October 1, 1997
Many teachers face the challenge of supporting students with a variety of needs and strengths. As school districts begin implementing inclusion plans, the diversity in many classrooms has increased to encompass children with a variety of disabilities. Many teachers find that technology can facilitate the integrating of children with disabilities into general education classrooms, but useful approaches are often lost as children move from one grade to the next.
For the past three years, researchers from the Education Development Center (EDC) have been working on the Pathways for Learning project to address this problem. The Pathways project, which is funded by the Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs, is designed to improve outcomes for children with and without disabilities through professional development activities for teachers and systematic organizational support for those activities. The goal of this column is to describe our approach to professional development, and discuss findings from our collaboration with the Lawrence, New York school district, one of our two implementation sites. The Lawrence district is a small suburban district that includes seven schools serving approximately 4,000 students. Ten percent of the student population receives special education services. The school district mainstreams students with mild disabilities (e.g., students with learning disabilities or attention deficit disorder) in general education classrooms. The district is rich in technology resources, with many computers located in labs and classrooms.
Approach to Professional Development
The approach to inservice professional development we have developed engages general and special education teachers to work in teams to collaboratively plan and implement technology-supported curriculum activities for all students. Our approach has four main features: it spans multiple disciplines and multiple grades; it is ongoing; it is facilitated, and it is supported by the administration.
Multidisciplinary, multigrade teams: Pathways teams bring together teachers from different subject matter areas, consecutive grades, and sometimes even different schools. The team members plan and implement technology-based curriculum activities in relation to a common theme. While the specific content of each activity varies across classrooms, the core activity and the theme are constant across subject matter areas and different grades. This mode of curriculum development ensures the continuity of successful practices which is often particularly important for students with disabilities.
In Lawrence, we are working with two teams of teachers who volunteered their participation. One team bridges an elementary school and the middle school with 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th grade classroom teachers, a 6th grade special education teacher, two middle school resource room teachers, and an elementary school psychologist. The other team is a middle school team with only five participants, covering grades 6 through 8. The subject matter areas represented in these teams include English, Social Studies, Science, Math, and Foreign Language. Additional personnel, including principals, assistant principals, and the district supervisor of pupil personnel, who is responsible for special education in the district, also attend team meetings on occasion.
Professional development is ongoing. Pathways teams meet regularly throughout the school year and for intensive periods during the summer. The team consists of the following recursive sequence of activities:
1. assessing the strengths and weaknesses of target and regular students
2. reviewing and assessing current practices
3. setting common goals and objectives
4. reviewing technology resources
5. learning to use new technology
6. designing a shared activity or curriculum unit, including assessment
7. implementing this activity in the classroom
8. reflecting on and revising the intervention
Pathways teams provide ongoing support to teachers as they are introduced to new experiences (e.g., introduction to a new piece of software), engage in collaborative curriculum planning, and implement Pathways activities. The recursive team process allows teachers to test and refine innovative approaches. The team structure is especially helpful in offering teachers a forum for sharing their experiences and reflections as they try out new approaches in their classes, an element often missing from traditional professional development efforts.
In Lawrence, Pathways teams meet during the school day for a double period (90 minutes). In order to attend team meetings, teachers are released from their classroom duties and their school provides substitutes. The frequency with which the teams have been meeting has varied from once a month to once every week. Over the course of a school year, teams have engaged in the Pathways cycle from two to four times, depending on the time needed to learn the new technology, the complexity of the activity the team designs, and the academic schedule into which the activity must fit. In addition to regular team meetings, Pathways teams have also participated in special summer curriculum development projects sponsored by the district and other professional development forums developed for the project. Summer curriculum projects have ranged from one to four five-hour days, and teams have learned particular pieces of software and developed curriculum activities to use in the fall.
Professional development is facilitated. Each Pathways team has a local facilitator who functions both as team leader and as liaison to the school and the district. As a team leader, a facilitator coordinates and leads team meetings, and serves as a resource for team members. As a liaison to the school and district, a facilitator shares the work of the team with others in the school community, helps to orchestrate organizational support, and collaborates with other facilitators and EDC consultants. Local facilitators work closely with EDC consultants to review and plan the various areas of Pathways work, especially in the initial phases of their assignment. Outside support gradually diminishes as local facilitators become more familiar with their roles. The use of within-school facilitators insures that the operation of the team and curriculum planning is sensitive to local circumstances, and significantly contributes to team members' acceptance of new goals and approaches. In Lawrence, both building level and district level administrators (an assistant principal and the districts' coordinator for instructional technology) and classroom teachers have served as facilitators.
Professional development is supported by the schools and the district: Through local facilitators, building-level and district-level administrators are well informed of the ongoing work and needs of the Pathways teams, and provide the necessary resources and support. Organizational support significantly facilitates the operation of the teams and the implementation of Pathways activities in the classroom. In Lawrence, organizational support provided by school and district administrations includes promotion of the ideas and approaches developed by the Pathways teams, release time and substitute coverage for teachers attending team meetings and other project activities, special purchases of technology and other resources, priority access to the computer lab, and staff time for a district-level Pathways coordinator.
Developing Curriculum Activities
The curriculum planning process that is part of the Pathways team approach requires teachers to define and assess specific learning goals for individual students with each activity or curriculum unit that is developed. Success of the implementation of the new activity or curriculum unit is measured by student outcomes. For some of the activities developed by the Pathways teams, learning goals have been derived from the district writing curriculum guidelines, and the accomplishment of these goals is assessed using scoring rubrics developed to evaluate the contents of students' writing portfolios.
