Observation of a Special Education Math Lesson

EDU 6526   Assignment 2 Video Analysis 8/5/15

The video I watched for this assessment was a special education math class for what appeared to be students in the 4-6th grade range and who appeared to be fairly highly functional special education students. It wasn’t clear from the video what the students’ disabilities might be. The teacher, Ms. Strawbridge, conducted what appeared to be a successful and meaningful math lesson focused on teaching the geometrical concepts of definition and calculation of ‘perimeter’ and ‘area’. She used many of the teaching strategies we’ve read about in our textbooks; “Classroom Instruction that works”, (Dean, et al. 2012), and “A Handbook for Classroom Instruction that Works”, (Pitler & Stone, 2012). As I viewed the video I saw Strawbridge using the following teaching techniques; cues, questions, non-linguistic representations, summarizing, note taking, providing practice and providing recognition.

Prior to conducting this math lesson, Strawbridge had written classroom expectations on the white board;

  • Not Talking
  • Hands are raised
  • Taking notes
  • Following Directions

Strawbridge started her math lesson by stating the objectives. She said, “Where are we going? Where is this going to lead us to?” As is typical throughout this lesson, she answered her own question by stating, “We are going to be able to: 1) identify angles, 2) measure angles, and 3) solve for missing angles. In my experience with special education students, especially those students who are reluctant or unable to speak, it’s typical and somewhat necessary for the teacher to provide answers to questions, in this way leading the class to a conclusion about what is concrete and about what will be focused on. “Students learn most efficiently when they know the objectives of a specific lesson. If students are aware of the intended outcome, they know where their focus should be,” (Pitler & Stone, 2012).

Strawbridge began her lesson at the point of reviewing prior knowledge. In this way she  ‘cued’ the students to think deeply about what they remembered from prior lessons. She also used many questions to engage learners throughout the lesson. “What do we already know about geometry?” she queries. “Let’s do a quick review before starting the lesson so that it doesn’t completely leave our brain.” Using cues and questions helps students access their prior knowledge and make connections to new knowledge, it “focuses learning on the important content to come,” (Pitler & Stone, 2012). She showed information about the definition and examples of content related to discovering ‘perimeter’ and ‘area’ on the overhead projector. As Strawbridge taught about how to discover the concepts of perimeter, she made notes which were also shown overhead. “Note taking helps students deepen their understanding of information because these strategies involve high order thinking skills,” (Dean, et al, 2012). The teacher said, “Your notes should look exactly like mine, that’s how I’ll know you’re paying attention and that’s how you can get credit for today.”  I noticed that her lesson used non-linguistic representations in the form of the addition sign (+), the subtraction sign (-), and the multiplication sign (x). “Non linguistic representations provide students with useful tools that merge knowledge presented in the classroom with mechanism for understanding and remember that knowledge”, (Dean, et al, 2012).

In my experience teaching special education, providing consistent and constant reinforcement is essential. Frequently, special education students, especially those more severely impacted, are not motivated to do well because of intrinsic motivation; they need a tangible reward. In this video Strawbridge provided two rewards; as she wandered around the room checking students’ work, she provided recognition by saying things like (specific names omitted in this review), “Good job”, “Looking good”, “Awesome”, “Nice on-task work”.  “Praise provides informative feedback about the effort and care that students put into their work, the progress that students make in understanding content or performing skills,” (Dean, et al, 2012). The teacher also provided a type (individual point) system of recognition which, as viewers, we weren’t fully informed on. We just know she stated that ‘so-and-so’ got another point for effort. Toward the latter end of the lesson a timer chimed and the teacher gave the entire class another point (toward what we as viewers don’t know) for meeting classroom expectations.

As I watched the video, I thought of my own future performance as I teach special education students in a self-contained setting. I liked how she physically moved among the students to check their notes – to make sure they were on the ‘same page’ as she was. I appreciated how she recognized specific students covertly and overtly throughout the lesson. She kept momentum going emotionally as well as educationally. Although the video ended abruptly, we are left to assume that students gained some degree of knowledge regarding ‘perimeter and area’. I can also assume that in future lessons, Ms. Strawbridge will remind students what they learned on this day and days prior so that their future learning can be strengthened by repetition and the deep seated potential of prior knowledge.



