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Figuring out what works

Special ed teacher says students need a hands-on approach
New York Teacher

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When Karen Lew’s students study World War II, you won’t find them silently reading textbooks. Instead, Lew’s 8th-graders constructed a giant diorama of the D-Day invasion, color-coding troop movements and building fortifications out of clay.

“They need something that’s hands-on,” said Lew, who teaches social studies to 7th- and 8th-grade special education students at IS 125 in Woodside. “They need to get dirty and play with glue and create something.”

Lew, who grew up in Astoria, had intended to become a social worker. After graduating from SUNY Buffalo with a degree in sociology, she managed a child care center at a domestic violence shelter.

Looking for a change after a particularly harrowing day at work, she took the advice of her sister and applied to the Teaching Fellows program. After being accepted to a District 75 cohort, she was hired as a special education teacher at a Crown Heights school in 2011.

In spite of the school’s supportive administration, Lew had a difficult first year. “When you’re a new teacher, the kids know you don’t really know what you’re doing,” she says. “I tried my best, but I cried a lot.”

Worn down by the stress of attending evening classes for her master’s degree and a commute that stretched to nearly two hours each way, Lew transferred to IS 125 for her second year. There, she’s found her stride, adapting her social studies curriculum to the needs of her five self-contained classes.

“It’s been great because I finally figured out what I was doing,” she says with a laugh.

To boost her students’ vocabularies, Lew plays academic games of “Jeopardy” and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and concocts “vocabulary scavenger hunts” by posting clues throughout the classroom to get students out of their seats and moving. She also uses “Mind Mirrors” projects, asking her students to create posters that represent famous historical figures through symbols, adjectives and quotations.

“I’m fortunate to teach social studies, because it’s a fun subject for students to learn,” she says. “There are lots of visuals you can bring into the classroom to get them excited about it.”

Lew, a self-described “history nerd,” says she doesn’t like to recycle old lesson plans.

“Every year, it’s a different set of kids and a different set of needs,” she says. “So I’m constantly planning.”

Transitioning from her work with preschool-age children in a therapeutic setting to a middle school classroom has been an adjustment.

“In middle school, there are a lot of family and social and peer pressure issues that you have to deal with in your classroom along with academics,” she says. “It can be hard to speak with kids privately about what’s going on.”

But Lew says she’s learned to be flexible about approaching challenging behavior.

“I was taught to be stone-faced and not smile, but you just have to joke with them every now and then,” she says. “There’s a way to approach a situation so that it doesn’t erupt into a crisis or a breakdown.”

Her students, she says, keep her grounded.

“They keep me up to date with pop culture and what’s happening on YouTube,” she jokes. “And they help me remember that the world is not such a terrible place.”

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