Resources for Teachers

For all of you teachers who are already preparing for next school year, here are some resources that might help.  Many of the resources offer lesson plans, but I use these only as inspiration for my own plans, as each class is very different and requires a high level of differentiation.

This link will take you directly to Monthly Instructional Guides for teachers of students with significant cognitive delays (free downloads).

This link will take you directly to the special education services page where you can find multiple resources and training opportunities.

This link takes you to multiple resources on evidence-based strategies, as well as general, training, transition, statewide and national resources.

This link takes you directly to the Autism Speaks toolkits.  These are free downloadable guides that address multiple topics.

Provides resources to learn about exceptional children.  Links to teaching resources and strategies for working with students with special needs are also provided.

Other Resources to Help with Lesson & Activity Planning:

Use their custom materials and 25,000+ images to create your own Word and Powerpoint projects with no watermarks or other limitations.  You can also upload your own pictures into their templates to create projects like Get-To-Know-You Bingo, US Presidents Dominos, picture schedules, etc.  You have to register in order to download from this site (Free Unlimited Access for 3 Months, then $36/year).

Download free materials in multiple subjects, as well as social stories, ABA materials, flashcards, basic living/home/school/independent living skills, etc.  Downloads are free, but you must register with your email to access the resources.

Download nonfiction and literary articles, along with reading comprehension and vocabulary lessons, formative assessments and teacher guidance.  Downloads are free, but you must register with your email to access the resources.

This link takes you to a free application that allows teachers to quickly create checklists that students can use to monitor their behavior in the classroom.  No registration required.

Offers lessons in math, science, social studies and language arts.  Registration required, with free limited access or full membership.

Download lesson plans and access other resources.  Downloads are free, but you must register with your email to access the resources.

Adapted, age-appropriate literature (PDF and Powerpoint format) for grades K-12.  Free to download and no registration required.

This spring I was contacted by Sarah Brian from Forever Curious, a site that offers a curation of educational resources.  She sent me some links that you might find really useful:

Offers lesson plans that integrate website content about military life and world cultures with key concepts in Language Arts, Math and other subjects.

Financial lessons for students with special needs that include teachers' guides and student activities.  Downloads are free in PDF and Powerpoint formats.  No registration required.

Offers links to lesson plans that teach children not only about history and government, but also responsibility and citizenship.  You will find lesson plans and resources to help you teach about laws and contracts to your specific age range of children.  Some of the links require registration, and some do not.

Offers links to lesson plans that teach financial literacy.  Most of the links do not require registration, and the downloads are free.

Download free PDF files, lessons and materials that teach social studies skills.  No registration required, but you'll likely need to adapt some of the literature to be appropriate for many of your students.

Links to strategies, lesson plans and activities that teach students visual-spatial skills and organization.

Links to shopping and retail-themed lesson plans for educators.  Most of the links do not require registration, and the downloads are free.

Each class includes six sessions with a different produce feature and sessions are divided into two components: a tasting activity and a cooking activity.  The tasting activity introduces children to different fruit & vegetable varieties.  Next, the children prepare a recipe using one of the fruit & vegetable varieties for the cooking activity.  This is a free PDF download (269 pages).

*With the exception of the Monthly Instructional Guides that I reviewed and updated in the fall of 2016, I have not received any compensation from any of the above resources.

Hello 2017!

2016 was a very busy year, and although I've been actively writing activities, those activities have been living their purpose in the classroom without making their way to sharing mode.  For 2017, I decided to bundle my previously posted activities and post some new resources as well.

Because I'm a special education teacher, I always have specific student goals on my mind.  For this reason, I provide the goal for each activity.  Still, these activities can be used for IEP goals or simple classroom activities.  I hope these resources help support you in educating your students!!

Click HERE

Structured Learning Environment Classroom Reveal

Yes, it has taken me half a school year to get to my classroom reveal.  I saw the posts popping up in August showing the cute decor and stations designed with precision, and I too wanted to post the pictures of all of my hard work.  As a special education teacher though, I had to make adjustments faster than I could get the previous pictures uploaded.  As I got to know my new students, I had to make changes, and changes, and more changes.  Then came the activities and the meetings and the visuals, and here I am in December, finally sitting down to reveal my room.

When designing a room for students with special needs, it's very important to consider how your students experience the world.  This year I do not have any students who are prone to classroom destruction, so I'm able to have a lot more things on the walls and items out in the open than I was able to have in certain years.

Yes, it's a classroom, but it's also where I spend most of my day.  I'm the type of person who is affected by their environment, and because I'm blessed with the ability to design my work environment, I want it to be nice.  Still, I need to think about my students' needs.  I know from experience that there's nothing more frustrating than to spend too much time and money on a classroom that is not going to be somewhat maintained by my students.  So, I first have to think about the group that I have each year.  What are my students' needs?  What are their likes and dislikes, and what will make them feel at home and still be functional enough to support them in their educational goals?

The Entrance

I made a double-sided curtain for my door because I have a large window, and sometimes my students need a little more privacy.  Next to the door is my germ station where I keep tissues, hand sanitizer and bandages.  I also have an outbox for papers and other things that need to be dropped off around campus.  The stop sign is a necessary reminder for some students.  I also have two new signs of motivation this year; I like to think of these as our classroom mission statement:

"In Mrs. Morrow's class, we don't do easy.  We make easy happen through hard work and learning."
"In Mrs. Morrow's class, we help one another, try our very best, learn a lot, raise our hands, care and share, listen closely, make new friends, use manners, and have lots of fun."

