Nanette Danielson, MS - Mentor Teacher
By: Nanette Danielson
Nanette Danielson, MS
Nanette Danielson, MS is a special education teacher in Arlington Public School's inclusion program at Zachary Taylor Elementary. A Maine native, Nanette attended Southwest Texas State University, where she received her Masters of Science in Special Education. Her undergraduate degrees are in Computer Science/Math and Elementary Education. She began teaching in the Northern Virginia area in 1996. As the sole special educator in a third-grade team of teachers, Nanette consults with the team on how to help children with learning problems succeed. She assists her colleagues in considering, devising, and modifying academic materials, instructional strategies, and behavioral plans for children with learning disabilities, attention problems, and/or emotional difficulties.
Frequently asked questions
A: Zachary Taylor Elementary school has a fully inclusive program where kids with disabilities and without disabilities are educated together. Children with learning disabilities, including ADHD, are not concentrated in any one classroom. I am a special education consultant to our 3rd grade teaching team. As a consultant, I work with the teaching team to strategize and implement instruction for children with learning, attention, and behavioral difficulties. I also write and monitor Individualized Education Plans (IEPs).
A big part of the model is our 90 minute performance-based groups for reading and math. The teachers thoroughly assess the students in the beginning of the year. The students complete reading inventories, hand in writing samples, and take open-ended math assessments to help us determine our groups. For example, in third grade this year, we may have a 2.1 reading group, a 2.2 reading group, and a 4.3 reading group -- and we do shift kids when they need to be in a different group. At the end of the year, we record their performance level on Grouping Cards.
A: Parents like the model. They seek out the reputation the model has achieved. Parents can visit the classrooms at any time. They are always ready to help out. Parents constantly volunteer and are often very involved. I am always impressed at the level of involvement.
I think one of the reasons why the model is so successful is that the teachers promote social skill-building and foster an environment of acceptance, which the parents like. Parents of children with special needs are naturally concerned that their kids will be teased or feel isolated. Or parents are concerned that their child won't succeed because the classroom teacher is busy dealing with misbehavior. Since my background is in emotional disabilities, a variety of behavior interventions and plans are put into use throughout the year. The teachers coach students with social skills deficits on identifying and developing appropriate social behaviors. We praise all the students when they take on responsibilities or challenges, big or small, such as organizing the science bins and or extending their academic projects the best way they can. These extensions may look very different for different children. For example, a child with low reading skills, with moderate opposition, has a writing project due. How might we help him? We decide he'll do the project using a high-interest magazine and build the story with glossy pictures. He'll dictate his story to me, and then he will type it. After typing for a certain period of time, he could take a break to work on a collage. We'll role model what to do what you feel frustration and how to communicate these feelings. The best part would be how well he knows his own story and how proud he would be to hand his report in with the rest of the class. Now he has coping strategies that he can use for the next situation in his life. We are always focusing on the individual and differentiating our instruction as much as possible.
Parents of children with and without special needs want to make sure that their children are getting the best possible education. Parents of want to know how teachers will individualize learning and optimize learning opportunities. They want to know how the whole thing works! During my daily plan time, I consult with our teaching team to adapt material for the classroom for children with learning and emotional disabilities. At weekly meetings, teachers might voice their concerns about a child on my caseload by saying, "Bobby is just starting to have difficulties with his math homework, he's not remembering his multiplication." The team will discuss the students strengths and weaknesses and review his IEP goals. We'll ask ourselves, "Do we need to only monitor his homework? Or should we modify his classwork as well? Is he in the right math group? What is the best option? Let's also call the parents to get their input." We figure out-- and put into practice -- how to help students with learning and attentional disabilities succeed in school. We implement a variety of ways to help them learn. I can offer a few examples for Bobby: We may need to make a stronger connection to addition before he is ready for multiplication. Or I might suggest a lesson unit on skip counting. We might give him graph paper to keep track of his format while he is multiplying. We might "shorten" his workload for this particular unit or give him different homework than the rest of his group is getting. We would make sure his quizzes would test him at the right level. What we do for Bobby we do for all children --whether or not those children have IEPs. Except, where special education goals are concerned, our entire teaching team has developed knowledge and strategies for a child with social skills issues, or auditory processing issues, ADHD, etc.
