Developing a technology-based special education curriculum with Boardworks
Green Chimneys, a New York State 853 school, is designed for students who have been unsuccessful in a traditional educational setting and who require a highly structured and supportive program. The therapeutic program incorporates academic, behavioral and emotional support in a comprehensive learning environment to help each child achieve new skills and confidence.
Dr. Ed Placke’s goal when becoming the Executive Director at Green Chimneys in 2017 was to allow students with diverse learning needs, who were not succeeding in the public school system to still access the demands of the curriculum via innovative and adaptive instructional strategies. He found that traditional instructional resources did not provide teachers with enough flexibility or interactivity to create highly-differentiated and engaging lessons. As a result, teachers struggled to find time to create customized lessons, often across multiple subjects, that optimized the learning experience for each student.
Green Chimneys needed something vastly different from the traditional curriculum to allow their students to succeed and flourish
“At Green Chimneys, we have students of average intelligence who also happen to have emotional difficulties and/or significant learning disabilities. They come from programs with 20-30 students per class, when they really needed a smaller student-to-staff ratio. Also, the curriculum was not differentiated enough to meet their needs. Instead, students were faced with a very traditional curriculum with which they simply could not engage productively. My concern was, we don’t want to do the same old same old with our students. How can we differentiate the instructional strategies as well as the content? How can we tap into the fact that many of our students are visual learners and are really interested in technology?”
Books and traditional resources quickly become antiquated, expensive, and inadequate at creating a consistent scope and sequence
“When I first started this job, teachers gave me the same feedback, that the books we have right now are very expensive, especially buying full class sets, and they become antiquated the day we buy them. The other part of it is that teachers have been putting together all sorts of materials and lesson plans to teach the scope and sequence, but the problem is that it’s not consistent grade to grade. I have the 8th grade teachers who are not necessarily on the same page on how to prepare students for 9th grade.”
"How can we differentiate the instructional strategies as well as the content? How can we tap into the fact that many of our students are visual learners and are really interested in technology?”
Boardworks has provided invaluable solutions for Green Chimney teachers and students alike. For students, it provides a level of interactivity that connects them to the content and allows them to access material in an individualized way. For teachers, strapped with the many demands needed to serve differentiated learners, it removes much of the preparatory burden – it provides easy-to-use, ready-made content needed to create lesson plans aligned to the state standards.
Bringing curriculum content to life with interactivity for diverse learners
“The minute I saw Boardworks, my administrative staff and I fell in love with it. It was exactly we needed at the right time. What I really liked about it was that the ELA really came alive for the students. For example, Shakespeare was written to be seen and heard, not read, because most of the folks in the days of Shakespeare were illiterate. Of course, our students have a difficult time with Early Modern English. Boardworks provides that modified version that is digitized and in more modern English with graphics and sound to help students connect to the play and understand it better.
“In terms of Science, it really enables laboratories to be brought to life, especially with limited resources. At Greenburgh North Castle, because we were a very poor urban school district and we didn’t have a ton of resources for science labs, we were even doing laboratories online with Boardworks. Students loved that.”
Supporting overworked Special Education teachers in creating standards-aligned curriculum content
“When I started at Green Chimneys, the board asked me what kind of curriculum, what kind of books would we need? And I said, we should reduce our spending on books. Boardworks can cover a lot of that information. Boardworks helps supplement a scope and sequence so that the content is predictable, which is good for both teachers and students. When a teacher receives a student in 9th grade, they will know the exact curriculum the student went through because he or she can get on a laptop and look at it. Right now, my teachers are great with the instructional piece of teaching – it’s just the planning according to scope and sequence that they’re having a hard time with. That’s where Boardworks comes in.
“We have self-contained teachers who teach every subject and that is one of the concerns from teachers. They are exhausted, number one. And secondly, they don’t have expertise across five or six curriculum areas, whereas Boardworks does. Some of the other classes are departmentalized, where you are just teaching one topic, but you could be doing algebra, geometry, and business math, for example, so you have three preparations there. Boardworks takes some of the heat off of teachers. Teachers right now are under such pressure in regard to standards and results and outcomes. They have very little time to really put together extensive lesson plans. This is a tool that can absolutely support teachers. I think it’d be good medicine for their mental health.”
"Boardworks helps supplement a scope and sequence so that the content is predictable, which is good for both teachers and students."
Ed’s goal in bringing Boardworks to Green Chimneys was to ensure teachers used the resources consistently by incorporating them into their daily or weekly lesson planning. The process of previously implementing Boardworks at Greenburgh North Castle continues to inform his path forward at Green Chimneys. Ultimately, consistent integration comes down to creating a culture around technology usage in the classroom, as well as creating pointed professional development about how to use Boardworks.
Using professional development to create a culture of technology usage
“At Greenburgh North Castle, I learned the hard way. We introduced Boardworks during professional development week. However, because we didn’t have continuous in-house professional development and continuous reminders, usage among teachers slightly decreased over time. What we ended up doing was saying, ‘All teachers must use Boardworks in their weekly lesson plans, so you have to show the principals that you are utilizing this technology investment as part of your planning. Eventually it started to become embedded as part of the culture.
“At Green Chimneys, professional development is key. We build in PD time at the end of every school day, so once I or another staff member does the introduction, we work with principals who then will work with teachers every few days on getting comfortable with each subject – one day working on algebra, another day ELA, another day social studies, just to get people accustomed to it with more practice and exposure.”
With Boardworks, Ed Placke’s teachers at Greenburgh North Castle were able to create lessons that give their students with special education needs access to the regular curriculum by addressing their diverse needs. He expects the same to be true once Boardworks is fully implemented at Green Chimneys.
With Boardworks, teachers are more likely to create state standard-aligned lessons in all special education classrooms
“Boardworks is connected to the state standards which is absolutely terrific because when the teachers use it to write their lesson plans, their content is immediately aligned to the state standards. It is a real positive.
“Every student at Green Chimneys has an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), and Boardworks will be great in providing that differentiation of content. Our students’ skills are not only very diverse but also very complex. They are on the spectrum, so they are autistic, plus they have mental health challenges. But many of them are of average intelligence. What that means is that they have not historically been available to receive good instruction. At Green Chimneys, our teachers help them access the content with great instruction, and Boardworks will help to fill in the content gaps.
“For example, with a subject like Algebra, which a lot of our students struggle with, it will be so helpful that Boardworks is editable. With Boardworks, we can actually get into the PowerPoint and make adjustments. Our teachers will really appreciate the fact that it is state standards-aligned but also something that can be modified on a daily basis to meet the needs of their students.”
Students respond positively to Boardworks, as it provides age-appropriate content for students at all ability levels
“Even when I was at Greenburgh North Castle, we had all inner city, urban high schools, and these were very hip students. We were using an online assessment system for reading and math, and the graphics were somewhat juvenile, more appropriate for elementary or middle schoolers. While the academic level was appropriate for our students, these high school students did not want anything to do with it. But with Boardworks, I’ve never gotten that feedback. None of the students has ever complained about the graphics feeling too juvenile.
“Also, I love that Boardworks is loaded onto the computer instead of online. Our students tend to get distracted when asked to go online and sometimes end up doing negative things. The way Boardworks is loaded is onto the computers is perfect. I would not want it any other way.”
"[Our students] have not historically been available to receive good instruction. At Green Chimneys, our teachers help them access the content with great instruction, and Boardworks will help to fill in the content gaps."