The Columbus Controversy

Oh my, to teach or not to teach about Christopher Columbus?  It is a hot topic the last few years.  He was not a very nice person, and his actions led either directly or indirectly to the death of almost all the people who were living in the countries he “discovered.”  His actions also resulted in a huge spike in the transatlantic slave trade.  So what are we to do on October 8?  Here is what I did.

So, I did teach about Christopher Columbus.  All the other kids were learning about his voyages and impact on history, so I did not feel I had the right to deny my students the same opportunity.  I did not, however, do a deep dive as many of my regular education cohorts were doing.  There is definitely a trend to “get it right” and teach the real story while still preserving the significance of Columbus’s travels.  We all know that Columbus did NOT discover America in 1492.  He also did nothing to convince the world at the time that the Earth was indeed round and not flat.  So what do we need students to know about this explorer?  Specifically, what do we need special education students to know about him.

circle map

Here are the main points I thought were important:

  • He was an explorer who made very difficult journeys across the ocean.
  • He thought he had discovered a new path from India to China.  He was wrong.
  • He had trouble convincing royalty to fund his trips.
  • His main impact was showing others that crossing the Atlantic was possible, and this was one of the main factors in more explorers attempting the voyage.

If you would like to download a copy of the book I wrote to use while teaching this unit, click on the button below.  It is a simple, 22 page story that outlines the points above and gives our students some basic appreciation of the history of Christopher Columbus.


If you want to do more with this holiday, I have some activities to go with this unit in my store.  There is a circle map (seen above) that students can use to take notes, a cut and paste booklet to review the main points, and an activity where they can practice navigating using the constellations (my favorite).


It is a difficult choice to make when it comes to this holiday and how much detail you choose to cover.  I am certain older students could handle the real story, but since I was teaching elementary kiddos at the time, this worked for me.  I think we just need to respect how people decide to teach about this holiday, and I wish you luck with that somewhat difficult decision.

Cooking in the Classroom

Full disclosure, I LOVE to cook.  There is not  much I enjoy more than working in the kitchen.  So, I guess it is not surprising that I also LOVE cooking with my students in the classroom.  And, although it can get messy, and it takes a watchful eye and careful planning to keep it clean and safe for all involved, the kids loved it just as much as I did.

Every Friday, we would have “kitchen time.”  I would have a recipe ready to go that usually went along with something we were learning about.  Early in the year, it almost always revolved around the letter of the week.  And, in the fall like it is now, we did LOTS with apples.  One of our favorites was to make applesauce.  I liked it because we did not have to get access to the stove or oven in the teacher’s lounge.  We just used a crock pot, and that made it so easy.


One of my goals when cooking with my students, was to make it as independent for them as possible.  I had kids from ages 5 to 12, so there were a  lot of ability levels to address if we were all cooking the same recipe.  So, that meant a lot of up front prep work for me.  But, I came up with a system that we tweaked over the years, and worked really great.  Here is what we did.  (Be sure to read to the end to get your FREE copy of my Applesauce picture recipe.)

First, I would print recipe labels to put on the actual ingredients.  These would match the picture symbols I used in the recipe.

ingedients with labels

Then, each student got a recipe depending on their learning level.

  • Some used a recipe with just words and a check box.
  • Some used a recipe with pictures symbols,
  • Some used a recipe with actual photos.

product photo

Then, we would divide up the jobs.

  • Some were on the hunt to gather all the right ingredients.
  • Some were in charge or reading out the directions and checking off the steps once completed.
  • Some did the actual measuring. (Although, some years or with some recipes, I pre-measured things to make it easier.)
  • Some were in charge of using the equipment, like a peeler, a knife and cutting board, or blender.

There were plenty of jobs to go around.

Once the cooking was finished, we were sure to clean up the area and wash any dishes.  When the food was ready, it was time to feast and enjoy.  Of course, I had A LOT of students with food sensory issues, and not everyone wanted to eat what we had made, but that was okay.  Everyone still seemed to enjoy the process.

As a last step, we often completed a writing prompt. (I talked about these two weeks ago, and you can read more about using writing prompts by clicking on the picture below.) They loved to talk about how something tasted or felt in their mouth and on their tongue.  So many great adjectives we could pull in to describe our scrumptious meal.

feature image

Cooking in the classroom is such a great way to work on so many various skills, some academic and some more life-skilled based.  If you have not tried it, I encourage you to give it a try.  It did not always go perfectly, but I still felt it was totally worth the effort.

