A few weeks ago, as I was sitting in a professional development meeting with a team of educators at New York City Public School PS79, located in Harlem, I was overcome with unexpected emotion. For several years, I have been a vendor to New York’s District 75, which supports 23,000 children with Individual Education Plans (IEPs). On this particular day, I was doing what I like most about my work: spending time with teachers, paraprofessionals, administrators and therapists, all of us putting our heads together to improve learning and outcomes for children with disabilities. As we reviewed lesson plans and strategies the staff had implemented since my last visit to the school, I was struck by the team’s tirelessness, depth of commitment, and passion for their work. One teacher beamed as she told a story about a student in her classroom–a nonspeaking autistic girl of transition age–who had begun to get up independently from her desk to join other children in group activities. While this might seem a small step to an outside observer, it was monumental for this student, whose sensory and social differences were so significant that, for years, her desk had to be placed all alone in the classroom, separate from the other kids.
The teacher had supported this student using a planning model called Lesson Plan a la Carte, which I co-developed with my colleagues Sarah Olivieri, Michelle DeFelice Haverly, and Todd Germain (aapcpublishing.net). Using the model, the teacher was able to identify that her student needed visual supports. Namely, the pathways between the areas of the classroom where different types of activities took place needed to be made more visually explicit. After making these environmental modifications and implementing an integrated lesson plan that showed the student how she could join the other children in a group learning activity, she began to get up from her desk, of her own accord, and walk over to the group. The basic model supports educational teams, or even teachers planning alone (in special or general education classrooms), to develop and implement lesson plans that integrate learning objectives and academic content with therapeutic supports. It is simple to use because it was designed with teachers and their limited schedules in mind.
Following this, another teacher at the planning meeting shared a story about how Lesson Plan a la Carte had provided her with the rare opportunity to “slow down and reflect” on one specific boy in her 1:6:1 classroom. He was the kind of student in special education who is easily overlooked, she said, because he doesn’t present behaviors that require intensive or frequent intervention. The model had provided her with a method to offer this student as much individualization as any other in her classroom received, solving a big dilemma. “It was such a relief to finally do this for him,” she said, relaxing into her chair as if a heavy burden had been lifted from her shoulders. That’s the moment when I found tears welling up in my eyes. It wasn’t because these educators were paying me compliments about the model. It was because the model was genuinely working for them. It validated their hard work and, if I may wax emotional again, it documented their heroism.
The moment I began working in K-12 education (when I co-founded a school for middle and high school students with autism in Upstate New York in 2002 called the ASPIE School), I quickly learned that this same, often unseen, heroism happens every day in special education classrooms across the country. You don’t see such moments celebrated in our media, and certainly not in the dull details of a student’s IEP. Yet, simple victories play themselves out every day in what I like to call the “how of teaching.” An autistic girl gets up from a chair for the first time to join her peers; a boy with a developmental disability is integrated more fully into academic learning because his teacher provided him with the therapeutic support he needed to be his very best, instead of just a well-behaved but silent onlooker, missing out on opportunities to learn and grow.
We first began developing a prototype of Lesson Plan a la Carte nearly 10 years ago at the ASPIE School, the work emerging from long meetings at tables similar to the scene I described at PS79. Every day, we’d put our heads together for our kids and their futures. As we did, I began to notice certain obstacles the teaching staff seemed to confront over and over again. There was also a sense of resignation in the staff, as if these challenges were givens you just had to accept. One problem stood out dramatically. I call it “chewing the cud.” This happened during planning meetings when staff seemed to talk in circles about one student whose behaviors were dominating the classroom, and in turn, most of our team meetings. So we devised a method to circumvent this repetition by developing a structure that ensured all students would get the attention they deserved. Another problem I witnessed–though I think of it more as a crisis–was committed educators so overwhelmed with paperwork that they lost sight of what a specific student, a group of kids, or even an entire classroom needed right now, today, in this very moment, in order to learn and progress. Instead, their time was taken up with which I’s needed to be dotted and which T’s needed to be crossed to fulfill the almighty IEP or other mandates that burdened their schedules and deadened their creative thinking daily.
“With so much focus on data and documentation, it is easy to get caught up in paperwork rather than effective instruction,” says Michelle DeFelice Haverly, one of my co-authors of Lesson Plan a la Carte. Michelle was a special educator who worked at the ASPIE School, along with our other co-author Sarah Olivieri, a multi-cultural educational specialist. Together with the staff, we also began to tackle this monumental problem. Although the ASPIE School closed after three years because of funding cuts in special education in our school district, we persevered in our work. Today we support schools across the country, including the one in Harlem, in effective solo and team planning and teaching using Lesson Plan a la Carte.
Several days after my visit to PS79, I watched President Obama offer his State of the Union address on television. At one moment during his speech, the President took time to honor our educators, pointing out that all of us have at least one teacher from our past who changed our lives. I watched as the audience nodded their heads in unison, as if acknowledging a universal truth that we all have experienced and would therefore never wish to deny another person. This turned my thoughts to the teachers in Harlem, and suddenly I knew why I found myself holding back the tears the day I had visited there: I had witnessed those teachers changing lives, and I was happy that my co-authors of Lesson Plan a la Carte and I had played a small part in that awesome endeavor, by providing them with a tool that was real and worked.