Learners with Exceptionalities (EDUC 1331) is an introductory Education course taught by disabilities expert, Dr. Heather Haynes Smith, Associate Professor of Education at Trinity.
Primarily focused on disabilities and disability studies, “exceptionalities” in the title is used as an umbrella term to recognize and dignify the many identities of students. The course focuses on second language learners, students with multiple disabilities, and gifted and talented education. During the class, students study the legal and theoretical foundations of special education, evidence-based strategies for teaching, and features of universal design for learning, self-determination, and the creation of Individualized Education Plans (IEP).
One of the main service learning projects the class engaged in this past fall semester was to help Bates College with their Diverse BookFinder program. Bates College Diverse BookFinder is a comprehensive collection of children’s picture books that analyzes how diversity is depicted, focusing on black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). The goal of the project was to move the discussion beyond the lack of numbers of BIPOC books and on a book’s influence and subject matter. Students in the course coded books with these ideas in mind, making them accessible to all people.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, students in the class participated in service learning, an essential part of the course, in the San Antonio community. Since many longstanding partnerships the class typically collaborates with did not have opportunities in the fall, Dr. Smith felt the Diverse BookFinder partnership was an innovative alternative for students to still learn through service. “I just really wanted there to be something if we couldn't leave this campus to volunteer as usual. This project provided something very meaningful that we could contribute to and so far it's been great,” Dr. Smith said.
The class had their own room set aside for them in Coates Library to work through the 300 hundred children books that were shipped from Bates College in Maine. During the first week of class, Dr. Krista Aronson, Associate Dean of Faculty and Professor of Psychology at Bates, spoke to the class to set up the project. Many of the 300 books were coded up to five times by different students, so that they could see the trends in the representation of disability. Some were tagged because they over-represented certain groups who are not really represented that way in society. “We all engaged in some of the work together, which was probably my favorite part about it,” Dr. Smith said. “We've made huge progress on suggestions to send back to Bates to share our best thinking.”
Many curricular shifts were required during the pandemic. Finding innovative ways to provide rich opportunities for students to engage is a hallmark of Trinity’s Department of Education and their faculty.