Language Arts, Vol. 70, November 1993

(Reprinted with permission)

This special project, implemented in over 100 schools in New York City, brings together teachers and librarians in a unique effort to work with "special populations."

Since the advent of Public Law 94-142: Education for All Handicapped Children Act, which mandates that all children who meet the age eligibility requirement be provided with a free public education in the least restrictive environment, schools have struggled to provide an appropriate education for students regardless of their disability. In 1990-91, some 4,367,630 children age 6-21 participated in Special Education Programs under Chapter I and Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Act. Many other children with special needs are served within general education programs.

While the population of special students grows, however, the supply of qualified special education teachers does not. It was estimated that an additional 29,774 special education teachers were needed to fill vacancies and replace uncertified staff in the United States during 1987-88 (Billingsley & Cross, 1991).

There is also a growing concern among educators that the current special programs are not providing "the least restrictive environment" or meeting the needs of special populations. The Regular Education Initiative supporters urge that special education be restructured so that many more mildly disabled students would receive all instruction in a general classroom (Cullinan, Sabomie, & Crossland, 1992; Maheady & Algozzine, 199 1).

Some studies suggest that better service can be given to all children in an integrated special and general education program (Alper, 1992; Villa & Thousand, 1992; Wang, Walberg, & Reynolds, 1992). The shortage of qualified special education teachers may be addressed with more inclusion programs focusing on the collaboration between special education and general education teachers (Friend & Cook, 1992). Indeed, a study of 105 experts in 35 states showed that general educators and special educators agreed on essential teaching practices in 82% of the cases (Cannon, Idol, & West, 1992). Experts urge more research to determine which practices are effective with which populations (Bacon & Schulz, 1991; Cannon, Idol, & West, 1992).

Teachers in both general education and special education express concern that they have not been adequately trained to meet the needs of the students under their care (Lee, 1992; Obiakor, 1992; Philips, Allred, Brulle, & Shank, 1990). Classroom teachers, librarians, and subject specialists struggle to meet the challenge of populations with increasingly diverse needs: physical, emotional, social, and intellectual.

The Library Power Project Serves Special Students

What can teachers do to serve better their special students? How can they identify resources, adapt materials, develop a network of support, and further their own training? We have observed a variety of successful approaches in schools that are participating in the Library Power Project. The Fund for New York City Public Education's Library Power Project, now in its fifth year of operation, is part of a national initiative funded by the DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund. The project renovates and revitalizes elementary school libraries, provides matching funds for books, and provides staff development for librarians and teachers. One hundred and forty-two public elementary schools serving more than 100,000 general education and special education students in New York City participate in the program.

A few of these schools serve only special needs children from birth to age 21. Other schools serve special children in satellite programs, and still others mainstream their special population. A full-time teacher/librarian works with teachers and children on an as-needed schedule, rather than a fixed one. A significant part of the program is monthly staff development meetings when librarians share experiences and develop support networks.

Teachers in both general education and special education express concern that they have not been adequately trained to meet the needs of the students under their care.

The Library Power Project stresses the importance of including every child in the library program, regardless of the handicapping condition. This policy of inclusion strengthens mainstream efforts within the school and helps break down barriers between general education students and special students. In many cases the librarian has become a catalyst for change within the school as administrators, teachers, parents, and students observe special students participating in programs, assisting as library helpers, and performing for other students and parents.

Library Power urges librarians to collaborate with other teachers and specialists to develop skills to serve special students. Special students, according to their handicapping condition, may need equipment such as lap-held communication boards, page turners, and adaptive switches for audio equipment and toys. These devices are created to adapt to an individual's specific physical needs. The teacher or librarian works with the physical therapist to learn how to assist children who use them. Librarians serving special children may also need to be familiar with fingerspelling, American Sign Language, and cued speech.

As with teaching all children, teaching methods are directed toward children's strengths and their individual leaning styles. Opportunities for touching, hearing, seeing, communicating, and moving are built into each language arts experience and tailored to the specific needs of the students. Special students are also given opportunities to socialize, communicate, and learn with each other as well as with general education students.

After librarians have developed techniques or identified useful materials, they are encouraged to share what they have learned with other librarians at staff development meetings. This network of peers has proved vital for the professional growth of participants. The need for collaboration to meet the needs of special students is also stressed in the professional literature (Cosden, 1990). By sharing ideas and experiences, librarians and teachers support each other and are able to focus on how all students are alike rather than different. In our work with librarians and teachers in New York City schools, we have been impressed with the dedication and professionalism of the teachers we have encountered.