Strawbridge, C. Special Education Self-Contained Math Class. Video accessed at:                                   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CuhtZDDSIGE                                                         

Dean, C. B., Hubbell, E. R., Pitler, H. & Stone, B. (2012). Classroom Instruction that Works. Alexandria,            VA: McREL.

Pitler, H. & Stone, B. (2012). A Handbook for Classroom Instruction that Works. Alexandria, VA:           McREL.


Generating and Testing Hypotheses in Special Education

SPU EDU 6526  8/3/15

I would guess that most of us can remember using the strategy of generating and testing hypotheses in a science class during our secondary education. It may have been the case decades ago (when I was in secondary school-1970’s) that this method was used only in science classes, but that is not the case in this day and age. This strategy can be made relevant across all content areas. Generating and testing hypotheses applies knowledge by using two thinking processes which can be used alone or in tandem with each other. The first process is deduction, which requires students to apply current knowledge to make a prediction about a future action or event. The second process is induction which involves students in a process of drawing new conclusions based on information they know or have presented to them. Generating hypotheses deepens students’ knowledge because “it requires the use of critical thinking skills such as analysis and evaluation,” (Dean, et al. 2012). The limitation of inductive reasoning is that, no matter how carefully we use the process, our conclusions may or may not be true. Therefore it is important that teachers have a solid understanding of the content, and communicate with students as they create an understanding from their observations and continually provide formative assessment opportunities to ensure that students have not developed or reinforced misconceptions as they construct they own meaning from the instruction.

Using the rubric from the text A Handbook for Classroom Instruction that Works, (Pitler & Stone, 2012, pgs. 292-294, I am finding it hard to rate myself very high in either of the two areas focused upon. I teach special education to elementary aged students with severe disabilities. Four of my eight students are non-verbal. My students range in IQ levels from 4-65. As students participate in their Individualized Education Programs, it is a rare event that a student is asked to generate and test hypotheses. Occasionally as a class we would conduct a science-type experiment based on a suggestion from our special education curriculum, News2You. At one point we reproduced an experiment after watching the science show Bill Nye the Science Guy. We filled a bowl with water, put a file folder on top of it and inverted it upside down. The file folder page held the water intact in the bowl. We asked the students what would happen when we withdrew the file folder. While we elicited no verbal responses, as staff we offered responses to which some of the students agreed with. We predicted the water would fall out and indeed it did. It delighted the students, but I realize that the scientific principal was lost on them.

I would rate myself a 1 in the rubric Engage Students in a variety of structured tasks for generating and testing hypotheses, “I seldom engage students in a variety of structured tasks for systems analysis, problem solving, experimental inquiry, and investigation”. As I look at the strands of rating myself a number 1, I realize that I can do better. Sometimes I fall into the trap of thinking my students are less capable that they are. Plus, I have students with such a wide variety of cognitive abilities; I should aim to teach to the highest level, not the median. I can incorporate more interesting and challenging types of curriculum and activities. I would also rate myself a 1 in the rubric Ask students to explain their hypotheses and their conclusions, “I seldom have my students explain their hypotheses either orally or in writing”. Here again, I teach students who are either non-verbal or have limited verbal and cognitive capacity. But I suppose I could modify curriculum to include an opportunity for them to ‘guess what comes next’. As we conduct whole group lessons, there are ample opportunities to engage students in asking them to predict what comes next in a simple story or while working with students individually we might ask them what would happen if they build a stack of blocks too high, or what happens when we plug a blender in and push the ‘on’ button. Life is filled with natural consequences which can be illuminated to students with disabilities such as; a dryer gets hot when it’s running, turning a faucet to the left brings hot water, turning a light switch up brings light, and opening a classroom door provides fresh air. Even our students who wear diapers realize that a change into a dry diaper is more comfortable. I will challenge myself to examine this area of teaching students cause and effect as I embark upon a new year teaching students with severe disabilities.



Dean, et al. (2012) Classroom Instruction that Works.(2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD

Pitler, H. & Stone. (2012). A Handbook for Classroom Instruction that Works (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.