Teacher Command Post

This is my desk area, although I never sit at it.  It's more of a command post for needed office supplies and important papers.

World Map

My fun new addition this year is a world map sticker that's on my dry erase board.  Over the large sticker are magnets of animals indigenous to each region.  The students love exploring it, and I love looking at it like a piece of classroom art.

Technology Zone

I have two classroom computers and two iPads in my room, as well as buttons, switches and tons of cords.  Students are allowed to bring their own earphones for when they're using the computer, and they keep them in the red bin between the computers.  In previous years I created systems for computer rotations, proper use of technology and communication aids for what sites the students were supposed to be working on, but I do not need those aids this year.

Sensory Area

This small area is very important to some of my students.  There is a small hammock swing, a mat, and an assortment of sensory items for the students to explore.  Students earn coins throughout the week and can buy time in the sensory area, and other students have it built into their schedule.

Morrow's Market

I set up this little Market Math area for students to practice their money skills.  Each item has a price taped to it, and I created word problems with pictures of the foods that the students need to find.  Students put the found items in their basket and then use the cash register calculator to find the total cost of their items.  They then use a dry erase marker to choose the correct cost of their items out of three choices.

Ready to Learn

Students each have a clip with their picture on it, and every day they start in the green, which means they are ready to learn.  Students who are on task and doing their best can move up the ladder to fabulous and extraordinary.  Students who are making poor choices, deliberately not doing what they're supposed to be doing or behaving in an unsafe way are moved down the ladder to make better choices or talk about a consequence.  I pay coins to students who move up on the ladder, and privileges are taken away from students who move down the ladder.  Each day, the students color in where they landed on their communication log so that their parents can know more about their day.


I keep the students' earned coins in their "wallets," out of reach of most students.  It's important for them to see the coins they're earning throughout the day, but it's more efficient for me to keep them high in one place so that coins are not played with or misplaced.


This area really is the foundation of how we stay organized and on track every day.  This area includes our classroom schedule, classroom expectations, pacing calendars, scope & sequence, lesson plans, morning warm-ups and the students' mailboxes.  Under the mailboxes are bins for their backpacks and coats.  This area really provides me structure so that I'm able to efficiently and consistently provide the students structure.

Math Zone

In this area I keep all of my math activities and supplies.  It's very difficult to hang student work on cinder block, so I found these cork board squares on Amazon that have adhesive on the back.  I can now use push pins to change out student work much more frequently for display.

Reading Zone

This is where I keep my reading supplies, but I hung the students' science work in this area because it looked great.  I thought moving into a bigger room this year would solve everything, but I'm still managing to bust it at the seams.

Science and Social Studies Zone

Next to my big shelves that hold my science and social studies activities, I have an IEP activity tower.  I like to keep the specific materials for each student separated from my other materials so that I can easily find them when collecting data on a goal.

Station Rotations

I created this visual on the dry erase board for students to know where they are supposed to go when we rotate.  It's especially helpful at the beginning of the year or when I decide to change the rotations from what the students have gotten used to.  This system makes it really easy for me to move the students' pictures around and have to talk a lot less.

Work System Schedule

I have one student this year who started the year choosing not to work at all.  I knew I needed to put this student on a very clear work schedule, but the simple icons didn't work for this student.  So, I took pictures of each of the activities, with a picture of my USA rug where this student likes to sit for breaks as a symbol for earning a break.  I cut a pencil case and adhered it to the wall.  I taught the student to look at the symbols and understand that each symbol represented an activity, and that when the activity was complete, the symbol would be dropped into the pencil case, inching that much closer to a break.

After many weeks, we built work time up to twenty-five minutes before taking a break, and I've now been able to substitute the actual photographs of the activities to simple number icons that allow me to not have to change the schedule when swapping out activities.

Calm Place

This year I built a calm room in my classroom.  I've since added a colorful mat like the one in the sensory area, as well as two more bean bags.  I have a feather chandelier hanging inside, which is also another great sensory experience.  I have a CD player inside where students can listen to music or audiobooks.  I also have a planetary projection light and a multi-color laser LED light experience.  I made the calm room out of PVC pipe and fabric, and the students absolutely love it.  They work so hard for coins to buy time to spend in this area.

LED Light Experience

This is just one of the pictures of what it looks like inside when the music and lights are going.  I originally built this room for my students with visual impairments, but it has turned out to be a favorite place for everyone, including me!

Every year my classroom looks very different.  There were years that I just couldn't have so much stuff out, as I had students who required me to keep items high and walls minimal.  I also needed a chill zone which took the place of my calming sensory room.  Every year it's fun to get to know my students and get ready for the challenge of designing a room that will be just right for that group.  Because of my student population this year, I was able to create a room that is rich in textures, sound, and a nice balance of darkness and light.  Many students with visual impairments can still see light, yet they can be overwhelmed by too much light provided by the environment, and they need the light to dim.  This little room allows us to have the best of both worlds.

