04/11/2014 11:56 am ET Updated Jun 10, 2014

Special Ed and Heroin: Letter to a First-Year Vermont Teacher

This is an email I wrote to a Special Education teacher colleague in her first year. The text is more or less just as I sent it to her last week. Names have been changed.

Dear Abby,

Your contribution to the 7th Grade Team meeting was...well...brilliant!

We don't often think of it in this way, but curriculum relevance is among the best support strategies for our special needs learners -- and for every student.

These days I've come to think of relevance as being less about student "interest" and more about the needs and identities of students and our community.

By suggesting that the Science, Social Studies and English teachers focus their interdisciplinary Citizenship Research Project on the subject of drug use/addiction in our community, you are proposing a topic that has many dimensions of identity relevance for middle school students, and it taps into community needs as well.

For our students, there is relevance that springs from the context of peer-pressure, risk and experimentation; there are connections to family and friends that can be made explicitly or just implicitly; there are investigations into the body and biology of substance use; there are lessons to learn about individual responsibility and choice and how our environment shapes us; there are powerful stories of justice and injustice, fairness and tragedy, and -- importantly -- ample stories of resilience and recovery, too. And there's a community need -- as in any journey toward health -- to acknowledge a problem as part of our journey toward solving it.

Every student -- including the students you work with who are on IEPs -- has a point of entry into a topic with this kind of relevance.

The engagement that comes when we tap into identity stories, developmental or communal needs, gives teachers a foundation for helping students develop their skills even in areas where they are challenged or afraid.

The attracting power of deeply relevant curriculum is sometimes the only thing that can counteract the repellant power of the fear of failure and the stigma of being stupid. The curriculum has to be worth the risk we are asking our special needs learners to take!

(Personal relationships with teachers, where there is deep trust and respect, can also compel struggling students to take big risks. We need both strategies.)

That said, we need to be careful and caring in how we guide students through the discussion of these topics. Hence my suggestion that the team create an explicit "safe discussion space" in English classes where discussion norms and personal writing will be given the attention they need for there to be safety in the exploration of student emotions and personal connections to the topic.

I hope that you and the Special Education department will continue to advocate for deep relevance in the curriculum as a pathway for your students, our students, all students, to access powerful learning experiences and develop essential skills.

- EH