Collaborative Teaching for Inclusion at North Central Charter Essential School

On the final day of a month-long unit on heritage in a Division Two (ninth and tenth grade) English class at North Central Charter Essential School in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, I overheard total, wrenching discouragement. “I hate art. I’m so terrible at this! Why can’t we just read and write in English class?” groaned a student struggling to complete a map for her portfolio. Another student, frantically proofreading and editing an essay, glanced up, looked at the artwork, and said, “You’re using a crazy mess of colors there, and it’s hard to follow. What if you stuck to a color family, like all blues and greens?” Before long, the two students collaborated, their respective strengths pulling each other to the finish line.

Founded in 2000 with a seventh grade class and adding a grade per year, North Central Charter School (NCCES) will graduate its first senior class in 2006. The school has grown to 350 students and will reach its capacity at 400 next year. Located in a small urban center surrounded by suburbs and rural areas, NCCES draws its students from 23 surrounding towns. Students of color comprise 20% of its population; most of them are Hispanic/Latino. 13% of NCCES’ students receive special education services.

NCCES started up as an Essential school with an explicit commitment to inclusive education. Patricia May, NCCES’s multitasking director of student services, director of special education and Division Two counselor was among the founding staff members. “When we began, we had an idealistic vision to erase lines between regular and special education, and we haven’t taken our eyes off that prize,” May describes. While NCCES constantly monitors itself, using inquiry and data-based analysis to improve its structures, policies, and approach to instruction, it has remain steadfast in its commitment to teaching partnerships between learning specialists with special education backgrounds and teachers who are content-area experts. Such partnerships thrive in particular, adaptable ways across the curriculum and through NCCES’s three divisions.

Michelle Carafiello and Michelle Desrochers co-teach the Division Two English class that I attended and are in their second year of working as a team. Both Carafiello and Desrochers describe their teaching partnership as an expression of NCCES’ commitment to inclusion. “From the beginning,” says Desrochers, “we just really clicked. For me, the key to collaborating is to work with teachers who are open to having someone else with a voice in the classroom. Michelle [Carafiello] is the expert in the content. I am more a contributor in the methods we use for kids, because all kids have specific ways of learning.” Carafiello recalls, “Last year was my first year teaching. It was really a great experience to have support to help me out, to have someone there to tell me what to look for.”

Their partnership also allows opportunities for differentiation, a crucial practice in inclusive classrooms. Patricia May says, “We work hard on being inclusive and diverse. We’ve learned a lot about realities and practicalities. Sometimes kids need a specialized instruction period like reading instruction or speech that won’t take place in a room with fourteen other kids.” Desrochers agrees, observing that if teachers are absolutist about how to do inclusion, thinking that it must mean that all students must always be together at all times, they risk missing key opportunities to differentiate instruction. “What we’ve done with kids is an evolution in itself. We’ve approached it in a lot of different ways, grouping kids heterogeneously or homogeneously. Right now, they’re working on the homogeneous side, focusing on building skills.”

Desrochers and Carafiello have committed to studying a Shakespeare play yearly with their students through differentiated instruction. Last year’s group took on Julius Caesar, with adaptations and multiple points of access so all students could engage with the text. Students and teachers were able to benefit from cross-curricular connections as they were simultaneously studying ancient Rome in their social studies classes. They approached Julius Caesar through the lens of leadership, with the essential question, “Who are leaders in a community and why are they leaders?” Using graphic organizers to study plot, characters, and setting, students engaged with the play through such activities as creating character trading cards and conducting an Oprah-like talk show employing theme and character. To access the text, students read summaries, used the Barron’s Simply Shakespeare text which simultaneously presents the original play with a line-by-line modern English translation and saw the film version. Different groups of students used different material and activities, and all emerged with a grasp of the play’s language, themes, and impact.

