Thursday, December 24, 2015

One Word 2016

It's early. Just past 5:30 a.m. This has always been my favorite time of day. For the most part, the world is still quiet and asleep and it's easier to connect to one's thinking. 

The beginning part of the 2015-16 school year brought with it many changes both personally and professionally. 

My son began high school. This is his last transition within the school system and it went incredibly smoothly. I'm seeing him continue to grow and blossom and am realizing how quickly he has grown up which just makes me cherishing the times that we are together all the more. At the same time, adulthood is looming and I'm thinking often now how I can support him to transitioning to an adult life that is his own.

My job hasn't really changed but it changes each year simply because the students I work with and the classrooms I work in change each year. This means each year, I see both a bigger picture and a more focused picture. There are exciting steps forward and frustrating new barriers that need to be figured out that present themselves on a regular basis. 

Each year for the past several years I have spent some time during Christmas break reflecting and looking forward... not so much because of the "new year" that is ahead of us but more because it seems to be the first time that since the beginning of September that I have time to step back, catch my breath and think a bit. It's a great time to analyze how things have gone in the first months and where they might go through the rest of the school year. Each year as I reflect on this, it seems, on some levels, that the vision becomes less and less defined... and on other levels that it becomes more focused. 

As my job has evolved and Mikey (my son) has grown up, I am coming to realize more and more that parenting, teaching and living are not actually about having a lock-step plan that I can be perfectly implemented. I thought that would make things predictable and that predictable equated to "safe". I thought that it was the kind thing to do to try to head off any problems and hurdles before they happened. I thought that it would make the path smoother. 

I'm not sure if I would have come to understand things differently if I had stayed in my own classroom where I could continue to set it all up before hand; Where I could design and script learning and life experiences in a way that I decided was "right". I no longer can do that as I am not the classroom teacher. In the middle of struggling with this and with questioning how I support Mikey moving forward in to adulthood, I began to more deeply understand the opportunity that is embedded in how things have evolved and changed. 

A few years ago when this journey of shifting away from a self-contained approach began, I believed we would see better social and academic outcomes for the students if they were included in general education classrooms and activities. I believed that the peer group that exists in the general education setting meant that there were opportunities and experiences in the general education classrooms that could not be created in self-contained settings. I believed that we would work harder at figuring out modifications, communication systems and assistive technology in a general education setting because it was necessary for participation in that setting whereas in in a self-contained setting you can just shift gears and do something different that the student can already participate in. All of this has proven to be true in the years that have passed... but there have been other things that have emerged through the process. 

Which brings me to my one word for 2016... and the word is simply "with". I have always believed it is critical to listen to the students that we are working with. I have always believed it was important for them to have a voice. I have always believed that the end goal was tied to such concepts as self-determination, autonomy, empowerment. But working with students in spaces that are "not my own" and the fact that my son will need to leave the sheltered world of school in a couple of years deepens my understanding of all of it. It helps me to see not only that we need to work with (rather than for or on or to) the student but also that all of us in the student's circles need to work with each other. 

Empowerment, self-determination, autonomy are not actually about independence. It's about community and relationship. Community and relationships create safety and the conditions for thriving. Being empowered isn't about who builds the path so much as it is about who directs the building of the path. Being empowered means that when things go in the wrong direction or roadblocks present themselves protective factors exist to get through, around or even to turn in another direction if that is what makes sense in the end. For anyone, disability or not, our strongest protective factor is the web of authentic equal and understanding connections to and around us. When we operate from a standpoint of working "with" we are building a web of connections. When we operate from a standpoint of doing "to" or "for" or working "on" we are building a top-down set of single, often unequal connections. 

