Sunday, July 31, 2011

UDL, Brain-based Learning and 21st Century Skills

When I got in to this graduate program with a focus on Inclusive Education and Neurosciences I was very excited about it but I must say I wasn't seeing how fully the two concepts linked together. I'm also really seeing how both of these concepts fit in to concepts that are being termed "21st Century Skills".  This is a great video that speaks to what I've been thinking about a lot lately (and now is being reinforced with the research that I'm doing in both the areas of inclusive education and neurosciences).

I'm having a hard time putting down everything that I've learned in the neurology class this summer because much of it affirms my gut level instincts about learning.  We spent most of the class learning how the brain works and it is only now as I begin to digest and process that I'm seeing how it all fits in to educational practices.  I'm finding myself hungry for more information and so have continued to dig in to research journals related to the topic.  At the same time I'm trying to get a deeper understanding of Universal Design for Learning as this will be a key element to my course this fall.  Then I throw in doing my regular blog reading and I'm seeing a common theme across the three.

UDL speaks to engaging the recognition, affective and strategic networks of the brain through multiple means of representation, expression and engagement.  UDL really addresses how to set up a classroom to ensure that all students are actively engaged and responsible for their learning.  It speaks to ensuring proper supports as well as using "best practices" when it comes to teaching.  It is written for every student and the potential to really move education in to the now because it is deeply rooted in technology - but its definitely not all about technology.  (CAST UDL Website)

We spent some time learning about "memory" in our neurology class this summer.  It is a fascinating topic and I know there is still much to learn but the reality is that when we speak to students "learning" something we are saying that they have moved the material in to long term memory.  I think what was most striking in all this though is that when we test if a student knows something we are actually testing if they are retaining it in their "working memory" as this is the system that relies on the conscious rehearsal type of learning.  It seems that working memory and long term memory are two different systems that require different parts of the brain (i.e. require different new synaptic connections to be made).  There is a far greater chance that we move something in to working memory if we are engaging different parts of the brain in the process.  So things like collaboration, problem based learning, using multiple methods of representation, making connections, creating, projects....etc. will actually build more connections than more traditional approaches to education.  There is much to say but I will say only one more thing and that is that as we move information from the environment in to our brains for processing, the limbic system lights up and this part of the system is related to emotion.  This speaks to the need for safe and engaging learning environments and activities as before anything gets to working or long term memory it needs to pass through "sensory memory".  Things stay here for a short amount of time and in that time we make decisions as to weather we are going to hold them in our memory for longer to not attend to them.  We can affect how long our students will hold something there - which means we can also affect if things will move in to a place where they have the potential to make new connections in the brain.  Student engagement therefore becomes a key to learning - and we engage students by applying new knowledge to prior knowledge, encouraging interaction, using multiple means of representation, having them plan an active rather than a passive role...etc.

It is easy to see how this all ties in to movements that are referred to as transforming education or focusing on 21st century skills.  It makes the video at the beginning of this post make even more sense.

Right now I'm just really excited about the learning journey that I'm on right now - both online and through my Masters program!

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Alberta Education - Literacy for All Pilot Project (Part 1)

One of the "Action on Inclusion" pilot projects that our school is participating in during the 2011-12 school year is the "Literacy for All" project.  Here is an explanation of the project from the Alberta Education website:
Alberta Education has initiated a one year literacy pilot project beginning June, 2011 to build teacher capacity to better meet the literacy and communication needs of grade 1 to 6 students with significant disabilities. This project is the result of a conditional grant from Alberta Education, to the Alberta Regional Professional Development Consortia with the Edmonton Regional Learning Consortium (ERLC) coordinating this pilot opportunity.
This Literacy for All pilot project is designed for teachers of students with significant disabilities and will be based on the literacy resource Meville to WEville from Bridges Publishing, Canada. The project has 30 teachers participating from across the province from public, separate, private, rural and urban school jurisdictions. Throughout this pilot, participants will interact and collaborate using an online community of practice model, face-to-face learning events and ongoing mentoring. Regional Educational Consulting Services Teams (RECS) from across the province, who are supporting pilot schools, are also participating in professional learning events and the online community for this project.
The goals of this project are to:
  • enhance the capacity of participating teachers to better meet the diverse learning needs of students with significant disabilities.
  • create a provincial community of practice to analyze the effectiveness and appropriateness of the MEville to WEville literacy and communication teacher resource in the Albert a context.
  • support and build teacher understanding of literacy and communication strategies for students with significant disabilities.
(Link: Alberta Education "Action on Inclusion" Literacy for All Pilot Project Information)
We have been given three different resources (more on this in a minute) as well as training sessions and an online community related to these resources and ideas around developing literacy skills in students with significant disabilities.  I'm really excited to be a part of this project as I believe the developing literacy skills is one of the most important things that we do as educators.

