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.