I often hear, “I can’t,” “this is too hard,” or “this is a great idea…for honors students.” As a special education teacher, I have combated these perceptions for many years while seeking to find solutions to help my students break past this mindset and realize that, although learning may be a challenge, it is not impossible. Perhaps the best answer is also my district’s vision: “You just don’t know it yet.” Orion’s Quest is a curriculum that changed my students’ perspective about learning, thinking, reading, and writing.
My students struggle with motivation, so I focus on finding challenging, high-interest, real-world curriculum to use with them. It has been my quest to motivate them to read strategically, think critically, and write effectively using experiences that they usually are not given the opportunity to participate in. I was immediately excited when I heard about Orion’s Quest because I knew it would give my students the opportunities I was looking for.
“Spiders in Space” was the first Orion’s Quest mission I participated in with my students. With the full support of my administration, I used the curriculum as a way to engage my students in real-world, high-interest, higher-level reading. The students I work with have all qualified for special education due to learning disabilities, either visual or auditory processing disorders that affect their reading fluency and comprehension. For these students, access to grade-level curriculum is a daily challenge and struggle. Many of them have inwardly decided that higher-level reading and class discussions are for other students, so they sit back, watch, and never participate.
Orion’s Quest has been a way for me to fully engage my students and break them out of this mindset. I was amazed watching them persevere through tasks that are very challenging for them. In the “Spiders in Space” mission, students need to be able to measure the growth of spiders on Earth (using photos of ground-based spiders) and then measure the growth of spiders in space (using photos of the spaceflight spiders). After comparing the ground and flight spider growth, students write their observations. Measuring the growth of spiders, comparing ground and flight growth, then writing an observation became a three-day lesson on the “how to” of the process. First, we learned and practiced how to measure the spiders in the ground and flight photos. Next, we learned how to analyze the data we gathered and compare the measurements. And finally, we learned how to write a scientific observation. These tasks were not automatic for my students and can be very arduous for them. However, they never ceased to amaze me as they kept at it and worked harder than I had ever seen them work.
After the success of “Spiders in Space” and the excitement it generated in my students, I was motivated to try the “Butterflies in Space” mission. I am a co-teacher in the science department on my campus, and my co-teacher and I decided to incorporate this mission into a rocket/engineering club. We started by introducing students to the background of the mission. As we created the habitats and dispersed the eggs in them, I looked at my students and co-teacher and said, “This feels like a practical joke—it’s almost impossible for these creatures to survive!” Little did I know, not only would I see the metamorphosis of the butterflies, but I would also see my students morph into scientists.
Each day, we watched the process live in science class and followed up with the Orion’s Quest mission curriculum. We tracked the daily progress of our butterflies, taking pictures and documenting their growth and comparing the data to the growth of the butterflies in space using the spaceflight photos. During winter break, I allowed one of my students to take a habitat home with her, and my co-teacher and I took the remaining habitats to our homes. After our 3-week break, the “Butterflies in Space” mission transformed into an online class that I created for the special education students in my seminar class. We compared the pictures of our butterflies to the growth and time of the butterflies in space. Each class period, students logged into the classroom, read the next portion of the curriculum from Orion’s Quest, and responded by writing their thoughts and observations.
As a special-education teacher, the ability to incorporate science into English Language Arts standards, English Development standards, and Individualized Educational Plan goals has been very powerful. Because of the high-interest reading in the articles supplied by the curriculum, it was easy to provide my students with engaging, grade-level, materials that met a number of standards.
During class discussions and mission components my students didn’t hesitate to fully participate. This provided them with a new experience: to fully enjoy learning. Because my students were highly engaged in these lessons, any challenges they faced became opportunities for learning and growth. For students with learning disabilities to be able to participate in rigorous levels of classroom discussion and feel they have something of value to say, this experience not only supports their enjoyment of learning about the “Butterflies in Space” mission but also enhances their reading, analyzing, writing, and speaking skills.
Reading, writing, speaking, and expression do not come easily for my students. Each component of the curriculum was carefully planned and thought through. Even with struggles in these areas, my students rose to the challenge. The success of this mission is due to the continual hard work of my students, who despite having some academic challenges did not hesitate to show their true ability and greatness. I hope hearing this story inspires other educators who teach struggling students on their campus to never give up on believing their students can exceed expectations. Students will rise to the challenge and to the level of our expectations and belief in them.