In January of 2020, the world began to hear about a virus that was spreading like a wildfire. It began in China and began hitting every country in Europe. In February of 2020, the US had its first known case of COVID 19 on the east coast and the rest of the country sat in wonder of how soon it would reach them. On Friday, March 13, 2020, in anticipation of California's Governor shutting schools throughout the state, teachers in one small school district in northern California were directed to make lesson plans for the next two weeks. The lessons that were designed were to be provided to students through Google Classroom and needed to be able to be given as paper packets for students who did not have access to the necessary technology. Little did those teachers know that Friday, March 13th would be the last day that they would be on their school campus as a whole staff for six months. The challenge of designing lessons for an online learning environment that teachers had little to no experience with was larger than expected. It is difficult to support students with special needs in a face-to-face learning environment, but it became even more arduous in an unknown, unexplored, and challenging in an online learning structure.
Dwindling student engagement is a problem in many classrooms across the nation. In fact, a University of Nebraska, Lincoln study found that in 2015, only 55% of students were engaged in their classes and schoolwork. The study said that 29% of students were disengaged and 17 % were actively disengaged (Oleson et al., 2015). In many instances, trying to help students become active participants in their own learning is an even larger job than teaching. The root of this problem can be multi-faceted, causing teachers to become frustrated with students’ lack of agency. This problem is even more dynamic when the students have learning disabilities. Once the necessary scaffolds are in place to help the students succeed and thrive, what can be done to help those students help themselves by engaging in the learning process? How can teachers help create an innovative learning environment that not only teaches students what they need to know but also does it in a way that promotes advocacy and uses both traditional learning methods with digital media and tools to get the students involved with the best outcome?
Many of the students who are found eligible for special education services have learning disabilities of some type. Some of their learning challenges are quite severe. Most students were included in the general education setting through their elementary school years. As they get older, many have pre-existing trauma around participating in classroom activities and are now afraid to even try. Often, students struggle with self-doubt, and are under the disbelief that they are dumb because they do not learn like everyone else. It takes compassion, patience and understanding on the part of the teacher and an almost insurmountable amount of trust on the part of the student to help them feel safe enough to participate in classroom activities. Students with low reading ability have difficulty with comprehension skills which compounds their ability to engage in learning activities in all subjects. Many of the comprehension issues reach into the student's math performance as well.
When in the classroom environment, most students respond well to praise, small group instruction and they like to be seen as smart. Giving them opportunities to succeed helps in this aspect as well as boosts their confidence so that they will be willing to take a risk in the future. Some need extra scaffolding to help them attain the curriculum and all of them require a lot of repetition to retain what has been learned. All of the students in the study do well with traditional education means (paper, pencil, textbook). Once all of these factors are taken into consideration, how can small digital steps be used to help enhance the learning experience, boost student engagement, and improve student agency in the classroom?
In a face-to-face environment, creating engaging lessons with built-in supports for special needs students is a challenge teachers face day to day. Most teachers have mastered the curriculum adaptation skills necessary to create a successful structure for the diversity of the needs of their student population. When the shift to remote learning began, the difficulties of creating engaging lessons, with the necessary supports, that could also be delivered online was a challenge that many teachers struggled to master. For teachers of special needs students, the challenge became a question of how to evolve from the teacher that they were when the new environment demanded a teacher that they had never been trained to be: an online instructor.
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