Teaching the Letter of the Week

Do you use a letter of the week strategy in your classroom?  I found it a helpful way to teach letters and sounds in a self-contained setting.  After years of tweaking, I came up with a lesson plan that not only was engaging and helped students make real world connections but greatly decreased my stress level.  First, I knew repetition was going to an important part to my teaching.  It was necessary for my students but had to have variation to keep their attention.

Note:  if you are a more visual person, watch the YouTube video at the end of this post.  It pretty much covers the same material. 

So, I started each lesson the same way:  with a song.  Each student had an alphabet chart so they could follow along.

alphabet board color

My favorite song to use was Dr. Jean’s I’ve Got the Whole Alphabet in my Mouth.

Next, we would read the letter of the week book.  By the end of the week, the students could read it along with me.

letter of week books

After the story, we would start to fill a large circle map.  I drew a large circle on poster board, added Velcro, and using a post-it note, placed the letter of the week in the middle.  Students would then take turns bringing up pictures that started with that letter.

circle map pics

Next, I would choose a group activity based on the day of the week:

  • Monday:  Scavenger Hunt
  • Tuesday:  Pick up the Plates Game
  • Wednesday:  Art Activity
  • Thursday: Cooking Activity
  • Friday:  Social Skills Activity

After the group activity, students would do an individual activity, again, depending on the day of the week.

  • Monday:  Circle map
  • Tuesday:  Letter collage
  • Wednesday:  Sorting activity
  • Thursday: Sorting Activity
  • Friday:  Assessment

Finally, I would end the lesson with some technology.  We loved using Youtube and Starfall.com.  There are so many cute songs and videos you can quickly find about the letter of the week.

If you would like to see if this method works for you, click below to download a FREE letter of the week unit to try from my store on teacherspayteachers.  It includes all the above activities and lesson plans.

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You can also watch this FREE 4 minute how to video on utilizing these materials:

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Living Between Two Worlds

This has been an interesting couple of weeks with my family, so I thought I would take a break from school posts and write something more personal that I know so many of my friends with special kids can relate to.

So, as most of you know I have an 18 year old son, Jimmy, with autism and a 17 year old daughter, Gina who is a typical and wonderful teenager.  Gina has been busy applying to colleges which has led me to helping her proof read some essays.  Many of which she has chosen to write about Jimmy, and it has been very enlightening to me.

Trying to raise a child with such demanding needs as Jimmy, has meant that all of us have had to make some sacrifices.  As much as we tried to protect Gina and give her a “normal” childhood, I have come to realize that it was impossible to shield her from the stress of raising a child with special needs.  When Gina was about 4 years old, she asked us, in a very worried voice, if she was going to have to take of Jimmy when we got old and died someday?  Even at that point, she knew what a tremendous burden (I know some of you want to say blessing….) it can be having a kid like Jimmy.  I tried so hard over the years to keep things as normal for her as possible.  She had sleepovers, danced and swam competitively for years.  I am not sure we really denied her anything.  I figured we had done pretty well.

Then, I read her essay to Duquesne University.  She talked about having to grow up so fast at such a young age.  How she had to learn how to take of herself as well as her brother long before she was ready.  She talked about missed opportunities and lost family vacations.  All true.  But I don’t know how we could have done it any differently.  I know so many of my friends will recognize this struggle and realize there is no magic answer.

Yesterday, we went to hear a speaker talk about getting into the college of your choice.  She and her Dad had just spent the weekend at an open house at Duquesne, her first choice.  It as an emotional weekend for her dad who is not ready to see his baby girl move away.  The talk was full of doom and gloom, and Gina left feeling like there was no way she was going to get into any good colleges, let alone Duquesne.  When we got home, she grabbed onto her Dad and cried and cried.  He did his best to reassure her.  But, it was what she told me later that really spurred me to write this post.  She said that Dad was just overly emotional about things, and I really seemed to have no emotion at all most of the time.

That was a crushing blow to hear.  But, I think she is right.  I think when Jimmy was diagnosed, and I realized the dream I had of my life was gone, I had to make a choice.  I could get swallowed up by resentment and grief, or I could play the cards I was dealt the best I could.  So, I soldiered on and didn’t let myself think about what could have been.  I think over the last 16 years, that has led to a dramatic change in my personality.  It has made me put up walls that I just cannot afford to take down.  I can deal with just about anything now.  I am the rock of the family, but I am not sure that is such a good thing.

I wonder how Gina will look back on her childhood and our relationship.  Every parent wishes they could have done something better, so I know that I am not unique in that situation.  I know there are so many of my friends who have similar situations and read this and wonder if their kids feel the same way.  I think every kid is different, and every family is different.  We did the best we could.  I am not sure how we could have done it any differently.

Reading Novels to a Low Incidence Class

At one point in my teaching career, my class schedule worked out so I had this 15  minute block of time when the kids came back from specials and before they had to go to lunch.  It was not enough time to really teach anything, but it was definitely enough time for them to get in trouble if there was not a structured activity.  I had a K-5 class of students with a HUGE range of abilities.  I had a few who were verbal, one with a genius IQ, and several who were non-verbal and required a personal assistant to navigate the day.  So, what to do that would engage this wide range of kids?  I decided to be CRAZY and read a novel.

I started with Charlotte’s Web.  We talked about the rules:  you had to sit at the table, you had to be quiet, and you could not touch others around you.  (It took about 3 months to get these rules consistently followed.)  I really did not know what to expect, but it turned out amazing.