So my word is "with" and this year to stay true to it, I'm aiming to blog about it on a regular basis :). 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Monday, July 27, 2015

Reflecting on 2014-15 - CCN Alphabet - E is for Engagement

What did you do in school today? is a document that summarizes the information on a multi-year research project on adolescent student engagement that was completed by Canadian Educational Association (CEA). In this document, engagement is defined as "the extent to which students identify with and value schooling outcomes, have a sense of belonging at school, participate in academic and non-academic activities, strive to meet the formal requirements of schooling and make a serious personal investment in learning. For the sake of the study, engagement was broken in down in to three components: (1) social engagement, (2) institutional engagement and (3) intellectual engagement.  To be fully engaged in school, a student must experience all three types of engagement. We need to be intentional about facilitating all three types of engagement for students with complex communication needs (CCN) as there are potential barriers that may be experienced in each area.

Engagement, in general, means participating actively and with understanding rather than being passive in a process. Being able to communicate (use of expressive language) and comprehend (use of receptive language) is a necessary condition for active participation in all three components mentioned above. Being able to understand and impact the context that the communication takes place in is another necessary condition for engagement.

More barriers to effective communication exist for people with complex communication needs than for those without. This means there is an increased risk for communication breakdowns. When communication break downs are not resolved, the result is often not feeling like one has control over the situation and this results in disengagement or passive involvement. We also have to question if break downs are often not resolved if that act of putting words into the world is actually communication at all.

One of the goals we often aim for when supporting people with disabilities is "active participation". Even "active participation" can boarder in to passive participation if it is about participating in an activity that is set up and directed by someone else. If we aim past participation toward connecting and contributing, we are aiming at something that is generative, collaborative and co-created. When we are contributing, what we produce is different as a result of our input. Isn't this more of what communication actually is? The challenge then is how do we work with students who have CCN to move along the continuum from presence to contribution.  If this is where we are aiming, supporting the development of communication using a robust language system is a necessity.

The three areas of engagement mentioned in the What did you do in school today? study can apply to any activity or setting.  When we focus on developing the combination of the communication skills needed for social, academic/institutional and intellectual engagement in any setting we need to do it in a way that these skills will not impact only that setting but can be transferred across settings. Below are a few more of my thoughts related to each of these domains of engagement in the school setting specifically but the same concepts can be taken and carried over to any setting.

Social Engagement relates to a sense of belonging and meaningful participation in school life. Students who are socially engaged participate in extra-curriculars and have positive relationships with peers and adults.

Developing the communication skills necessary for social engagement involves focusing on pragmatics - which involves the understanding of the social use of language. The Pragmatics Profile of Everyday Communication Skills in Children is a tool that can be used to focus the work of facilitating the development of the communication skills needed for social engagement. The advantage to using a tool like this is that it involves conversations with the people who are interacting on a regular basis in natural settings with the child/student. This means we can focus on what team members can do to make communication attempts more effective and satisfying... which ultimately will result in increased engagement and development of social communication skills.

Academic (Institutional) Engagement relates to participation in the formal requirements of schooling. Students demonstrate academic engagement through the completion of assignments, attending classes, completing work needed to accumulate credits needed for graduation...etc. The reason for re-framing to "institutional" rather than "academic engagement is that the concept of thinking about the formal requirements of participation could then be applied to other settings. While understanding and functioning successfully withing the context of the institution is important, it is only one small part of the picture. We need to be careful not to think about only this piece when aiming for "participation" or else we are really just sitting on a rocking horse...

The communication skills required for academic (institutional) engagement can at first appear to be rooted in rote repetition. It is important to think and facilitate beyond just repetitive routine communication as the communication skills required for academic (institutional) engagement must be applied to the many other institutional settings that one must function in to survive and thrive in our world. When thinking about facilitating the development of communication skills, we need to always remember that communication is generative and the skills that are learned should be transferable.

Developing the communication skills necessary for academic (institutional) engagement involves focusing on literacy skills as literacy allows for communication across space, people, time and medium. There will be more on literacy in other posts.  It also involves communication for the organizational tasks involved in thriving in institutional settings and the communication skills that are required for self-determined learning. The Bridge School in California has put their Self Determination Program up on their website. Their adapted self determination model focuses on the unique components and activities needed to support development of self-determination with AAC users.

