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Teacher Spotlight: CHIME’s co-teachers Esther Nodal and Kristin LaFirenza on how sharing a classroom spurs innovation and brings true inclusion for students with a wide range of disabilities

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | February 26, 2020

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This interview is one in a series spotlighting Los Angeles teachers, their unique and innovative classroom approaches, and their thoughts on how the education system can better support teachers in guiding students to success.

More frequently, schools are giving the co-teaching model a chance but at CHIME Institute’s Schwarzenegger Community School, a charter elementary in northwest Los Angeles, the model is far from the latest innovation.

Since its founding in 2001, teachers have used the Universal Design for Learning approaches and the co-teaching technique to offer students with special needs a unique opportunity of inclusion in general education classrooms.

Esther Nodal, a general education first-grade teacher at CHIME, and Kristin LaFirenza, a special ed kindergarten and first-grade teacher, have been co-teaching alongside one another at the school for the last three years.

“Students with disabilities are included in the classroom full time. Also in our classroom, we have students who are at risk, students who are on grade level, students who are above grade level. So I think the co-teaching model is very beneficial to help with all of those needs and abilities in the classroom,” Nodal said.

Nodal has been teaching at CHIME for the past 17years while LaFirenza’s teaching experience began at CHIME four years ago, so the co-teaching model is all she has experienced as a teacher.

“I feel like all students have really benefited from having two teachers and two people that they can go to. And also as far as from a special education standpoint, being in multiple classrooms gives me a lot of really good techniques and strategies that I can pull into other classrooms,” LaFirenza said. “So I feel like the co-teaching model has been wonderful.”

Both agreed that more schools should explore it since it allows not only for more innovation to take place in the classroom, but also fosters inclusion.

LA School Report asked LaFirenza and Nodal about their goals for the 2019-20 school year and what could be done better or what needs to change in the education system to allow reforms and innovation to take place in the classroom. Their answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Can you tell me a little bit about your students and your school community?

LaFirenza: The school community is really diverse. I think we have a population of students with a varying range of abilities in our classrooms. We also have students of different backgrounds, different socioeconomic status. They travel around. I mean… some students live close to our school and some don’t, they have to travel to get here. So it’s a wide range of abilities and backgrounds. I think just like with most communities they have lots of challenges and successes. I think in school we have students who struggle a lot, whether it’s at home or at school, academically, socially. And we also have students who excel in those areas. So I think having a community of learners that are diverse, which kind of models and mimics the actual community in the outside world, is really beneficial to them. And I think that it provides a lot of really good modeling and peer modeling for students who struggle, who do have disabilities. I think to have those peer models that don’t struggle in those areas, or have strengths in those areas, are like really great models for each other and peer support for each other.

Nodal: Another big success that I had seen across the board is, you know, a lot of the students show tolerance and acceptance and kindness and cooperation and you know, they show genuine care to help each other. And I think that that’s something that is really valuable here. I have both of my children go to this school. I have a first-grader and a third-grader. I think seeing them grow up in a community like this, as inclusive, they have friends with disabilities, they have friends without disabilities. I think it’s really created tolerance in them and open-mindedness. And also they don’t really notice that much of their differences. They just think they’re all kids and they’re all the same. Seeing my own children come through the program and the school, it’s pretty great.

How does the co-teaching model work on a regular basis? 

Nodal: So, for instance, during our morning time, which was our math, I did small group math centers and the kids rotated and during our co-teaching time and where we’re each at a center. So I led it. I had one center and Kristin and I led one center. We supported the kids that way. And then later in the day, we had a paraprofessional who called out sick today. So then Kristen came in and her role changed. At that point, she was helping us (with a) substitute paraprofessional and supporting her to support the students in the classroom and the things that she needed to know when she was in our classroom. So her role was as a co-teacher with me, we led centers together and then her role switched and she’s like directly supporting and training for a paraprofessional.