Parents of children with special needs are also concerned that, with inclusion, other children will know that their child has a disability and will be singled out. Most children in our program never realize that they are in a "below average" or in an "above average" group because the groupings are numerous and we constantly mix children with and without disabilities. My role as a special educator is not really recognized among the kids. But, of course, some students recognize the differences. While the teachers certainly don't encourage the children to give a "label" to themselves or their peers, we will give both children with and without disabilities honest explanations and praise them when they are accepting of differences or when children with learning difficulties advocate for themselves by asking for specific help or taking academic or social risks. Again, how adults react to their reactions when faced with differences among themselves really depends on each situation as well as the personality of the child.
A: Another popular question that parents ask! Teaching children with learning difficulties in the content areas can be a challenge. The big content-related subjects include science, social studies, and health. Health is the easiest to adapt for children with learning disabilities, probably because children relate to it. Science would be the next easiest content-heavy subject to adapt for children with learning differences. Arlington Public Schools have great science programs that are very hands-on and are of high interest. In addition, the science units have lots of LD-friendly characteristics such as; logs, field investigations, great videos, laser CD-ROMs, and short labs. Teachers often focus on cooperative learning in science.
Social studies gets more complicated. All of a sudden, we are going from small groups of reading and math to large groups of kids at all different performance levels. Prior to each social studies unit, the teaching team will review the content and plan additional or different activities for children with learning disabilities. For example, for a student with reading comprehension difficulties, I will take the unit and photocopy it to larger print, perhaps adding more pictures, a word bank, and different questions at the end of the chapter. Or have an activity where we verbally restate highlighted paragraphs or create a visual cause/effect chart. The students might look at a CD ROM about the unit, with lots of pictures and sounds. I might suggest vocabulary strategies that let all kids get out of their seats a bit, or involve an art component, or something that this child is good at. Or if the child's strength is how social he is, he can partner with a peer "tutor" during a map activity. We also have social studies stations. Kids get a partner for these stations and the way the activities are structured invite the children with learning difficulties to take more risks because the activity offers the option for self-correction with embarrassment. For example, a student with a learning disability can match the continent name to the world map; but if she is unsure, she can always quick peek at the back and see the answer printed on the back-- what' s important is the option for her to look at the answer is there.
Parts of our social studies tests will use the same design as Virginia state's standardized tests in order to familiarize the students with the question and answer format; though some of the kids will be provided word banks and other additions to help them to succeed. I do not have my own social studies class. Instead, I'll help create the materials or I'll pull a mixed group for review or walk around to help out the kids.
A: The truth is, I can't describe the groups by stating any one strategy or any one reading program. Our reading groups are multi-strategy and highly individualized. The teachers do an excellent job of figuring out the best learning style of their reading group and follow this lead. Some groups might spend time on phonics, word walls, and basal readers and also spend some time doing some peer editing for warm up. Other groups are literature-based with a brief lesson on grammar to warm them up. The model builds in two hours a day for language arts.
A: Recess, but not for the reasons you might think! Recess gives me a chance to interact with the kids and get to know them. Also, the students will often come up to me during this time and ask for help. The students get to see me more carefree; they understand that worktime is a little more serious, and during playtime you give your brain a chance to relax.
Q: What advice would you give to a new teacher in an inclusion program?
A: Flexibility is the key for every situation. When you are including kids in one classroom with different abilities, it takes more time to plan, so be ready for that. The inclusion model asks of us: How can I really include everyone, in all parts of the school day? Inclusion asks: How will I strike the balance between challenging kids and meeting the needs of children in special education, the child of average ability, the child who is gifted and talented? My role as a special education teacher in this team is to advocate for the children with special needs, but the teaching team balances this so it is not at the cost of educating all students.
Nanette Danielson (2001)