Intellectual Engagement, for this study, is defined as "A serious emotional and cognitive investment in learning, using higher order thinking skills (such as analysis and evaluation) to increase understanding, solve complex problems, or construct new knowledge." Intellectual engagement requires thinking and thinking is the processing of language. When learners engage intellectually, they need to be intentional about connecting and using knowledge, experience, and strategies they have or are being exposed to.

The presumption of competence for people with complex communication needs is connected to the belief that these are students who can engage intellectually. All too often, this is a population that is not given the opportunity to engage intellectually due to some of the traditional beliefs about educational approaches for this population. This begs the question of how one could develop language if they aren't intellectually engaged. The way we design learning experiences matters when we are aiming for intellectual engagement and language development. We need to think in terms of frameworks that provide structure and some level of predictability but then within those frameworks, we must ensure variety and opportunities for interaction and generative communication. If we are pre-defining and scripting everything before it happens, this is not possible.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Alberta Summer 2015 Course on Supporting Literacy for Students with Low Incidence Disabilities - My First Thoughts as I Process an Incredible Week of Learning...

Over four years ago, I received the book Children with Disabilities: Reading and Writing the Four Blocks Way as one of the resources for a provincial community of practice I was involved in. The book was the answer to this nagging feeling that there had to be a way to think about "real literacy" for the students that I was working with. So that year, with PODD training behind us and this book in hand, I began the process of shifting toward comprehensive literacy instruction with the students that I work with. Toward the end of that year, I traveled to Toronto to go to a week long course with the authors of the book, Karen Erickson and David Koppenhaver. I returned home and began the process of implementing  what I learned, but the fact that we were also shifting from self-contained to inclusive practices meant that there were times in the next couple of years where decisions about priorities had to be made. After two years of experimenting, I felt we were in a much better place to take a more systematic approach to things and so, last summer, I went to learn from Karen Erickson and David Koppenhaver again at Camp ALEC. I returned from that camp not only fired up about literacy, but also fired up about core vocabulary and ensuring that students have a language system that allows them to more deeply engage in literacy learning and life in general.

As this past year ended, I was feeling like we were now on the right path and then the opportunity to see Karen and David again, this time right here in Alberta, presented itself.  I have just returned now from spending another week learning from them and am once again excited to put what I've learned in to practice. I am sure that it will take me some time to fully process all that I've learned but for now I am just going to share my thoughts around the things that most resonated with me at this point immediately following the course.

It's All About Language and the Connecting Arrows
Last summer, when I was able to interact with proficient AAC users, I came to better understand the need to focus on language and communication as a larger part of the picture than what we had been doing. Last week the diagram that is presented very early on in each course and speaks to how speaking (AAC), listening, reading and writing develop in interaction with each other with language permeating every aspect of learning spoke more loudly to me. It was interesting that the statement was made that as time goes on, there is an increased understanding that "the arrows" are what is important about this diagram because that perfectly reflects what I've been discovering over the last few years of trying to put this in to practice. I also find it interesting how language sits as the heart of what thinking and learning are and that I was well in to my teaching career before I ever thought intentionally about language.

A Deeper Understanding of Emergent Literacy
The first course that I took was focused on conventional literacy and so when I returned, I started immediately to try to implement the conventional components with students who were actually at the emergent level. Through the next couple of years, I researched and modified to try to create programs that were more geared toward emergent learners.

Last summer, at Camp ALEC, it became much clearer to me what emergent and conventional programs should look like.  I have a couple of students though who would appear to be "conventional" because they know all of their letters and a whole lot of sight words and can even sometimes answer rote questions from 1970's reading programs. The problem is, these students do not engage in generative writing or just talking about books during shared reading. They are literally lost for words in these situations... either because they are just coming to be able to use their communication system in a generative way or because they have a history that doesn't include any exposure to this type of generative approach to learning.