From her perspective as a learning specialist, Desrochers reflects, “You have to occupy kids, and structure the classroom so that they’re engaged and neither bored nor overwhelmed. One of the beauties of a heterogeneous classroom is that kids can work on a project by themselves so you can work with others. It’s very much like what elementary school looks like, with centers, adapted for high school. Literature circles are great – they let you move from group to group. You talk with and read with kids who need discussion time.”

For Michelle Carafiello, this multi-path approach to the text was new and transformative. “A lot of teachers are married to curriculum and don’t want to change it,” she says. “But we have to think about students’ needs. That was the big mistake I made at beginning of the year. You have to be really open and flexible; you have to be in tune with what kids need. Michelle [Desrochers] helped me slow down and see different ways to get to the goal.”

For Carafiello and Desrochers, part of the value of teaming has been the opportunity to work out and learn from conflict. “When you’re collaborating together it’s not personal,” observes Desrochers. “It’s about the kids. We had a rough start at beginning of this year. We were struggling with behavioral issues and kids were not doing homework. I said at a team planning meeting, ‘Maybe you’re giving homework that’s too hard.’ And Michelle [Carafiello] had an open mind and adapted. The thing that’s been the hardest to learn and the most valuable is to not assume that other teachers know things. You have to come to table honestly with ideas. You can’t be critical of what people don’t know.”

Reflecting on NCCES’ commitment to inclusion, Patricia May says, “I have a much better understanding of what it means to be a community and a safe school. Safe means that wherever you are, you feel safe enough to take risks in your learning. And being with all different kinds of learners raises awareness and sensitivity of all kids.” Inclusion allows everyone to see everyone else’s wholeness and complexity.

For Sarah Bidleman, a Division Two student with learning disabilities, inclusion vastly improved her school experience. “At my other schools, every time my mom met with my teachers it was about how badly I was failing. Here, it’s about how good I am doing,” said Sarah. “In the special education program here, they don’t put you down. They treat you the same. I was in regular classes when I first came to NCC, and I’ve never been in regular classes in my life. Every school I’ve been to looked at my IEP and put me in a special education class. Here, they wanted to see what kind of learner I was. Learning support comes from everyone. They believe you can do it. If they know if I am struggling a little, they help and push me to be a better student.”

Desrochers credits much of the success of inclusion at NCCES to the school’s tone of unanxious expectation. “You’re allowed to make mistakes. [NCCES principal] Peter [Garbus] has said that while we teach here because we’re perfectionists, sometimes good is good enough. We have an environment where teachers care about kids and treat them like human beings, so as teachers we treat each other that way. Having a small team last year helped create a nice support system where we know each other as colleagues. We now share common values and are able to move forward from that.” Patricia May also believes that NCCES has created the kind of culture that both supports inclusion and is at the same time strengthened by inclusion’s commitment to equity, diversity, individual progress and common goals. “And as someone who’s been on board from the get-go,” says May. “I feel that that knowing that we are good and at the same time constant improving has taken a weight off my shoulders. Because we are in reaction mode to the politics around us, we are a little sensitive to defending ourselves. Sometimes we feel we have to be better than everyone else in order to have credibility, but what we really need is to be good enough to get what we need.” In these high stakes times, being good enough—not settling for mediocrity but being clear about what each student and the school community is truly capable of and aiming for that—is radical and powerful. And if schools have some autonomy over their paths toward their goals, it is attainable.

Co-teachers Michelle Carafiello and Michelle Desrochers describe five techniques that they rely on to teach collaboratively and inclusively:

  • Use graphic organizers, often the same graphic organizers again and again. Familiarity really helps.
  • Use consistent, structured ways of doing things. Give kids a formula with writing, a place to start. Let them master that and then push further.
  • Break things down into sequences, and use those sequences as much as possible. For kids who struggle with executive functioning and language, this is like a lifeline for them.
  • Present things is as many multisensory ways as you can. When we say something, we write it on the board, always linking sight and hearing.
  • Work interdisciplinarily. When students use what they learned one class and in another class, it’s really helpful. It lets them build on that information in different ways.