Students' Rights Presentation

Some of you may know that I'm in graduate school, and when projects come along that allow me to expand on my passion in special education, I take full advantage.  I was recently assigned the task of creating a twenty-minute presentation for campus staff by choosing from the bullet points listed by my professor.  I saw two bullet points that interested me:  disability issues and students' rights.  These seemed like two topics that could be perfectly merged.

I've learned that inclusion can be a very hot topic for a lot of teachers.  There are so many variables:  the student, for one, is a great variable.  If the student has been properly placed, if the general education teacher is naturally comfortable and skilled in accommodating work, if the general education teacher has additional special education support in the classroom, etc., are all things that need to be considered.  Inclusion can be a wonderful thing when the placement is right and the correct supports are in place.

One thing that is deeply impressed upon special education teachers that some general education teachers might not fully appreciate is the enormous number of laws regarding students receiving special education services.  For this reason, I made this presentation to educate general education teachers.

What I want to impress with this presentation is that I understand how much teachers have on their shoulders, and because of this, teachers can be seemingly tipped over the edge by additional challenges.  Challenges in public school education are not going away, so sometimes what we need to do is adjust the way we see our students and remember that our ultimate goal is to educate all students so that they can meet their potential.

If you click to view the presentation, you will only see the slides, but if you download for FREE, you will be able to hear the audio presentation through the slideshow.  Remember to click on the speaker to hear the audio.
If you feel that your campus could use this presentation to educate your teachers, you are welcome to download this file for free.  I ask that you please continue to maintain the credit that is due to Kathie Snow and other amazing people who I sourced information from, as well as myself for compiling this presentation.
To view the presentation on students' rights in special education, please click HERE.

*Photograph of Chris Ulmer with his students.  Click HERE for his Facebook page, Special Books by Special Kids.

Apps for Special Educators

Hello teachers!  I'm sure you have been just as busy as me starting the new school year.  This week we're officially a quarter into the school year, and I can't quite believe it.  I've been trying to get to my classroom setup blog post for nine weeks, so I can empathize with all of you who just can't seem to get to things that you want and need to do.

As the first quarter of the school year began and ended, I also saw the completion of several big projects I've been working on, as well as the start of graduate school.  One of the projects I've been working on is reviewing and updating the Monthly Instructional Guides for Region 3.  Over the past two years I've had an amazing experience working with Region 3 educators, and I'm really excited to see this project posted on their website to support teachers in Texas.

One of the attachments that I created for this project is a compilation of apps for teachers.  I love using technology in the classroom, so I hope you find this useful.  Once the updated guides are published online, I'll provide a link so that I can spread the word of what Region 3 is doing to support Texas teachers.

What is an Autism Unit? An Interview with Mona Kemper, Autism Unit Teacher

I started this blog just over a year ago to support special education teachers.  My passion is truly supporting great teachers so that these deserving students can be allowed the best teachers possible.  I've found that there are very few positions that I can hold in a school district where I can truly support teachers other than being a teacher peer.  I can be empathetic and honest, and I know that most of us need that kind of support.

When I started this blog, I knew that I wanted to speak my mind about issues that face special education teachers.  Yes, there's little money in being bluntly honest in public education, but there's a lot of free therapy and positive energy from the people with whom I respect the most.

After several years of teaching, and many, many meetings and trainings with special education teachers, I started to feel like I was swirling in a cesspool of frustration and negativity.  I understood the frustration first hand, but I wasn't willing to give into the negativity.

So, my main intent with my blog was to feature teachers who are just amazing people doing amazing things.  Their ideas can help other teachers, and none of it is up for argument or debate.

This past year got much busier than I thought it would, not only for myself, but also for the amazing teachers who I wanted to feature.  Far be it from me to pile more work on my peers, but I'm excited to say that the first teacher on my list, the teacher who is right at my back door, was ready to answer a few questions.

I really wanted to feature Mona Kemper because she's an Autism Unit teacher.  This world is fascinating to me (she might laugh hearing me say that).  Yes, as an A.L.E. teacher, I teach many students with Autism.  Still, there's a big difference between an Alternative Learning Environment and an Autism Unit.  Because we are teaching more and more students with Autism every year, I was really curious to find out how these kinds of classrooms work differently from a typical A.L.E./Specialized Support/Life Skills Classroom.

Mona Kemper has 25 years of teaching experience, and 15 of those years are teaching in an Autism Unit.   She has experience working in a variety of instructional arrangements in elementary and secondary levels, from a unit for emotional and behavioral disorders to co-teaching.  She has also been an In-Home Parent and Community Trainer for NEISD school district for 15+ years.  She has provided training to teachers within and outside of the school district.

Mona Kemper is currently in graduate school working on her Masters in Applied Behavior Analysis with emphasis on Autism, and she's planning on becoming a BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst).

I asked Mona questions about how she organizes her classroom to best meet the needs of students with Autism, and I think that she beautifully explains how, ultimately, if a teacher is truly focused on individual student needs, then we will be servicing our students to the best of our abilities.

Q:  How is an Autism Unit different from a traditional specialized support or life skills classroom?