Severely and Profoundly Handicapped in a Special School Setting

Most of the students who come to the Library Media Center in P. S. 79 for storytime come on wheels, according to librarian, Isabel Almonte. P. S. 79 in East Harlem serves children ages 5-21 who have multiple and profound disabilities. Children must have two or more severely disabling conditions to participate in this program. For example, a child may be both mobility impaired and retarded, autistic and visually impaired, or profoundly hearing impaired and language delayed. The Library Power library has been refurbished to accommodate motorized wheelchairs and other adaptive equipment. Bookshelves and tables are at comfortable wheelchair height. Large posters, Big Books, a listening center, stuffed toys, manipulatives, board books, sound books, and puppets are part of the leaning environment.

Children come to the library with their own teachers or attendants. Juan holds one hand of his attendant who also wheels an oxygen canister attached to the thin tubes of Juan's breathing apparatus. Bernardo gleefully and expertly operates his own motorized wheelchair, while Lillian relies on an aide to wheel her. As children and their attendants move into the story circle, Isabel Almonte and a teddy bear puppet greet each child and attendant by name in English, Spanish, and American Sign Language. Throughout the library visit, Almonte, teachers, and attendants encourage children to communicate-with words, sounds, songs, sign, and lap-held communication boards. As Almonte says:

Each child's strengths and handicapping conditions are so different; it is important that the language arts activities are multilayered and multimodal. For instance, I know Renee's vision is very poor. A book or toy must be held within eight inches of her face, which is why I have the puppet move so it almost touches her. Juan needs tactile stimulation to keep focused, see how his teacher strokes his hand and encourages him to touch the puppet or help turn the pages.

Almonte notes that the stories and themes relating to the children's personal experiences are most successful.

The program requires a lot of advance preparation. I am aware of curriculum and the special needs and strengths of each student. I meet informally with teachers, and I am present at conferences with specialists and classroom teachers. I'm lucky that this is a small school, so I know most of the children. In the past, I have served as a mentor to several new teachers, and I teach a beginning sign course to new staff. Because of Library Power, I have a flexible schedule so I can get more involved in special projects.

One of these projects started with a story. No More TV, Sleepy Dog (Ziefert, 1989) is a picture book about a little dog who wants to watch television instead of going to bed. He doesn't like to have the light turned off. He wants to sleep with his small red car. Before reading the story, Almonte introduced a "pound puppy," a stuffed toy which looks very much like the dog in the story. The dog greeted each child by name, and by moving the dog into the visual range of each child, Almonte encouraged children to pet, pat, and hold the puppy. She read the story slowly, holding the book so children could see and touch the pictures. Almonte repeated the story in Spanish and American Sign Language. At the appropriate time she held up a red plastic car and encouraged children to touch and hold it. When the puppy's mother turns off the light in the story, Almonte had a teaching assistant turn the library lights off and on until the children made the connection between the words and the action.

Each child's strengths and handicapping conditions are so different, it is important that the language arts activities are multilayered and multimodal.

When the story was finished, the children had a chance to react. Almonte asked, "Do you have a pet?" This time, Max, who according to Almonte usually just listened to the stories in the library, used his personal communicating board to participate. He pressed the picture of the cat on his electronic board, and his machine responded: "I have a cat." Max just beamed.

As a part of the unit, Almonte and the teacher read other books about pets and animals, and then the children went on a trip to the local American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Darren, who cannot write, dictated this book review of My Dog (Taylor, 1989) for the library newsletter:

My Dog by Judy Taylor
The dog has big ears. It's like this big. The dog eats with the boy. He has a tail on his back. The dog washes his feet. What is he doing? I don't know what he is doing. Giddy-up. The dog's mouth has teeth.

After hearing a story in the library, it's time to look for a book to take back to the classroom. Popular choices include Big Books, because the large colorful illustrations are easier for the visually impaired; board books, because pages can be easily turned; sound books; stories on cassette; and batteryoperated toys,

The children, many of whom are mobility impaired or wheelchair users, delight in operating and watching the movements of battery-operated toys. Parents and staff modify the toys, adding large colorful switches that children can operate with palms, knees, or chins. A toy dinosaur, dump truck, and airplane move back and forth between the wheels of the wheelchairs as children grin, The toy actions stimulate spontaneous language: sounds, signs, and gestures. Teaching assistants encourage children to interact with each other via the toys.

Another popular library area is the puppet corner. The puppet stage, a canvas sheet with a square cut out for a stage, is suspended from the ceiling like a window shade. Children can easily maneuver their wheelchairs behind the hanging stage. They operate a variety of hand puppets (many collected at flea markets, according to the librarian) or made from stuffed toys, adapted by parents and staff.