Teaching Similarities and Differences in Special Education


SPU EDU 6526 7/28/15

Identifying similarities and differences is an excellent teaching strategy. This strategy helps learners gain insight, draw inferences, make generalization, and develop or refine how students see the world. While participating in this type of academic exercise (perhaps using a Venn diagram), students are likely to “notice new features they hadn’t noticed before and learn which of those features are relevant to a particular concept,” (Pitler & Stone, 2012). In the textbook Classroom Instruction that Works; Research-based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement (Dean, et al, 2012), four strategies are identified in the area of discovering similarities and differences; comparing, classifying, creating metaphors and analogies. While the use of all four identifying strategies is productive, creating metaphors and analogies is generally the strongest.

Using the rubric from the text A Handbook for Classroom Instruction that Works, (Pitler & Stone, 2012, pgs. 265-268, I am finding it hard to rate myself very high in any of the three areas. I teach special education to elementary aged students with severe disabilities. As a teacher I struggle to make the strategy of identifying similarities and differences meaningful. What comes to mind is a task we ask of many of our special education students at different levels; separating physical items as it relates to similarities, thereby also identifying the why they items are different.

I rate myself a 3 in the are of ‘Teaching students a variety of ways to identify similarities and differences’. I am strong in the area of finding new physical items to differentiate among based on the student’s cognitive level. I am always on the search for new ‘task’ type teaching tools. I recently found a variety of nuts and bolts at a thrift store and turned a group of them into two tasks; separating items by differences and the fine motor task of screwing together appropriately sized items. For students with gross and fine motor capability, we may task them (at a simple level) to separate black from red checkers. At a higher level we may ask a student to verbally narrate as they classify an alphabetized list of words. For instance, in a rolodex-type organizer, a student has to match (find the similarity to) the first letter of a word to match a file tab in the rolodex. I don’t often use metaphors or analogies due to the fact that we are working on lower level cognitive skills with the students. Much time is spent in the classroom working on communication; four of my students are non-verbal. I would rate myself a 3 in the area of engaging students in the process of identifying similarities and differences. I consistently provide students with explicit guidance in identifying similarities and differences to deepen their understanding and enhance their use. Finally, I would rate myself a 3 in the area of providing supporting cues to help students identify similarities and differences. I consistently provide additional support through posters of important problem features, labeled diagrams and prompts to help students identify differences.

While teaching whole-group or individualized instruction, I try to intentionally point out similarities and differences, depending upon the developmental status of the student. Sometimes I’m unsure as to what my student is understanding , but I’ve been surprised many times at how I may have underrated them, so I tend to ‘aim high’ as I give new information, with the hope that with repetition, knowledge can be gained.


 Dean, C. B., et al. (2012). Classroom Instruction that Works; Research-based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement. (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD, Denver, CO: MCREL Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning.

Pitler, H. & Stone, B. (2012). A Handbook for Classroom Instruction that Works (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD, Denver, CO: MCREL Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning.


Observation of a 3rd Grade Adjective Lesson

SPU EDU 6526   7/25/15

For this assignment I reviewed a “3rd Grade Adjective lesson” taught to class at a Catholic school in Le Mars, Iowa (2011). This was a 3rd grade language lesson for a unit on adjectives. This lesson focused on using senses to describe. The teacher introduced the concept of (and set the objective as) using adjectives to describe the five senses while discussing a ‘trip to the ocean’. Later in the lesson, students used an Oreo brand cookie and described it using all of their senses after which they were to write a paragraph full of adjectives and descriptions about the Oreo cookie. After watching the video, I came to the conclusion that the teacher held the students’ attention using a variety of different strategies and most of all she kept the lesson brief – 13 minutes. In that short period of time she couldn’t use an exhaustive list of teaching strategies, but she was focused on a few (using non-linguistic representations, providing feedback, reinforcing effort, cues and questions, and advanced organizers) and held the course steady as she led the students through the adjective lesson. I was most impressed by her classroom management. She reminded the students, “If you have something to say, please raise your hand,” and followed through by only calling on students with raised hands. I teach in a public school and I wonder whether we can assume that students exhibit more compliant behavior in private schools than in public schools. I found no research to substantiate this idea, but I tend to believe it true because private schools can selectively admit students with a better behavior track record and can deny admittance or expel students who break behavior codes. Regardless, this teacher had very good control and kept the lesson moving.