In a typical Specialized Support or Life Skills classroom, there tends to be a larger student to staff ratio and more small and large group activities.  Also, students in specialized support or life skills classrooms tend to have students that attend general education classrooms, so the schedule is often set by the general education bell schedule.

In an AU unit, we do not have students that transition to the general education classroom, so we do not follow the bell schedule.  Schedules are more student driven.  Each student has a visual schedule that reflects the amount of time that the particular student can work or amount of break time that is needed for that student (another scheduling nightmare!).  We try to get a student to work with an adult at 15 minute intervals (with 10-15 second breaks if needed) to make scheduling a little easier.  Typically we attempt to transition within the classroom every 15 minutes with the stations being:  break, independent work, 1:1 (I.E.P. work) and 1:1 or small group (usually no greater than 1:2) for general education concepts work.

Q:  How do you prepare for new students who may be coming to your room?

Whenever possible, I look at the student's FIE, IEPs, PLAAFPs, BIP, AU supplement, and deliberations from the last 2-3 ARDs.  I contact the teacher to request pictures of the student's physical structures, schedule, independent work area, break area and any visuals specific to the student that are generally used in the classroom.  Also, any information regarding behaviors, academics, functional routines, independent work materials, break items and Do's and Don'ts when working with the student are requested.  I also request that the student's schedule and transition marker be sent with him or her.

Q:  What kind of considerations are made when setting up the physical structure of an Autism Unit?

Physical structures are individualized as much as possible.  We have some basic structures:  break area, electronics area, group area, independent work areas, snack area, chill zone (for times when a student needs an area away from others), game areas, small group areas and 1:1 teaching areas.

Each year I look at the individual needs of the students and modify the areas.  I may add portable walls, move the areas so that staff can either get to or be able to leave an area easily, look at the lighting for an area (does it need light covers or does the student like more light), noise levels in a particular area, and I ask myself if an area gets too much traffic.  The physical structures may change during the year as the needs of the student or the group changes.

I am also very fortunate to have an additional classroom for a sensory-motor lab.  I have swings, trampolines, large balls, basketball game, kinetic sand and a large variety of fidgets and other items.

Q:  Would you explain how visuals are using in your classroom, not only for academics, but also to provide structure and manage behavior in your room?

Visuals are a critical part of my program.  We have visuals for just about everything.  We use individualized visual schedules to help the students to visually organize their day.  We use visuals in the restroom to remind students of the steps to toileting and washing hands, visuals (mini-schedules) to break tasks down into smaller steps, token boards for the student to "earn money" to purchase break time, reinforcers and snacks.  For behaviors, when a student is struggling with self-regulation, we understand that they do not process language easily.  Visuals are used to tell them what they need to do, the consequences for following the rules and the consequences for not following the rules.

In times of high anxiety or aggression, we try to only provide the visual so that the student can understand what to do.  Spoken language is transitory (once it is said, it is gone).  Visuals allow the student to process, remember and refer back to what they need to do.

Q:  How do you organize work systems for your students in order to foster independence?

Work systems are developed to provide maintenance and generalization of skills.  Each student has their own independent work station with an individualized work system.  The work system is essentially a mini-schedule that tells the student what work they must complete.  Typically I have baskets, buckets or other containers for holding the work.  Depending on the students, there may be as little as one container with one activity, or there may be five containers with several activities in each container.  The students' work systems tells the students the order in which they must do the work.

For example, the system may have the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th tasks with matching labels on the containers.  The student follows the system completing the work in the correct order.  A "finished" basket is provided for the student to place completed work.  The work will then be checked for accuracy to determine if the student is maintaining or generalizing the skill.

Q:  Would you explain how communication instruction works in your classroom?

Communication is a central part of my program.  Most of my students are non-verbal and use AAC for communication.  For the students who are verbal, I still have visuals/picture supports to assist them when they are having difficulty with verbal communication.  My students do not get anything unless they make the request, and that includes the break area, snack and lunch.

For the break area, the student must request their desired item, and then they can take it to the break area.  For snack and lunch, the student is required to request food items.  Nothing is withheld from the student, but the student must request the item.  Cues and prompts are provided for the student to assist with communication, and all attempts at communication are honored.

Q:  Working with students who can become anxious or overstimulated, how do you maintain consistency and best meet their needs during these times?

Keeping to a predictable schedule is critical for individuals in an AU Unit, and using an individualized schedule is an essential part.  Students can become frustrated and anxious when they do not know or understand what is happening and what will be happening next.  We do not allow students to become "rigid," and a regular and predictable routine is calming for students.  We teach flexibility by showing the student (paired with a verbal directive) that schedules are changing.  It is also important to rotate staff so that students become accustomed to working with different staff at all locations.

Providing visual/picture supports for schedules, transitions, behavior expectations and work expectations is critical, especially during times of anxiety and sensory overload.  When a student becomes anxious or is experiencing sensory overload, they are far less likely to process language.  Limiting verbal direction and providing visuals can decrease the anxiety.

Q:  What do you think is one of the most challenging parts of your job?

Paperwork for sure is a challenge!  Data is a critical part of the program, and the time needed to collect and analyze the data can be daunting.  Add to that the district requirements, campus requirements, and preparing for ARDs....there never seems to be enough time.

Other challenges come in making new materials for the students to use &/or modifying the existing materials, balancing behavioral needs, academic needs, functional needs and staffing issues.

