Teaching special education classes always presents a challenge, and even more so in the age of COVID-19.
The coronavirus has tasked special education teachers in the Chester School District in Chester, NJ, with lever-aging the power of technology to meet the needs of its diverse student popu-lation. Since 2014, the Chester School District has been 1:1, with Chromebooks in grades 2–8. Teachers and students are accustomed to teaching and learning in the digital world. At home, remote learning has presented its own set of challenges to meet the needs of our special education population. Our talented teachers and child study team members are using technology in ways once thought unimaginable to adhere to IEPs and 504s to provide therapeutic sessions, communicate with stakeholders, and, most importantly, continue instruction at a high level.
None of this is possible without technology that works and is reliable. Mike Dougherty, our district’s director of technology, has worked tirelessly along with our technicians to meet the technology needs of students, teachers, and parents. During the pandemic, Chromebooks were deployed to the younger grades so that remote learning could occur at home without disruption. Additionally, Dougherty holds a Google Meet live session each morning to address technology issues or questions from stakeholders. He takes things a step further, leveraging the power of the Q&A feature of Google Slides to help stakeholders throughout the school day. Dougherty also uses a shared Google Doc as a resource to respond to questions. As a district, we also employ TeamViewer, a remote technical support software that allows our technicians to support staff remotely as issues arise.
But before all the technology can work effectively, we address the basics. Director of Special Services Jeanette Krone has established solid and flexible expectations related to supporting special education students in the digital world. Constant communication via Google Meet and other web-based solutions is a must. For instance, we’ve tried to think outside the box with various ways to meet the needs of diverse learners. We’ve discussed the potential use of online speech therapy sessions, online social group sessions, and online IEP meetings via various live platforms during remote learning. We’ve set even higher expectations for teaching staff as we use technology to modify and provide clarification on assignments through different G Suite for Education platforms. Creatively addressing the needs of diverse learners during these trying times has been paramount for our district.
Using a Combination of Resources
Our four instructional technology coaches—in addition to our special education coach, literacy coach, and math coach—have provided the necessary training before and now during the remote learning era. Seven staff members have focused on supporting teachers from a direct instruction standpoint using such applications as Screencastify, a screen recording program, and Ziteboard, an online whiteboard. Through such tools, students can have visual examples related to the topic at hand. Providing on-demand tutorials remotely has been a top priority for our instructional technology coaches in all three buildings. We leverage the power of Flipgrid, Zoom, and Google Meet as ways to connect with students via video. It has been incredibly helpful and appreciated. We can provide special accommodations through technology, such as using the chat feature on Google Docs and Gmail to clarify instructions, using Screencastify to record instructions for continuous replay for comprehension purposes, leveraging Google Meet for virtual office hours, and using Google Classroom to provide up-to-date information and feedback on assignments. Finally, we provide timely feedback in Google Docs and Google Slides as students look to enhance draft assignments and projects.
Our special education teachers have stepped up during the remote learning process. Third-grade special education teacher Melissa Bene created a Google Doc checklist that consists of daily assignments, links to demo videos, and scaffolding videos. This Google Doc is then posted on Google Classroom for students to digest and utilize during home instruction. We provide opportunities for supplemental practice and/or early finishers that are shared through ViewPure. Bene has used Screencastify to provide parents with clear and concise instructions on how to navigate through websites and online programs. Screencastify also provides an auditory platform for struggling readers—for example, guided reading lessons. Bene uses Educreations, which turns an iPad into a recordable whiteboard, to create dynamic math and language arts video lessons that can be accessed as needed by students and parents. She also uses Google Meet to support and collaborate with students, parents, and the special services team.
Diane Basanese, a special education instructional coach and sixth-grade special education teacher in the Chester School District, communicates with parents daily to ensure that flexibility is a top priority during remote learning. Basanese uses Google Meet to communicate with students—with no more than three students at a time—to give them the attention they deserve. Students had some fun moments showing their family pets to each other during one live video session.
Basanese takes advantage of advanced Chrome settings such as text to speech, highlighting text, and read-aloud features. Learning Ally provides access to the audio version of books being currently read by students; for example, students can listen to Where the Red Fern Grows. Basanese also uses Google Classroom to assign and grade comprehension questions. If the quality is not up to par, she will reassign the questions to the students to give them another opportunity to show what they know about the topic at hand. Students were able to read the online version of Junior Scholastic Magazine and complete a graphic organizer that was posted on Google Classroom to make sense of the article. Then, they went onto Flipgrid to orally share their insight of the article. Finally, Basanese has been using Google Slides to create special lessons for a student with autism who might struggle with various aspects of assignments.
Linda Mayers, a fifth-grade special education teacher, has worked on providing modifications and accommodations into her instructional sequence to meet IEP requirements in the digital world. Mayers uses Screencastify to provide instructions for navigating various websites and utilizing online programs for visual and verbal modeling purposes. She utilizes Educreations to record lessons in which direct modeling and additional practice are offered, and to record teacher voice for additional reading support. She uses tools such as Google Classroom to organize and monitor workflow and to differentiate instruction (dependent on students’ needs), as well as utilizing Google Meet for one-on-one communication with students in real time and also to collaborate with team members and special education team members throughout the day.
She uses FaceTime when needed to circumvent home technology issues and to maintain student connections. Learning Ally, Scholastic, and ReadWorks have audio programs that allow for reading support and adjustments to Lexile levels. For math, Mayers has students use Pearson Realize for visual lessons, practice assignments, and a quick check for skills. Reflex Math and IXL help monitor student ability levels for more differentiated instruction. Finally, she uses a choice board to give students flexibility in how they want to learn or practice skills.
Mayers’ approach is to try to keep learning as multisensory as possible. She is trying to pair a video, Google Slides, YouTube, or other animation with each lesson by using Generation Genius, Flocabulary, Scholastic StudyJams!, BrainPop, Numberock, and other online modes. Mayers also sends home tangible items—math lesson pages, workspace paper, whiteboards and markers, Scholastic magazines—both math and English language arts related—and grammar worksheets. She works on these tools while hoping to see students’ faces via video at least a few times a week, and she plans to mail them notes during this time as well.
The Chester School District has developed a solid-yet-fluid plan to meet the needs of diverse learners in the digital world. It’s a total team effort from our superintendent to the building principals to the #WeAreChesterNJ teachers who are on the front lines at home creating safe learning environments for all students.