Most of the students (all but 2) didn’t really seem to listen.  But, they were learning to sit quietly for a good block of time.  This turned out to be such a wonderful skill.  Parents and later teachers, alike, were very thankful for it.  It also turned out that two of my students really enjoyed listening to me read.  I wish you could have seen this group of students.  No one would believe they would sit and listen to a story, but with consistent expectations, they all got there by the end of the year.

Interestingly, my highest level student was the most problematic.  He just could not stand the thought of being quiet.  He wanted to talk ALL THE TIME.  So, I used this quick strategy:  I place the number of post-it notes in front of him that I planned to read that day.

Aviary Photo_130868842024691694As I would finish a page, he would remove the post-it note.  It worked like a charm the very first time.  I also used some visual cue cards, like “quiet” and “listen” for my lower level students.  These did not work quite as quickly, but it was an important part of shaping their behavior.

At the end of the novel (which took about 1 1/2 months), we all spent an afternoon watching the movie with popcorn.  It was a great reward, and they all loved it.  By the end of the year, we had read:

  • Charlotte’s Web
  • Wizard of Oz
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
  • Because of Winn Dixie

After that year, I worked this time into my schedule purposefully.  It was always a learning process in the beginning, but the end results were always worth all the time and effort.

If you would like to try it, consider trying one of my  novel units from my store on teacherspayteachers.  I have created an activity to go along with each chapter to increase the level of engagement and participation.  Click on the first two pictures below to download a free sample from each unit.  Directions to access the complete unit are included in the free download.  To check out my other novel units go to my store, Special Needs for Special Kids at TPT by clicking here.

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Using Color Coding for Differentiation

Our special education classes tend to have such a HUGE variety of learning levels and needs.  It can drive a teacher to insanity trying to come up with separate lessons for each child that is differentiated to their specific learning style.  Here is a quick way I found to take one task and make it accessible to more of my students.

We did a lot of cut and paste activities in my class.  Most of my students had difficulty writing, so I needed a way to produce a product for parents to see as well as a concrete way to gather data and perform assessments.  Pictured above is such an activity.  The students were sorting pictures with words into different word families.  This was perfect for my 3rd-5th grade learners, but not so much for my K-2 students.  So, I would outline the various pictures/words with a certain color that matched the color of the construction paper for that particular word family.  That way, it turned into more of a color matching task (with a high degree of distraction) which even my younger students could do.  For even more support, I would color in the entire square rather than just outline it.  In the end, I had one sorting activity that almost all my students could do with very little prep time on my part.

Consider trying this technique to easily make more rigorous tasks engaging and more independent for your lower level learners while still utilized grade level content.

A New Transition Strategy

The time we dread as special education teachers:  transitioning from one activity to another, or moving from one location to another.  You have all your students, or small groups, where they are supposed to be, relatively engaged, and then time is up and everyone needs to move.  Ugh!!  Although I destested transition times, I also knew it was probably the most important time of the day.  It was the time I focused on A LOT because as a teacher of little bodies (K-5) who would eventually grow into big bodies, I knew it was my job to teach them how to physically get from point A to point B with as little insanity as possible.  (I hope those secondary teachers who later got my kids, appreciated how well they could transition without a major uproar occurring).  So, what was my secret?  Well, there was no secret or magic bullet, but I did find one thing that helped tremendously…. music.

From the very first day, I would let the students know it was time to transition, usually with a “check schedule” card.  In the beginning, there was A LOT of hand holding and guiding students to their schedule and then to the new location.  About half way through the year, however, many of them could do this on their own, allowing me time to set up.  But, once the kids were at the  new table or center, I would have a song ready to go with some visuals or manipulatives for them to use.  I always used the same song for each lesson.  I always used Number Rock to start math, and I always used I’ve got the Whole Alphabet in my Mouth for reading/writing time.  It may seem like that would get boring for you and me, but for my students, it was the predictability of the music that helped them settle their bodies and get them ready to learn.  I would provide each of them with a number or letter board, and start the song.  In the beginning of the year, when we were still physically helping the students transition, this gave me 2 minutes to set up while my assistant led them through the song.  Later, I could take over that role, freeing up my assistant to get the next lesson or center prepared.

For most of the time I was teaching, I did not have much technology available to me in my classroom, so I simply used a CD player and some CD’s I borrowed from the kindergarten teachers.  That is part of the reason why I made sure to add some visual or manipulative component for all my visual learners. My last year, however, I was lucky enough to get a Smartboard, which enabled us to “watch” the song on youtube rather than just listen and sing along.  Either way, those 2 minutes were long enough to get the wiggles out, but short enough the students would not get bored.

Below, I listed some of my favorite songs we used and the links on youtube.  It really is a great way to start your lesson and easy to do.  Even if you have a severe diversity of learners in your class, and you think there is no way this will work with your crew, try it.  My class was extremely diverse, and I did have one student who took almost 3 years, to get the idea she was supposed to sit still and listen to the song, rather than dance, but it was still time so well spent.  We all learn at our own pace, so why not make it fun?

Great math transition songs:

Great ELA transition songs:

Great science transition songs:

Great social studies transition songs (yes, I taught social studies!):

Circle Time transition songs:

You get the idea.  As most of you know, you can find ANYTHING on youtube 🙂