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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: , , , , ,

Tools for Writing

As a teacher of students with special needs and an author, I’ve been asked a few times what tools have been useful both in the classroom and for writing in general. This post is dedicated to sharing some of the best tools and strategies that I have found for writers who struggle with the task of writing and organization. I, myself, have ADHD and it wasn’t until later in life that I began to explore medication as an option to treat it. It opened new doors for me as I never thought that I could concentrate long enough to write. Even with medication, the task of writing is difficult. Keeping scenes and story-lines can be a daunting process. Fear not, for I have found some great tools and strategies that have made me a better writer and to achieve my dream of a published novel.

First, let’s address writing in general. There are several helpful programs that can help both students and adults to produce better written compositions and manuscripts. One of the most popular used in school is the SOLO Suite software developed by the Don Johnston Company. This is the leading software for students who struggle with DyslexiaDysgraphia, and other disorders which make the task of writing difficult. The software addresses two major areas of concern for most writers with disabilities, or even those without. It provides word prediction as well as text-to-speech audio feedback that can assist students and adults who struggle with spelling, phonological processing, auditory processing, or other orthographic disabilities. The software is easy to install and easy to use. While typing it gives the composer word choices that are both phonologically sensitive as well as context bound to ensure that the most likely word the writer is going to use will appear on the list of choices. This is essential to writing. Most word prediction software uses a similar approach; and word prediction is becoming more common place on mainstream devices. In time, the use of software such as SOLO Suite may become obsolete as these features will be built in to your devices by default. Until then, this is a great solution for written compositions in the home and at school

The use of tablet computers, such as Apple’s iPad is revolutionizing the way that teachers are able to teach and the way students are able to access information. In a past post, I illustrated the way that technology is providing opportunities for kids and students like never before. It has opened the doors for kids who otherwise would have been unable to perform on a given task. Because tablets like the iPad have many accessibility features built-in, it enables students to access information in a way that is natural and effective. The iPad has text-to-speech built right into iOS. This means that you don’t need to rely on 3rd party software to access this amazing feature. Jump into the settings under “Accessibility” and you can enable text-to-speech very easily. The voice is natural sounding with realistic inflection. This keeps it from reading like a monotonous computer and provides accurate auditory feedback for students.

I have also found this to be an indispensable tool for me as a writer. After I have completed a chapter or scene, I can easily go back and read the scene on my iPad, enabling text-to-speech and it forces me to read (or at least hear) everything I’ve written in a scene. I catch far more errors this way and it allows me to focus better on my writing. Without text-to-speech, I find that I “insert” words into my writing that aren’t there only to realize later that the sentence sounded nothing like I had read it in my head.

The iPad, of course, already has built-in text prediction as well as spell-check which are also essential tools for any writer. While the text prediction on the iPad is not as accurate or helpful as SOLO Suite software, there are 3rd party applications in the App Store that provide similar benefit. Abilipad and Typ-O HD are examples of two really good writing applications on the iPad that provide very similar features to SOLO Suite.

For organization of writing it doesn’t get any better than Scrivener. This word processor was designed from the ground up to be the perfect writing tool. And as someone who has tried many many writing tools, I can assure you Scrivener is by far the best. It offers a level of customizability that you won’t find in any other software. While some of these features may be a bit on the complicated side, the average user can function with the software just fine without ever even knowing they exist. It offers an outstanding organization feature that saves oodles of time. If you’re like me and have big aspirations for creating a plan for a story only to find that your scenes have gone off in completely different directions, you’ll appreciate the ability to move scenes around easily in Scrivener. It gives you the option to view scenes as notecards that can be rearranged on a whim which will move your scenes around in your manuscript with ease! It’s incredibly helpful even for the most devout plotter. You can build your scenes as a stack of notecards or an outline, make notes about scenes and characters, color code scenes based on whatever helps you keep track of things, and even add tags to help search for things in longer manuscripts. You can copy and paste research right into your Scrivener file so that everything you need for your manuscript is right at your fingertips! I can’t say enough about how wonderful Scrivener is. My only complaint is that they have not yet released an iPad app, however, it syncs very well with Plaintext (which is how I can easily read what I’ve written).

screen-shot-2013-04-01-at-12.25.19-pmIf you haven’t figured out the beauty of document syncing between devices, this is probably the biggest benefit I have seen with the modern push into the tablet world. I find it to be a very comfortable and effective workflow to type my story on my laptop, pick up my tablet and go read over what I wrote on the couch while I listen to it using text-to-speech. This not only breaks up the monotony of sitting in a seat (or wherever you type your stories) and then reading over it in a more natural way. Reading on a small tablet is like reading over your work in a book. It’s just one of those things you’ll have to experience for yourself. There are many many tools for effective document syncing: iCloudDropboxBoxSugarsyncSkydrive, etc… The list could go on and on. There are more and more solutions, each offering their own mixture of user experiences and usefulness. The two I rely on most are Dropbox and iCloud.

Whether you are comfortable with Mac or Windows, iOS or Android, there are many options out there that can help with improving your experience or your child’s experience with writing. It can make the difference between being able to write and not for some kids with disabilities and can enhance the writing of those who do not have disabilities. It’s all about finding the right tools for you. If you have any questions or would like more knowledge about how these software options can help you, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll be happy to offer any advice I can give.

Happy Writing!!

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 Blog, Education Tagged with: , , , , , ,

Are your TIERS turning into TEARS? Response to Intervention Made Easy!

Don’t let your RtI Tiers turn into TEARS!

Here’s an easy way to remember your RtI:

Tier 1 – All Students

General Education grade-level lesson with research based supports and programs for all students.

Tier II – Targeted Groups (6-8 students)

Intervention Groups (outside the General Education lesson) for targeted remedial skills for struggling students based on student data and progress monitoring.

Tier III – Intensive Interventions (4-5 students)

Intensive programs and practices delivered by a specialist based on student data, progress monitoring, and specialized assessments.

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. 

Posted in Education Tagged with: , , , , , ,
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