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How I Connect the Dots Between Life Skills and Curriculum Content

Erlind Laci being interviewed in a classroom.
I’m in my eighth year as a high school special education teacher at Kirk School. Most of my students have a cognitive disability diagnosis, and they range from intellectual disabilities to autism.
Over the years, I’ve learned that the job comes with special challenges. The curriculum we have brings in higher-order thinking, plus social studies and science topics that are often challenging to cover. Concepts like slavery and the scientific method aren’t always easy for my students to grasp.

There are a lot of spinning plates. You have the core standards, and you try to look at the essential elements. Then you consider your students’ levels while making sure you’re meeting each individual’s functioning level, while making progress on their IEP goals. On top of that there are special social/emotional learning needs.

So I guess all that is to say there are plenty of challenges that come with being a special education teacher. But ultimately, my goal is the same as a lot of other educators: I want to inspire and engage my students in learning at any level. I want to make sure that my students make personal connections with the topics we’re covering. I want them to progress from the beginning of the school year through an entire path of learning and be better and more prepared for the real world when they leave. This is the job I set out to do every year.

It used to be a lot harder to achieve that. It’s easier now.
high school special education teacher works with students in a classroom.

The main challenges: time and creativity

It’s true for pretty much every profession, but I’ve found it to be especially true in special education. I often find myself wishing I had an extra hour for prep at the start of the day, an extra hour at the end, and a couple hours in between where I could try to get to everybody.
There’s nonstop paperwork, which is vital and beneficial, but justifying all that you’re doing takes plenty of time. And for my students, they have the expectation of learning, of course. But they also have social/emotional learning needs that must be met.
If I’m choosing a runner-up for biggest challenge, it’s probably getting creative. Sometimes IEP goals are so individualized that it’s hard to connect to the curriculum. You have to get creative to integrate the two.
Student reads a book at a desk.
Given that there’s only so much time in the day, and that special education brings a unique set of creative challenges, educators need tools that give them some of their time back. For me, one of those main tools is Readtopia.
Teacher reads a book to a student in a Special Education classroom.

When we go through Readtopia’s curriculum on Journey to the Center of the Earth, there’s a lot that’s covered. We talk about the difference between lava and magma. We talk about hot, we talk about cold. But the thing I really remember is how engaged the students were when we did the volcano experiment. It blew up, things were coming out. They really enjoyed it. It went beyond book learning.

A teacher holds up a physical map of the U.S. while a student points to a digital map of the world on a screen, in a classroom.

We do a lot of community-based instruction in my classroom. Sometimes, we’ll take on a task like going to the grocery store. We’ll look at Google Maps sometimes, but we also look at the maps in Readtopia stories like The Diary of Anne Frank. One of my students made a strong connection between these different types of maps. We often wonder how much students retain and generalize, but when these connections happen—between the curriculum and life skills—it reinforces what we do as teachers. I really do enjoy helping my students generalize those skills.

Cover of Readtopia Teacher Guide: Building a Free Nation. Anchored by Harriet Tubman.

When we cover Harriet Tubman and slavery, those concepts are so big. They’re part of the curriculum, but I have to admit that they can be challenging to introduce to my students. We used the concept of bullying to simplify things and help the students relate. A couple weeks ago, we did a lesson using different text types for different groups. The topic was focused on how slaves escaped the south.

One of the characters in that story hid inside a box. I had the students take a ruler and measure how small that box really was. And to them, it was like, “Oh, no, that doesn’t seem very comfortable.” They imagined what it might be like being in that box for 24 hours. Would it be scary? Uncomfortable? Probably. “I wouldn’t be able to sleep.” They’re making those personal connections to characters in the stories like they never have before.
I wasn’t a huge fan of the tools I used in the past. But Readtopia has given me the opportunity to touch on higher-level thinking. It’s given me some of the strategies and tools I need to do it right.

More time to do what I love

The best part of my job is teaching the things you and I might take for granted. My students work a lot on routines and life skills; morning arrival, going to the locker, hanging the backpack, grabbing your things, checking a schedule. Doing a classroom job.
An educator works with a student in a wheelchair with complex needs.
I try to help them generalize skills like making inferences, or identifying details and finding the main idea of a story. Readtopia is helping them do those things. Some big ideas are reinforced or even introduced because of the curriculum. Things like what makes people good and what makes them evil, how powerful and awesome our planet is, and what it might feel like to have your rights violated, and why it’s so important to be kind to others.
The tools I used previously gave me a start. Readtopia gives me the standard.

Try Readtopia in your self-contained classroom 

Readtopia was created specifically for special education. It helps you teach, which helps your students learn. If you want to do what Erlind did and see just how much time and creativity it gives back to you, get access to a free month of content today.


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Karen A. Erickson, Ph.D.​

Karen A. Erickson, Ph.D. is Director of the Center for Literacy and Disability Studies at University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill. Her focus is on understanding the best ways to assess and teach reading and writing to children with the most severe disabilities. As a special education teacher, Dr. Erickson has worked to support students with a range of disabilities in a variety of classroom settings, particularly students who do not use speech as their primary means of communication.


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