Lessons Learned: When Students Teach the Teacher

By David Veling

Two years ago, I had the opportunity to partner with a teacher of 14 – 18 year-olds in a largely self-contained program. With more than 40 years of Special Education experience between the two of us, we felt confident that we could put together a meaningful, impactful course plan that would develop self-determination and soft skills and lead to increased independence in employment after high school. We had a well-thought-out set of skills, a logical progression in which they built upon one another, and a sincere belief that we could accommodate, modify, scaffold, or otherwise individualize our lessons to engage and support every learner in the room.

For all of our preparation and certainty of success, our first lesson was a disaster. But it led to honest reflection, and a new plan based on three key strategies that been transformative.

  • Lesson #1: It’s All About Entry Points.

Good instruction meets the young person where they are and capitalizes on existing strengths and knowledge. It also creates a safe opportunity to take a chance and engage. The first day we did the exact opposite of this. We started them with a survey. Don’t get me wrong, it was a heavily modified survey. But…it was still a survey. What’s fun or safe about a survey? It looks like a test!

So, when it came time for our second attempt, we tried something completely different. We talked about solo versus group musical acts. Then, we asked students to identify which one they preferred. We had hung “Solo” and “Group” signs on opposite walls, and instructed students to move to the sign they preferred. There was no response required other than moving to one wall or the other, nothing to say out loud, nothing to write. Now it wasn’t perfect, but it was a safe entry and when one student asked, “What if it depends,” and several others began nodding their heads in agreement, we knew we were off and running.

  • Lesson #2: Practice, Practice, Practice.

Each and every lesson needs to provide opportunities for real growth and purposeful practice of target skills. One of the most effective activities we ran asked students to work with a partner to build a structure; it was a way for each pair to work as a team to create one object.

A few minutes into the activity we had to call a “time out” because virtually every pair had two students building two structures…individually, separately, side-by-side. They weren’t even looking at each other, never mind working collaboratively. We re-explained, modeled and showed each pair how they could combine what they had already created, and called “time in”. About half of the pairs began to work together. With some further targeted support, we got 100% of the pairs working together. At the end, pairs presented their constructions together. Without prompting from us, they negotiated roles for the presentation and supported each other through follow-up questions.  This kind of dramatic growth in core skills led to gains beyond the classroom.  Several youth from this class were able to participate in the city’s summer jobs program where they achieved considerable success working side-by-side with non-disabled peers.

  • Lesson #3: Make a Big Deal Out of Success.

Growth in and successful demonstration of target skills should get immediate, visible, and relevant recognition. A few lessons in, we began awarding feedback tickets to recognize when a student demonstrated a target skill during the lesson. By teaching students to recognize it in themselves, they began to recognize it in others. This led to a remarkable shift where students began pointing out when their peers were demonstrating the skills! And recognizing their efforts. And congratulating and encouraging them.

About two months into the program, as I walked through the school one morning on my way to set up for the day’s lesson,  one of the students who had been distraught and disengaged on day one, poked her head out of another classroom. “Are we doing job skills today?” she asked. “Absolutely,” I responded. She ran back into the room and I could hear her excitedly telling everyone, “We’re doing job skills today! Yay!” That’s when I realized how much our students had taught us.

~Adapted from the Power of 5 Presentation at the 2017 Employment Matters! Conference presented by the Massachusetts chapter of APSE

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