The statement made this year that emergent literacy is connected to opportunities to actively engage and construct meaning over time with print really resonated with me and confirmed much of what I had been thinking through this past year as I backed up with some of these students to working on the emergent, rather than the conventional, literacy "to do every day" list that was shared during both this course and last year at Camp ALEC. I walked away with more clarity around the idea that for students at the emergent literacy level it is about us creating these opportunities for engagement so that all the foundational pieces can be in place before we focus in on the conventional level.

Universal Design for Learning and Students with Significant Disabilities
I have posted quite a bit in the past about UDL so really appreciated that there was time dedicated to speaking about what it means to  apply UDL concepts to planning for instruction for students who have significant disabilities. Ultimately, applying UDL concepts to this population of students works against the traditional behavioural approach that has been taken in special education and requires a paradigm shift.

UDL is founded on the idea of learner variability and an understanding that the learning process engages three different brain networks including the recognition network (the what of learning), the strategic network (the how of learning) and the affective network (the why of learning). To design learning that addresses learner variability means ensuring that there are multiple means of representation (recognition network), multiple means of expression (strategic network) and multiple means of engagement (affective network). Traditional approaches to teaching students with disabilities is not rooted in a multiple means approach as it is often about rote, repetitive learning of the single task that is currently being "mastered". This approach looks at the what of learning in isolation of the how and the why and often involves some type of extrinsic way of motivating students. The shift to thinking about repetition with variety to ensure multiple means of representation and expression and to focusing on engaging students by focusing on the functions of literacy can be a pretty big paradigm shift when looking at how education should work for this population of students.

Ultimately, I was just thrilled to be sitting in a room where UDL was being discussed with explicit focus on students who seem to often to be left out of the UDL discussion.

Supporting Communication
This is one that I came back from Camp ALEC last summer understanding much more deeply but the work that we did with core boards during the workshop last week got me even more excited. David and Karen have been doing work around developing core vocabulary boards that will be available to everyone that can be used as a bridge for those students who need a way to communicate but do not have a comprehensive language system. For a better explanation of this, check out the module on core vocabulary from the DLM Professional Development website. During the week, we used the core boards a few times to engage in different literacy activities and it was great to see just how much conversation could be generated with just the first 40 words. The bottom line is that being able to engage in conversation during literacy activities does not have to be restricted to answering yes/no to lists that have been generated. I went in having a pretty good feel for the power of core but being able to engage with it during the week has me even more excited about it as I could see how it can be used in creating back and forth interactions and in developing much needed skills related to being strategic with the words that are available.

One other important statement that was made during the stretch of time that we were playing with core in one of the activities is that it positions us as communication partners to really support the student and ask questions to understand what they are trying to say. This moves us away from the idea of not responding until something is said in some predefined format and toward authentic and meaningful communication.

Dynamic Learning Maps Professional Development Website 
I wanted to end this post by including a piece that I was very aware of before taking this course but came to better understand how it can be used in implementation during the course. So much of the information that David and Karen present at these workshops is now available to anyone online for free through the Dynamic Learning Maps Professional Development website. What a goldmine this is for people who were in the position I was in four years ago - feeling like there was so much more to what literacy instruction could be for these students but not really confident about how to make that happen. Now, all it takes is to go to the Dynamic Learning Maps Professional Development website and begin working through the modules they have there. The great thing from the implementation standpoint is that a person can work through the modules on their own or use the facilitate module resources to work in a group through the modules. This also opens up opportunities to go back and relearn the things that have been presented or have something to pass on to those who want to learn more about any component of a program that we are trying to implement.  It's such an amazing resource!

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Reflecting on 2014-15 - CCN Alphabet - D is for Descriptive Language

Vocabulary is critical to language development. Without sufficient vocabulary, it is hard to understand others or to express your own ideas. We expand vocabulary by exposing children to words and their meaning. With people with complex communication needs we sometimes get stuck in focusing a lot of our effort on nouns simply because nouns represent things that we can touch or point to or match an object/symbol to.