I try very hard to individualize the materials so that the materials match the individual needs of each student.  Making individualized materials to meet I.E.P. requirements and address the general education concepts can be overwhelming.

Balancing each student's behavioral needs and academic needs can be extremely challenging.  Often the student will have behavioral issues when presented with academic tasks or activities.  This is sometimes because the student does not see or understand the function of or need for the academic tasks.  Making the activities as functional as possible can help.  However, due to state/federal academic and testing requirements, making some of the concepts functional can be difficult and may not adequately prepare the students for the required testing.

Staffing is always an issue.  I schedule my staff so that they are working directly with students or monitoring students that are on their break or doing independent work.  When a staff member is absent (getting substitutes is difficult, and when we do get one, they do not know the kids), the schedule has to change.  When staff has to take their lunch, the schedule is different, and if we are having behavior challenges, then that can not only be a challenge, but also a safety issue.  Balancing so that all staff are working with kids but are also available to support other staff when behavior challenges occur is very tricky, and staff flexibility is critical.

Q:  What is one of the most satisfying parts of your job?

When students make progress, no matter how seemingly small that progress may appear to others, I feel satisfaction.  For example, when a student states verbally or through AAC that he/she wants or needs something, when a student who was previously unable to sit and work without someone in very close proximity completes the work without an adult next to them, when a student with extreme aggression/SIBs (self-injurious behaviors) goes for a longer period of time without aggressing or engaging in SIBs, this can be huge for my students, and it can bring my staff and myself to tears!  Any skill that a student can acquire that will increase their quality of life for themselves or their family is incredibly satisfying, and that is why I love coming to work.

Q:  What advice would you give to a new teacher who plans to teach students in an Autism Unit?

If at all possible, connect with another teacher that has an Autism Unit so that you can ask questions, visit the classroom, take pictures of different structures, works, visuals, etc.  Skype (or other application) is a great way to make contact with teachers that may be too far away to visit -- just remember that students cannot be involved in any pictures or on Skype.  Take advantage of the internet!!!  There are some amazing examples of AU Units available.  Search TeachersPayTeachers for materials.  Also, check out Pinterest (there are great ideas there).  Research, research, research, and get as much training as possible, both formal and informal.

Remember, individuals with Autism are incredibly complex and unique.  You will learn more each and every day!  Try not to get overwhelmed or defeated.  If something doesn't work, ask yourself WHY?, and try something else.

*Just a note:  I have so many photographs of Mona Kemper's classroom, including visuals, schedules, work systems and more.  I spent a lot of time preparing these photographs to include in this post, but when I included them, I felt that they took away from what was being said.  So, in the future, I plan on posting these pictures to inspire teachers in creating their own learning environment.

I need to give a HUGE thank you to Mona Kemper for setting aside the time to answer my questions.  She is a very busy woman.  Although many teachers list summers as one of the best parts of their job, Mona has been teaching for 25 years, and I don't think she has taken a summer off in 30! :)  She is the biggest champion of FERPA and student confidentiality that I have ever met in my life.  As teachers, we're always conscious of this and very careful, but Mona takes it to a whole new level.  She is truly protective over her students, but she doesn't shelter them to the point that they can't meet their individual potential.

Mona builds strong relationships with her parents, and at this year's 8th grade graduation, it brought tears to my eyes to see what she had prepared for her students and their families.  In special education, our students' families often deal with the struggle of their children not being a part of the natural progression of coming of age milestones and celebrations.  It may not occur to many people that there are so many families out there who have hopes and dreams for their children, just like any other parent, but they don't get to see their child perform in a play, a sporting event, graduation, prom, and all of the other milestones that help parents slowly let go as they see their babies turn into adults.  Parents of students with specials needs are denied these moments of celebration, in many ways, because their students just can't handle the settings in which these events and ceremonies happen.

Mona is a teacher who is well aware of this, and every year she plans an amazing 8th grade graduation, no matter if it's for four students or one student.  The families of the graduating students are reserved a table of honor, and she prepares the room with party food and celebratory cakes.  She presents each student with a plaque that recognizes them for something that they can do that is like no other student.  She gives a speech specific for each student.  She hangs pictures of each student's middle school journey around the room.

This is the kind of teacher that we all can be if we can learn to set aside the frustration of our job and focus on the positivity that we are spreading in the world by being student focused.  I'm very proud to say that I work with Mona Kemper and that I'm able to judiciously pop into her room (because I'm aware that I might be throwing off the schedule :)  to ask if she has anything that will help me with a particular lesson with certain higher need students or something to promote stronger fine motor skills or anything else that I need.

Mona truly works with some of the most difficult students to teach, but she is an inspiration in the way that she recognizes that every student can and will learn.  She is an example of a member of a community of teachers who supports other teachers, and I know for a fact, not only by working with her and seeing the progress that her students make, but also by listening to her parents, that she has changed many lives for the better.

TEKS Based Lesson Planning

This week I participated in a question and answer workshop discussing Planning for Instruction in an Alternative Learning Environment.  Because I spent the past six months tackling a project to make instruction more enriching my classroom, I want to share this information to help other teachers.  I heard a lot of good questions (and statements) from the groups of teacher who I sat with, and I wanted to share our discussion, as I think it might help a lot of teachers who were unable to attend the workshop.  I also heard questions that I didn't have the answer to, so this opportunity has caused me to do more research on special education laws.

