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A Broken Arm


Spelling was impossible for Jim, despite the accommodations made by his resource teacher. He was doing well in all his subjects but a new teacher this year who considered spelling a necessary life skill, insisted that he perform as well as the other students. Jim's embarrassment over the weekly posting of spelling grades was jeopardizing his successes.


Mary King had been a resource teacher for students with learning disabilities at Crossroads High School for 5 years. as she began her 15th year of teaching, she looked forward to co-teaching a 10th grade English class,  which included seven students with learning disabilities. Helen Williams, the English teacher with whom she would co-teach, was a 20-year veteran who had spent the last 7 years at a local middle school. Due to recent cutbacks she had been forced to accept a position at Crossroads teaching English. This was her first experience teaching high school and her first experience co-teaching. She was not happy about either.

When the two teachers met to plan how they would co-teach the class, Helen informed Mary that there was a lot of content to cover in the English curriculum. "You know the students are going to have a district-wide semester exam at the end of the term. I am going to be held accountable for their mastery of this content." She went on to suggest that because she was the English teacher, she should present the content while Mary circulated around the room to monitor students and answer questions.

"This semester we will start by reading Julius Caesar and every Friday there will be a spelling test that will constitute one fourth of the grade," Helen went on to explain.  She was adamant that spelling was a necessary life skill, and that it should be a part of the English curriculum. Mary expressed her concern about Helen's position on spelling because of the challenge spelling presented for many students with learning disabilities. "Well, why don't you take your students with learning disabilities out into the common area and give them some extra help?" Helen suggested.

Mary decided not to confront Helen but rather to accept her approach to teaching the class. She thought that as they became more comfortable working together, she could ease Helen into a more collaborative style of co-teaching.

One of the students who would be in the co-taught class was Jim O'Hara, a six foot tall, 200-pound, 17-year-old. Jim was born prematurely but quickly caught up and experienced no other complications until he entered school. He was identified as having language learning delays and auditory processing deficits when he was in the second grade and was enrolled in a special education program for students with learning disabilities. He had managed to successfully keep up with his classmates due to some instructional modifications and support from the learning disabilities resource teachers at his school. He was a very motivated student and his parents were proud of his academic accomplishments.

On Monday of the first week, Helen gave the students 12 spelling words to study and told them they would be tested on Friday. The words were well below the reading level of most of the students in the class and Helen felt it was reasonable to expect tenth grade students to spell seventh or eighth grade words.

Friday, when Mary took her students and a few others out in the common area to give them their spelling test, she was dismayed to see that Jim had gotten every word wrong. "I'll have to back up a bit here," she thought and made a mental note to catch Jim early next week and plan some new spelling strategies.

The following week she gave Jim six words on Monday and six words on Tuesday. She helped him make flash cards and showed him how to study using the flashcards at home, but again he missed all 12 words on Friday's test. When she looked at Jim's records that afternoon, Mary found that he was operating on a 4th grade level in language arts, and a 1st grade level in spelling. "No wonder he is having so much trouble on these tests," she said to herself. Jim was doing adequate work on the literature section of the course because all of the stories were being read out loud in class. "Spelling could definitely keep this student from making a passing grade in this class even though he's doing fine in the other areas," Mary thought. But, because she knew Jim was a motivated student (He was making A's and B's in math and science and a C's in history.), she was optimistic that she could find a way to adapt the spelling requirement so that he could be successful.

In the following weeks, Mary attempted presenting four words, three days a week with no success. When she dropped it down to three words, four days a week Jim was able to get one out of three correct, but Mary knew that would not be good enough to bring up his grade.

Mary approached Helen during their planning time on Friday. "Helen, we need to modify Jim's spelling test in some way or he is not going to get a passing grade in this class," Mary pointed out. "How about allowing him to pick the correct spelling word out of a choice of three, or perhaps match the word in a sentence?" she suggested hopefully.

"That will not work because those skills do not test spelling!" Helen replied. "I will have to average his spelling scores into his grade for the first nine weeks. Spelling is something everyone must be able to do to pass this class! I don't think it would be fair to lower that standard or my expectations for him or anyone else."

"Helen, I don't think spelling is a skill that Jim will ever be able to master. It is simply part of his disability. If he had a broken arm would you still expect him to write, or read printed material if he were blind?" she pointed out as tactfully as possible.

"Of course not!" Helen bristled, "but this is not the same!"

"Yes it is!" argued Mary.

"Educated people must be able to spell! I know I have high standards, but I want the best for my students," Helen replied. As far as she was concerned, that was the end of the conversation. Mary, however, was not satisfied. Jim was facing a failing grade in English, with no solution in sight. And worse, he was becoming frustrated and had begun to skip class.

Mary called Jim's home later in the week to talk with Mrs. O'Hara about Jim's problems with spelling, as well as his numerous absences from class. "He is so frustrated and embarrassed," Mrs. O'Hara confided. "The spelling grades are posted in the class and everyone knows that Jim is the one who is making the zero grade every week."

"I don't blame him for not wanting to come to class," Mary thought as she hung up the phone. "I have got to do better for Jim, but how can I convince Helen to give him a break?"

This issue had already put a strain on the two teachers' relationship and Mary was hesitant to confront Helen about Jim again. It would not be good for them to become adversaries, especially so early in the year. Mary believed, however, that it was her responsibility to help Jim succeed in this class.

Mary decided to approach Jim about returning to a self-contained English class for students with learning disabilities. "I feel normal when I'm in class with everyone else. When you go to the LD room, everyone knows why you are there. Please don't ask me to go back," Jim pleaded.

"What am I going to do?" Mary thought to herself.


Discussion/Study Questions

List what you learned/know about each of the characters in the case.

What do you think is motivating the thoughts/actions of each of the characters?

What are the issues/problems in the case?

Additional Questions

What instructional modifications in spelling did Mary make for Jim?

Were the modifications effective? Why or why not?

What instruction would you plan for Jim? What factors and information should you consider?

How would you talk to Helen about resolving the issues?


CEC Competencies/Knowledge Areas Addressed In The Case 

Major areas: 

Educational implications of characteristics of various exceptionalities.

Techniques for modifying instructional methods and materials.


Other areas:

Demands of various learning environments (e.g., individualized instruction in general education classes).

Importance and benefits of communication and collaboration which promotes interaction with students, parents, and school and community personnel.

Developing individual student programs working in collaboration with team members.


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