LaFirenza: Right. And then throughout the day with, so I have four different co-teachers. So in the mornings, I definitely make it a point to check in with each of them and make sure that they have what they need for the day or if they have any questions or need any type of support throughout the day. I can make sure that I get that on my plate first thing in the morning and I can work throughout the day to make sure that they all have that they need. Then throughout the day, I have a co-teaching schedule, which seems a little complex when you look at it but… so it shows on Mondays and Wednesdays, I’m in kindergarten. So my day is solely based in kindergarten. But I do make sure to check in and you know, see, ‘Hey, how’s it going in first grade? What’s going on, do you need anything, is there anything I can figure out in terms of support?’ And then we go from there. Then on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I’m in first grade and I’ll do the same thing with kindergarten.

Nodal: Also our co-teaching relationship is shared with the families. So when we communicate with families and with the students, there are two names on the door, we email together with both of our names at the signature of the emails. So it’s a community of… where people know that we’re both the teachers of the classroom, the students know we’re both the teachers of the classroom. Even though she (LaFirenza) is not there all day long, they know when she’s (going to be) here, she’s their teacher.

Because there’s another teacher in the classroom you need to coordinate with at all times, is it ever somehow difficult to try new teaching techniques or innovative things to the classroom? 

Nodal: I think obviously there are some people that just don’t work well with others, but fortunately, we work well with each other in our school’s community. All the teachers seem to work really well together. Our model is such that we don’t just co-teach together. We also plan together, we assess kids together, but when we plan the curriculum, it’s not just the two of us. All of the first-grade teachers and all of the special ed teachers for first grade. So there’s four general ed teachers, two special ed teachers, and two special ed assistants and we all core plan together. I think that those many brains really make the curriculum better because when one person thinks of something, someone else might think of something better or how to improve on it. And we really give each other feedback and bounce ideas off of each other. So I think it’s definitely a great way to collaborate and to create a really rich curriculum.

LaFirenza: Yeah and in thinking about innovation and trying new things in the classroom, I actually think it’s kind of helpful because when we were trying to start the whole teaching thing — so we started a new strategy where we model something and the students repeat it multiple times. They use their bodies, everything so that they can retain information a little bit better. And that was new to us. I think in the beginning we kind of felt more comfortable doing it when we were together because it’s like, ‘OK, let’s talk this out really quick to figure out how we’re going to do this, how we’re going to talk about it.’ And it kind of eases your mind a little knowing that there’s someone else that’s doing something for the first time also. Or ‘Hey, you’ve seen this or you’ve done this. I feel more comfortable trying it because you can help guide me, right?’ So, I actually think that the model does lend itself to innovation and to trying new things and feeling more comfortable because there’s someone else along for the ride with you.

Nodal: Also, today we were talking about we have a student who’s on an alternative curriculum and we were talking about like, ‘Oh, it’s going to start to look really different in math because it’s getting harder,’ and we had to brainstorm together a new way to like represent his work so parents can see what work he’s doing. But we do collaborate a lot and we do kind of bounce ideas off of each other a lot. This model kind of, you really need to rely on other people and help each other and collaborate.

How do you think CHIME is providing the right support for teachers? 

Nodal: Well, right now we’re, I’m not sure if you’ve heard of the MTSS (Multi-Tiered System of Support) and restorative justice, that’s the route the school is taking. We’re trying to really implement best practices and moving forward to making sure that we’re meeting all the kids’ needs in the classroom. I think the school’s getting really strong in that area.

So I’m meeting with a lot of schools that are not charters or that are charters and aren’t inclusive, so I do have a lot of knowledge of schools that are not charters or schools that are not inclusive. I meet with a lot of teachers about that (inclusion). So I really think that we’re moving in the right step towards restorative justice, social-emotional learning, making sure we’re including students to the best of our ability and making sure we’re doing that universal design of learning to make sure we’re meeting everybody’s needs. So the school’s really pushing forward and going in that direction.

LaFirenza: And they’re signing us up for whole school trainings. Before school started, we did a universal design for learning training because you know, we pride ourselves on being able to design lessons that all students can access. I think we all as a school felt like, ‘Hey, we can learn more, we can do better.’ So I think always striving to do better is the thing that CHIME is really good at. I think, as Esther said, we’re moving in the right direction in all of those areas by taking those trainings and then taking the time to really show ourselves that we can learn more and we can do more as professionals.

What is your community, the families, parents doing to support you or what can they do better in supporting you?