I'm a middle school special education teacher in an alternative learning environment, so I teach 6th, 7th and 8th graders in the same classroom.  Some of my students are with me the entire day, some are with me for core subjects but leave for 1-2 electives during the day, and I have other students who are in LAB classes for Reading, Language Arts and Math, but they come to my room for Science and Social Studies, and sometimes a Social Skills elective.

STATEMENT:  I'm spending all of my time teaching I.E.P. goals.

My first year as a teacher in the alternative learning environment, I welcomed 16 students as their sole teacher.  My students came to my room with 88 I.E.P. goals.  This meant that I needed to collect data points on each of the 88 I.E.P. goals every week.

Remember, that's just data points.  I was told by a coordinator in my district that it's law that you teach I.E.P. goals EVERY day.  This includes prerequisite skills that support I.E.P. goals.  I'm currently doing research on the exact law that mandates that I.E.P. goals and/or the prerequisite skills that directly support each of these goals be taught every day, as I think it's important that special education teachers know the exact laws that they're being held to.

Obviously, there's not enough time in the day to TEACH 88 I.E.P. goals.  BUT, if you're teaching prerequisite skills that support the I.E.P. goals, then you're on the right track.

I spent two years trying to minimize the I.E.P. goals by mastering them (which turned my teacher brain into an anxious mess) or discontinuing goals that were not appropriate for my students.  Even once I was able to cut out the unnecessary goals, I continued to welcome 6th graders each year that came to me with 15+ I.E.P. goals.  If you do the math, a class of 10 students that each has 10 I.E.P. goals means that the special education teacher is required to teach 100 I.E.P. goals on a daily basis (*specifics of the law are still being sought).  This is the situation that many special education teachers are in, and I'm telling you that it is nearly impossible to be an amazing teacher with these hurdles in front of you.

I must say, I'm a fan of I.E.P. goals, of course!  I just want to emphasize the importance of not writing goals for the sake of having goals.  I.E.P. goals MUST be meaningful.

Still, there are several reasons to limit the number of I.E.P. goals for your students:

1.  Again, I.E.P. goals do not benefit a student if they are not meaningful for the student.

It's really important to remember that your prerequisite skills are tied to your I.E.P. goals, so if you're teaching prerequisite skills, you ARE teaching your I.E.P. goals daily.  You may not necessarily be collecting data daily, but you are still supporting their goals by planning lessons in this way.

My continuing challenge is that teaching I.E.P. goals or their specific supporting prerequisite skills daily leaves no time to teach mandated programs in certain subjects or the essence statements that prepare students for the STAAR-Alt. 2 exam, which is also a mandate.  So, for this reason, I think it's really important to have clarification on what the actual law says in regards to the frequency of I.E.P. and supporting prerequisite skills instruction.

2.  Have a plan for what you're going to teach in a school year in all subjects based off the Curriculum Framework.  Write your goals to be based off the TEKS, and find a way to work I.E.P. goal prerequisite skills into multiple areas of your instructional day.  If there are goals that must be taught one on one, ask yourself how much one on one time you really have in a day to provide.  If it's important, then make it happen!  Still, as many students in your room need to be working with YOU as much as possible, try not to write an excessive number of goals that can only be taught in isolation.

QUESTION:  How do I minimize the number of I.E.P. goals for my students?

I started with making a plan to free up more time for me to teach enriching lessons.  The goal was not only to minimize the number of I.E.P. goals that my students had, but to also make the goals that they had more meaningful and allow them to access the full range of curriculum.  These were some of my thoughts:

1.  Some goals NEED to be very specific.  I found this especially in the area of Language Arts.  Some students, if they are capable of doing so, need to learn how to write their name or important information such as their phone number.  Some students need to learn how to functionally use their communication devices.  There are other goals that need to be focused on a specific area because it is truly most beneficial for that student.

2.  Can I write goals that can be taught in multiple subjects?  I've found that, by being creative, the answer is YES.  Many math goals and non-fiction reading goals can be taught during science or social studies.

3.  I want to provide opportunities for my students to join general education LAB classes and work with their general education peers.  If I'm limiting my students in what they are learning by creating an excessive number of I.E.P. goals, I'm also limiting their opportunities at school.  Still, I.E.P. goals are so important!  Ohhhh, what to do?!  Year after year I have to remind myself that I can only do my best and put the students' needs first.

4.  How can I possibly be preparing students for the STAAR-Alt. 2 test when I'm spending the majority of my time teaching very specific I.E.P. goals that will likely not be assessed on the exam?  Teachers, I don't have the answer to this one.  I get conflicting information depending on who I talk to, so I'm continuing to be a student of special education law so that I can create the best plan possible for my classroom.

STATEMENT:  Parents might want a lot of I.E.P. goals.

Just this statement alone is not student focused.  Parents wanting to have X number of goals tells us nothing about what's most important for the student.

