Saturday, December 31, 2011

Spotlighting the Strengths of Every Single Student: Why US Schools Need a New Strengths-Based Approach by Elsie Jones-Smith

I have just started reading this book and am only a few chapters in but am finding it to be a great read!  The premise of the book is to build classrooms and school that are driven by student and teacher strengths rather than on re-mediating weaknesses.  It is a pretty big paradigm shift because as teachers we want to find the things that students don't know and then teach those things to the students.  This book argues that our time and energy should be going in to finding what students are good at and growing that instead. 

The theme of the book is that we learn more from using our strengths than from trying to fix our weaknesses.  When we focus on the things that students are not able to do we will often use a lot of energy to only get a student to a point of mediocrity.  If we put that energy in to strengths, students would move to a point of excellence and because of the increase in self-efficacy and awareness, the student will often end up righting the weakness him or herself.  A teacher can also work with a student once he/she knows his/her own strengths around how to use them in all areas of schooling. We all need to stop and analyze why the things that are working work rather than focusing on why the things don't work aren't working.  We will learn more this way.  Seems simple... but do we put it in to practice?  I think of all the times that I've fallen back to deficit/remediation thinking through my career.

Another theme that has run through the book to this point is that self knowledge is the core of most learning and we need to put more effort in to developing meta-cognitive strategies with students.  Once students are aware of their strengths they can work with teachers to figure out how to address any area of strength (or do so on their own).  When students know more about what they can do they will take more responsibility for their learning as they are willing to take the risk.  Motivation to learn becomes internal.  Self knowledge of strengths also means that students do not see failures as the end of the line.  Because they are aware of what they can do they re-engage with what they are trying to achieve.  They have a toolbox to draw from to move through hurdles.  They come to believe that they have what it takes to get through.  The motivation to learn comes from them.

A third theme is the idea that learning happens in the middle of trusted relationships.  Learning is rooted in emotions and in order to learn students need to be in a state of "relaxed alertness".  Threat should not exist but challenge should.  An environment where it is okay to take risks must be created. What we do and say as teachers has a profound impact on how a child sees him or herself which has a profound impact with how he/she engages in learning.

A few other interesting points so far...
  • Other than a strength and deficit mindset, we often also think from a "settling mindset" with some students - believing that they will only do so much and trying to "help them" set realistic expectations.  This does not represent a strength based mindset and creates harm to a child.
  • Strength based approaches create a domino effect.  When people feel good about themselves, they will turn around and see the good in others and that will help others to feel good about themselves.  My thought here is that someone who is deficit based coming in a community that is strength based could tip the scale if the strength base is not well rooted.
  • In classroom practice strength based learning equates to experiential learning, use and understanding of learning styles, multiple intelligences and cooperative learning.  This is very much rooted in what we are coming to understand about education through neuroscience.
The book outlines a Strength Based program for schools that involves five components which are as follows.  I'm just at the point of starting to read about these.  
  1. Social Emotional Curriculum
  2. The Academic Curriculum
  3. The Caring School
  4. Prevention 
  5. Increasing Home-School Partnership
The book also talks about "Strength Zones" that people have.  It is important for all of us to understand our own strength zones so that we can use them to maximize our learning.  These zones are: 
  1. wisdom
  2. emotional strengths
  3. character strengths
  4. creative strengths
  5. relational and nurturing strengths 
  6. educational strengths 
  7. economic and financial strengths
  8. problem-solving, decision making and leadership strengths
  9. social support strengths
  10. survival strengths 
  11. physical and kinesthetic strengths
One more area that I'm interested in exploring in the book is related to how this all applies to "behaviour".  Just peeking ahead I was interested to read that on the behaviour front I peeked at a section on "pain-based behaviours" and how important it is to use restorative measures in helping students.  We need to understand rather than respond.  We also need to help students develop skills related to awareness of emotions (self and others), communication, self-expression, coping, relationships..etc.

So far it's a great read!