Nodal: We have a lot of families involved in our school day. We have a lot of parents that volunteer in classrooms. They help run really big fundraising events like our school carnival and we have a committee that’s really involved at our school that helps us. If we see, for instance, we need something for our classroom, we can go to the CCA (CHIME charter community parent association)and the parents will pull together and find ways to help us get the things that we need in the classroom. We also have a lot of parents that like to volunteer in the classrooms and we make sure that they can, that they know that the class is supported in the best way possible.

So this morning we had a parent volunteer leading another one of the math centers that we were in and then on top of that, students who might need more support academically. We have a lot of parents that are along for the ride and they value our input and I think that that is really important because we are able to say, ‘Hey, let’s try this at home, see if you can support a little bit more and do this at home. We’ll give you some materials.’ I think that that is really helpful here too. And of course, if we have families that are not as supportive, our administration has always helped us in those situations. I would say there are — most families are, the majority of families are — here. They’re supportive, they communicate well, we communicate with them a lot through email and then school emails. We have a tight community.

As educators, is there anything that you would like to change in California’s public education system? 

LaFirenza: Personally, I feel that I would like to see inclusion in more schools across the state, across the nation because seeing this model and seeing the student’s success is the success of an educator. I feel like inclusion is the way to go in education and I think that more schools should explore that route. So I think that that definitely is a wish of mine.

Nodal: I’ve done lots of presentations on co-teaching to a lot of public schools. I think the thing I hear the most is, ‘CHIME is special. We can’t do what CHIME does.’ That’s kind of like the attitude I would like to get rid of. It might be more work. It’s definitely worth it. I think that that perception of inclusion is too hard, we can’t do it, I hear that from a lot of people, teacher friends that aren’t at a charter school or just at a school with inclusion. I think that is the perception I would like to get rid of … Inclusion can be done. It’s a lot of work. It’s worth it. It takes dedication and time, which hopefully a lot of teachers are dedicated to what they do.

LaFirenza: Right. I think I also hear people say, ‘Well, we don’t have enough support to do inclusion.’ You know, yes, you do need support to do inclusion, but I think with the support you have, you just need to design the support in a different way, right? You need to figure out what ways you can use those supports to create this new environment. We do it in baby steps. I think baby steps need to happen with any new endeavor that you take on. Baby steps, a little bit at a time, just do this little part and that’s kind of (how) you can do it.

What are your goals, separately or together, for this school year?

Nodal: I think just as much co-teaching and the whole brain teaching, that’s something that we really want to get better at and implement more. I don’t feel like I’m implementing it enough at this point. I really enjoy it. So I think that was a big goal for us this year. And more co-teaching, always. That’s always something that we strive for.

LaFirenza: Definitely. So Esther and I have co-taught .. I would say this is maybe our second or third year co-teaching together. And with that, I think in the past, I believe the first year that I was with her, I was a brand new teacher, you know, and I was really getting my feet on the ground at that point and didn’t do a whole lot of fundamental co-teaching. It’s hard. So this year, we really talked at the beginning of the year and I said, ‘I want to co-teach more in here. I want to get up with the students and help you co-teach more.’ So that definitely was a goal of mine, just to be more of a support in different ways because I think we fell into a routine of, you know, I was in the classroom and just supporting and not necessarily up in front of the classroom. So this year I wanted, my goal is to come in here and to try a lot of different co-teaching strategies.

What’s your biggest motivation to continue teaching?

LaFirenza: I would say for me seeing the little successes. You see small growth every single day with these students and you see that light bulb click with some students. Just seeing how dedicated and motivated the students are to better themselves motivates me to better myself and justify new ways to support them and to become a better educator every day. I think that’s really my motivator.

Nodal: I think teaching so long, people always ask me, ‘Do you want to go into administration? Do you want to go into other fields?’ And those things are not things that interest me. I’m really interested in teaching the kids to read. Reading is a big thing in first grade. And seeing them read and make those big growths and milestones is really empowering for me. But also teaching so long, I also just strive to change because then it can get really boring and monotonous. So we like to change it up and we try new things and kind of change our teaching style as new best practices come out. I think that’s what’s exciting for me is all this new stuff that’s happening in education and also just teaching kids to read is pretty awesome.

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