A Special Teacher Teaches Special Kids Online

I’ve been thinking a lot about teachers lately as I try to imagine what it’s been like to become an online teacher practically overnight, which is the case for most teachers in the United States since late March. I am retired and so grateful I haven’t had to cope with this sudden switch in the mode of delivery of instruction but I am curious about those who are still in the trenches every day.  A young teacher I happen to know from his friendship with my daughter during their teenage years has become a teacher… par excellence …to a class of 10th and 11th grade autistic students in a public school in Queens.  Since March he has been teaching his students online and loves doing so…and they love him! My daughter suggested I sit in on his class one day; she was going to be his guest speaker. 

I sat in front of my computer screen at the appointed time, and quite punctually one after another of Mr. G’s students popped up in the Zoom gallery, most of them were visible; only a few were “off camera.” Then Mr. G. appeared: a large friendly face with a beard, twinkling eyes and a super big smile. I could already imagine how happy his students must be to see his face every day on their screens.

Mr. G welcomed each and every student by name…there were ten of them and they acknowledged his greeting. It was immediately apparent that some of the students were very expressive and articulate while others could barely say his name. In the case of one student  only the top of his head was visible for most of the class until Mr. G. asked him to show us his face which he did. Mr. G told us that almost all his students show up for his class almost 100% of the time!  This is definitely not the case with many of the teachers I’ve spoken to who are missing students or have students who appear only occasionally on screen.  I can only deduce that Mr. G is very popular with his students and their helpers/parents who are making an effort to get these kids online every day.

The topic the class was studying was “Careers and Skills.” This is not a class that is academically in sync with a typical high school curriculum. The purpose of this class is to maximize the potential of the students and to help them regulate themselves in order to have meaningful and successful social interactions.  

My daughter introduced herself as someone who plays the violin and who works in a violin shop. After each student introduced him/herself the teacher led them into asking my daughter questions about her job. It was clear that Mr. G had spent a lot of time preparing these kids to ask relevant and syntactically and grammatically correct questions. He would interject, for example, if a student used the word “Where” instead of “When,” or if the statement was not worded as a question he would help the student reframe the statement to become a question.

There was a lively back and forth exchange between the students and my daughter.  The teacher used  a spinning wheel (borrowed from an app) each time he chose a student to ask a question.  The wheel would spin, the arrow would point to a student’s name (pre-selected by Mr. G) and confetti would suddenly appear along with cheering sound effects to encourage the student to respond.  A simple device, yes.  Effective?  Very.  

Mr. G very carefully took the time to help each student achieve the goal of asking a meaningful question, praising each one who completed the task. “Tasks” was one of the words the students were learning in this unit on careers, so the also made frequent reference  to the tasks that would be required for such a career or job. 

As a former English as a New Language teacher, I couldn’t help but think there are many similarities to teaching students with autism and those who are learning English. Simplicity is required before moving to more complex ideas.  Repetition is necessary. Mr. G attempted to present the tasks in as many ways as possible to reinforce the learning that was taking place.  Not all students spoke clearly and articulately so Mr. G made sure to model the correct pronunciation and enunciation of each word or phrase. Patience is absolutely essential for teaching such students.  Mr. G exuded lots of it. 

The class time came to a close.  Mr. G asked each student to say something they learned or liked about the day’s lesson. Then he summarized what had taken place. with input from my daughter.  All the students thanked my daughter and one by one clicked off their computers. 

I learned that online teaching might, in fact, be an ideal way to teach many students with special needs. It can help them be very focused because they are so concentrated on the screen and not distracted by other things which can be the case so often in a school setting. The instruction can be very personalized as I saw Mr. G adapt his remarks to to each of his student’s attempts.  They also have a “free time and snacks” break between three daily lessons of about an hour each making the pace of the day very comfortable for both the teachers and students.

Would I have been able to make this transition to online teaching had I still been teaching during the pandemic? Would I be as good at it as Mr. G?  How long did it take him to gain control over this mode of teaching?  I know he really enjoys it because he has told my daughter so.  Could this be sustained for an entire year? Probably not. Eventually everyone might become bored or alienated without some contact.  But I suspect that for some students, and also teachers, this mode of teaching and learning might be ideal.  I would certainly give Mr. G and his students and A+ for their efforts.  


Helping English Language Learners Discover Their ‘Voices’ Through Authentic Experiences

Acquiring a ‘voice’ in a new language is essential for English as a New Language (ENL) learners; without one they don’t exist. Our job as their teachers is to make sure that doesn’t happen by giving them every possible opportunity to cultivate, celebrate and use their new voices inside and outside our classrooms.

What about our ‘new arrivals’ who don’t yet have a voice, but urgently need one? How can classroom teachers best help them to discover their unique voices?

Shift the Instructional Focus to
Facilitating Self Expression

When I first began teaching ENL learners, I attempted to make my students feel more comfortable by learning a few words in their native language; by assigning them a ‘buddy’ who could help translate when necessary; by supporting and celebrating each step of their language acquisition process with appropriate lessons. My instructional goal was to facilitate language learning, assimilation to our culture and progress in our curriculum.

But is this how we learn our first language? Think about when you were a baby and your parents and siblings modeled first one word at a time, then short phrases, then longer phrases and questions. They encouraged every attempt at speech you made, and instead of correcting you, they modeled the correct word or phrase repeatedly. There was constant interaction and encouragement. It should not be surprising, therefore, that ENL students of all ages learn English best through authentic, interactive experiences.

Provide Authentic Opportunities for Developing ‘Voices’

Without regular, incrementally challenging opportunities to express themselves in a supportive environment, ENL students lose confidence, and ultimately their unique voice. Here are some examples of how to encourage your ENL students to build confidence:

      •  Encourage and support their participation in sports events and all other school events and clubs. ENL students often feel like outsiders and lack confidence to join new groups.
      •  Support their efforts to write and illustrate journals, poems and books to share how they experience the world by providing them with ‘mentor texts’ they can imitate. For ENL students, imitation is not a crutch; it is a tool.
      •  Encourage them to ‘step up” their language expression. For example, I am presently coaching a group of ENL high school students, (with ‘developing and expanding’ English language skills), to recite some lines from Walt Whitman that they have rewritten at an upcoming Whitman Bicentennial Festival. Speaking in public is tremendously challenging For ENL students, but results in a huge sense of achievement and belonging.