A regular classroom with special-needs students enriches all

Dancing in the classroom, inclusion, Lynnwood Elementary School

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair 

Dancing in the classroom: After a couple of hours of reading and writing, it’s time to move! Here, pairs of Lynnwood fifth-grade students look to an overhead projector for cues on how to do “secret handshakes.” 

GUILDERLAND — “I like having more kids in the class, because it’s an opportunity to make more friends,” said fifth-grader Alethia McLoughlin.

Classmate Victoria Thorncroft said that she likes having more than one teacher, too. “It kind of makes it easier, because if Mr. Fry is busy, I can go to Mrs. Whipple.”

The students at Lynnwood Elementary School who are in fifth-grade teacher Tim Fry and special-education teacher Lauren Whipple’s co-taught fifth-grade class are able to spread out over two adjacent classrooms with the folding wall between them left open.

The Guilderland school district is continuing to expand the move toward inclusion it started a year ago, assistant superintendent Demian Singleton told The Enterprise. Inclusion is a philosophy, he said, a belief that, rather than having students with disabilities go to a separate location, where they only interact with other students who have disabilities, it is far more beneficial for them to be integrated with their peers and have exposure to rich curriculum.

Sometimes people think of students with Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs, as being “all the same,” Singleton said, thinking that they are “incompetent, or incapable, or unable to keep up, or potentially a behavior problem, and that’s overwhelmingly not the case.”

One parent, Rachael Barbash, at a recent school board meeting questioned the inclusion initiative, asking, “How do you keep other kids challenged when teachers may be consumed with helping students who are struggling?”

The students with IEPs aren’t the only ones who benefit from inclusion, Singleton told The Enterprise.

Students who don’t have IEPs may struggle at times in various areas, he said, and a co-taught classroom means that extra help is available to all students in reading, speech therapy, or other areas.

What has really impressed him, Singleton said, is seeing the way students without disabilities learn empathy. They learn, he said, that difference is something that should be valued and embraced, not something we should look down upon. Creating an environment where students can learn that, he said, has an impact on the community and the society as a whole.


The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair
Finding answers: A Lynnwood fifth-grader looks to the book she is reading about Lincoln for an answer to teacher Lauren Whipple’s question.


Larger lessons

For their reading class last Friday morning, the Lynnwood fifth-graders gathered on the carpet in Fry’s classroom. He held up and read the illustrated biography “Wilma Unlimited,” about how Wilma Rudolph went from wearing a heavy leg brace after contracting polio to being the fastest woman track runner in the world.

Fry paused in his reading and asked the students to come up with character traits to describe Rudolph. “Brave,” someone said.

He wrote “brave” on the flipboard and asked the group for evidence of her bravery, and for a volunteer to write the evidence on the board. One student said, “Even though she knew it hurt, she kept on going,” referring to Rudolph’s physical therapy.

Fry kept reading and got to the part where “what hurt most was that the local school wouldn’t let her attend, because she couldn’t walk.” She realized she had to do something, he said, and she got a heavy brace that would allow her to walk, and go to school.

“It was a turning point,” Fry said.

Another turning point came when, one Sunday, she took off her brace and tried walking up the aisle of her church without it.

“She walked down the aisle without her brace,” a student said.

“But did she do it in her room, when she was all alone?” asked Whipple. No, the students said; she did it where everyone was watching.

“That’s right,” said Whipple. “She took a risk.”

The class talked about the meanings of being “brave” and “confident” and “determined,” and tried to decide which word suited Rudolph best.

“The more evidence we find, that’s fantastic,” said Fry at one point.

After the class lesson, students spread out across the two rooms to do some group reading work, looking for evidence of character traits in the people they were writing about. Their compare-contrast papers about two different historical figures of their own choosing would be due in a few weeks.

One group was trying to figure out if Levi Strauss, the inventor of blue jeans, was “greedy” or just a good businessman. Fry, who was sitting with that group, brought up the example of epi pens — a medical device that patients with severe allergies use in emergencies to inject themselves with epinephrine, which can save their lives. Fry told his students that the company that makes the devices had recently raised the price from $100 to $400, and asked, “If the company making epi pens is the only one making them, how much is the right profit for them to make?”

