Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Two Cent Tuesday: Reflecting on Lessons Learned in 2010

Here we are at the end of 2010.  Beyond a doubt, this has been my most challenging year as a teacher. It has also been my the year that I feel the most alive as a teacher.  We have gone through a lot of changes and I feel we are sitting on the edge of many more.  I am at a place where I can pull back in to my classroom, not create any waves and keep doing what I'm doing or I can take all the discomfort that has come with this past year and move forward (probably through even more discomfort).  Its exhuasting and hard but also incredibly exciting.  I think I am finally getting back to why I made the move from regular education to special education 4.5 years ago - to make the changes that are so needed in special education.  But now its bigger because I'm coming to see that the changes needed in special education are really just a reflection of the changes needed in regular education.  I do not know where this is all going to go but over the weeks I've gotten closer to a place of embracing the not knowing and I'm excited because that seems to be the first step to true learning.  And shouldn't teaching be about learning?  Because I have to start this journey somewhere, here is my muddled list of what I've learned, witnessed or come to question over the course of 2010.  I'm pretty confident at this point that my blog in 2011 will come to a place for me to piece all of this and more together so that I will eventually be standing on more solid ground.   My apologies if there is any vagueness in some of what I say as I have to be careful around confidentiality issues :).

Linking Inclusive Education and Educational Reform

In May of this year I applied to the University of Lethbridge for a Master of Education Special Study Theme Focus of Inclusive Education and Neurosciences.  Both the neuroscience and education programs at this university are strong and this program was developed response to Alberta Learning's "Setting the Direction" initiative related to creating a more inclusive educational system for all students.  The program starts in July 2011 and I'm expecting to hear back sometime in January as to if I got a place in the program or not (fingers crossed).

Kathie Snow (Disability is Natural) has always touched my heart as I believe strongly that we each live in our natural way of being.  What she writes puts in to words what I have always felt.  My definitions around inclusion start with the idea that "disability is natural".  I do not believe we need to fix people with disabilities but that we need to support them in the way that we support all students.

As a result of a variety of things (changes to my classroom, this inclusive education initiative in my province, putting together my application for this program, things breaking down at school for my son...etc.) I was once again driven towards dreaming that perhaps some day schools could actually be truly inclusive.  In the end, I partially came back to where I've been before: that we need to take what works in our self-contained settings and move it out in to the regular classroom rather than trying to fit "our students" in to the regular classrooms.  But I was ahead of where I was before because I was starting to believe we needed to do it rather than to feel defeated by the idea of changing a whole education system.

And so this school year (2010-11) I took the first baby step off the cliff and we moved two of the students from my room in to general education classrooms - one in grade 1 and one in grade 3.  We had always had our students going out for "extras" but this time we had them join for the "classes that matter".  We have seen some great initial success and I have many stories to share but this will need to wait as this post could take me the rest of the year if I go there.

But here is the thing... as my students moved in to these classrooms I began to research the changes that our school division has been making through an AISI Project over the past 4.5 years that I've been locked away in Special Education.  And what I discovered is that there were little pockets of great things happening - and those great things were paving a path to true inclusion (more on this in the next sections).  From there - instead of just finding information about "inclusion" online I started to look in to "school reform" and suddenly it was clear to me that including the students in my classroom links directly to what is needed as far as school reform goes.  When you truly look at what the stumbling blocks are to including the students from my room you see what needs to change in the classroom for all students.  Interesting... and exciting!

Stand Up for Your Convictions

At the end of a long year of doing battle with myself I have come to the conclusion that going along to get along just can't work.  This is one that has taken me a long time to get to.  In fact it is as I write this that I am committing to this appraoch.  I need to make this change for my students but I'm also at the point where I need to make it for me because my effectiveness as a teacher (and person) has been limited as a result of not living this way.  I need to believe in my passion and my instinct and set out on the less safe path because I know it is the right thing to do.  The fact that it is the right thing to do needs to be bigger than the rest of the stuff.

