Kelly Namorato starts each school day with her 14 students by allowing the fourth- and fifth-graders in her class to check in with each other. The tool she uses to “get the ball rolling” for the school day is, literally, a ball.
She uses a large, soft “knot ball” as a kind of “talking stick,” passing it between students who are sharing their thoughts on the day.
As an Intensive Learning Center teacher at East Millsboro Elementary School, Namorato teaches children who “come to me identified as kids with a disability,” after being screened by such specialists as speech pathologists, school psychologists and special-educators.
“I take the kids who are considered intense or complex — meaning that their needs aren’t necessarily addressed in the general-education classroom,” Namorato said.
Once children are identified as qualifying for ILC instruction, “we take the information that they give us about strengths and weaknesses, and we develop an individualized education plan (IEP),” she said.
An IEP is a detailed document that includes specific goals for each child; it’s a road map for teacher and student to travel together during the year. In Namorato’s case, she is the one who writes the IEPs for each of her students.
Say, for example, she’s writing an IEP for “Student A” — “I’ll plan his year out in his IEP and say, by the end of this year he needs to be able to do this… I’ve got to be able to produce that he can, in his IEP,” she said. “For example, one of my students, when given 10 problems, does she know which problems are adding, does she know which ones are subtracting? At the same time, she has a secondary goal of subtracting with regrouping with two digits.”
“I’ve got to take care of some of the curriculum that IR gives me, but at the same time I have to address those IEP goals. It’s a balance,” she said.
During the school day, Namorato is constantly thinking not only about how best to structure each day to meet each child’s needs but also to group them and their activities in the most logical, efficient way.
“I have to take all the IEPs and kind of lump them together and say, ‘OK, this child needs this and this child needs this,’ and make logical groups not necessarily based on grade level but based on their academic needs,” she said.
All of that has to be accomplished within the structure of the school day and within certain curriculum requirements.
“I’m given a classroom schedule where I have to do so many minutes of English language arts, so many minutes of math, so many minutes of reading intervention, so many minutes of math intervention… I have to kind of find these groups or these pockets” of instruction time, she said.
That involves using quite a large toolbox of educational programs during any given day. Reading instruction for the day might involve using a reading program “where I’ll pick a grade level, target that level with some whole-group things, and then pulling out and addressing their individual needs,” Namorato said. “I have students that can read anything from a second-grade level book to a fifth-grade level book.”
“And then we carve out some time for math,” said Namorato, who focuses on reading and math in her classroom while her students work with their homerooms for other subjects. For her fourth- and fifth-graders, she said “Basically, we use grade four math curriculums, but at the same time I’ve got to pull kids to the side and go, ‘OK, this student needs subtraction with regrouping, this student needs two-digit multiplication, this student needs math problem solving — he needs to know when to add or subtract.’”
“It’s a lot,” she said of the daily requirements of her job. But it is that daily challenge that makes Namorato love her job.
She said that when she started working at Phillip C. Showell Elementary as a third-grade teacher, “I was encouraged by the principal at the time to take this special-education test, because a lot of our (general-education) classrooms have students with special-ed included into the environment.”
At the time, she had recently completed a reading specialist degree at Loyola University.
“I kind of went that route because I like to find out what’s going on in there and why isn’t A making B,” she said. “I like to try to diagnose and find what’s that underlying speed bump that gets in the way of why you’re not being able to read.”
“When I moved here, special-ed was kind of the next answer on top of that. How do I dive deep? What are those underlying things, those holes that are missing so that they’re not performing as well as they could?” Namorato said.
Particularly because her students have complex needs, both educationally and socially, Namorato believes in starting each day with the gentle support of a “morning meeting.”
“We toss a knot ball around to each other and say, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’” she said. “I am very much about an environment where there’s honesty, respect, kind words — all of those things — and I’ve been very, very blessed with the group that I have, that, if there is a disagreement, we find a way to find a solution.”
Using a recent day as an example, she said, “I had a spat on the playground yesterday, and my [paraprofessional) was able to hold an emergency class meeting, and they all sat down and they all hashed it out. They figured out what was wrong, what happened, and went from there.”
Students learn how to communicate with others, develop empathy and support each other, she said. One boy, she said, “doesn’t verbally share a lot, but he will in morning meeting if you ask him about Legos,” she said, So, the other students will often ask him about his latest Lego creation.
Namorato is in her fourth year as an ILC teacher; she taught third grade at Showell for three years before that. As with all teachers, continuing education is part of her career path. She said that for the past 18 months she has directed “most of my attention toward crafting a strong, well-developed IEP.”
As the school year winds to a close, Namorato spends a lot of time making sure her fifth-graders are ready for the transition to middle school.
“I always worry about sending them,” she said. Since she has had some of her students for three years, it’s hard to see them go.
Namorato said continuity is also good for the students’ families, because there is a level of comfort there.
“They know who they’re communicating with; they know who’s been writing their plan. It’s easy to communicate, and when September comes, the kids know me. There’s no getting-to-know-you period. We’re getting right back to work.”
Getting to know her students on a personal level is Namorato’s favorite part of her job.
“I just feel like I know them. I can see things before they happen,” she said.
She also sees herself as a “tough cookie” who pushes her students to meet goals and to strive for their best. “I’ll use the IEP to target need, but at the same time I want to keep them moving. I’m a very diligent person in that I want them to succeed as much as possible and I’m pushing them,” she said.
The best part of her school days, she said, are the “lightbulb” moments. For a student who has struggled, for whom “there’s something that’s getting in the way… when that lightbulb clicks it’s like, ‘Yeah!’” she said. “We’re there! All right!”
By Kerin Magill