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posted: 3/6/2014 10:17 AM

NEDSRA program brings learning trips into special-ed classes

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By Bruce Flowers

In support of special education in public schools, Northeast DuPage Special Recreation Association has developed an adjunct program to insert some fun and leisure into the classroom.

EXCEL, short for Experiential Community Education and Leisure, provides programs, staffing and transportation for special-ed classrooms to participate in community field trips.

EXCEL programs are designed to incorporate the state of Illinois' Applications of Learning Standards. These standards include problem solving, communicating, working in teams, and using technology.

Maggie Goode, NEDSRA's therapeutic recreation specialist, administers the EXCEL programs for DuPage County special-ed teachers. About 17 school districts and three special-ed cooperatives were active in 161 programs this past year. At the beginning of the school year, Goode and the teachers meet to discuss various field trips and event options. Once the program is designed, the teacher puts it into her lesson plan.

Past EXCEL programs have included Zoo Troop, to learn about foreign and domestic animals; Pen Pals, which creates social opportunities for students and helps improve writing skills; and Weird Science, in which students visit local science museums and learn about their universe.

Kathleen Tobin, a special-ed teacher from Pleasant Lane Elementary School in Lombard, has used EXCEL in her curriculum for more than nine years. She teaches children with specific learning disabilities and higher functioning autistic kids. Tobin believes each child should be treated with respect.

"My philosophy is to use applied behavior and create expectations of my third-, fourth- and fifth-graders," Tobin said.

Her method involves using short declarative statements and asking specific questions, guiding each child to their own conclusions.

In December, Tobin's class participated in EXCEL's Maps and Metra program, a downtown train trip to visit Macy's department store and its famous Christmas tree.

"This trip supplements our social studies curriculum while also teaching students real-life planning, traveling and mapping skills," Tobin said. "It is a favorite trip among the staff, and past students often email to ask if they can join us."

Three weeks prior to the trip, Tobin began teaching and preparing her students by incorporating as many learning applications as possible. Google Maps and computer skills were employed to research the trip on the Internet. Students studied weather forecasts to determine what clothes to wear. Street directions from the train station to Macy's were translated from overhead maps, involving some complex thinking.

Working with a budget, problem-solving and math skills were used to calculate students' lunch orders and a total class order at McDonald's. The children's physical fitness was tested as they chose to walk from the train station to Macy's.

"I would recommend EXCEL programs for all special-ed classrooms. NEDSRA understands the needs of our diverse classrooms, curriculum, and the Illinois Learning Standards. These EXCEL trips ensure that everyone has fun while reinforcing the learning which is taking place in the classroom," Tobin said.

"If they remember or maintain one skill in preparing for these trips, it will help them later in life."