During and after the implementation of each Pathways activity, teachers have extensive discussions in their teams, reporting on whether or not students are accomplishing the goals that were set for them. If students have difficulties reaching their learning goals, activities are refined to better meet these students' needs.
One activity designed by Team 1 had students using a piece of software called Storybook Weaver Deluxe to write and illustrate an adventure story. This particular software was selected after the team considered the needs and strengths of their students and found that many of them shared difficulties in organizing their thoughts and expressing them in writing. Storybook Weaver Deluxe's combination of text and graphics offers a variety of alternative strategies and tools for writing. The easy editing tools, similar to those available in many word processors, allow children who have difficulty writing to brainstorm and edit more comfortably. In addition, many children find it more productive to use the program's extensive graphics to develop a story in pictures first, and then write out the text.
The adventure theme was adapted to the ongoing curriculum, themes, and activities of each classroom. For example, one 6th grade classroom was reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The specific task in the Pathways activity was for students to write an additional chapter for this story. Another 6th grade class read the story A Gift of Life. Their task was to write an adventure story about a gift they have.
While the overall objective was the same for all students, specific objectives were established for each child, depending on his or her needs, abilities, and grade level. Seventh grade students were expected to compose full paragraphs, pay attention to character development, and include a surprise twist in the plot. For some of the target students in the sixth grade, creating three pages that flowed logically one to the next was considered an appropriate challenge. When the activity was completed, the team met to discuss target student outcomes, plan further efforts for those students, and consider modifications of the activity for future use.
Activities like these were very successful with the students. Students with and without disabilities were highly engaged in the writing activities, they collaborated more, they felt more confident about their writing, and for many of the target students, the quality and quantity of writing improved significantly.
Our approach to professional development has had a significant impact on the participating teachers:
* The Pathways approach has allowed teachers to develop a better understanding of the needs and strengths of individual students, because these students are followed by the same team of teachers over several consecutive years. This had important consequences for teaching and learning in the classroom. Since receiving teachers already know a lot about individual students at the beginning of the school year, and know what kinds of help and strategies worked well with these students, they are able to provide effective instruction from early on without losing valuable time. Through their participation in the Pathways teams, teachers have also become more accepting of academic diversity in their classrooms and have refined their understanding of learning disabilities, ways of integrating technology to serve students with a variety of needs, and the processes involved in collaborative activity planning. Some of the teachers are now interested in becoming facilitators themselves and starting new Pathways teams.
* Teachers have also become more competent participants in the collaborative curriculum planning process. While collaborating in teams is not unfamiliar for the teachers in Lawrence (e.g., all teachers at the middle school participate in grade level teams), Pathways teams bring together unique sets of professionals, including: special education professionals with classroom teachers and teachers from different disciplines; teachers from different grade levels; staff from one of the elementary schools with staff from the middle school; teachers with building-level and district-level administrators; and teachers and administrators from the district with EDC staff. Pathways teams make it possible for teachers and other staff to share with each other their different areas of expertise (e.g., special needs students, technology, or subject matter). Less experienced teachers learn from more experienced teachers, and teachers from lower grade levels learn about what teachers of higher grade levels expect from their students. The collaboration that is fostered among teachers in the Pathways teams also has resulted in increased collaboration in the classroom. For instance, one of the Pathways teachers used students from another Pathways teachers' class to help her introduce a new computer program to her class.
* Pathways teachers have become more critical reviewers of software and proficient users of at least three different software programs: HyperStudio, Storybook Weaver Deluxe, and Inspiration. At the outset of the project, most of the teachers used computers only occasionally. Now most of the teachers have made the use of computer technology an integral part of their classroom activities. Some of the teachers now serve as resources for other teachers: One is teaching a district-wide inservice course on HyperStudio, and another one is serving as a computer coordinator of the middle school. The teachers are eager to learn more about technology.
In summary, our approach has proven a very effective method of providing inservice professional development for teachers. It has helped teachers develop a better understanding of the needs and strength of individual students, it helped them to collaborate more effectively, and it significantly contributed to their technical competence, all of which contributed to more effective classroom practices, and ultimately to improved student outcomes.
Challenges and Obstacles
Many of the usual "unforeseen" circumstances arose for the Pathways teams. For instance, last-minute assembly programs superseded classes' scheduled time in the computer lab, preparation for district-wide testing interrupted activity flow, and complications with the technology delayed implementation of Pathways activities. In addition, Pathways participants had to deal with a number of issues that were particularly challenging to their work.
Because cross-grading is one of the defining elements of Pathways for Learning, the work can only be truly successful if students who have one teacher in a given year have another teacher from the same team the next year. Ensuring that this happens can be quite complicated, as there are many other constraints on class placement and scheduling.
Another challenge in Lawrence was extending Pathways into the departmentalized structure of the high school. In the sixth grade, a team of two teachers will cover language arts, social studies, math, and science between them, so a Pathways activity is easily integrated into their classes. In the upper grades, where teachers specialize, the fit is much more difficult to manage.
Finally, teacher turnover can be problematic for the Pathways teams. It may be difficult for a new team member to catch up with the technical and pedagogical experience of the other participants. And because the experience varies from team to team, there's no way to develop a generic approach to preparing new members.
Originally published in techLEARNING