instruction.

When it comes to modifying assignments, lessons, and assessments, the student’s Individual Education Plan (IEP) is your guide. In a true Co-Teaching setting, both teachers would be involved in the process of developing the student’s IEP and would consider the nature of the disabilities and how the student will access grade-level instruction. A student whose disabilities affect their participation in the classroom may need a range of modifications. For example, a student whose reading ability is below grade level would not normally be able to read the grade level text and comprehend it at a level of their peers. However, if the student is given access to the material in an audio format and the Co-Teacher reinforces their remedial skills in a small group setting, the student is both able to participate in grade-level comprehension while still striving to build their reading skills. This is just one example of how to ensure participation. There are many programs available to help with remedial reading, but often I find it most effective to bring the remedial aspects of reading into the grade-level lesson. Taking grade level text and breaking it down into word studies and analyzing phonological structure helps students to understand words while still working on the same text as their peers. Taking remediation out of the grade-level curriculum often requires sacrificing something else that’s equally important. Granted, this process takes a greater understanding of the subject you are teaching in order to do this effectively, but the benefits far outweigh the alternatives.

In future posts, we will analyze more specific techniques for taking grade-level text and strategies for breaking down words and how to teach phonological analyzation. There are also other techniques I’ve found quite effective, but are more time consuming and not ideal. As I enter into this year of Co-Teaching, I will be exploring more of these options and finding ways to make them more efficient.

If you have strategies that you’ve used that you’d like to share, please do. The hardest part of a Co-Teaching classroom is organizing all of the things students need and adding those in without taking away from the expectations of the classroom. We’ll talk more about specific ways to modify assignments and tests and talk about technology and tools that can help dramatically improve your ability to accommodate and modify for students with disabilities. I’ll show you how to take tools such as an iPad, iPod touch, or computer and use tools that are already a part of those devices to help students succeed in the classroom. We are on a cusp of incredible opportunities for students with disabilities to participate in ways never before possible. 

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