IB for All: A Special Educator’s Story

Sarah Grosso is a Special Education (English) teacher at Dobbs Ferry High School, NY, and will be a member of our presentation team at #IBORL2017 on Friday in Palazzo C at 3:45 (“IB for All: The Dobbs Ferry Story”). As part of the DFHS mission of promoting IB for All, all students at DFHS enroll in a minimum of two IB DP courses with approximately 25% of our students pursuing the full IB Diploma. Sarah is a special education co-teacher in our IB English SL courses. Here’s her story…

My name is Sarah Grosso and I am a special educator at Dobbs Ferry High School in New York. I am dual certified in Special Education and English. I co-teach both year 1 and 2 of the Standard Level Language A: Literature course. I am honored to be here and enthusiastic to share with you my amazing and unique experiences working within the IB curriculum.

I began teaching at Dobbs Ferry back in 2008. This was a time when the IB program was isolated and included only a small elite group of students. Being that my role was as a special educator, it was foreign to me. In 2010 there was an open opportunity for all teachers to become trained in the IB. Two of my close colleagues in the English Department encouraged me to go to a training with them. We traveled to Toronto for my first immersion into the world of IB. The training was eye-opening. Sitting through close-reading exercises and grappling with literature in a multitude of ways was so relevant to the non-IB classes that I taught at that time. This experience strengthened my ability to be a true co-teacher in the classroom and also showed me how to make all of my students better prepared to analyze literature.

Bringing Language A: Literature at the standard level was presented at an English department meeting in 2013 by Dr. Falino (@johnfalino1) and Ms. Halberg (@MegHalberg). The English teacher part of me was excited to have the opportunity to finally teach an IB course. The Special Education teacher part of me was apprehensive due to our model of full inclusion. Would my students be able to successfully navigate this rigorous curriculum? Would I now co-teach courses that were both fully inclusive and IB?

My co-teacher and I launched the first year of the Language A: Literature SL course in the fall of 2014. Dr. Falino granted us paid summer professional development days to work together and break down parts 1 and 4 of the course in a way that would be meaningful for all of our students. We spent time looking for common language between the 10th grade non-IB curriculum this group of students had received and the new curriculum. We created homework menus that asked students to analyze the literature through the IB guiding questions. We created mini-writing tasks that modeled the World Literature Paper, and we created templates and models using the assigned 10th grade texts to model new ways of collecting and analyzing evidence from the literature.

During the year we spent our planning periods creating differentiated activities to make the material both manageable and challenging. I spent a great deal of time building templates for students with special needs so that they could access the curriculum and successfully complete the assessments. We had the students complete mini-presentations to prepare for the Individual Oral Presentations at the end of Part 4 (Semester 2). What I came to learn so quickly in this endeavor is that IB fits with special education masterfully. At the midyear point we had 100% of our students complete the World Literature paper at the Standard Level. At the end of the year we had 100% of the students successfully complete an Individual Oral presentation. The summer planning time and common prep time for my co-teacher and me were essential ways the administration supported us in this endeavor.

My favorite moment during that year as a special educator was watching one of my students complete his Individual Oral Presentation. He chose to demonstrate his knowledge of The Great Gatsby in an analytical format. This boy had been dealing with significant speech and language deficits his entire life. He put so much effort into organizing his information and also practicing to ensure that he scored well on the presentation portion. This particular student’s presentation outshined many of the general education students in the class. He was confident, funny, rehearsed, and knowledgeable. At the close of our first year I felt in my heart that this student truly and completely embodied the traits of an IB learner. I was ecstatic when I was scheduled to co-teach the second year and see these students through the second part of this curriculum.

Last year our IB Coordinator offered me the opportunity to attend a training on the IB Approaches to Learning. Here I gained a fresh way to go back and look at my current units and see how I could enhance them with 21st century skills.

This year I was asked to teach a section of Life Skills for students with significant cognitive needs. The Director of Special Education for the district encouraged me to include the IB style of teaching into this course in order to enhance our fully inclusive philosophy. I started the year teaching our students about the IB Learner traits. We created songs surrounding each trait and did posters of pictures that symbolized each trait. As we moved through units such as stress management, appropriate dress, and conversational skills, I asked the students to evaluate what type of trait they were currently demonstrating. My ATL training really came into play when planning lessons for this course. Thinking about these approaches as I designed a new course applied even to students with significant cognitive needs. When we started the year, no one in the class even knew what IB was. Now concluding our first year of this course, all of our students can tell you his and her strengths and weaknesses as they pertain to the IB Learner traits and are better equipped with 21st century skills due to lesson designs using Approaches to Learning.

One of my students from that class who is classified with Autism was also in my IB SL Language A: Literature Year 1 class. For his Individual Oral Presentation he chose to demonstrate his knowledge of Tennessee Williams’s play ​Cat on a Hot Tin Roof​ in a creative format. He started off by singing Frank Sinatra’s song “My Way”. He then did a presentation where he compared quotations surrounding the character of Big Daddy to each stanza of Sinatra’s hit. The class cheered when he was finished and he dropped the mic.

This is our third cycle of running the fully inclusive standard level English and we still have not had one single student with special needs fail to complete any of the assessments. Taking this course as well as the IB Math studies course has given our students more confidence to embrace challenges and to feel less isolated from their peers. It has also encouraged some students with 504 plans and IEPs to demonstrate the risk-taker learner trait by enrolling in other IB courses, such as TOK. So my apprehensions in my role as special educator have quickly faded. I enjoy attending IB roundtables in my unique role and sharing my experiences to others who may be nervous about embarking on a similar journey.

 

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