Friday, December 30, 2011

Clutter Free and Focuses for 2012

2011 has been a very busy year for me.  In July I started my Masters degree and this will be keeping me busy through to April 2014.  The program (Inclusive Education and Neuroscience) is amazingly interesting and challenging.  Life is busy and sometimes very overwhelming but I'm excited to be a part of this program and looking forward to continued learning.  My job has also changed quite a bit through the course of this year as we are shifting from teaching my students in a self contained classroom setting to teaching them in general education classrooms.  This also means that my students are the process of being moved to age appropriate schools and by next year they will be in three different schools.  There are many unknowns right now with the whole process and it has been a challenge at times to just stay in the now.

Life has not always been easy in 2011.  I am processing all these changes on a personal, professional and parental level and at times it is overwhelming.  There have been many ups and downs.  This accounts for some of the long periods of silence on my blog.

This week I have been trying to dig through the clutter in my house as it seems that it has just piled up over the last couple of years.  With Mikey's (my son) 13th birthday just around the corner I'm also feeling the need to purge a lot of the children's toys that we have collected through the years.  So I'm still working but making progress.

As I eliminate clutter in my home, I'm finding that I'm starting to return to a clearer focus around my job as well.  The last couple of months have been tough in that if you let this stuff get too big it gets too big quickly.  Moving my students from a self contained setting to inclusive settings has resulted me being in the look out for anything that might block their inclusion and as I've been working this week I have come to realize that I need to back up and refocus.

I need to get back to focusing on my students.  So, here are my focus areas for the next while.  I'm also hoping these will be the areas that I will be posting about as I want to get back to posting about the daily happenings and ideas rather than just general philosophy or reflection.
  1. iPad to Support Inclusion for Elementary Students:  I want to explore how we can use iPads more in supporting the inclusion of my four elementary students.  I will be starting with a session with the vision support teacher that consults with me for one of my students.  In February I'm going to a workshop.  I'm also going to do some research online.  I hope to posting what I'm learning as we go along.
  2. Literacy for All Students:  We continue to be a part of the Alberta Education project but we are also doing some new stuff with all of my students related to literacy and will be expanding to new stuff  when we get back to school.  We are going to start using PODD books for writing and doing more word work.
  3. PODD Communication:  We are well on the way to using the PODD books with the high school students.  I'm looking to do a parent night early in the year so that books are used at home as well.  I am also looking to begin using the books more with the younger students.  This is going to be an ongoing project.
  4. Expand High School Inclusive Experiences:  February will mark the beginning of 2nd semester and I will be looking to expand what we are doing with the high school students.  To this point we have mostly just been visiting the school.  I'm hoping to find some opportunities to do some short term projects with classes, get my students in to a variety of classrooms and perhaps even start a peer support group.  As we move through the next months the amount of time that my high school students are the high school will increase.
  5. Visual Supports to Support Independence for Elementary Students:  Some of the visual supports we have used in a self contained classroom don't really fit in the general education classroom so I'm working on revamping our approach to visual supports for my younger students.  More to come on this as I get things up and running.
  6. Social Interaction and Peer Support Strategies:  This is an area that we have been focusing on since the beginning of the school year and are seeing some great successes.  I am looking to continue to expand this idea particularly for my two grade 6 students who will be moving with their class to junior high school next year as I would like to ensure they have a "circle of friends" around them as they move to their new environment.
  7. Equals Mathematics Program for Upper Elementary Students:  We got this program over the summer and I was very excited about it but with everything else going on it has kind of fallen by the wayside.  I have it at home right now and am going through it to figure out how to use it with my students in grade 5 and 6.  We are finding right now with the student in grade 1 that modifying what they are doing works well.
  8. Weekly Learning Assistant Meetings for Planning:  I'm seeing a need to work regularly with learning assistants around developing programs, encouraging independence and finding ways to include students in what is going on in the classroom.  I'm looking to do three meetings each week with groups of learning assistants based on the groups of students they work with.  Hoping this will keep things focused as we will evaluate how things are going as well as make plans.
  9. Strength Based Methods:  This has become an area that I'm very fascinated with and I feel it is kind of sits at the bottom of everything else so on a personal level I know I will continue to explore it.  I'm currently reading one book on this concept and have already ordered another.  I'm sure I will be posting as I go along. 

