Find Pleasure in Learning – I tried to model this for my class so every year I would try to learn something new and share it with the class. One year I taught myself how to juggle after reading a book on juggling. Then I practiced in front of the class and they watched me struggle as I learned but I didn’t give up until I finally was able to juggle. I think they were as excited about my success as I was. One year I learned how to crochet and my class watched as my afghan grew bigger and bigger. When it was done, many of my students asked me to teach them how to crochet. I think it is experiences like this that shows students that there can be fun in learning.
Give Students Choice – My students with disabilities felt like they had very little power over their lives and tended to make bad choices as a way of rebelling. I tried to give them choices whenever the opportunity was there. For assessing what they learned, I gave choices of projects that could appeal to students with different learning styles. They were able to pick the project that they would enjoy doing and usually it was amazing at what they turned in. When they were able to have a choice, they tended to put a lot more effort and energy into producing something they could be proud of. I also asked my students what topics they were interested in learning more about and one day a week, I would try to incorporate their topics into the lesson.
Let Students Create Things – my students loved to make things because they already had learning difficulties. When asked to create their own things, they felt the sky was the limit. Usually they were so overwhelmed with how much reading they had to do that it left very little time for them to create something new. I tried to allow time for this and learned that I had many artists, musicians, and photographers in my class.
Show Off Student Work – My high school special ed students were very embarrassed about showing off their work so I asked that they write their names on the backs of the work and not the front. Even though they said they didn’t want their work displayed, I saw how thrilled they were when I put their work up. Many of them had never been praised for having work good enough to display. Sometimes this was a new experience for many of them.
Take Time to Tinker – Many times I would take a box full of knick knacks and ordinary objects (paper clips, rubber bands, tape, thumb tacks) and ask the students (in small groups) to take out 5 things. They needed to invent something new, draw the invention, and then write a description of the invention telling what it could do. Then I would ask them to share their invention with the class. They loved to do this. Again this involves students making choices, and creating things.
Make School Spaces Inviting – For many years I taught in a room without a window so I went to the store and bought a mural that looked like a photo of the outdoors. My mural was a picture of Mt. Shasta with the sun out and flowers blooming that I stapled to my big bulletin board. Then I bought some cloth tablecloths at the dollar store and pinned them up on the bulletin board so they looked like curtains. We now had a window and the weather outside always looked wonderful.
Get Outside – It is harder to get students outside on the high school level but there were times I took them to the track and we walked and talked. Many times this gave me a chance to learn about their ideas and opinions and they were thrilled that I was interested in hearing them. Sometimes we would walk about the building picking up trash (which would turn into our science lesson) or we would sit outside and discuss our lesson. There are many lessons that can be taught outside as well as inside.
Read Good Books – Every year I would pick 2 books to read aloud to the high school class. I would spend a few minutes at the beginning of each class reading to them. This gave my class time to settle down before the lesson began. I was also amazed how many of my students couldn’t remember anyone ever reading aloud to them before so this was a great chance for me to model reading for them. I would really get into the characters and love to tell what they said with great feeling and the more my students loved it, the more I got into the acting. If I was reading the first book of a series, many of my students went on to read other books in the series or books by the same author. It really doesn’t matter how old the student is, they seemed to enjoy our reading time.
Offer More Gym and Art Classes – I see more and more art classes go down the drain with budget cuts. I have seen gym classes used as a dumping ground because there are no other classes available for students so the class size is outrageous. These are the two areas that my students excel in because they have academic difficulties so I really struggled to get them into as many of these classes as possible. Luckily I had supportive parents who would take an active stand on this also.
Transform Assessment – We did a lot of project based learning in my class (although back when I was doing it, it didn’t have this official name). I also gave the students the rubric I would use to assess the project so they knew ahead of time what I was looking for. This helped my students look at their project and determine if they had met the criteria before they ever turned it in. No wonder their grades improved.
Have Some Fun Together – Maybe this is a purely prejudicial view, but I believe we had fun together because we really enjoyed the time together in my class. We laughed and supported one another because I told my class that we were like a family. Just like a family, you don’t get to choose who is in it but together we can help each other become better. In the spring I would teach all of my students how to play croquet. Then at the end of the year, my husband and I would have a hot dog lunch at our house and invite all of my students and their parents. It was my way of thanking them for working so hard with me all year. Also invited were former students and their parents so I usually ended up with about 70 people each year. After lunch my class would break into teams and play croquet and everyone had a ball! I still keep in touch with many of my students from almost 30 years ago just like you would a family. We definitely had fun together!
I believe joy in the classroom helped my students become more successful. In fact, I think that is why I loved teaching them so much and stayed in special education for my whole career.