Chapter 5: Collaborative-Interactive Nonfiction Writing: Positioning Students with Significant/Multiple Disabilities As Nonfiction Writers
by Amy Nolan
“All living things depend on one another”: My classroom ecosystem
A few years ago in the early fall, I took my fifth grade students on a field trip to a nature park. With the help of a park naturalist, we explored forest, pond, and grassland ecosystems. We hiked through a beautiful field of yellow wildflowers. We observed several examples of interdependence in nature: lichens growing on tree trunks, frogs sitting on lily pads seeking safety from predators, bees drinking nectar from wildflowers, and monarch larvae munching on milkweed. My students were fascinated in particular with the number of bees they saw. The next day, as my students and I sat around our writing center table, we began sharing our observations, questions and ideas. I captured their thoughts on chart paper as we began to make sense of what we had seen and experienced at the park. Through our interactive, collaborative writing process, I supported my students as they deepened their understanding and thinking about what they had seen.
Over the next several days my students and I worked collaboratively to write a nonfiction narrative account of our trip to the nature park. We typed the narrative using our classroom’s technology set-up—a wireless keyboard placed on our writing center table, our interactive whiteboard (which is a large, flat screen computer monitor mounted to the wall), and “notebook” software. Our narrative included text as well as other nonfiction text features, including the photos we had taken at the park. We “published” our story and placed it in our classroom library where it could be shared and enjoyed by others. The following excerpt comes from our collaborative writing process:
We saw a bee drinking nectar from a yellow wildflower and we wondered if the flower was yellow from the sun. It reminded us of something the bee says to the sleeping man in one of our favorite books, The Great Kapok Tree. The bee says, “I fly from tree to tree and flower to flower collecting pollen. In this way I pollinate the trees and flowers…you see, all living things depend on one another.” We saw milkweed growing in a field of wildflowers; we learned that monarch caterpillars are very picky eaters – they only eat the leaves of milkweed plants.
We had actually read The Great Kapok Tree: A Tale of the Amazon Rainforest by Lynne Cherry as one of our interactive read alouds in the days leading up to the field trip. I use nonfiction picturebooks like this one to introduce content material and to build background knowledge for my students. After reading this book, much of our discussion focused on the bee’s message in that story – all living things depend on one another. Through our collaborative nonfiction writing, then, my students were continuing to make sense of this important idea, locating evidence to support it, and communicating their ideas and understanding to others using text and photographs with my assistance and technical support.
I teach students who have significant and multiple disabilities. The beautiful students in my classroom are dreamers, wonderers, and emerging writers. They have a variety of disabilities, including brain injuries, cerebral palsy, and significant health impairments that affect all domains of learning, including cognitive, language/communication, and motor skills. Most of them are not able to write in the conventional sense – they must use a variety of assistive devices and technologies to support their communication, mobility, and fine motor skills. My students receive various therapies while at school; some use wheelchairs, standers, or walkers, while others use personal communication devices to produce speech. They participate in adapted physical education and Special Olympics. At my school (a public school in a large, urban school district), there are classrooms for students with disabilities at every grade level. The general education classrooms are comprised of mostly neighborhood kids, while the students in the special education classrooms are drawn to the program from all over the city, representing a variety of economic, cultural, racial, and linguistic backgrounds. There is a strong culture of collaboration and inclusion at my school among students, teachers, and staff.
In my role as a teacher of students with significant and multiple disabilities I face many complexities related to educational mandates. While federal law stipulates that students with disabilities must be educated in the “least restrictive environment” to the maximum extent appropriate (e.g. with their nondisabled peers from general education classrooms), the law does not magically ensure that students with significant disabilities are accepted and included in the mainstream culture of the school. Advocacy is an important aspect of my work as a special educator; I strive to develop collaborative relationships with my colleagues and make instructional decisions that increase my students’ opportunities to be actively engaged with their nondisabled peers in the context of our school’s learning culture. I especially enjoy co-teaching science with our general education fifth grade teacher. Through our collaborative teaching practices, my students experience regular, ongoing opportunities for inquiry-based learning and nonfiction writing alongside their peers from general education.
As the classroom teacher of students with significant and multiple disabilities, I am the facilitator-in-chief, encouraging and supporting my students’ curiosity and sense of wonder. And I locate nonfiction writing at the heart of my classroom teaching practice because it invites my students to be wonderers, dreamers and thinkers as they explore the natural world around them. It facilitates classroom discourse around important topics, events, ideas, problems, and possible solutions. It drives my students’ curiosity as they develop research and inquiry skills, such as observing, collecting data, finding answers to questions, and building academic vocabulary. As a teacher of students with significant and multiple disabilities, it positions my students as active participants in our school’s learning culture, holding true to the intent behind the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 2004.
Given all this, I have come to think of my classroom as a special kind of ecosystem. Together we form a community made up of individuals who depend on one another for many things: the exchange of ideas, making sense of the world through language and communication, learning how to express our ideas and observations through writing and other visual means, and the friendship and support that allows us to take risks and grow as thinkers and writers. We learn collaboratively by being curious, asking questions, expressing ourselves, listening to each other, and looking for evidence and answers; conversation and talk is central to our learning process. Nonfiction writing combined with other forms of visual literacy (e.g. photographs, captions, illustrations, graphic organizers, and digital media) make our thinking visible to ourselves and others; it documents our learning as we create artifacts that mark our journey of discovery. Further students experience agency as their voices are heard by wider audiences.
Nonfiction writing is a flexible, blended process that involves the use of instructional and assistive technologies, digital photography, and collaborative, peer-mediated learning. It is this unique process which I have cultivated over the years that I describe as collaborative-interactive nonfiction writing.
Over time I have adapted my writing instruction to better meet the needs of my students who have “intensive” impairments (e.g. some cannot talk, physically write, etc.). With nonfiction writing at the heart of my teaching practice I scaffold students through the use of multisensory approaches to teaching; further I blend best practices in nonfiction writing instruction with special education practices. While my process may be different from the ways in which we commonly approach nonfiction writing, my students can and do engage in it. In our classroom, then, nonfiction writing is a flexible, blended process that involves the use of instructional and assistive technologies, digital photography, and collaborative, peer-mediated learning. It is this unique process which I have cultivated over the years that I describe as collaborative-interactive nonfiction writing.