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Great Article: The Importance of Taking a Strength Based Perspective by Mary Beth Hewitt

As my role moves from being in my own classroom to supporting my students in other classrooms I am finding that I need to step back and analyze things that I do and believe in so that it can be projected in to my students new environments.  In a self-contained classroom it is easy to take a strength based approach because we do not have some of the same pressures that exist in a classroom full of 30 students who all need to get through the same curriculum in the same amount of time.  It is making me stop and think. I found this great article on the CPI website and wanted to pass it on.

Link to Article: The Importance of Taking a Strength Based Perspective by Mary Beth Hewitt

For some reason the article is cut off at the end and the "Eight Behaviours of the Strengths Based Teacher" table is not included.  It's a great table that lists the eight behaviours as well as examples of framing things from a flaw and strength focus.  The 8 behaviours are:
  1. Focus on what the student can do.
  2. Make realistic appraisals and avoid the use of overgeneralizations.
  3. Look for and give credit for evidence of progress. Don't minimize or discount the positive.
  4. Positively reframe behaviour.
  5. Look for the "silver lining" in the students behaviour and start there.
  6. Work with the factors that you can control.
  7. Look at the whole picture.  It is as important to focus on factors that are present when the misbehaviour does not occur as when it does.
  8. Be aware of the labels that you use and the projections that you make.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter by Liz Wiseman

Although this is a business book there is much in here that applies to education on all levels - at the administration to teacher level but also at the teacher to student level.  It's a great read and examines what it is about some leaders that make others better and smarter.  It speaks to the need to step back and let others grow rather than stepping in and managing.  It is based in the idea of "growth mindset" that seems to come up again and again in the things that I'm reading.  It is based in the idea that we are always asked to do more with less... which means we need to find ways to leverage the assets that exist because we can't add anymore.  It is about letting people live their passion which means that work will not be work.  It is about growing other people's intelligence by engaging it.  It sometimes goes against what we want to do as teachers - as we want to impart wisdom or help or make things easier by laying the path.  It is worth the time it takes to read.

The book speaks to two types of leaders: Multipliers and Diminishers and the five disciplines that each have.  These are continuums that we move along.
  1. The Empire Builder (Diminisher) to The Talent Manager (Multiplier)
  2. The Tyrant (Diminisher) to The Liberator (Multiplier)
  3. The Know-It-All (Diminisher) to The Challenger (Multiplier)
  4. The Decision Maker (Diminsher) to The Debate Maker (Multiplier)
  5. The Micro-Manager (Diminisher) to The Inventor (Multiplier)
The book does talk about the fact that although multipliers make people feel good about themselves they are not "push-overs" as they demand a lot from those around them.

The book also talks about the "accidental diminisher" which is what I found most valuable as it is an opportunity to step back and look at the things that might be done as a way of "helping" but in the end it is a way of stopping progress/movement.  This is a particular challenge for me as I move from teaching in a self contained classroom to having to "hand over" my students to general education classrooms.  Staying too involved and helping too much can take on diminisher effects.  We aren't looking to just move what we did in the self contained classroom to the general education classroom which means that the disciplines of a multiplier take on an even larger significance. 

As the book moved through each of the disciplines it becomes evident that we are all going to have areas of strength and areas of weakness.  The suggestion at the end of the book in regards to moving towards being more of a diminisher was to find which discipline is your largest strength and to grow that at the same time as ensuring your biggest discipline is neutralized.  Don't focus on bringing you lowest area up to the top as you will probably not be strong in all five areas - you just want to ensure that one area doesn't do harm.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Strength Based

Let's start with a link to an amazing video of Scott James at his 2009 X-Factor Audition on this one...

Alberta Education through it's Action in Inclusion movement is looking to move from a "deficit based model" to a "strength based model" for serving students with "special needs".

People talk about 'starting with the positives' but strength based means not only starting with the positives but also ending with the positives.  When Scott James got to the point of not leaving his house they could have focused on ways to get him out of the house - social skill lessons or a behaviour support plan to reinforce leaving the house or addressing his sensory challenges by giving him tools to help him cope.  Instead they looked to what he could do and what he loved - singing - and they grew that.  They found him a teacher/mentor and he found himself a goal to shoot towards and in the end he left the house not because of any intervention but because grown his strength had grown his person.