"Student Engagement" and UDL

I attended a great workshop (John Antonetti) on "student engagement" this fall.  He spoke of using this cube to create engaging lessons.  At the time I was reading revisiting the concept of Universal Design for Learning (and trying to wrap my head around it on more than a surface level).  The timing was perfect as it became evident that the 3 faces of John Antonetti's cube actually alligned with the three learning networks (recognition network, strategic network and affective network) stressed in UDL literature.  For me it was another moment of that link between what we are doing and learning on the special education front and how it links over to what is being done and learned on the "regular education" front.  It also speaks to the fact that if we start with UDL, the stuff we are aiming for (student engagement in this case) will happen.  Having our students in the room makes it only that much more evident that these changes are needed.  For me this takes the benefits of inclusion beyond just the idea that other kids will learn to respect and be kind (which rubs me the wrong way but that is also a whole other post).

Experiential Learning

At the beginning of my teaching career I had a most amazing opportunity to teach for a couple of years in an experiential learning classroom.  Our studnets ranged in age from grade 8-10.   They directed their learning.  Looking back now I can see both sides of this situation.  The program was put together on a dream of what education should be.  This was really before the "information age" (we had one computer on our school campus that had Internet and nobody really used it) and so the idea was born from reading a couple of documents and a collective dream.  The incredible thing is that much of what we did in that room is what is being encouraged now by way of "educational reform".  We focused on student interests, collaborative learning, inquiry based learning, service to others, mistakes as a part of the learning process, creativity, presentation of information...etc.  We had great success with our students but the program eventually folded for a variety of reasons.

As I mentioned above, my quest to find out more about making inclusion work has led to doing some reading around school reform.  Again and again the theme that schools are no longer needed as places that give out information comes up.  We need to focus on a different way of doing and a different set of skills if we are truly going to prepare our students.  Side note: this is true for students who are under the "special education" umbrella as well (more on that later too).  I remember vividly geting our first set of encyclopedias in our home and how much it changed the way I could do my school work because I now had information at home.  When I remember back to this I can see just how different things are for our students now.

I believe we were ahead of it when we did our experiential education program but I also think the rawness of it was what made it work so well.  I believe that being ahead of things (before policy and paper work bogs them down) is often when you can experience the most success with them.  They are much more messy but working through the mess is what the learning is all about - and its what ensures that things will work for the people that are in the mess.

The Advantage of My Parenting Experience

I often struggle with the fact that I'm a parent to a child with "speical needs".  By the deficit model, my son Mikey has Down syndrome, Autism, can be aggressive/destructive, is stubborn, has limited verbal skills, many sensory issues, is prompt dependent, low cognitive functioning, has low muscle tone...etc.  The list goes on and on.  If you want to get in to comparisons, when you stand Mikey by other children his age with either Down syndrome or Autism he would most likely come out "lower functioning" than most of them.  I believe strongly that Mikey is as Mikey is meant to be.  I believe we need to support him and help him grow the tools he needs in this world but I do not need for him to be "normal".  I tell you all this only to get to my point that even though I love and cherish and celebrate Mikey, there are times where I get caught up in worrying that others will see Mikey as a "burden" or someone who will never amount to anything anyway so why should we put all this effort in to educating him.  I don't agree with this at all but there are times where I feel like other people might think it.  And this results in my protective instincts (need to pull him back to a safe place) being bigger than my advocating instincts (need to push things forward for him).

I feel like I have to say that this is not equated to self-contained or regular classroom for me as I believe you can push students forward in either setting.  Somewhere in this past couple of years I have come to believe (and I don't even know how) that I can seperate me as a mother (protecting) and me as a teacher (advocating).  And I wasn't just making this separation when it came to Mikey - I was doing it with all of my students.   The protecting was starting to take over.  And then I attended a workshop where Stephen Shore spoke about self-advocacy and disclosure and in a flash it became evident to me that its not about protecting - its about arming them with the tools they will need to live in a world that will not always be kind or work for them.  I have many more thoughts on self-advocacy that will again come up in later posts.

The other blurred line that started happening between parent and teacher was that I had found myself saying things like "I know what is right as a parent but then I can see it from the execution end of things as a teacher and have to redefine things."  I need to find a way to get past that.  The execution is unknown and messy and that needs to be okay.  It has to go back to what is the right thing to do.  I need to use the fact that I am both a parent and a teacher to move things towards parents being a real part of student learning teams.

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