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How I (Finally!) Challenged My Special Education Students

Teacher reads at a desk with three children in a classroom
As special education teachers, we hear a lot about changing expectations in our classrooms. About how we’re going to move students from one place to another throughout the school year. I feel I can speak for many teachers by saying that is a very difficult thing to do. A common frustration with special education is that students in self-contained classrooms have trouble catching up. In fact, rather than catching up, the exact opposite often happens—they fall further behind.
It just feels like we don’t have the time or the resources to change anything given the workload, IEP documentation, and trying to differentiate instruction to meet the diverse needs of our students.
But that’s precisely what I set out to do, and I want to share the impact it has had on my students.

The fact is, special needs students would almost universally benefit if we raised our collective expectations—both at school and at home. They want to be challenged just like other students, but the unfortunate fact is that special education teachers often don’t have the time or the resources to challenge them in the way they’d like. As a result, students in special education classrooms can become disinterested and disengaged, and teachers—already under a good amount of stress—are stretched to their absolute limits.

My class was previously using a reading program that used lots of stick figures, and the stories focused on vocabulary that was necessary for testing. One big problem with that program: The students didn’t like it at all. They didn’t want to do the reading because they couldn’t relate. How could they? They were given stick figures for their stories. It would be boring to you and me and it was certainly boring to them.

Then I discovered Readtopia. It grabbed their attention from the start, and it exposed them, finally, to higher-level thinking and information that they actually enjoyed.

How I Found Out About Readtopia and the Monumental Difference it Made in My Classroom

When my daughter was old enough, I made the decision to move from being a paraprofessional to a teacher. I entered a program in which I could earn my teaching certificate and a master’s degree and it was then that I met Jeanmarie Jacoby. She was one of my professors. Our meeting was one of those life-trajectory altering meetings you only have every so often in your life. I first heard about Readtopia from Jeanmarie, during these graduate classes. I could see the benefits instantly. I now use it with my students, and I could not be more thrilled about the transformation my students and classroom have undergone.
Two students using magnifying glasses to study squid in a classroom.

There were a few skeptics at first. There always are when you introduce a big change. “That looks too high level” was something I heard a lot. But engagement and desire is such a huge part of learning. If the desire is there, students can accomplish much more than you might think.

That’s what happened in my classroom. They were fully capable of grasping the ideas behind the stories, and they did it easily because—get this—they suddenly wanted to read!
One student who always rolling her eyes at the old program now raises her hand to add input and is one of my top students! The father of another boy said his son now looks forward to going to school because he loves what he is learning and talks about it at home. He is reading at the emergent level; however, he is comprehending much higher and is able to make connections from one lesson to another.

I started this year with the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea unit. As an intro, I took pictures of them looking through a “porthole of a submarine” like Don Johnston (painted cardboard cut-out).

A student in a pink shirt smiles at the camera with an animated border around the image.
A student in a green shirt smiles at the camera with an animated border around the image.

The students just loved it. I now have students that didn’t seem to be paying attention before that are now answering comprehension questions and not always needing picture support.

Everyone—no matter their learning level—disengages if they’re not challenged and thrive if they are. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I firmly believe that when we give our students higher expectations for learning, it makes them want to succeed. When we have low expectations, it doesn’t help them move forward or feel proud of what they can do.
Another great effect of Readtopia? I don’t hear grumbling anymore! Teaching is much more fun. I don’t have to add a lot to this program, and now I get to enjoy being creative and opening experiences to my students. During the 20,000 Leagues unit, I brought in real oysters for the students to open in search of pearls (as the diver in the book) and mini squid for them to inspect during the squid attack from the book. They loved these explorations!
Readtopia made that possible, and I saw my students blossom.

Unlocking Engagement and My Students’ Potential with Readtopia

I’ll give you an example. I have a student who is non-verbal and communicates through an AAC device. I always felt she had a lot to share, but she chose not to. When we studied the Ancient Earth Thematic Unit and read Journey to the Center of the Earth, she consistently raised her hand and used her tools to share ideas. She clearly knew the characters in the story and connected them to lessons in the unit. Because she was engaged by the materials and was challenged, she rose to the occasion.

Two students looking for pearls in raw oysters on purple plates in a classroom.
She became a leader in the class. And she knew it! She felt proud of being able to participate and answer questions. She is also an English Language Learner, and her parents wanted her to be given higher-level materials from what she had been given before. They were thrilled to see her engaging with a curriculum that challenged her.

Another example is related to our BFF Program, which functions as a buddy system that connects our classroom with general education students. We connected Readtopia to it. During Journey to the Center of the Earth, I invited my students’ BFF peers to join us for a volcano experiment. The students all worked together to build clay volcanoes, paint them, and do the baking soda + vinegar science experiment. It was an amazing bonding experience, and one of my students (autistic and non-verbal) was bouncing and smiling throughout. That was a great day—one that will be remembered for many years to come.

Never Going Back

I want my students to love learning, and I want to love teaching. I want to look my students in the eyes and feel confident that I’m doing the best job I can do. I didn’t always have materials that were engaging for my kids. They also weren’t engaging for me. It’s not fun to use learning materials that no one enjoys.

A teacher helps students with reading lesson in a classroom.
Before Readtopia, I was always trying to figure out how to connect the dots throughout the day—modifying and differentiating the materials for my students. There just wasn’t time to do all that.
But then I got to use Readtopia and all of that is there for the teacher. I learned that I loved teaching around a theme. The Thematic Units connect the dots for me, and they connect characters to science and social studies topics—even integrating life skills and math. In my earlier example with my non-verbal student, the Ancient Earth thematic unit seemed to bring everything full circle, making learning relevant and cohesive for her.
Now my students can all read the same story and experience it together. It saves me a TON of time. I don’t have to guess. I can teach to higher expectations and my students can get the material they’ve craved for so long.
Patti is not alone. Teachers all over the country have discovered that Readtopia magically elevates special education classrooms to levels they’ve never been before. Ready for transformative ELA, Math, Social Studies, Life Skills, and Science curriculum? Learn more and try it for free.


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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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