In a program with older children, Almonte shares a book about a boy who had cancer: My Book for Kids with Cansur: A Child's Autobiography of Hope (Gaes & Gaes, 1987). The story recounts the boy's experiences in and out of the hospital. The medicine makes him lose his hair and gain weight; the other children laugh at him as he becomes puffy. He doesn't like medication that makes him feel sick, and he doesn't like the shots and tests. However, at the end of the story, he is feeling much better, and he is able to go home. Many of the children at P. S. 79 can relate to the story. Hospitals, operations, medication, and painful tests are a part of their personal experiences. At the end of the story, several children want to share their reaction to the book.

Paul begins to sign and tap on the arms of his wheelchair. Almonte repeats his comments orally and in sign so that other children can see and hear.

"Your mother went to the hospital, Paul?"

"Yes, but she didn't get better; she died."

"Yes, I know, but this little boy went to the hospital and got better. See, here he is on the last page of the book."

Carlos laughs, pointing to his own brown hair and the picture of the little boy in the book who is bald, and quickly signs. Almonte repeats his comments for the group. "Carlos went to the hospital, but he didn't lose his hair." Carlos asks to hold the book and skillfully moves his electric wheelchair closer to his buddy Jose, signing for Jose to find the page in the book where the little boy is bald. Together they grin and pat their own heads.

A new program called "Inclusion" began recently, according to Almonte. Children of P. S. 79 and children from a local general education school will meet for special activities. Story programs, projects, and curriculum-related activities are jointly planned and presented. "The emphasis will be on how children are alike, not how they are different," Almonte says.

Almonte encourages parents and teachers to collect and share information, books, and catalogs useful for parenting and extending the educational program into the home. She notes that despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles, there are ways to stimulate and unlock the language arts potential of even the most profoundly disabled child.

Language Arts for Special Students in a Satellite Setting

At P. S. 185 in Central Harlem, librarian Sharon Barbour works closely with special education teachers to extend library services to language-delayed and language-impaired children ages 6-10. According to their teacher, Diane Perrone, half of the children in her class were not speaking at the beginning of the school year. Classified as language-delayed, these children function at levels which are 2 or more years below their chronological age. Language deficits may be due to injury, lack of exposure, retardation, emotional trauma, developmental delay, or other conditions like autism. Most of the children have social skill deficits or emotional problems as well. "We work hard at building social skills. In my experience, if they learn how to play, they will learn how to read," says Perrone. She adds:

The library was the first place within the school that made us really welcome. Sharon Barbour, the librarian, reached out to our children. She visited in the classroom, invited children to story programs and special events, and helped us find materials related to the curriculum. Sharon has forged a really warm bond with many of our children. General education teachers and students saw that our children were not so very different. They borrowed books on their own; they enjoyed stories and puppets and wrote their own books. Now other teachers are more willing to open up programs and activities to our children. We're going beyond the library into other general education areas. We're moving into other parts of the school. Greater contact and participation will help our children as they move to mainstreaming.

Perrone used materials from the library and the school "toy library" (Jackson, Robey, Watjus, & Chadwick, 1991) to support the whole language curriculum she uses with her class. For a recent project on transportation, children used books and filmstrips on transportation, and then they compiled their own "transportation" experience chart: who had traveled by tricycle, bike, car, bus, train, or airplane. Children made a "museum" using wooden puzzles, Fisher-Price toys from the toy library, and vehicles constructed from cardboard boxes. Their teacher took pictures of the children riding and using real and constructed vehicles, and then she solicited experiences from the children. The children's comments became the text of a Big Book on transportation. Children delighted in reading aloud "their pages." The book is now on display in the classroom.

In cooperation with classroom teachers and parents, librarian Sharon Barbour is creating multisensory Theme Boxes which both general education and special education classes can use to stimulate language and exploration. "Farm Animals...... I Spy," "Winter Things," and "Things that Grow" are just a few. Boxes include books, stories, pictures, filmstrips, cassettes, puzzles, puppets, and a response journal. Teachers and children can borrow boxes for classroom exploration or individual activities. Children's writings, drawings, and taped cassettes will be added to the boxes.

Language Arts for Special Education Students in a Mainstreamed Program

The library program in Library Power schools also provides special students with an opportunity for social integration. All children are encouraged to "take ownership of the library" by helping out. At P. S. 72, librarian Iona Flamm reports that many students on her Library Squad come from special education classes. Helping strengthens self-esteem, often improves peer relationships, and provides opportunities for language arts and communication. Students shelve materials and help younger children sign out and return books. Special education students participate in the Storytelling Festival, read stories on cassette tape for the story center, and participate in the Peer Reading Program by reading aloud to younger students or listening while younger students read aloud.

