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How Far Should We Go

Brian had eight months left in Willow Brook Elementary before he entered middle school, 6th grade, six classes, and six new teachers but he was still reading at a first grade level! Brian's learning disability was only part of the dilemma LuAnn and Karen, his co-teachers, faced. His dad had died when Brian was in the first grade, and his mom seemed overwhelmed by the demands facing her.


"Do you like green eggs and ham? Yes I like them...," Brian walked around the classroom reading out loud. The other 26 children in the room seemed oblivious to him. That’s just how Brian Adams read, and he had read 22 books since the beginning of the school year! The only problem was they were all beginning first-grade-level books. Brian was part of a continuous progress classroom for students in third, fourth, and fifth grades. The class was co-taught by Karen Karsee, a general educator, and LuAnn Murphy, a special educator. Brian came to the classroom two years ago as a third grader from another district. He had been identified as language learning delayed in the first grade and had received special education services in a self-contained classroom prior to coming to Willow Brook.

As LuAnn listened to Brian read, she thought back to the first day he entered the classroom.  He was such a loner. The only thing that she and Karen could interest him in was drawing. He still loved to draw but he had made tremendous gains socially. He was athletic, so quick and fast that all the kids wanted him to play on their teams at recess. He was a great soccer player but more than that, the kids just really liked Brian. LuAnn and Karen agonized over his academic progress, however. It was already October and Brian’s progress in reading and writing was so slow--so painfully slow.

"What will he do next year in middle school?" Karen voiced what LuAnn had been thinking. "He’ll have six teachers and any subject that requires him to read...," Karen trailed off, deep in thought, afraid to even think of what would happen to Brian next year.

Karen thought about the last two years she had been working with LuAnn. She especially loved the co-teaching, continuous progress model because they had the same students for more than one year and were able to spend more time building a rapport and relationship with them and their families. Both teachers thought that was critically important. Karen reminisced, "I did a good job as a teacher for ten years and a great job for two with LuAnn."

Karen and LuAnn had learned so much from one another and their collaboration seemed to be working. Eight of the students in their class, including Brian, had special education labels. The students themselves did not know who they were because both teachers interacted with all of the students. LuAnn and Karen modified their instructional and assessment procedures when necessary and measured each child’s progress individually, rather than against their classmates. Sheree, a student with learning disabilities, was considered one of the smartest by her classmates because she had read so many books. No one knew the books were below grade level.

Even Brian was getting 80s on his "adjusted" spelling tests. Because of his language processing difficulties, the number of correct letters were credited rather than correct words. If he got the "h" in the word horse, that was a success. Fortunately, math was not a problem for Brian. He was on grade level in his math skills and his pride in his accomplishments in that area provided motivation in the areas in which he struggled. LuAnn worried, however, that Brian might be losing some of his motivation when she overheard him say, "What’s the use of studying my spelling words? I’ll never get a 100." She dreaded the day when he finally realized the books he read aloud and so proudly displayed were "baby books."

LuAnn spent one-half hour each day with Brian in direct instruction on his reading skills using the Reading Recovery method. He was able to follow along as the story was read aloud and had no problem with listening comprehension but, whether he read aloud or silently, his reading comprehension was very limited. He also stumbled over words, often words he had known the day before. LuAnn told Karen, "He just has no strategies for attacking the words. He has no way to blend. Those sounds just don’t mean anything to him. Something gets lost in the translation."

Brian was enrolled in resource speech and language therapy and attended twice a week in an effort to improve his language skills--but progress was not apparent. LuAnn and Karen were stumped by the severity of his learning disability.

Brian’s father had been killed five years ago in an automobile accident. It seemed to Karen and LuAnn that his mother was overwhelmed trying to raise two children, work, and go to school at night in a nearby city. His mother’s schedule meant that Brian was alone, occasionally with his older sister, from 4:30 until 10:00 p.m. most weeknights. On one occasion last year, Karen phoned Mrs. Adams to let her know Brian was not bringing in his homework. "You know that Brian’s father died," Mrs. Adams explained as if Karen had never heard this before. It seemed to the two teachers that Mrs. Adams felt her husband’s death was the cause for everything that was happening in the family--the reason she had to go to work and the reason for Brian’s troubles at school.  Mr. Adams had been gone for five years but the family was having difficulty moving past it.

"Mrs. Adams," Karen implored, "Brian needs to get his homework done. He’s so far behind...." Karen was stunned when Mrs. Adams hung up on her. "I didn't mean to upset her, I guess I came on too strong," Karen recounted to LuAnn the next day as they were preparing for class.

The two decided that perhaps Lu Ann should try to talk with Mrs. Adams. After repeated calls Mrs. Adams seemed less angry.  Eventually, she was willing to talk to both teachers and the channels of communication between school and home were reopened. Both LuAnn and Karen were grateful for the co-teaching situation where one or the other could usually find a way to engage a child or parent.  At the very least, they could reflect and brainstorm different approaches that might enable their students to be successful. Once communication was re-established, LuAnn and Karen worked to solve Brian's homework problem. They arranged to have a school volunteer come in the class each afternoon and work with him on his homework.

The teachers were also able to arrange for Brian to take advantage of a local Big Brother program because there were no adult male figures in his life. Brian’s volunteer Big Brother came to his house every Saturday. "Do you think Brian’s Big Brother could just read to him?" LuAnn suggested to Mrs. Adams over the phone.

"Well, when he is here, he usually does odd jobs that I am not able to do and watches Brian while I get out of the house for a few hours," Mrs. Adams said in a tired, discouraged tone. Mrs. Adams seemed genuinely concerned with Brian, his welfare, and what the school was trying to do. In thinking about the situation, LuAnn felt sorry that Mr. Adams had died and that Mrs. Adams was so overwhelmed. However, she felt that Brian’s needs were not being met and that the family needed to move on.

In an additional effort to help Brian, Karen and LuAnn were able to find a university student who volunteered to work with Brian at his home intensively over the summer. They gave Mrs. Adams the student’s phone number so she could make the final arrangements but she never called.

LuAnn and Karen had had tough cases in the past but managed, through tremendous team effort, to get the child close to grade level. It simply was not happening for Brian, no matter how hard they tried. "Just how far should we go?" they wondered, "and where do we go from here?"


Discussion/Study Questions


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

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

3.    What are the issues/problems in the case?

Additional Questions

1.    In light of Brian’s family situation, what other avenues could the teachers take to get help for Brian?

2.    Given the severity of Brian’s learning disability, is it realistic for the teachers to expect to bring his reading skills up to grade          level?

3.    What role should teachers take when dealing with children and families who have experienced a death and who are in the          process of grieving?

4.    Do you feel that Brian’s mother’s continued depression and despair five years after the death of her husband is a typical or          predictable component of the grief process?

5.    Do you believe that this classroom is the "best" placement for Brian? Are the teachers able to meet his needs?

6.    What instructional modifications were tried with Brian? Were they effective? Why or why not?

7.    Considering the added pressures and responsibilities that Brian’s mom has faced since the death of her husband, what          additional family supports might help alleviate her situation?


CEC Competencies/Knowledge Areas Addressed in the Case

Major Areas:

Rights and responsibilities of parents, students, teachers, and schools as they relate to individuals with exceptional learning needs.

Techniques for modifying instructional methods and materials.

Other Areas:

Diversity and dynamics of family, school, and communities as related to effective instruction for individuals with exceptional learning needs.

Characteristics and effects of the cultural and environmental milieu of the child and the family (e.g., cultural diversity, socioeconomic level, abuse/neglect, substance abuse, etc.).

Instructional and remedial methods, techniques, and curriculum materials.

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