The teacher provided feedback to students seamlessly as she taught. “Metacognitive feedback is provided by asking questions that served as cues about the content and structure of the problem and ways to solve it……Students who receive metacognitive feedback significantly outperform students who receive results-based feedback,” (Dean, 2012). Initially the teacher queried the students about their prior knowledge of adjectives by asking, “Who can remind us what adjectives are?” The teacher clarified the student’s answer by recapping “All right, it’s a word that’s in front of a noun, but what is it doing in front of the noun?” Students hands immediately popped up as she constantly questioned and cued students. Our text states “By providing student with feedback that is corrective, timely and focused on criteria, and by involving them in the feedback process, teachers can create a classroom environment that fosters and supports learning”, (Dean, 2012).  The lesson involved the teacher (after instructing the students to “put their pencils down”, leading the students with questions through the five senses (touch, smell, sight, taste, hear), and asking them what words might be used to describe each of these senses. She used the strategy of note taking for the entire group as she wrote down the one-word she synthesized from the students answers to her questions. A student says, “It sounds munchy”, and the teacher refined their answer by saying “We’re not concerned with the sounds around the cookie, how does it feel? – How about ‘crunchy’?” The teacher provided rapid recapping, and effort praising “That’s a good one!”, after a student had contributed to the group discussion. I deemed it a positive strategy as the teacher was a note taker, summarizing the students’ thoughts and modelling what it’s like to take notes to capture the most important words of a lesson, such as writing a one-word phrase.

As I teach my special education students, I like to use humor whenever possible. Most of the time, the nature of the humor is lost on my students, but is appreciated by staff – and I believe this adds to staff job satisfaction. The teacher in the video shared humor with her students (time stamp – 4:48) when she affirmed a student’s choice (when asked how the ocean might taste) of the adjective ‘Gross’. She made an ‘aside’ comment which the students laughed at, “It does taste pretty gross if you get in your mouth while swimming!” She used a personal narrative story to describe her experience while visiting the ocean. She elaborated with use of colorful adjectives. This strategy of using a personal narrative can increase student interest and involvement in the lesson by making it seem relevant and applicable; as if they could have/and might have experienced the same thing themselves on a trip to the ocean.

At this point, the teacher reengages any student whose interest might be diminishing by passing out Oreo brand cookies with the instruction “do not eat them; we’re going to talk about Oreos using our senses adjectives first”. She passes out a piece of paper with a blank formatted ‘web’ organizer.

web outline

“Using cues, questions, and advance organizers… focuses learning on the important content to come. Such an approach can motivate students by tapping into their curiosity and interest in the topic”, (Dean, 2012).  She instructed the students to write ‘Oreo’ in the center circle. She cued and questioned the students through the five senses and directed them to follow her note taking direction by copying the same notated words on their ‘web’ page. I commend this teacher’s style as she never discourages an answer. She responds to each student’s comments by affirming and at times, redirecting. Ultimately, the students are rewarded by having permission to eat the cooking. The whole lesson seemed to flow easily into the next transition “We need to go to music, but when we get back from music we are going to write our paragraph with five senses describing how we eat an Oreo”.

Referring to the texts Classroom Instruction that Works and A Handbook for Classroom Instruction that Works, I realize this teacher does not use strategies such as asking the students to ‘keep track of their own effort’, and she does not use concrete symbols of recognition such as sticker charts. There was no formal learning in the classic sense of ‘Cooperative Learning’ in small groups. However, I felt that there was a good deal of cooperation going on as she integrated student input into the overall lesson. To improve upon the lesson she might have used more graphic representations of the Oreo cookie. She might have asked a student to step in front of the class so that the students could use their five senses to describe what they saw, i.e. “I heard the cookie ‘crunch’, saw the smile on the student’s face, smelled the cookie from where I was sitting, but couldn’t touch it or taste it myself”.

As I thought about the brief lesson, I thought that I would like to have the same ability as this teacher had; to keep my teaching clear, succinct and meaningfully relevant. I believe her students gained much from the exercise of experiencing the five senses of involvement with the Oreo cookie, and while writing briefly in the ‘web’ format. I would be curious to see what types of paragraphs resulted from being able to think about details during music and then having to write their personal narrative about their encounter with the Oreo.


