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Differentiating Instruction for Special Education ELL Students

Flora Padro
FLORA PADRO - Special Education (12:1:1) Science TeacherGrades 6-8  MS 226M  New York City

My name is Flora Padro. I am a Special Education 12:1:1, alternate assessment science teacher. The 12:1:1 designation is a placement for 12 students who require specialized instruction that can best be accomplished in a self-contained setting and requires additional adult support due to academic and/or behavioral management needs. I work with 5th-8th grade students classified as having emotional disturbance and mental retardation. What that means is that, not only am I teaching three different grade levels and curriculum in the same class, but I also have students with an array of cognitive, academic, social (behavioral) and emotional functioning dynamics. Did, I forget to mention that a quarter of my students are English Language Learners or could benefit from such services?

Fortunately for me there are a lot of overlaps in teaching techniques and strategies for special education and English Language Learners. In my class I had the challenge of introducing language and science to students whose academic deficit was language, either because English was not their native language and or their cognitive/academic impairment made learning such concepts difficult.

The student assignment paper worksheets with questions, images, and handwritten responses.

I participated in the NOAA Science Literacy for Grade 6 English Language Learners Project through the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). The program supplied many materials, as well as opportunities for me to teach my ELL Special Education students about weather and climate change using the Museum's visualizations and differentiated teaching strategies. Students were able to use what they learned at the Climate Change exhibit and the lesson that is included here as the inspiration to conduct a scientific investigation as a class which served as the unit's culminating activity. 

The quality of the students' projects and the intensity of their engagement in the work demonstrates that even with their varying deficits, all of my students use science as a means to feel empowered and to communicate to their peers and teachers that they do want to learn and are certainly capable of it. As a result of this experience in the NOAA program, the students' level of undesirable behaviors has declined and their academic performance has improved in all subject areas.

Two worksheets for school children about climate change and energy efficiency, with images and handwritten responses.

Needless to say, all of the work I produce for the 12 students in my classroom has to be differentiated and scaffolded to meet the different learning styles and needs in the classroom. Worksheet 1 uses pictures and a picture word box to help students with limited reading and writing abilities.

Sample student test worksheets with handwritten responses.

These are samples of higher level student work on two different worksheets. They are designed for intermediate readers and writers who can read and write with minimal help or are independent.

A group of young people seated and paying attention to something out-of-frame.

For all of my students, field trips to the Museum have inspired and motivated them to think like a scientist in and out of my classroom. The opportunity to work with Museum scientists and staff at the American Museum of Natural History on the NOAA project has given my students and me the opportunity to supplement my curriculum units with visualizations and hands-on experiences to facilitate their learning of weather and climate concepts and to make connections between content areas and Museum exhibits.

Taxidermied polar bear from Museum exhibit

This year my Grade 5 to 8 students were able to complete a scientific investigation inspired by a Museum visit to the Climate Change exhibit. During our visit to the exhibit, our class focused on the impact that humans have had on the environment and its consequences. My students were immediately drawn to the Polar Bear diorama. My students were stunned to see all the garbage surrounding the polar bear and its habitat.


My students were also fascinated by the Disappearing Arctic Ice exhibit. They were surprised to learn how much ice there is in the Arctic and furthermore, how much ice is disappearing every year.


The Museum's experience in the Climate Change exhibit inspired my students to create a design experiment related to the amount of heat that a glass terrarium could maintain when insulated by different color paper and materials. The students also did a project on the water cycle.


Students presented this project and others like it to their peers, Museum staff and family members at a school wide science fair held at the American Museum of Natural History.