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.


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