3rd Grade Adjective Lesson. (2011). Accessed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HfWqRvrYfAQ

Dean, C. B., Hubbell, E. R., Pitler, H. & Stone, B. (2012). Classroom Instruction that Works. Alexandria, VA: McREL.

Pitler, H. & Stone, B. (2012). A Handbook for Classroom Instruction that Works. Alexandria, VA: McREL.


Summarizing and Note Taking

SPU EDU 6526 M4    7/23/15

Summarizing and note taking are two skills which are critical to success in an academic environment. They are also essential in other aspects of life; i.e. while reading an instruction manual, taking professional training courses, during on-the-job training, watching a simple how-to video for a home repair project or when simply researching recipes for an upcoming holiday. People take notes constantly. I personally keep notes in the form of a to-do list which I rewrite daily. I currently have four lists going on at once; a personal, home, work and school list. When I feel supremely knowledgeable and ‘with it’, I can write all four in one master list, but this often feels overwhelming to me. I use the strategy of writing sticky notes and pasting them on my car dashboard, bathroom mirror and kitchen counter. This seems to work well for me in terms of accomplishing daily tasks. It feels very satisfying to rip a sticky note off its place and toss it in the garbage when I’ve completed the task. My handwriting is quite illegible when I’m writing only for my own eyes, but as long as I can read it and it gets the job done, I’m quite satisfied.

This week in the course “Survey of Instructional Strategies”, we are reading and writing about teaching students how to effectively summarize and take notes as part of the academic experience. Although summarizing and note taking are two separate strategies, they both involve capturing, organizing and reflecting on important facts, concepts, ideas and processes (Piolat, Olive, & Kellog, 2005). When students are summarizing they must sort, select, and combine information which can lead to increased comprehension (Boch & Piolat, 2005). Summarizing and note taking may seem complex, but in reality they can be distilled into straightforward and concise components. John Medina in his book Brain Rules (2008), writes about the relationship between summarizing, note taking and high-order thinking skills. He identifies 12 principles which characterize how the human brain functions. Many of these principles have connections to summarizing and note taking; specifically the importance of repeating information and incorporating the use of other note taking techniques such as drawing pictures or symbols to represent information.

For most of us, summarizing comes quite naturally. We surmise information about a setting by using our senses to determine facts. We may either notate data mentally or formally in the form of written notes, but our brains are working all the time to categorize, synthesize and organize information coming toward us. Information is introduced to us in a variety of different forms; i.e. experiences, thoughts, ideas, and reactions toward information which is placed upon us in the form of academic exposure. As teachers, we can, and should, teach formal methods of summarizing and note taking. Our text Classroom Instruction that Works; Research-based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement (Dean, et al. 2012), mentions three strategies; teaching students the rule-based summarizing strategy, using summary frames, and engaging students in reciprocal teaching.

I teach special education in a self-contained classroom to students with severe disabilities. As I read about these strategies I wondered how I could apply the information to my setting. In reality, no note taking or summarizing goes on by my students in my classroom. A limited number of students can write their name and a few other words. What is most relevant about the reading in the text is how I organize myself while incorporating new teaching strategies which might be successful in my setting. As I look at the rubrics about “teaching students the rule-based summarizing strategy”, “using summary frames”, and “engaging students in reciprocal teaching”, I would have to rate myself a 1 (one) based on the fact that these strategies don’t seem to apply as a method from which my students can use and benefit by. My students are best benefitted by a teacher who is organized and knows how to teach based on the most important research-based techniques and strategies targeted toward their learning ability and style. Personally as a teacher, I will benefit by using the summarizing and note-taking strategies outlined in our text, by using them myself in order that I may present to my students a coherent, organized, recognizable and consistent curriculum. If I follow information recommended by our text, I can be a better teacher in terms of offering my students a more meaningful learning experience.


Dean, C. B., et al. (2012). Classroom Instruction that Works; Research-based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement. (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD, Denver, CO: MCREL Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning.

Medina, J. (2008). Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School. Pear Press.

Pitler, H. & Stone, B. (2012). A Handbook for Classroom Instruction that Works (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD, Denver, CO: MCREL Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning.

