Visiting High School Special Education Classrooms
"Thank you so much for visiting my class today and creating such interesting lessons. Every student asked me when you’ll be coming back! We appreciate all your time and effort. You are awesome! It is so wonderful that you and the library are making a clear effort to our students that they are welcome and wanted. When can we schedule another visit?"
I received this lovely message from a teacher after I visited her class. As part of the School Outreach team, I visit classrooms frequently over the course of a school year. However, this instance was particularly rewarding because it was one of my first visits with our local high school’s special education department. Since then, I’ve been back many times and have formed wonderful connections with teachers and students. Every school and every group of students are different and you’ll want to adjust your plan to best fit their needs, but here are a few things I keep in mind before a school visit.
Familiarize yourself with the students.
Request a roster of names before the visit. This gives me time to familiarize myself with the students before I even set foot in their classroom. I make printed name plates for each student and send them to the teacher before my first visit of the year. I ask that the students decorate them and put them on their desks during my visit. I’ve found this method is not only a great way to learn names, but helps build excitement before the visit. It also provides an opportunity for sharing and conversation during the visit. For instance, “I see you drew a dog on your nametag! Do you have any pets at home?”
Ask the approximate reading level and age of students. The classes I currently work with average between a 2nd and 4th grade reading level, and do not separate students by grade. This means that all students, freshman though senior, share a classroom. When inquiring about reading levels, I’ve asked teachers to give me examples of books students responded well to in their classes.
Plan ahead and share with the teacher.
Besides letting students know that the library is a friendly, safe place for them, what is the goal of your visit? Does the classroom teacher want you discuss space and include a science experiment for students? Are they learning about measurement in math or trying their hand at new recipes in Life Skills? Occasionally teachers will let the visit be a “treat” for students and ask me to bring in something fun and silly, but more often than not my visits build off of their curriculum.
Knowing the number of students in the classroom helps with my planning tremendously. My visits typically involve handouts, crafts, or prop stories that require audience participation so I want to make sure I have supplies for everyone. When I told the story Stone Soup during a visit about cooking and measuring, I brought enough ingredients so the teachers could participate in the story as well. Providing supplies for teachers helps out two-fold: students think it’s hilarious when their teachers act out stories and songs (particularly those by Jim Gill) and it gives teacher a chance to model behavior for students.
Your biggest and best resource, and occasional cheerleader, is the classroom teacher. They are the most familiar with their students’ interests, habits, and triggers. Unless a teacher or student tells me directly about a particular diagnosis, I don’t know about or ask for specifics. What I do ask about are students’ favorite books, movies, or songs. What have they been learning about in their other classes? Are students involved in extracurricular activities? Then I try building a connection between that information and what I’m presenting. For example, I know that students learn how to make basic recipes in their Life Skills class each week, so when I was asked to design a space-themed visit for science, I led an activity about astronauts’ meals and nutrition.
I always send my lesson plan to the classroom teacher a week or two in advance of my visits for review. I make it very clear that if any tweaks or changes are necessary in the best interests of their students, I’m happy to do so and teachers very much appreciate the flexibility. It also provides me a little reassurance that my visit will be at level and on track with what is going on in the classroom.
Get up and move.
I mix things up in my other programs, so why not in the classroom? After getting the OK from the classroom teacher, I’ve brought in music with shakers, and scarves to share with students. Some students are reluctant to participate for various reasons, and that’s okay. I don’t push a student to participate, but I do let them know that if they change their mind, they can join in whenever they like.
We Youth Services Librarians pride ourselves on our flexibility. I always bring more books than I need and have a few extra activities up my sleeve. I’ll give a brief book talk of each title and let the students decide which I read first by a vote. If students are having a lot of fun with a story or activity, I don’t mind letting them linger on it for longer than I originally planned. This means that we don’t always get to everything on the lesson plan, but it’s never been a problem for myself or the teacher. There may be a few hiccups at first, but in my experience teachers have always been kind, patient with all of my questions, and appreciative of library services.
Most importantly, have fun!
Sarah Okner is a Youth Services Librarian at Vernon Area Public Library District.