Want to try it?  Click on the button below to get a FREE copy of my Applesauce Recipe.

Applesauce Picture Recipe

Want to try even more?  Check out my Cooking Through the Alphabet Unit which has 26 different recipes (one for every letter of the alphabet.)  Just click on the image below.  Finally, if you have bought any of my units, you know I love to sneak these recipes into my novel units, my other literacy units, science units, and even some of my social studies units.  There is not better way to connect with a region than through its food.  Wouldn’t you agree?!?


Why do I need to teach that?

What is the one question I get asked all the time?  “Why do I need to teach that?”  Other teachers and homeschoolers often tell me how much they love my units and how thorough they are, but it is often followed up with, “But why would I spend time teaching that to my students?”  I get it, I really truly do.  As special education teachers, we are expected to deal with so much and often have so little support.  We are dealing with significant behavioral challenges and often time-consuming physical needs that so many of our students deal with.  It is hard enough to get through the day just keeping everyone safe, happy, clean and sane.  But, I challenge you to think back…

Why did you become a teacher?

For me, it was the pure love of learning and the desire to share that excitement and discovery with others.  Just because I chose to teach special education, and I taught the most profoundly affected students in our county, did not mean my reason for teaching changed.  It just got more complicated, a WHOLE LOT more complicated.

So, let me share with you the biggest reason why I think it is worth it to find a way to teach REAL curriculum in a meaningful and engaging way that is age appropriate and worthwhile for you and your students.

It is a GREAT way to teach other (incredibly important) skills while getting your students excited about learning and keep you excited about teaching.

As I gathered my small but boisterous class of 7 students, ranging from age 5 to 12, I was faced with the figuring how to keep this diverse group of kiddos engaged, calm, and learning.  It is not easy, and it is (more often than I want to admit) not always that successful.  But, I am persistent and optimistic that I will hit on just that right combination to keep all those eyes looking at me and all those hands in their laps.

It is November, and we are learning about life in colonial america.  I read the book I have written and illustrated with photos to the group as a whole.  I have been reading this same book for the past 7 days, so by now some are excited to chime in.  But more importantly…

***They are all sitting (relatively still) and looking at me (or at least in my general direction).***

That is a HUGE skill they have learned.  They can sit and be quite while the teacher is reading and not distract the other students around them.  It has taken a while to get to this place, and every time we start a new topic with a new book, there is some re-learning that needs to occur.  But it is an awesome sight.

I ask the youngest, non-verbal student what he sees on this page (it is a photo of a wild turkey).  He looks down at his communication device, and with some help from my amazing assistant, finds the correct picture and tells me it is a turkey.

***It has taken 3 months, but he is using his communication device to tell me what he has learned!!***

So many of my students have had communication devices.  It seemed like every single device was different, and they all required my time and attention (and fresh batteries) to keep them working and relevant to what we were studying.  Oh, and my sweet little kiddos (of course) all wanted to play with the device their neighbor had instead of their own.   Teaching students how to use their communication devices may seem easy to an outsider, but it takes so much time and a really conscious effort on the teacher’s and assistant’s part to make it part of their regular communication exchanges.  Having well-planned out lessons have helped me do that.

My oldest student has got some super challenging behaviors.  He is one of those kiddos that will strike out at you so quick you don’t even see it coming.  But, he has to sit near me to keep the other students at a safer distance.  He wanted to answer the turkey question, and I can tell he is angry that someone else got to do it this time.  I prompt him (by pointing) to his “I need a break” card and he kind of throws it at me.  “Yes, you can take a break,” I say.  Off he goes to a quiet corner to regroup.

***He did NOT hit me.  He did NOT hit another student.  He did NOT get to be in charge of  the lesson and answer every question.  He DID ask to take a break.  He DID (eventually) return to the group.***

Working on behaviors is something we do every minute of every day in special education.  I find this can be the most difficult part of my job because these behaviors are often so complex and need carefully constructed plans and strategies to overcome.  But, I don’t want to work on them in isolation.  It just does not seem practical (and not much fun for me or the student).  I want to work on them while I am also teaching.  This, again, takes a lot of pre-planning and clear communication with all the other adults in the room, but I have found I am happier when I can address those things while doing what I love.  And, if I am happier, I am more likely to follow through and be consistent with my plan and strategies.