When we build on our strengths it ends up neutralizing or eliminating the things that are challenging to us.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Peer Support Strategies

It's amazing that even though we all look at things through different lenses in the end good education is just good education.  I've been exploring peer support strategies quite a bit lately.  From the reading and research that I've done it is evident that if properly implemented and supported, peer support strategies could go a long way in creating inclusive opportunities for my students and in enhancing the learning of other students in the general education classroom.

What amazes me in all of this is how this directly ties in to a bigger picture - that learning collaboratively is not just something to be looked at for my students and the peers that could support them - that if we took the strategy that would make it work for my students and applied them to all students in the classroom it would benefit all of them.

I really enjoyed this video hat speaks to learning in collaboration.  There are some direct comments on learning not happening later in the video.

It doesn't have to be this huge.  If students partner up with one of my students during math activities that involve manipulatives and have my student move the manipulatives around while they explain the process then my student is able to work on material management, communication, direction following, counting, sorting and the other student is able to work on verbalizing the process that he/she is going through.  If a student works on a vocabulary activity with my students - taking complicated words and simplifying them and then finding pictures for my student it seems that student would have to have a pretty good grasp on the vocabulary they are supposed to be learning.  If a student works on a writing project with one of my students and has my student contribute to the writing assignment by using their communication system it seems the other student would need to have a pretty good understanding of what they are writing and would gain some skills in questioning techniques and incorporating the ideas in to their writing (perhaps their writing would actually be more challenging).

Its an area that I am just beginning to explore but there seems to be so many opportunities for more robust learning for all by using these types of strategies - and a lot of added social benefits as well as it doesn't leave a student sitting on the side of the room with a learning assistant.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


There seems to be a common theme emerging in everything that I'm studying and reading about inclusion for students with "significant disabilities" and that is one of focusing on finding ways to increase participation rather than just focusing on "access to curriculum".

I have just finished a group project for my masters program where we looked at SMART inclusion.  The course we are currently taking focuses on UDL, DI and Assessment.  SMART inclusion starts with the concepts of UDL and DI but then uses the Participation Model and Aided Language Stimulation (two SLP concepts) to ensure that all students are able to participate in the class both socially and academically.  Check out the SMART inclusion wiki which was created by the founders of the concept for background: and check out the website we created that synthesizes what we learned while looking up information related to SMART inclusion:  I'm hoping to soon write a post about applying some of the SMART inclusion philosophy in practice!  Research shows benefits to all students in using the SMART inclusion approach.

My next research project for my masters course involves using a peer group to assist with introducing the PODD communication system to a couple of my upper elementary students.  I'm hoping to use this as a springboard to incorporating some academic peer support strategies.  I'm using several sources for background information but the one that I'm finding to be the most useful is a book called "Peer Support Strategies for Improving All Students Social Lives and Learning".  The major focus of this book is around increasing both social and academic participation by having peers support students with significant disabilities.  Research shows benefits to all students in using these types of strategies.  The research project will be completed in early December but it is a spring board in to a lot of other things and I hope to be blogging about more as we go through the year as this is one of my big focuses for all of my students this year.

I have talked about the "Beyond Access Model" before.  To me this is an approach that holds the most promise in regards to finding a systematic way to truly include my students in the long run.  The model is built on presuming competence and taking a team approach to find ways to ensure that students with significant disabilities are able to participate socially, academically and in routines in a general education classroom.  Ways to check fidelity and efficacy are built right in to the system.  The idea behind this model is that membership in the classroom is assumed.  When a student is a member we need to focus on increasing participation and learning will happen in the middle of participation.  Traditionally we have focused on how to support learning (looking at access) but if we look at increasing participation instead then learning happens as a result of that participation.  We still need to look at learning but we widen our focus.

I read the book New Directions in Special Education: Eliminating Ableism in Policy and Practice this summer.  Great book!  The book speaks to the goal of special education as being that of eliminating the impact of disability and increasing participation in general education classrooms.  Seems about right to me.

