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Sunday, 10 November 2013

Special Education Students and the High School Classroom


What is teaching high school science to special education students like?  For me, teaching science to special education students has meant hearing phrases such as:

"You know the day you lost me was when you said, "Hi, my name is Ms. Lau."
"I'm only in Grade 9 math.  I can't do this." (from a Grade 10 student said with arms crossed and while putting down the pencil) 
"SHUT UP!  Let's just take our notes and then we can have our free time.""What's the point of this? 
 It's not like I'm ever going to use this." 
"Are we going to the lab today?" (said in the hopes of being able to do something besides writing notes and completing worksheets)

Teaching high school science to special education students has meant seeing students place headphones over their ears in the hopes of having some distraction from the drone of science talk.  It has meant taking up to half of a 75 minute period waiting for the students to be quiet so that a lesson can be taught.  It has mean standing over individual students prodding them to focus at the assignment at hand even when the rest of the class is in chaos.  It has meant knowing that although notes are being copied and texts are being read but there is no connection or stimulation of the mind going on.  My personal experience of teaching high school science to special education students often seems bleak.  It is hard to fathom that actual learning could take place amidst the resistance to the science material.

One day in an attempt to fight the resistance to science, I decided to change how I would teach a seemingly boring concept in the Physical Science 416 curriculum (Grade 10 science).  One of the topics to be covered was the history of the atom.  Teaching this topic involves introducing the findings of Aristotle, Democritus, Dalton, Thompson, Rutherford and Bohr.  I bet half of you skimmed those names and the other half skipped reading them completely.  The most common way to teach this is to lecture, give notes and evaluate through a written test.  In short, it would be a rote memorization exercise.  I wanted this lesson to be more than just about memorizing facts because my special education students were correct in saying the information would be useless to them in the future.  I wanted my special education students to understand the scientific process used to decipher the atom, which is useful to them in the future, and thereby learn the facts.  I wanted my students to recognize the progression of scientific work as well as come to an understanding of how science can change depending on the knowledge at hand.

As a result, I began my lesson with pictures of the atom as it had been represented over time.  I asked students individually, then in pairs and finally in a class discussion to observe the similarities and differences between each of the pictures as well as their reasoning for a possible order for the pictures.  It was only after the class discussion that I introduced the names of the people associated with each picture with an emphasis on how these scienctists, each in their own way and understanding, were trying to explain what matter was made of.  I also pointed out how each scientist added something to the understanding of the atom and that this was still the goal of many scientists today.  My notes were a combination of visual and written.  I gave my special education students a series of horizontal boxes and  in each they wrote in chronological order the name of the scientist, their associated drawing and a short note regarding what was newly added to the understanding of the atom.  Evaluation of this lesson would be occurring throughout as I ask students to show their thought process through written work, drawings and discussion.  Evaluation would also occur in the written form to prepare the special needs students for the format of the Quebec ministry exam.

Often, especially in high school, I am unable to modify the curriculum but I can adapt the curriculum to the needs of my special education students.  I had to teach the history of the atom but I adapted the curriculum to place more importance on the process the scientists went through in the hopes of giving my special education students a relevant context and a use for the future.  In seeing a relevant context and a use for the future, my special education students were more likely succeed on their written ministry exam needed for graduation.  


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