Teaching Strategies; Cues, Questions, Advanced Organizers, and Nonlinguistic Representations

SPU EDU 6526 M3

I am a new teacher. I will begin my first year of teaching at an elementary school with special education students with severe disabilities. I am trying to learn as much as I can (and will continue to seek out knowledge) about effective research based teaching strategies. What is effective in one teaching setting might be less effective in another. Used at the beginning of lessons, strategies such as ‘cueing, questioning, and advance organizer techniques can focus learning on the content to be presented. “Such an approach can motivate students by tapping into their curiosity and interest in the topic,” (Dean, et al. 2012). Cues and questions should focus on what is important, be explicit, inferential and analytical. I have used cues in the classroom when I have told students what to pay attention to ahead of time or shown them a rubric of what is expected in an assignment coming up. My intention when I question students prior to introducing material is often to determine prior knowledge and figure out what information I need to include in a lesson in order for it to be most effective. “When teachers ask questions that require students to make inferences…students draw upon what they already know to ‘fill in the blanks’ and address missing information in the presented material,” (Dean, et al. 2012).

Another teaching strategy I’ve been studying and practicing which is perhaps more useful than previously described is the technique of nonlinguistic teaching strategies. Many students with disabilities struggle with or are unable to read, write or speak. In this case, the use of visual symbols, pictures, videos, etc. can be of great benefit. “These strategies are powerful because they tap into students’ natural tendency for visual image processing, which helps them construct meaning from relevant content and skills and have a better capacity to recall it later,” (Medina, 2008). Examples of using nonlinguistic techniques which I have employed include the use of picture exchange communication type systems. These augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices may come in a variety of different forms, but most often students use iPads with applications which resemble a picture exchange system.

As I reflect on my current teaching strategies as it relates to advance organizers, with rubrics from the text A Handbook for Classroom Instruction that Words (Pitler & Stone, 2012 pgs. 145), I feel that I am strongest in the area of ‘graphic organizers’; I would rate myself a 3 in this area. I consistently use a variety of graphic organizers with my students. I like a colorful classroom with posters including graphic organizers on the walls. I taught journalism to a group of 8th graders last year and had posters regarding the “5 W’s”, “What to include in an essay”, and “Questions to ask yourself before you begin writing.”

5 ws

I also used (and intend to continue to use) a daily PowerPoint slide which includes what students may expect for the day. This example is from the journalism class I taught last year. I addition to cuing the students it was very helpful to keep myself organized.

Eng advance organizer

In terms of the rubric about making physical models or manipulatives, I would rate myself a 2. I occasionally use physical models and manipulatives to help students develop an understanding of abstract concepts. This is an area in which I plan to place more focus. Students have different styles of learning including visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. I am a visual learning and learn by doing. I am an avid note taker in my own career as a student, and can’t read anything without a highlighter in my hand.

By including a learning activity in which students paint, draw, built or use technology to create symbolic pictures to represent the knowledge being learned, I would be improving on another two rubrics; “Create Pictures, illustrations and pictographs”, and “Make physical models or manipulatives”. I am an avid crafts person and enjoy creating craft projects for students. I can certainly increase the pertinence of these activities. In my career, I will be teaching to students who have a variety of different learning styles and abilities. By being sensitive and using techniques which reach different types of learners I can attain the best possible outcome for student learning.



Dean, C. B., et al. (2012). Classroom Instruction that Works; Research-based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement. (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD, Denver, CO: MCREL Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning.

Medina, J. (2008). Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School. Pear Press.

Pitler, H. & Stone, B. (2012). A Handbook for Classroom Instruction that Works (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD, Denver, CO: MCREL Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning.


Cooperative Learning in Special Education

“Without the cooperation of its members, society cannot survive, and the society of man has survived because the cooperativeness of its members made survival possible. In human societies the individuals who are most likely to survive are those who are best enabled to do so by their group,” (Ashley Montagu, 1965). During the decade that Montagu wrote this, cooperative learning was relatively unknown and largely ignored by teachers. The various layers of the schooling experience were dominated by competitive and individualistic learning. Thankfully, practices have changed over the intervening years. Cooperative learning is currently the accepted and most often preferred teaching strategy at all levels of education. Definitions of ‘cooperative learning’ vary somewhat, but it is generally understood that cooperative learning contains one or more of the following five elements; positive interdependence, face-to-face promotive interaction, individual and group accountability, interpersonal and small group skills, and group processing, (Pitler & Stone, 2012).