I've found that our parents might have had experiences that made them feel unsure about their students' education, and I empathise greatly with these parents.  Frequently, at the root, is that they fear that if there is not a goal, their student isn't learning anything.  The truth is, if the teacher is well organized and is truly passionate about incorporating prerequisite skills into their students' education, then padding the goals is actually limiting their students' education by reducing opportunities for their students to have full access to general education curriculum.  Every single goal is time consuming, and when it's necessary because a student truly needs to learn a specific skill, then it's worth it.  When it's there just for the sake of having X amount of goals, then it's not student focused.

Building rapport with your parents is crucial.  I'm not saying to give out your cell phone number and be available at all hours.  Teachers need time with their families too.  I will say, bless you teachers who do hand out your cell number and make yourself available in that way, but that's not the path for every teacher.

I'm saying that it's important for parents to know what your educational goals are for your students.  Try creating a classroom newsletter, building an informative website, respond to emails promptly and handle even the smallest issues immediately.  Share successes in your room regularly and unsolicited.  Express your excitement about student progress, and let parents know what is happening in your room.  Again, this doesn't mean an open door policy; it's important that we always keep student privacy in mind, and frequent parent visits can disrupt the flow of a classroom.  Let parents know what's happening by sending pictures of their students engaging in activities and by sharing what units are coming up.  If you can even find the time, provide parents with developmentally appropriate questions that they can ask their students about their day when their students come home from school.

In regards to specific I.E.P. goal instruction, remind parents:

1.  Many motor goals take away from academic time.  Students who are practicing motor goals, especially gross motor skills, frequently do so in isolation, and this takes them away from their peers and the academic learning environment.  Consider moving motor goals to Adaptive P.E.

2.  If you've built good rapport with general education teachers on your campus, you will be allowed opportunities to include your students in their room for lessons with their general education peers.  The social interaction is invaluable, and it is truly meaningful learning for your students.  The more goals you write and the more specific the goals, the more it ties their student to the alternative learning environment to work on those goals.

3.  Assure parents (only if you are confident that you will do so), that their student will have an enriching school day, even if there is not a specific I.E.P. goal written for it.  Inform them of what you're teaching, and even if the concept seems too difficult for their student, share with them how you're differentiating the concept so that their student will have a hands-on and fun learning experience.

QUESTION:  I teach several grade levels in the same room.  Do I focus on writing plans by grade level, grouping students by grade level and teaching different lessons to different grade levels?

The answer is NO.  You might have students in lower grade levels that have a higher ability level than your students in a higher grade level, and you may have students in the same grade level that do not work well together in small group.

If you study the TEKS for several grade levels, especially if you study the Vertical Alignment Document, you'll see that some prerequisite skills are very specific for different grade levels, and there is some redundancy (with a possible change in words for a slight increase in rigor) across grade level TEKS.  Look for the redundant prerequisite skills.  These are the skills that you can teach to all of your students simultaneously.

Remember that you will get the most out of your day, for your students, if you don't spread yourself too thin.  Find the skills that are at your students' ability levels and are similar across multiple grade levels.  Don't divide your students any further than they are already divided, and remember that for our students, grade is just a number.  We need to be more focused on ability.

QUESTION:  How do I fit prerequisite skills into my lesson plans?

You're going to need to become familiar with the Curriculum Framework for the grades you teach provided on the T.E.A. (Texas Education Agency) website.  Once you identify the skills you want to teach in the amount of time you have available to you, you may find that you don't have the materials to teach all of these skills.

Building a library of materials takes time and money.  Don't overwhelm yourself by tackling it all at once.  Start with the skills that you can teach in a fun and meaningful way with the materials that you have available to you.  Start setting annual goals for yourself of what concepts you'd like to add each year, and stay focused on only attaining those materials.  Instead of trying to tackle the entire Curriculum Framework's prerequisite skills in a year or two, which would lead to far too many mini lessons with not enough manipulatives, visuals and hands-on experiences, focus on what you can reasonably do in a year, and teach those concepts to the best of your ability.  Keep adding new concepts every year as your library of materials grows.

I still see a big problem here.  YES, I.E.P. goals MUST, by definition, be individualized.  In my opinion, this doesn't mean that every student in my room needs to be learning something completely different from the next student.  I know that this is a controversial topic.

As an optimistic problem solver, so I thought, okay, I CAN DO THIS!  For science, I'm going to design a lesson (it's going to have to be on the smartboard, because I'm going to need the digital effects), where there are multiple landforms, each having their own natural habitat, and then a huge weather system blows in, and then I'll obviously show how that weather system is affecting the water cycle.....and then I have to get more creative.  During this weather system over multiple landforms where there are multiple habitats, two hikers approach, and they decide to have a game of tug of war.  I'll focus on push and pull, at the same time focusing on how their musculatory system is being taxed by the push and pull movements.  Throw the mic down!  I just followed the law by teaching all of my students their science I.E.P. goals today!   By the way, that was all just squeezed into 30 minutes, and my students had perfect behavior.

Okay, we all know this isn't going to work.  It wouldn't even be a meaningful lesson for the students if you could pull it off, because it would be too confusing.

Again, I'm continuing to research the laws on how frequently each mandate MUST be taught.  Currently, I've been given conflicting information, depending on who I ask.  I think this is the case for many special education teachers.  It's my understanding that I must:

  • Teach every I.E.P. goal and/or each of the supporting prerequisite skills for each of those goals EVERY DAY.
  • Collect 1-4 data points (depending on who I speak to) on every I.E.P. goal every week.
  • Teach the specific reading program provided by my district every day.  Some say the whole lesson needs to be taught every day, and some say that components of the lesson must be taught every day, ultimately finishing the lesson by the end of the week.  Even so, that takes up my whole reading period, so what about the I.E.P. goals?
  • Teach the essence statements to prepare my students for the STAAR-Alt. 2 exam for each of the subjects in which the student will be tested.  They're all tested in reading and math (with additional tests depending on grade), so again, my reading and language arts periods are already saturated with too much to teach in not enough time.

Yes, I feel like I've created a pretty amazing plan for my classroom, but jeeeez, am I still breaking the law?  It puts a pit in my stomach.  I know I have an enriching classroom.  I know my students are constantly learning and engaged and having fun!  That's so important to me, but still, are there so many unreasonable mandates that it is truly impossible for a special education teacher to do everything that is required of them without breaking a district rule or even a federal law?

QUESTION:  So do I teach I.E.P. goals AND lessons to teach prerequisite skills every day?

Now we're getting into an area where I prefer to have my attorney sitting next to me whispering in my ear.  I'm continuing to do research in this area, and I don't want to give any bad advice, so I'm going to artfully dodge this question by providing a few creative ideas.

Although your I.E.P. goals are labeled as subject specific in the program where you do your do or die paperwork, they are not subject specific in the classroom.  I have my students' I.E.P. goals in every subject area on a list every week.  I know that, based off of my lesson plans for the essence skills lesson I have planned for the week, there are just some goals that I NEED to set time aside for.  They're just not going to blend into any lesson.  For this reason, I do have days on my weekly plan that I set aside specifically for working on I.E.P. goals.  Yes, I said it.  I'm just an anxious person and there are some goals that I'm too worried will be passed over by Friday, and I want to make sure that I get to them.

On top of being anxious, I'm also creative, so I use that list to keep track of what goals I've addressed each day.  I sort of turn it into a game for myself where I figure out a way to touch on as many skills as possible.  Do I create the above, drop the mic lessons?  NO.  Our students wouldn't even enjoy lessons like that, because they'd be confused and overwhelmed.

So, I already know that I'm always going to be stretched too thin in reading.  Reading is one area where your I.E.P. goals are bountiful and the district provides you with mandatory programs.  Reading is like the popular kid on campus, and social studies is the kid brave enough to show up without a date.

I weed through the reading goals and find any other time of day to practice these goals.  Easy peasy is a reading goal that addresses nonfiction.  Hands down, you want to teach this goal during science or social studies.  The student who has a nonfiction reading goal can read the text to the whole group, small group or peer during science or social studies.  Depending on their goal, you can collect data on their reading fluency or be prepared a few minutes before the end of class to present them with a few comprehension questions about what they read.

Another cool friend of the reading goal is the math goal.  Math can, again, be worked into multiple subject areas.  Let's say a student has a measurement goal.  If you're creating a timeline in social studies, ask that particular student to measure the timeline.  The next day, you can explain that the timeline has grown with new information, and it's important to you that you have new measurements.  If you are in science, you might find it absolutely crucial that the student with the measurement goal take measurements of the planter.  If you have a student who has a goal working on equal groups, you might have a pressing need in science to sort your lab tools into three equal groups.

Be creative, and express to the students how important these tasks are to you.  Find every way to teach reading and math goals in areas where you have more time, and save reading and math allotments of time for the goals that are just too specific to be taught during any other time.

QUESTION:  How do I write a lesson plan that doesn't take me five+ hours per week?

DO NOT REINVENT THE WHEEL EVERY WEEK.  The key is creating for yourself a template that includes important information that does not change on a weekly basis.  Writing lesson plans is very complicated, as all of our students are very different.  Still, there are ways to write a template that needs parts revised annually, parts revised every few weeks, and other parts revised weekly.

I could go on about writing lesson plans.  For years my passion was behavior and classroom management, but my newfound passion is planning for instruction in an A.L.E. classroom, so rather than rewriting the 80 pages in this blog post that I've already written, please see below for the link to my newest Lesson Planning Guide.

Because I'm a Texas middle school teacher, this guide is specifically based off the prerequisite skills for a middle school alternative learning environment.  By reading the description, once you click the link, you'll see how this will save you 6 months of reading and dissecting 577 pages of curriculum framework, finding redundancy in prerequisite skills across 3 grade levels, creating a year at a glance, scope and sequence and pacing calendar for your classroom.  I created this for my classroom, but nothing is best left in a bubble, so I truly hope it helps save you time, takes stress off your shoulders, and helps support you in making your classroom the most academically enriching classroom that you can possibly make it.  I'm well aware of the amount of time spent on behavior, critical skills, ARD paperwork and parent communication, so if you have a leg up on the academic planning, you're a more empowered teacher.

For those of you who are elementary or high school teachers, I haven't gotten there yet :)  If you're feeling ambitious, though, I also uploaded the templates that I created for my Guide.  All of the templates are in PowerPoint format and fully editable.  I hope they can help you to create your own amazing plan to educate your students.