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by Randi Downs
National Faculty

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Topic tags: Gold Standard


May 24, 2016
Authentic Community Connection for a Special Ed Project

by Randi Downs
National Faculty

We talk often about what Project Based Learning does for instruction, but what about its effect in and around the community? Recently, a group of students in the OCM BOCES 12:1:1 STAR classroom (Skills Toward Adult Responsibility), led by an exceptional teacher and teaching assistants, completed a project to practice standards for writing and speaking, while also learning about civic participation as part of the social studies curriculum.

The project focused on empathy, particularly empathy for the elderly individuals who reside in a facility near the school. Inspired by a visit and powered by the question, “How do we show the elderly that we care about their happiness?” students set out to do just that. What impressed me about this challenge was the authenticity of it. Quite often people are uncomfortable when they visit residents of assisted living facilities. This class determined that one of the causes for this might be that we are often nervous interacting with people from different generations. We don’t know what they like to do or how they might spend their time. So, the students decided to interview the residents in an effort to discover what they like to do when people from the community spend time with them.

Scaffolded Inquiry
Since students in this particular class struggle cognitively, their teacher scaffolded the inquiry by forming interview questions with the students. When necessary, teacher assistants would read the questions for the students, while some were able to navigate the task independently. The teacher is aware of how much structure is necessary to facilitate the process, and after analyzing each task, provides appropriate tools and scaffolding.  Armed with clipboards and prepared questions, the students set out to spend time with the residents to inquire about how they spend their leisure time.

One need only to watch a portion of an interview to see what structured inquiry can do to deepen a learning experience while serving as a cross-generational connection. In the video, one student asks his questions, while the woman in the clip responds with pride and pleasure. I found out later that she is a retired school teacher. You can notice that in her interactions with the students. Her “teacher” voice returns as she shares activities that appeal to her and the other residents. At one point, she seems to launch into an impromptu spelling lesson. It’s quite touching, really.

Authenticity = Engagement
A teacher named John Thanos addresses the importance of relevant and authentic learning in his recent blog post, “Want Authentic Student Engagement? Provide an Authentic Audience.” I noted this with the young students as they interviewed the folks at the assisted living facility, and how deeply engaged they were. The text on the clipboard provided a purposeful connection between the students and adults while culling information needed to answer the driving question

Utilizing the information they had gathered, students created their public product: a structured list of activities to facilitate visits between the elderly residents and members of the community. They presented the chart to the residents and posted it in the recreation room. Now, when visitors arrive, they have options.

Time spent with the men and women living at this facility resulted in the discovery that the residents like to complete puzzles as well as play cards and Bingo. They enjoy visiting, especially with those who will engage in a rousing round of Old Maid, which the students now do each week!


Do you have questions or comments about creating an authentic community connection? Please enter them below.


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