I am an elementary teacher for special education students with profound or severe disabilities. Teaching students to engage in cooperative learning can be difficult in this situation, but there are ways in which it can be done. When/if these students spend time in a general education class they are more likely to have a positive cooperative learning experience when explanations and models are provided by their peers. “These benefits and quality learning are realized only when both the general and special education teachers are committed to the learning instructions that benefit all students,” (Emerson, 2015).

For students who spend most or all of their time in a self-contained special education classroom, cooperative learning looks different than in a traditional class. Many of the students are non-verbal or have limited physical abilities. Cooperative learning which I’ve been instrumental in teaching has included having two students sitting next to each other. One student (student A) picks up a colored block from a box of 20 or so blocks. Student A purposefully hands the block to student B who then places the block into a container indicating the matching color. This exercise may appear simple, but it involves much patience in the pair of students, (which is an objective as well as proper color matching). Student A has to wait for Student B to place the block in a container and then be available to receive another block. Student B must wait for the block to be given to them. Last school year, this was an IEP goal for both Students A and B. It took about six months before the two of them could do this, using 20 blocks, with five or fewer prompts. Other cooperative activities which have occurred in my classroom have included three-four students working together with cars and a race track, two students unloading a dishwasher together, washing tables together (one sprays cleaning solution and the other wipes), and through games such as rolling a ball to a specific person in a seated group.

Last year I taught seven special education students from grades K-2 and interacted cooperatively with the other special education class with 11 students from grades 3-5. Our primary cooperative learning environment was an exercise called ‘zones’, in which students rotated (15 minutes each and on different days) between seven different zones including academic areas such as early literacy, writing, reading, math, independent work, computer time. Students functioned in groups of 2-5 cooperatively by sharing a learning exercise.

Using the Teacher Rubric and checklist from : Cooperative Learning from the text A Handbook for Classroom Instruction that Works, (Pitler & Stone, 2012, pgs. 83-86), I can evaluate my current involvement in the cooperative learning strategy. I have to use a different paradigm than if I taught students with typical abilities in a traditional classroom.

Rubric 1: Include elements of both positive interdependence and individual accountability: (1 being the lowest and 4 the highest). I rate myself a 3 in this area. I encourage students to work together as a team, listen, negotiate, and lead. Often I use the ‘I do, we do, you do’ strategy when instructing students on how to work cooperatively.

Rubric 2: Keep group size small: Again I rate myself a 3. Our groups are naturally small because we group the special education student together on the basis of ability and this generally includes 2-5 students in a setting.

Checklist: Positive Interdependence. (0=not at all, 4=to a great extent). I’m a 2 in this area. While I aim to teach students how to work together as a team, I sometimes fall into the habit of just having them listen while I teach. When this happens, I can’t always assess how effective I am.

Individual Accountability: Self-rating – 3. As much as possible I indicate clearly the roles of each of the cooperative team members. If I am consistent with the routines of the cooperative learning exercise, it usually pays off in the end with students ensconced in their rolls. At that time, I shake things up by having them switch rolls.

Cooperative learning structures which are embedded into educational procedures make possible a more active learning experience for both disabled and non-disabled students. The cooperative learning environment gives students additional practice time and ideally offers corrective feedback from peers and teachers within the classroom. The special education students I teach will hopefully be involved in a vocation when they are able and it quite frequently may involve cooperative performance. My aim is to give them practice and skills to adapt to and perform as well as possible in their future environment.


 Emerson, L. (2015). Cooperative Learning in Inclusive Classrooms: Students Who Work Together,  

          Learn Together. William & Mary School of Education Training & Technical Assistance

Center. Williamsburg, VA.

Montagu, Al (1966). On Being Human. New York: Hawthorn.

Pitler, H. & Stone, B. (2012). A Handbook for Classroom Instruction that Works (2nd ed.). Alexandria,

VA: ASCD, Denver, CO: MCREL Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning.