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The task of engaging special education students requires adaptability in the classroom. With a full room of roughly 25 students, there will be kids who struggle to grasp certain subjects and some who learn at different paces. Yet teachers are still required to teach each lesson using one strategy for all of their students. There are a few exceptions though, and one of those exceptions is working with a small group of special ed students.
Anthony Melesurgo is a teacher in his hometown of Bound Brook, New Jersey who thrives at engaging students in his school’s special education program by bringing the learning material to life. He works diligently to improve students’ comprehension and abilities to help them meet grade standards. His overall goal is to help them return to a traditional classroom.
While Anthony worked as a full time teaching assistant in an elementary school for nearly a decade, he had many opportunities to assist in special education classrooms. He grew fond of the challenges and rewards that came from helping students with unique challenges. In 2009, after years of encouragement from fellow teachers and administrators, Anthony enrolled in WGU’s B.A. Special Education (K-12) degree program and became a licensed teacher.
Students in Anthony’s class attend both gym and music classes with other teachers, but for the most part, Anthony is with the same group of kids all day. He faces a daily challenge of keeping lessons fun while engaging special ed students, at all grade levels, that cannot sit quietly for extended periods.
Did you ever have a teacher bring a big pizza into class as a lesson aid? Anthony is that teacher. His students learn mathematical fractions with pieces of pizza – before they enjoy a delicious lunch. When his students were learning about habitats and animals, they had difficulty grasping the importance of where an animal lives and how the environment effects them. To help them understand, the class took a trip to the zoo to see how animals live and what they need to survive.
“I have really shifted the type of learning in my classroom to hands-on experiences,” said Anthony. “We recently invited furry friends from a local pet store into the classroom so the students could learn more about what animals eat, what is needed in their specific cages, and where they can or can’t live.”
With help from two teacher’s assistants, Anthony regularly sets up interactive learning stations that cover spelling, writing, and the language arts. Students rotate stations every twenty minutes to prevent boredom and maintain engagement. The stations have been a huge success.
“The stations I set up follow the curriculum, but with special education students that have a limited attention span, twenty minutes per station seems to be the right time frame to get through four or five topics,” Anthony says. “I have an iPad station for math facts, stations with flashcards and other visuals, and then a smart board to teach my big lesson.”
The middle school is located just ten minutes from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, so Anthony has even brought several members of the football team into the classroom to speak about what it takes to be successful on and off of the field.
Anthony’s teaching methods may seem a bit unconventional, but he has proof that his efforts around engaging special education students is really working. Typically, at the beginning, middle, and end of a school year students in New Jersey take “benchmark assessments” to measure how each student is meeting academic standards. These tests are not based on grade level; they are based solely on what the student’s understanding and comprehension was when they first entered a teacher’s classroom and how that improves throughout the year. Between September and January of this year, Anthony’s students improved their scores by 40-60%.
He says the benefits of the job do not end with seeing positive test results though. There are students that come from families that are struggling, and Anthony appreciates the position he is in to help them “find themselves” through school.
The flexibility in working with and engaging special education students with their studies has played to his strengths. “My favorite part about going to work is the unknown. The other day, for two hours I taught my students about the proper way to act in a classroom. That is one of the basic habits they need to develop before they can return to a regular classroom and focus solely on academics.”
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