One student answered, “I’d want it to be more like $10.”


The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair 
High-tech help: Teacher Tim Fry helps a fifth-grade student organize his research, typing right into the student’s Chromebook. 


Student views

The Enterprise asked kids, one-on-one, how they liked this different style of classroom. Rachael Dwyer said, “I prefer the bigger class, because then we can make more friends and see more people each day.”

Brooke Ewing said, “It’s helpful because, when you’re working on a project, if you only have one teacher, then you would not get any help while that one person is helping someone else. You have more opportunities to work with a teacher.”

She added, referring to Fry and Whipple, “They have different qualities.”

She also noted there are lots of different places for kids to sit. “And we also get two classrooms, which means more space. So if there’s no space at my desk, I can go sit over there,” she said, pointing to Mrs. Whipple’s classroom.

Are there any bad parts about the class, Victoria Thorncroft was asked.

“No, not really,” she responded. “Sometimes it does get a little crowded, but then, we have two classrooms.”


The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair 
Peace and quiet: A Lynnwood student finds a comfortable chair for reading a biography of Malala Yousafzai. She plans to write her compare-contrast paper about the young Pakistani equal-rights activist and one other figure from history. 


Different paces

Fry called over the students who were already finished with the assignment, and gave them something extra to do. He handed out printouts of the Western hemisphere and asked them to work on labeling all the countries, in preparation for a test in March. He directed them to an online game they could play for practice, if they wanted.

Whipple, meanwhile, worked with two students on a book about Billy the Kid. His mother had an infection in her lungs, Whipple said. She read from the book, “His mother got weaker and weaker, and she died in 1874.”

One of the students observed, “They didn’t cure her lung disease,” then, a beat later, wondered aloud, “What is lung disease?”

Soon Whipple continued, “‘After his mother died, schoolwork no longer appealed to him.’ What does that mean, in your own words? Is he working hard in school? Or not working hard?”

The student said, “He’s not working hard, because his mom’s gone.”

The two hours for reading and writing seemed to go by fast, since it was broken into many smaller activities. At the end of it, Fry said, “We need to have a break from all this research.” He said, “Let’s activate!” — a cue for the class to take a dance break.

He picked a student at random to select the day’s exercise game from a website called GoNoodle, and soon all the students were watching the overhead projector while doing, first the Electric Slide and then some paired dances called “secret handshakes.”


The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair
Animated discussion: Two girls look through a biography of Sacagawea for evidence of her bravery.


Teachers’ view

“The whole point is that kids aren’t really supposed to know the difference between models,” Fry told The Enterprise. “They’re all just here learning.”

Asked if it’s harder for teachers to teach a group with a wide range of abilities, he said that it isn’t qualitatively different, because any teacher, in any class, is always differentiating, or adjusting to individual needs of students.

In this classroom, he said, students can be broken into “homogenous and heterogenous subgroups,” adding, “We attempt to do as much heterogenous grouping as possible.”

Planning together with another teacher can sometimes require a little extra effort and care, he said. But Google Drive helps a lot, because it makes it easy to share documents. So does being in one large space, made up of two classrooms.

“Also, we have meetings in the hallway all the time,” he said.

There are more student needs, he said, but also more teachers to meet those needs.

In addition to Whipple, other teachers sometimes “push in,” or come into the classroom for short periods of time. These include a physical therapist, an occupational therapist, a speech therapist, reading teachers, teaching assistants, and a literacy coach who helps Fry teach reading.


The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair 
Eager: During a discussion of “Wilma Unlimited,” a student at Lynnwood Elementary raises her hand and braces it with her other hand, to allow her to hold it up higher and longer. 


Fry said that, on the day that The Enterprise visited, “When I read ‘Wilma Unlimited’ aloud, I was making it accessible to all students.” Afterwards, he said, he and Whipple, together with literacy coach Nell Ball and reading teacher Kathy State — both of whom had “pushed in” for that class period — were able to cover that same concept discussed with the whole class in small groups while working with a biography that students could read independently.

Whipple told The Enterprise by phone, “All of the kids in the classroom seem very happy. It’s a great group of kids. They’re hard-working, and they work well together.”

The students all “have strengths in their ways,” Whipple said.

And they are “so kind” to one another, she said.

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