Differentiated Instruction in the Self-Contained Research Proposal

Excerpt from Research Proposal :

Thus, the idea of inclusion was born, an idea that suggests students with special needs be paired alongside students who are gifted, students with different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, and students who have different modes of learning (Tomlinson et al., 2003).

Despite this, evidence exists to suggest that the self-contained special education classroom still serves the needs of many students with special needs, suggesting that fears related to special education students' inferior treatment may not related to this particular classroom arrangement. Zigmond et al. (1999) found that students with learning disabilities did not show optimum academic results when integrated into the inclusion classroom. The authors write that students with learning disabilities are often placed in special education for a reason -- because they do not benefit from traditional education. However, the authors do contend that determining where to place such students is never easy. In his brief comparison of education to baseball, VanSciver (2005) writes "NCLB dictates that educators disaggregate student performance data into cells determined by various criteria, suggesting that the performance of the students in the different categories is determined by conditions unique to their groups. It would follow that strategies for improving the scores of the students in those categories would be specifically designed to meet their needs" (pg. 535). VanSciver (2005) continues by suggesting that the fact that students are not taught in these categories makes educating them more complicated. Agran, Alper and Wehmeyer (2002), although they support the inclusion classroom, found in a survey of teachers that many do not support the idea of having students with severe disabilities included into the general education classroom. Indeed, the authors found that a majority of the teachers surveyed "did not believe that access to the general curriculum is appropriate for students with severe disabilities and that these students should not be held accountable to the same performance standards as typical peers" (pg. 129). Although the authors concluded that this opinion meant teachers found access to the general curriculum to be more important for students with mild disabilities, it can also be interpreted to mean that teachers view the self-contained special education classroom as the place where students will find the greatest degree of aid in their education. However, Cawley et al. (2002) found that students with severe emotional disabilities did not negatively affect the learning environment when included with general education students in a science experiment that was implemented and designed by research project staff and teachers. In addition, Cawley et al. (2002) found that the rates of general education and special needs students passing the course were comparable. What this suggests is not that the self-contained special education classroom be done away with, but that it be reserved for those students who need it, while others can receive the benefit of differentiated general education classrooms.

However, just because a student is a member of a self-contained special education classroom does not mean that student cannot be a recipient of differentiated instruction. Much to the contrary, students in self-contained special education classrooms are best served when they receive education that is personalized or tailored to their needs. This gives special education students the best chance of competing with their general education peers after graduation. Smith and Urquhart (1996) offer one example of this through a science classroom. Children who had been identified as having special education needs when it comes to reading and writing were assessed using questioners that required reading and writing for scientific understanding. Although the students, as could be expected, performed poorly, when they were asked to design a model for other students using what they had learned, their completion of the task in addition to the discussions between them as observed by the teacher, suggested comprehension. Based on this, the authors argue that "some children identified as having special educational needs, particularly those whose scientific understanding is often assessed through their difficulties with some of the skills associated with literacy and sometimes numeracy can contribute to their own and others' scientific understanding through collaborative talk" (Smith and Urquhart, 1996, pg. 152). Thus, this is one method through which teachers could provide differentiated assessment to students in the self-contained special education classroom.

According to Armstrong (2003) the history of special education is fraught with difficulties experienced by students in previous eras who had been classified as needing special education services. Often times, these students were excluded and did not receive education with in the "ordinary classrooms" (pg. 39). Predating this was the incarceration and institutionalization of many who were considered to be mentally retarded. Even students in so-called special education programs would be later transferred to institutions. Today, such action seems grossly unjust, however, it serves to remind educators and others who work in the social, educational, or human services fields that it is important to continue along the path of progress in order to give students with disabilities the education that best suits them and their special needs. Differentiation is one of these progressions. In the self-contained special education classrooms, students who receive differentiated education will not only receive a better chance at leaning facts, processing material, and gaining skills that will put them ahead for the rest of their lives, but they will also have the chance to learn that learning can, indeed, be enjoyable, just as Tomlinson (1999) pointed out among general education students.

II. Action Plan

Application for My Classroom

The implications of such literature for my special education classroom cannot be simplified. Indeed, I can apply a variety of teaching strategies having to do with diversification to my special education classroom in such a way that I might enrich my students' educational experiences as well as their extracurricular activities. This application has three distinct stages: curriculum planning, activity implementation, assessment, and reflection. In the first stage, curriculum planning, it is necessary to take the caution advised by Tomlinson (1999) that the basis of differentiated instruction is a solid curriculum. Tomlinson's (1999) portrait of a properly diversified classroom includes a teacher who has thoroughly researched around important information and skills that the children are expected to learn. In addition, she describes a teacher whose plans of differentiation are based on research regarding the students' needs. As Tomlinson (2000) writes that teachers can differentiate four key classroom components -- content, process, products, and the learning environment -- it is important that the first step of my classroom application include an assessment of content and curriculum followed by an assessment of students' abilities and desires for differentiated instruction.

First, as a self-contained special education classroom teacher, it is important that I plan my lessons based on the state's standards for the subject that I am covering, in addition to special education standards. Thus, it is necessary that I consider these standards as I begin to plan curriculum. With these standards in mind, I am ready to begin to plan my curriculum my with my end goal in mind, just as Tomlinson (1999) suggests. In order to achieve the standards, I must fill in the blanks with the curriculum that I plan to use in order to enforce them and any other skills of knowledge that I find to be relevant based on other standards across the disciplines. For instance, if I am teaching a unit on American history, the first step of my planning phase includes researching the state standards for the grade levels I am teaching in American history as well as any special education standards or information that my school, district, or state has made available on teaching this unit in the self-contained special education classroom. Next, it is necessary for me to determine what events in American history or aspects of this subject should be taught in order to fulfill these standards. Only once I have this information can I move onto my second task in the planning phase, researching my students' abilities and desires for diversification. As exemplified by Smith and Urquhart's (1996) anecdote about the children with special needs excelling in science when asked to demonstrate that knowledge through a hands-on experiment rather than a literary exercise, it is important for a teacher to know his or her students before determining how to differentiate a positive curriculum. Just as the teacher in Smith and Urquhard's (1996) case, I will spend the first part of the school year observing my students and giving non-invasive diagnostic tests in order to determine how to best serve my students. This means not only getting to know their individual action plans for dealing with their disabilities, but also understanding the tasks with which they have academic difficulty, the kinds of work that they seem to enjoy, and the kind of academic or social work that seems to produce the poorest work.

It is necessary to observe my students with all four differentiation modes that Tomlinson (2000) explained. For instance, I might consider whether some of my students are more advanced than others, meaning that…

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