Meet Abbey and her middle school classroom!

I have four large tables at the front of the room for whole-group instruction. Each table seats 2-3 students. The back row of student tables also functions as the ELA station during centers. I additionally have a math station and life skills station. A divider serves as the back wall of my classroom. As a result, only three of the walls in my room have outlets, so I’m limited when it comes to furniture arrangement. Right now, I have a changing table and our life skills table along the divider wall.

Core Activities

Core activities for all students include morning routine, morning meeting, instructional centers, and jobs. My younger students, who have more significant needs, also do work boxes and a daily language group, while my older students do News2You.

Morning routine: First thing in the morning, students go to the cafeteria for breakfast. When they return to the classroom, they begin their morning routine, which consists of signing into a time sheet, completing grooming/hygiene activities (brushing teeth, combing hair, and putting deodorant on), and reviewing their daily schedule and personal goals. Once students have finished these activities, they work on answering a question of the day and writing or matching their personal information.

Morning meeting: After students complete their morning routine, we transition to morning meeting, which consists of discussing attendance, calendar, weather, and the lunch menu. I designate one student to complete each of these activities. The attendance reporter writes students’ names on an attendance sheet and marks whether they are present or absent; the student then takes the sheet to the office and makes a copy for our secretary. The calendar helper places the date on the bulletin board. The weather reporter looks up the weather on the Smart TV, and the lunch menu reporter finds the daily menu on our school website using the Smart TV. Students also have a worksheet that they complete as we go through our morning meeting. I’ve found that students are more engaged in the activity when they follow along with these worksheets.

Centers: There are three centers that students rotate through: ELA, math, and life skills. They are in groups of 2-3 based on ability. This is where we students work on IEP goals, and I also integrate various components from the Unique and STAR curricula. On Fridays during this time, we have cooking class instead of centers.

Workboxes: My younger students with more significant needs complete this activity immediately after centers, while the 7th and 8th graders are at lunch. Currently, three of my kiddos are utilizing a 3-drawer system, while one is able to use a schedule to find and complete his task boxes.

News2You: When my 7th and 8th graders return from lunch, I read aloud for about 10 minutes from a novel. Right now, they are hooked on the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. After that, we do a News2You lesson for about 30 minutes. On Monday, I read the article aloud and we look up video clips that pertain to the topic. On Tuesday, I read the article again and we answer comprehension questions as a group. On Wednesday, students take turns reading the article aloud, and then they answer comprehension questions independently. On Thursday, we look at the recipe that is included in our weekly unit, and we write a list of ingredients we will need to make it during cooking class the following day. On Friday, students take turns choosing “breaking news “articles to read from the News2You website.

Language group: I work with a phenomenal SLP who does a weekly speech group with my younger students. During her sessions, she uses core vocabulary books from PRC’s AAC Language Lab. She uses the same book for about two weeks, and we also practice with it daily during this time. To participate, students use various forms of AAC. I have one student who communicates with a speech-generating device, while others use core boards and sentence strips for support.

Jobs: Jobs consist of activities in the classroom and around the school. Some specific jobs we complete include sharpening pencils from various classrooms, making copies for teachers, shredding papers from the office, recycling throughout the school, wiping tables in the classroom, sweeping the cafeteria, sorting teachers’ mail, helping place labels on library books, disinfecting classroom doorknobs, and stocking the pop machine in the teacher’s lounge.

Variety of Schedules

I have a variety of schedules that students use depending on their needs. For my students who require more support, I have a large visual schedule posted at the front of the classroom. Additionally, some students utilize an individual visual schedule that they check at the end of each activity. Most of my older students have a daily written schedule that they follow, which is located in their personal binders. These students review their schedule at the beginning of each day with an adult.

Two types of behavior management systems:

I have two different behavior management systems. My older students have five goals that they self-monitor daily. Some examples of these goals include: I listen to the adults who are in charge, I get along with other students, I participate in class, and I wait my turn to speak. At the end of the day, students rate themselves on each goal with a 3 (great job), 2 (needed reminders), or 1 (keep working on it). At the end of the day, students add their points to determine the total (they can earn up to 15). I have a choice board that includes different reward activities/items.

If students earn all 15 points, they can have 15 gummy bears and pick any activity from the choice board. With 14 points or more, students can pick activities such as gym time, iPad, computer, or Smart TV. For students who receive 12 or more points, reward items include kinetic sand, slime, foam beads, etc. With 10 or more points, students can earn items such as Legos, wiki sticks, and play dough. This system works well with this particular group of kiddos because they seem to have similar interests; they are all HIGHLY motivated by gummy bears, technology, and gym time. Items like Legos and sand are less desirable for them.

My younger students need more frequent reinforcement, and they can earn both a morning and afternoon reward. Upon arrival in the morning and after lunch, they pick an item from the choice board that they would like to work for. Each student has a self-monitoring sheet with visuals that includes a spot for his or her “working for” item. At the end of each activity, students circle either a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, depending on their behavior during the activity. In order to earn their reward, students need to have circled all thumbs-ups. If a student receives a thumbs-down, he or she must work on that activity during reward time. One of my kiddos, who has a speech-generating device, often seeks me out at the end of each activity to tell me, “I want good,” meaning he wants me to circle a thumbs-up on his self-monitoring sheet. Smart kid!

Using a Zoning Plan with Paraprofessionals

My paraprofessionals are instrumental in making our day run smoothly. They are responsible for getting students off the bus, taking them to breakfast and lunch, assisting them during specials and inclusion, and helping them with toileting. More specifically, they make sure that students are using communication devices to request items in the cafeteria. They encourage students to interact and communicate with peers in the general education setting. They take data and implement behavior plans. They provide assistance during specials and inclusion. They push students to be as independent as possible, and they adapt and modify when I’m not there to do it.

