Rare Opportunities and Relationships: An Extraordinary Educator Offers Advice on Remote Special Education Instruction

By: , | 01/21/2021
Categories: Distance Learning, Instruction

Amanda Kipnis has taught an elementary special day class for students with moderate-to-severe learning disabilities for more than 15 years. She’s also a member of the inaugural Extraordinary Educators Class of 2020, so when she wrote a post for SmartBrief called “Game-changers for remotely supporting students with special needs,” I knew we had to get her to share even more of her insight about teaching special education during distance learning.

Amanda, who teaches in the Lemon Grove School District just outside San Diego, is a passionate educator with a “mission to make learning fun and meaningful for my students.” And if she had to offer other educators one piece of advice, it’d be this: Prioritize your relationships with students and parents. Once you have that strong connection, everything else falls into place.

In your article for SmartBrief, you say that “distance learning has made me a better teacher.” Can you expand upon this idea for us?

1. Better at planning . . .

I can’t simply rely on scripted curriculum when teaching virtually. Since my district moved to remote learning in spring 2020, I’ve noticed that I spend much more time planning for my sessions with students. Although I don’t write formal lesson plans, I have become much more proactive in having a plan in place for students who need more intensive intervention and/or extension activities.

Teaching virtually gives me an adrenaline rush because I have to keep my lessons and activities moving quickly in order to maintain my students’ attention. I also must move quickly so I can pack as much learning as possible into the limited time I have with students. I only get to see them for about three hours a day (via Zoom).

2. Stronger sense of priorities . . .

Now more than ever, I need to prioritize teaching the most essential skills. This means forcing myself to set aside time to analyze students’ individual data more frequently. I truly believe data needs to be analyzed student by student and not as a whole class. If I were to look at data for my whole class, it would tell me that all my students are performing below grade level in reading and math. But when I delve into each student’s data, I get a much richer understanding of their individual capabilities and needs. For example, one student might have scored low in reading overall, but when I break down that score, I could see they’re very strong with high-frequency words and phonics is where they need extra support.

3. Better collaborator . . .

During remote learning, I’ve become adept at recognizing opportunities for collaboration with my colleagues. It’s not always easy for veteran teachers (like me, for example) to try different ways of doing things, but 2020 has forced us all out of our comfort zones. I, for one, am grateful that I decided early in remote learning that I needed to seek out new ideas and fresh ways of doing things in order to best help my students.

Since early 2020, team meetings with my fellow teachers have become events I look forward to. Not only have they made me feel less alone during the ginormous endeavor that teaching is in this present moment, but these meetings have also bulked up my professional knowledge and facilitated many incredible in-depth conversations about struggling students. Having focused discourse with experts with diverse perspectives and experiences has helped me better serve my students.

"It’s not always easy for veteran teachers (like me, for example) to try different ways of doing things, but 2020 has forced us all out of our comfort zones. I, for one, am grateful that I decided early in remote learning that I needed to seek out new ideas and fresh ways of doing things in order to best help my students."

How have you become better at teaching families how to teach?

During my instruction sessions, families are constantly watching and listening to the language I use. I see and hear them model my words. I have created a bunch of visuals, so families have something to reference on their own time. For example, I made slides explaining the least-to-most prompt hierarchy and the importance of wait time. I also try to use teaching strategies (i.e., think “I do, we do, you do”) with the families to transfer ownership to them.

What virtual learning practices or tools do you think you’ll continue to use once you and your students are back in the classroom?

I love Google Slides™ and the Google extension Pear Deck®! My Pear Deck teacher dashboard allows me to see student responses to prompts or questions in real time. I can follow their work, whether they’re practicing pre-writing strokes or answering math equations. I often take screenshots, which give me permanent work products to reference and use to track data. One of my favorite new practices is sharing screenshots of student work samples during Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) meetings. I love showing off how far “my kids” have come!

What about new practices? Which ones will you keep?

In terms of new practices I’ve adopted, I think the best thing I’ve come up with so far is to send “student preference forms” to my students’ families. I ask families to share their children’s favorites toys, characters, TV shows, etc. I then use this information when selecting rewards, videos, daily writing prompts, movement breaks, images, etc. For example, if a student likes the movie Wreck-It Ralph® and has a 1:1 correspondence goal, I’ll create a Wreck-It Ralph-inspired Google Slide and challenge the student to count the items on it. If they’ve done good work or met a goal, I’ll play the theme song from Wreck-It Ralph for the whole class as a reward.

Now that families know how I use their children’s favorite videos, they’re constantly sending me updated favorite videos for their child to work toward.

Do you have any remote learning instruction tips or practices you’d recommend to other special education instructors or general educators?

With all the professional development and resources being thrown at us, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and forget the importance of face-to-face interactions—even if they are virtual, they still matter. It’s nice to share the cool stuff occasionally, but some of my most powerful lessons this year have been our Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) lessons in which I set the curriculum aside, stop sharing my screen, and just engage with my students. Our students need us to see them, to interact with them, on a personal level.

"Our students need us to see them, to interact with them, on a personal level."
—Amanda Kipnis

How have your students surprised you during remote learning?

Everyone talks about how much our students with disabilities are struggling—and of course, many of them are. But if we keep focusing on the negative, I worry that many educators will miss unique, positive opportunities that have also come out of our present situation.

We have the opportunity to coach our students’ parents during our lessons. (All of my students require family support to log in and participate in our remote lessons.) Families are listening. They’re picking up on teaching strategies and behavior management techniques. They’ve become active teachers in their child’s education. When report cards went out in November, every one of my students with moderate-to-severe disabilities had made substantial learning progress or met each of their individual goals! Many are even learning to independently navigate their computers.

At the start of remote learning, I had hoped to help my students maintain their skills and prevent regression. But many of them, with the help of their parents and quiet home environments, are thriving!

Can you think of any other information you’d like to share?

The importance of creating strong relationships—with students and families—should not be undervalued.

The more that families trust that you genuinely care about their children, the more likely they are to share their concerns and needs with you.

And if you can truly connect with your students . . . well, to this day, bonding with a child is still the strongest behavior management technique in my teacher toolbox!

Google Slides™ is a distinctive brand feature of Google, Inc.

Pear Deck® is a registered trademark of Pear Deck, Inc.

Wreck-It Ralph® is a registered trademark of Walt Disney Pictures.

Teacher and students sitting on the floor.

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