I find that when we focus on increasing participation one step at a time we also step towards "inclusion".

Monday, October 10, 2011

I Choose...

Purpose of this Blog?

As time goes on and I learn more, I find that although I become more sure of the base of what I believe in, I also become more unsure of how it all fits in to this world that already has some very established ways of doing things.

I'm working on three different research projects for my Masters right now and wanted to share the evolution of thought that I've had around all three of them to this point...

We are doing a group research project on Smart Inclusion. It started for me as looking at one specific strategy that I felt could be used to facilitate inclusion of my students in general education classrooms.  I thought that it would be an approach that teachers would be excited about and a great place to start (so many still want to find more effective ways to use their Smart boards so this concept speaks to that).  I haven't changed my mind - I still see this - but things have expanded.  I'm now thinking about the concept of integrating mainstream and assistive technology in a way that the assistive technology starts to move along a continuum and eventually rebalance itself as mainstream technology.  This quote from the book Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age: Universal Design for Learning by David Rose and Anne Meyer sums it up nicely..
"The assistive technology model assumes that a printed curriculum is a given and provides tools to support individual access to it.  Tools such a video enlarger are not integral to the curriculum, but rather, are associated with the individual students who need them; they are simply means to helping these students overcome barriers in the curriculum.  The assumption that students must obtain individual tools in order to overcome barriers in an inflexible curriculum is inherently antithetical to UDL.  To solve the same problems, UDL looks not to the student but to the curriculum itself.  The underlying assumption is that it can be adjusted to meet the needs and preferences of each learner.  This built-in flexibility reduces, but does not eliminate, the need for assistive technologie.  Students with motor difficulties who access the computer via alternative keyboards or single ability switches will still need their tools.  However, we believe the role of assistive technologies and the way people view them will shift as UDL curricula become more available.  As the concept of UDL gains acceptance, people will understand that assistive technologies are tools like eyeglasses and personal digital assistants that enhance personal effectiveness; they do not relegate their users to a separate category such as "disabled".  Already, some of these devises, once solely linked to disability are working their way in to mainstream community.  For example, speech recognition technology is applied to voice-activated telephone directories, airline reservation systems, and banking systems."
I've shifted gears on my action research project.  I feel in this job I have always thought in terms of what supports and skills do my students need to function more autonomously and independently in the world.  But put them in general education classrooms and the level of challenge behind this question changes drastically.  The space around them is less "safe".  It makes you very aware of the world you are going to send these students out in to when they graduate.  It is a challenge for sure but I'm seeing even more clearly that is a challenge worth taking on.  At first my action research was going to be about differentiating grade 6 math so that a range of students could learn within the class.  This is still important but it seems at this point with what we have going on it is more important to focus on communication and social interactions for my students.  So my action research has shifted to implementing the use of the PODD communication books that I did training on this summer through the use of a peer support club as well as the supports that we would have used to implement a new communication system in the past (so does adding this peer component make a difference for both my students and the peers that are supporting).  I have also started implementing the books for some of my other students without the peer support at this point because we are not yet at the point where we can create that peer support group for them (they are just starting a transition to a new school).   Again... no change in the core of what I believe but there is a whole lot bigger picture.

Finally I'm still working on my individual research project.  This one is a broader topic and I'm looking at Universal Design for Learning in relation to students with significant disabilities.  Can curriculum and classrooms be universal enough to ensure that students like mine are active participates and learners in those classes?  Do we have the resources?  Do we know the approaches?  Is this something that can be done now or is this something that needs to wait or can never be done?  Obviously my gut tells me it is something that can be done... but now I'm sitting down to the research on it and thinking more deeply again.

And so what is the purpose of this blog?  It seems I just need a space to throw out the things that matter to me - the things that I'm thinking about.  The blog is meant to be for me to reflect.  I question sometimes if it should even be public - perhaps it would make more sense to keep a journal instead?  I don't know.  What I do know is that I feel like it is time to just start throwing out what I think instead of waiting until I have a fully formed thought because if I do that I might never write anything.  Seems that the only thing constant right now is that I'm always thinking something new.