In education, we often think of noun-related questions as the "easiest" questions as they require only "simple memorization". This noun-focused approach to teaching is known as "referential teaching". Referential teaching/questions require a specific one-word answer. These questions are sometimes referred to as "closed-ended". Referential teaching/questions require access to vocabulary that is specific to the topic that is being studied.  If a student has a communication system, this requires that the topic-specific words get programmed or added to the system at the beginning of each new unit of study. These words often have limited functional value beyond that unit of study so do not necessarily stay on the system beyond the time of the unit of study. Because they have limited  functional use, they also do not serve to increase a student's functional language skills.

Gail Vantatenhoven (2012) proposed that an alternative to a referential approach is a descriptive approach. In this approach, the vocabulary that is specific to the topic is still used but it is used by the communication partner/teacher/tutor and then concepts related to that vocabulary are talked about using high-frequency (core) vocabulary that is already available on the individual's communication system. The questions that are asked are more "open-ended" and encourage the use of common words for describing, defining, predicting, explaining, and/or comparing. This approach ensures that students can participate at pretty much any level of language development and that there is ongoing opportunity to work on language learning through the facilitating of more specific description using phrase/sentence construction, use of tense (past, present, future), use of word endings (s, ing, er, est...etc.),

Description and action words that could be used include talking about:
  • how something, someone or some place looks (pretty/ugly, straight/crooked, bright/dark,shiny/dull, neat/messy, it's color...etc.), sounds (noisy/quiet), smells/tastes (stinky, sweet, salty, hot, spicy, sour, nice...etc.) or feels (hot/cold, hard/soft, bumpy/smooth, heavy/light, sticky, fuzzy, slippery, wet/dry...etc.).
  • the quantity, size or shape of the person, place or thing: big/little, long/short, many/few, short/tall, empty/full, far/near, whole/part, all/some/none
  • how the person or thing moves and/or acts: fast/slow, push, pull, turn, roll, drop, fall, write, talk, tell, sing, 

This handout on the Descriptive Teaching Model includes some examples of how this could be implemented in a couple of different curriculum areas.

This post titled Fringe Makes Me Cringe on the blog voices4all shares a mother's story of changing from referential to a descriptive model.

I have just recently experienced the power of using a descriptive language approach with my son. He has an extremely limited number of spoken words and we have tried many different communication supports through the years. Last summer we started using a system that is Core Word based as well as focusing on Aided Language Input and using descriptive language both for his school-based learning and throughout the day. At first, much of what we did was modeling but after a few months, he started using his talk to describe things rather than just to name things. At one point, he wanted to go to a hotel and the word hotel was not on his talker so he proceeded to use words that describe the things we do or see in a hotel - car, sleep, swim, curtains, eat...etc. When I still didn't understand, he went and got a suitcase to try to help with his explanation.  The picture included here is him when he finally got to go to the hotel.

At one point we also started sitting down each night with his talker and talking about what we did that day. Sometimes there were pictures on his iPad that helped and sometimes we just had to go with what we knew. We used a descriptive approach when we did this so there were a lot of things that were happening right within his day that we were wrapping descriptive language around.  There was actually a stretch of time when he was asking to add words to his talker that were tied to things we were doing so that he could use them when we talked that evening (rather than trying to go back and describe it).

These are just a couple of examples of how we have used this approach beyond just classroom application. He has used it to describe quite a few other things that are meaningful to him as they have come up and as he started to do this around things that were personally meaningful to him, he also started engaging in descriptive language related to school content so we could move on from just the input stage and start having some back and forth interactions. The great thing about the approach is that we are able to use the context of what is going on in the classroom to meet him where he is at in regards to language development. We can focus on expanding answers to just one more word to get a bit more specific answer.