A performance for an invited audience of community leaders, parents, and district school administrators at the recent formal opening of the Library Power Library at P. S. 166 demonstrated how students in special education and general education worked with librarian Lorraine Mollahan, a classroom teacher and an art teacher. They adapted a folktale, "The People Could Fly," from The People Could Fly (Hamilton, 1985). Children created life-sized rod puppets of the characters and performed the story for adults and children gathered in the library. The puppet drama was followed by an original dance which children created as another interpretation of the story. The program was videotaped so children could see their own performance and share it with parents and other students. "This video, and similar student-made projects housed in the library, may well become a valued record of student achievements and a resource for future learning," says Mollahan.


In the Fund for New York City's Library Power Project librarians, special education teachers and classroom teachers are working together to provide quality language arts programs. Library Power stresses that every child needs opportunities to celebrate and share language. When special children are invited to participate in library programs, it becomes apparent that they are more alike than different from general education populations.

In many cases, the effective language arts techniques used with general education students are also effective with special populations. When modifications are needed, classroom teachers, specialists, Library Power consultants, and other Library Power school librarians can often assist. This strong network of peers is vital to strengthen skills and encourage exploration and risk taking.

In-service educational workshops, mentoring, and collaboration assist teachers and librarians in acquiring specialized skills, but they also focus on the largest barrier to service: the fear that special populations are too different and that familiar language arts techniques and materials will not work. Library Power librarians have found that quality language arts programs begin with the conviction that all children need to be included and that familiar techniques do work.

When special children are invited to participate in library programs, it becomes apparent that they are more alike than different from general education populations.

Although the Library Power program has built in a strong mentoring and staff development component, the model can be applied to every school situation. Teachers and librarians need to believe that special education students will respond positively. Educators must reach out and collaborate to develop strong language arts experiences for special education students.


Alper, S. (1992). Educating students with severe handicaps in regular classes. The Elementary School Journal, 92, 373-387.

Bacon, E. H., & Schulz, J. B. (I 99 1). A survey of mainstreaming practices. Teacher Education and Special Education, 12, 144-149.

Billingsley, B. S., & Cross, L. H. (1991). General education teachers' interest in special education teaching: Deterrents, incentive, and training needs. Teacher Education and Special Education, 14, 162-168.

Cannon, G. S., Idol, L., & West, J. F. (1992). Educating students with mild handicaps in general classrooms: Essential teaching practices for general and special educators. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 25, 300-317.

Cosden, M. A. (1990). Expanding the role of special education: Challenges of the next decade. Teaching Exceptional Children, 22, 4-12.

Cullinan, D., Sabomie, E. J., & Crossland, C. L. (1992). So- Wang, M. C., Walberg, H., & Reynolds, M. C. (1992). Social mainstreaming of mildly handicapped students. The Elementary School Journal, 92, 339-35 1.

Friend, M., & Cook, L. (1992). The new mainstreaming. Instructor, 101, 30-38.

Jackson, S. C., Robey, L., Watjus, M., & Chadwick, E. (1991). Play for all children: The toy library solution.Childhood Education, 68, 27-3 1.

Lee, C. D. (1992). Literacy, cultural diversity, and instruction. Education and Urban Society, 24, 279-291.

Maheady, L., & Algozzine, B. (1991). The regular education initiative- Can we proceed in an orderly and scientific manner? Teacher Education and Special Education, 14, 66- 73.

Obiakor, F. E. (1992). Self-concept of African-American students: An operational model for special education. Exceptional Children, 59, 160-167.

Philips, W., Allred, K., Brulle, A. R., & Shank, K. S. (1990), The regular education initiative: The will and skill of regular educators. Teacher Education and Special Education, 13, 182-186.

Villa, R. A., & Thousand, J. S. (1992). How one district integrated special and general education. Educational Leadership, 50, 39-41.

Wang, M. C., Walberg, H., & Reynolds, M. C. (1992) A scenario for better-not separate-special education. Educational Leadership, 50, 34-38.

Bibliography of Children's Books Cited

Gaes, T, & Gaes, A. (1987). My book for kids with cansur: A child's autobiography of hope. Aberdeen, SD: Melius and Patterson.

Hamilton, V. (I 985). The people could fly: American black folktales, New York: Knopf.

Taylor, J. (1989). My dog. New York: Macmillan.

Ziefert, H. (1989). No more tv, sleepy dog. New York: Random.

Liz Goldfarb is a library consultant with the Fund for New York City Public Education's Library Power Project and formerly the elementary school librarian and curriculum coordinator for the Berkeley Carroll School, Brooklyn, New York. Sheila Salmon is the director of the Fund for New York City Public Education's Library Power Project.

by Liz Goldfarb