After we read the story, we “talk about it for a bit” and then I have a planned activity.  Today, we are sorting things the pilgrims were likely to see on a typical day versus what they were not likely to see.  I have ONE activity for all 7 kids.  And, believe it or not, I can differentiate it so they can all participate with some form of independence.  Here are some things I typically do:

  • Pre-cut out pictures for students who really struggle with scissor skills
  • Gather some simple objects for one student who is really struggling.  I have a piece of corn from the kitchen play center and a jeep from the car bin.
  • Use color coding for students who need a little more help.  This is a quick and easy technique, that you can read more about here:
  • Challenge my highest kiddo, (who has just returned from the chill out area).  He gets a blank sorting template and a pencil.  He can either look at everyone’s pictures for ideas or come up with his own for each column.

***They are all working as independently as they can (with the help of some amazing assistants) on the SAME activity.***

This may sound like a crazy amount of prep-work, but I don’t know how else to do it.  I am not a big fan of hand over hand assistance.  I love using eye gaze for my students with significant gross motor challenges.  I give them two choices to look at, and they choose the one they want by looking at it.  Is everyone’s activity correct?  Absolutely not.  But, I guarantee you that parents don’t want perfect work coming home all the time.  They want to know their kids are doing things themselves.  Do we talk about the wrong answers?  Of course.  I also encourage parents to talk about their kid’s work as well.

Really, I could go on and on with the various skills my students learn as we work through these units.  But here is the main point:

I think we would all agree that these are super important skills to work on. 

So, why not work on them in the context of real curriculum?  I know materials are not easy to find.  I have spent years making things for myself.  But it is so worth it.  It won’t be perfect right away.  But, you can get there.  Never underestimate what a kid can do.  They will rise to the expectations we set for them.

So, do you want to try it out?  Want to take a leap of faith and teach a unit that is based on the SAME content as the other students have access to?

I am setting your bar high:

I challenge you to try it!!  And to get you started, I am going BIG with this free download.  I want you to try teaching your students about the Magna Carta.  I have a complete European History bundle available in my store, but I want you to start here with something smaller and more focused.  It may feel ridiculous and totally out of your comfort zone, but try it.  And remember, be persistent and be optimistic!! 


Writing Prompts for students who cannot read

I have noticed an increased emphasis on writing these days in the curriculum.  We are asking kids to not only write more, but we are expecting them to write at a higher level than before.  Although I imagine this is a challenge for even the regular education teacher,  what do you do if you teach students who do not have that same ability?

What if you teach students who don’t even know how to read?

This is what I was faced with, and I had to find a way for my students to meet the curriculum guidelines and produce some form of written content that I could “grade” and demonstrate growth and comprehension with.  So, this is what I came up with.

And it worked GREAT!!

I would come up with a template relating to the topic we were studying.  Sometimes, I just wrote it out quickly on construction paper.  Sometimes, I had something all neatly formatted and printed off.

If I was really on my game, I had all my predetermined choices ready to go and printed out.  That was my goal.  It would look something like this:


But, let’s face it, sometimes we are just not that ahead of the game.  We  use what we have.  Sometimes that was looking through magazines, and other pre-printed material I could find.  Sometimes, we used the student’s communication device.  He or she would point to a picture and I would write the answer in the empty box.

Do you get the feeling that this sometimes turned out like a Mad Lib?

Well, that was okay!!  It was their story.  There were no wrong answers.  It was their own personal expression.

That brings me to the other very important part to this writing process with students who likely can not even read or talk.  They need a chance to share their story.  I wish I had permission to share some of the videos I have take of students sharing their stories.  It was truly inspiring.  I had them “read” their story in whatever mode of communication they were most comfortable with.  That may mean I recorded their story on their device, and they got to hit “play” while we listened.  For my most affected students, I recorded their story, one line at a time, on a BigMack.  They would read their story, hitting the button to advance to the next line.

So, I encourage you to try this out with your students.  I think you will be so pleasantly surprised, and it will lead to increased participation and communication. Be sure to click on the button below to get your free apple writing prompt!!


  • It does not have to be long
  • There are no wrong answers
  • Use what you have, it doesn’t need to look perfect
  • Give them a chance to share their creations

Due to the positive response from this post, I created a unit that contains 26 different writing prompts from A-Z.  You can check it out here!!

Writing Prompts A-Z zombie

As always, my heartfelt thanks to all those special education teachers out there who show up day after day to fight the good fight.  I know you often don’t have the tools you need or the time in your day to make them.  Just know, that what you are doing makes a difference.  We (parents and other teachers) know it and appreciate it.

Sincerely, Christa Joy