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Re-Defining the Special Education Classroom at MacArthur Middle School

Abbey Lynch speaks to two people sitting at desks in a classroom in MacArthur Middle School.

Abbey Lynch walks over to a table and offers her hand to a smiling, eager student who takes it to point at her AAC device indicating the answer to a particular question. Lynch, a special education teacher at MacArthur Middle School in Prospect Heights, IL, just finished a lesson around the novel Frankenstein with her students. She teaches students who have a range of complex needs in the areas of communication, academic, motor, sensory, physical and social-emotional learning.

The students are excited to be continuing their discussion about Frankenstein. Another student has her writing (yes, HER writing) read aloud and says, “I don’t know how I feel about [Mary Shelley] not putting her name on the book originally.” They discuss how the story makes them feel and how they think the characters in the book are feeling. Everyone is engaged and participates. It is a magical thing to witness.


Presuming Competence in a Self-Contained Classroom

Just 10 years ago, it would be unlikely to see a self-contained or autism classroom participating in reading and discussing Frankenstein. But, a shift in standards, new alternate assessments, and a philosophy of presumed competence are giving all students opportunities to access the general education curriculum. It’s also giving Abbey Lynch an opportunity to do more of what she loves—helping her students grow both individually and through a classroom community.

Two teachers work with students in a Special Education classroom at MacArthur Middle School.

After bringing Readtopia into her classroom, it didn’t take long for her to see the transformation. As anyone who works with children with complex needs (especially around communication) knows it’s often difficult to see engagement and learning. And yet, as Abbey’s classroom delved into the Marine Life unit and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea graphic novels, she noticed that things were changing, meaningfully changing. She shares, “one student who uses a communication device was never motivated by academic work. He just wasn’t interested. But, as we were reading in whole group, he started to repeatedly hit the button on his device for “submarine” because the story has a submarine in it. It was truly one of those tear-filled moments.”

Being able to solely focus on the success of her students is, by her own admission, a major reason why Abbey steps into her classroom every day. This refrain is heard from special educators everywhere, “I could never do anything else,” or, “I got into this work because I love to help people.

New Levels of Engagement and Learning

Adapting the general education curriculum to work for students with complex needs was key to helping Abbey shape her classroom. The wide range of student needs showed her that differentiation was key. Given the mountains special education teachers face each day, a rigorous instructional program and resources can go a long way in providing them with the guidance and support they need to do their personal best work in the classroom. Abbey Lynch saw these qualities in Readtopia and First Author, which came already adapted and differentiated. They gave her the resources she needed to bring the general education curriculum to her class and guide her instruction.

Readtopia builds reading skills through thematic units covering a range of topic areas (science, social studies, ELA, and Math). They also came with enough levels to span the range of abilities in her class. “What I love most about Readtopia is the levels! It really changed my teaching. My students have multiple disabilities and cognitive impairments. I always want to presume competence, but other materials I’ve tried don’t have that age appropriateness—they aren’t written for older students like mine.”

A teacher reads a book with a student in a classroom at MacArther Middle School.

Rekindling a Passion for Teaching

The changes Abbey saw in her students were awe-inspiring, and the passion and fire inside her for teaching was rekindled.
The expectations and goals she set for her students shifted in meaningful ways. The content and collaboration in her classroom started to more closely resemble that of what you might expect to find in general education classrooms. “My goals for my students are adaptive and individualized, but I also want to see them obtain the ideas, or vocabulary, or background knowledge that they never thought of before. I want them to be successful and independent. I want them to learn tools to be self-regulating. I want them to make progress and be able to collaborate with peers. I love when I see them commenting on each others’ work or sharing in ways that were never possible before.”
What Abbey does in the classroom and the resources she chooses help her focus on what she loves. They also give her the peace of mind that everything is falling into place. Abbey, says, “When I’m working with my students, there’s no pressure—nothing else matters. I learn something different from them every day.”
Teacher works with a student in a wheelchair with complex needs.

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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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