When I was a young teacher in the English classroom, I struggled to figure out how to best reach the inclusion students sitting in my classroom. I needed to understand them. I needed to know that I was being the best teacher I could be for them, and I knew I could not leave their well-being up to the staffed inclusion resource teacher in the room. So, I did the only logical thing I knew to do, I signed up for Master’s level classes in special education.
Two years later, I was ordering my cap and gown and took a job interview at a nearby school for an inclusion teacher position. I had never wanted to teach special education, but I really wanted to work for this amazing school. So, when the principal offered me the position, I knew I had to accept it. I only worked in Special Education for one year, as I quickly learned that I belong in a general education position (all that paper-work was not for me!) However, my time as an inclusion teacher was invaluable. I learned more in that one year than I have in any of the other years I have spent in the classroom.
One of the most valuable lessons that I learned was these students with both mild and significant disabilities were no different than my other students. They thrive when real learning takes place. They enjoy the intrinsic value of education. Overwhelmingly, they need significant experiences outside of the walls of the classroom just like every other school-aged child.
Field trips are rich with life lessons: they provide valuable insight into the community, and they give children a small taste of structured independence. These experiences are valuable for students and may be even MORE valuable for special needs students. Many students who have special needs have IEP goals that involve gaining social skills. Taking students on a field trip is an excellent opportunity to practice social skills outside of the students’ everyday environment.
For example, students in community-based classrooms often take field trips to practice social skills. It is imperative that these students gain social experiences outside of their classroom and school. This does not have to be an elaborate adventure. In fact, many community-based teachers take students to the local grocery store, or out to lunch for a burger. There are so many life skills that can be gained through getting students out into the communities they will one day be expected to live in. If we want to help them thrive outside of public school, then we must get them out of public school a little bit.
But now what about those students with mild to moderate disabilities? Do we offer them the same opportunities to focus on life experience? Do we give them opportunities to explore the community they will one day be living and working in? My experience was sadly no. In fact, my students’ IEP goals regarding transition to community members transferred that responsibility to the parents. This then begs the question: What is the school’s responsibility in preparing these students to be active community members?
In my opinion, the school should take on some of this responsibility with all their students, but especially for their students with disabilities. Many of the students in my community who have mild/moderate disabilities come from low income households. Many times, these parents are likely to struggle to give their child meaningful experiences in the community. The same statement holds true for many of the general education students in our rural community as well.
In the single year that I served as a special educator, I accidentally began a tradition for our small school that started with an idea. I went to my principal one day with the notion that our students who had learning disabilities needed opportunities to see their community. Further, they needed opportunities to see their community with the guidance of a caring adult. Finally, they needed opportunities to practice becoming productive citizens in their communities. He loved the idea and gave his permission for us to take a monthly trip with our students out into the community. Best of all, he funded the whole project!
On one of our trips, we visited the local library. Each of the kids was able to get a library card, tour the facility, and check out any item they wanted. A few of them actually checked out DVDs or video games. This was fine with me, I was there to give them a learning experience. These kids had no idea that this resource was right inside their community. After our trip, two of my students started walking to the library after school where they had access to computers with free internet. They were able to study, complete homework, and have a safe space to be after school until their parents got home from work.
On another trip, I got a little bit more ambitious. To preface this story, many of our special needs students make their claim to fame in middle school. They say that they do not have to go to college or will not need to learn a trade because they will be drafted into the NFL or the NBA. I have no idea if this is an issue in other schools, but it is an epidemic in ours. These kids sadly do not have a firm grasp on reality when it comes to what it takes to make it as a professional athlete.
To help ground my students, I decided to take them to the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. Now, this field trip was a good two hours from our little home town, but I thought the lesson learned was invaluable. This trip gave my students the opportunity to learn about professional athletes who had made it to the big time and who had all come from our home state. This field trip gently showed the kids that professional athletes do not just get picked up at a middle school game and drafted straight into the big leagues. These athletes work hard, often finish college, and then they work even harder to keep their spot in a pro league.
However big or small our field trips were though, they made a real difference in the lives of our students with mild to moderate disabilities. In fact, they made such a difference in the way our students approached their lives that our Special Education department still takes them on these monthly trips even though I am back in a regular education classroom and not there to lead them.
Field trips for special needs students should not be limited to the community-based classrooms. I invite you to consider the needs of all your students when planning who should get a field trip this year. Remember, we want everyone to graduate and become productive and active members of our society one day.
If you’d have told me in January 2020 that just a few short months later, I’d be saying farewell to teaching my students physically, I’d have thought you were crazy. But that was early 2020, and as January progressed to February and March, the COVID-19 situation escalated far faster than I could have imagined.
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