Both of my paraprofessionals were new this year, and it was my first year with this group of students, so there was an enormous learning curve for us all. I was fortunate to be able to meet briefly with my paras prior to the first day of student attendance to discuss my expectations and review our schedule. Also, at the beginning of the year, we followed a zoning plan (shout out to Chris from Autism Classroom Resources) to ensure that all students were accounted for throughout the day and that all duties were covered. The first few weeks of school are already high-stress, and when you factor in a new classroom with new staff, there is no time for verbal direction. Our zoning plan provided staff with a detailed outline that highlighted who they were responsible for, where they needed to be, and what type of activity they were supposed be doing at all times during the day. Now that we are halfway through the school year, staff members are self-sufficient when it comes to our schedule. However, without our zoning plan, August and September would have been a nightmare!

Other roles include making sure student binders have all necessary materials (e.g., sign-in sheet, grooming check, etc.). On Friday afternoons, they make copies and load binders for the following week. Additionally, they are responsible for running a station during instructional centers. I provide them with a weekly lesson plan, and they implement the activities listed and take data on specific skills.

Organizing ULS and News-2-You

Each student has a work binder that contains the majority of his or her materials for instruction. Students carry their binders with them during centers, and they also use them to complete morning work, morning meeting pages, and News2You worksheets. Each binder contains the following tabs: question of the day, personal information, morning meeting, ELA, math, life skills, News2You, and extra. This system is something I recently implemented, but I’ve already found that it has helped to minimize time between transitions as well as foster independence. Students know to get their binders prior to beginning these activities, and they use the tabs to flip to the appropriate materials. Not only does this eliminate the need to pass out papers prior to instruction, but students are also learning to use a binder with tabs, which is a super functional skill!

 

I use Unique Learning System as the core curriculum for most of my students. For those of you who also implement ULS in your classroom, you know that each monthly unit usually contains between 700 and 800 pages. I typically only print the reading and math components, but I prefer to print all of my materials for the following month at the same time. I’ve found that the math lessons can be difficult to organize because there is so much material. However, I recently found a system for organizing these materials that works for me. I print one of copy of each lesson and file it; then, once I’ve developed my lesson plan for the month, I make copies for each student and place them in the corresponding file. When it comes time to load student binders for the following week, my paras of I can easily pull materials from the file and place them in the binders.

I keep a binder at each center to collect data on students. At the front of the binder, I have a pencil case that contains a calculator and timer. Keeping these tools in the binder allows me to quickly calculate percentages and complete fluency tasks with students without having to get out of my chair.

 

One other tool I’ve found useful is Online Boxing Timer. I discovered this timer during my first year of teaching, and I’ve used it ever since for instructional centers. To use the timer, you enter the number of rounds (I have 3), time to prepare (I do 10 seconds), the duration of each round (mine are 20 minutes), a warning signal (I have one at the 10 minute mark), and rest time (I do 1 minute of “rest” between each center). This has been an incredibly helpful tool because I don’t have to remember to reset the timer at the beginning of each center.

I also love that it factors in transition time and allows me to have a warning signal. If I’m working one-on-one with students, I know when it’s time to switch to another student without having to constantly monitor the clock. The only downside I’ve found is that there’s no way to save your settings, so you’ll need to manually enter your information each time you want to use the timer. I usually do this during snack, which takes place immediately before we begin centers. I project the timer on my Smart TV using the website onlineboxingtimer.com. You can also download it as an app, called Boxing Timer Pro, for $2.99. I’ve never used the app, but I’m guessing that it allows you to save your settings. However, I know there are some similar timer apps that can be found for free.

Some final advice:

Something I struggled with my first year (and continue to struggle with) is that it’s okay for things to be imperfect. There will always be areas that you want to improve, and there will always be a seemingly endless to-do list. Prioritize and keep working your way down that list, but realize that what you’re doing in the present is enough.

The best piece of advice I’ve received to date was from a mentoring coordinator who had taught life skills for several years. She told me that my ultimate goal as a first year teacher was to get through the year with everyone alive. On especially difficult days, I would remind myself that no one had died that day. Flexibility and a sense of humor are key. At the end of the day, when you can laugh about the fact that your hair is full of toilet water from a student who was flinging it over the bathroom stall at you, you know you’re in the right profession. Also, I would suggest keeping an extra change of clothes in your classroom.

My name is Abbey Steele, and I’m a third-year teacher. I spent my first two years teaching elementary life skills, and I currently work in a middle school life skills setting. I’ve always been passionate about working with older children and adults with disabilities, so I was excited when I was given the opportunity to move to the middle school level. From the time I was in kindergarten, I knew I wanted to be a teacher, but it wasn’t until I was older that I realized that I wanted to take the special education route. I was a lifeguard at my local pool during high school, and I was inspired by one of my good friends with an intellectual disability who came to the pool regularly. One afternoon, as I was manning the lifeguard chair, I decided that I was going to teach special education, and I wanted to work with students with significant disabilities. The following year, I job shadowed in a life skills classroom and got a summer job working at a day program for adults with disabilities. I received my bachelor’s degree from Illinois State University in 2015, and I hope to begin pursuing a master’s degree in Applied Behavior Analysis soon. The best part of my job is that our secretary makes awesome cakes for the teachers’ lounge. Just kidding, but that is a huge perk! Outside of work, I enjoy reading, traveling, and going to concerts.

Sasha Long
Sasha Long

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