The programs that we are using have been researched by the University of North Carolina Center of Literacy and Disability Studies.  We will be evaluating the following resources:

  • Meville to WevilleThis is a program developed to teach reading and writing skills to students with severe disabilities. Our intention right now is to work with a group of students and use this program as a stand alone program for two-three of our students.  They will work in the classroom on this program while others are working on similar literacy programs (i.e. they will make up a "group" for this center during that time but will also be involved in other parts of general education literacy instruction at other times).  We will share responsibility for "teaching" this program between the classroom teacher, myself and the learning assistants.  We will be looking to build capacity and understanding related to literacy instruction for this population in the adults that are teaching (learning assistants, classroom teacher, inclusion facilitator). Throughout the year we will look at ways to incorporate the materials and methods in to the general education classroom so that we can take what we learn this year and expand on in a more inclusive way beyond this year.
  • Start to Finish Literacy Starters This program was developed to extend the MeVille to WeVille program and addresses a bit older group of students as the books are more at their level.  We will be using these material with the older students from my program.  We are starting to phase them out of our self contained classroom and over to the high school.  As a starting point we are looking at still having them in the self-contained setting that is currently at the high school.  During the time that the class is working on English Language Arts, a group of students will be working with themes from these packages.
  • Children with Disabilities: Reading and Writing the Four Block Way: This is perhaps the resource we are the most excited about as it gives us a starting point around making the modifications to our current literacy program to ensure that the students that had been in my self-contained classroom will be able to participate in the general education classroom. We will be using this resource right now with just our elementary students as they are the ones who will be in classrooms that use similar literacy instruction strategies to the 4-block method.
I'm excited to get started with the project and plan to share what we are learning along the way on this blog.  I just wanted to throw out a post outlining what we are looking at as background.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Action Research Project: Effective Inclusion of Students With Signficant Disabilities in Elementary General Education Mathematics Classes (Part 1)

One of the assignments for my fall course is to complete an "Action Research" assignment in my school.  The course is on UDL, DI and Assessment so the action research has to somehow tie in to that and also incorporate the ideas of facilitating inclusion of students with special needs and have some sort of basis in neuroscience research.  The idea behind the project is to research some area, make an implementation plan based on the research and then carry out and evaluate the plan.  For me it is perfect timing as this is exactly what my job is evolving to and it gives a great framework for moving ahead.

We are really going to be focusing in on two subject areas in regards to inclusion this fall and those are Language Arts and Mathematics.  For Language Arts we are part of another pilot project so I left that part of it alone in thinking about this action research project.  I went, instead, with the Mathematics end of it.  Before taking on this job, I taught Junior and Senior high school mathematics for 14 years so this also works for me as it is a bit more of my comfort area.

My project is not yet focused but I'm narrowing in a bit more.  I'm looking at 3 or 4 of my students (dependent on the 4th one coming to our school as that has not yet been figured out) in 2 different classrooms.  Two of them are in grade 6 and one or two of them are in grade 1 in a grade 1-2 split class. What I'm envisioning at this point is to take one unit in grade 6 and one unit in grade 1 and team teach the unit (with the classroom teachers that the students I oversee have) focusing in on what I learn about differentiation and neurology related to mathematics. 

Resources (other than the program that is already being used and the Alberta Learning Mathematics Curriculum) that I'm currently exploring are:

Able Net's Equals Mathematics Curriculum (Canadian Edition):  I got this program right at the end of the last school year and have not yet had a lot of time to go through it but I'm really excited to use it to help with making modifications so that my students can participate in general education classrooms.  I really like that it doesn't restrict students to just "life skill" mathematics.

David A Sousa's Books including How the Brain Learns Mathematics, Brain-Compatible Activities for Mathematics 4-5 and Brain-Compatible Activities for Mathematics K-1:  This will be my starting point to get the background for the Neurology link part of the project.  From there I will have a better starting point for digging in to the Neurology research in the area of Mathematics learning

Other books that I'm looking at include Teaching Inclusive Mathematics to Special Learners K-6Differentiating Math Instruction: Strategies that Work for K-8 Classroom, Teaching Student Centered Math K-3 and Teaching Student Centered Math 4-8.

Finally, I'm doing journal article searches related to differentiated instruction in mathematics, teaching mathematics to students with significant disabilities, peer assisted strategies for learning, and effective mathematics teaching, learning and assessment.

The project runs from September through to the beginning of December - at which point we will present what we have learned.  I'm really hoping that it will give us a good grounding so that we can keep working on figuring out how to effectively include students with significant disabilities in general education classrooms (and hopefully make things work just a bit better for all students in the process).  My intention is to use this blog as a place to plan and reflect through the process.

One last thing: Action Research Network in Alberta (ARNIA) has some great information about action research.

    Thursday, July 28, 2011

    What is Inclusion?

    The course that I will be taking for my Masters program this fall is "Curriculum Studies and Classroom Practices".  Our major areas of study are going to include Universal Design for Learning (UDL), Differentiated Instruction (DI) and Assessment.  We will be looking at all of these concepts through two lenses:
    • How does the practice support "inclusion"?
    • How does the practice relate to Neurology?
    I'm really looking forward to the course but I'm still finding that we have yet to come up with a solid definition of "inclusion".  It seems we are talking and talking about it but there are different definitions everywhere and I'm not completely convinced on which one works the best.

    Alberta Education defines an "inclusive education system" as
    "a way of thinking and acting that demonstrates universal acceptance of, and belonging for, all students. Inclusive education in Alberta means a value based approach to accepting responsibility for all students. It also means that all students will have equitable opportunity to be included in the typical learning environment or program of choice."
    It is a "lovely" definition but doesn't leave me with much in regard to understanding what "inclusion" actually is or how we go about moving along a continuum to a more inclusive education system.

    A few months back I stumbled upon a definition that I really like because it speaks to many aspects of "inclusion" and also addresses the students that I'm currently teaching...
    "Inclusive education is characterized by presumed competence, authentic membership, full participation, reciprocal social relationships, and learning to high standards by all students with disabilities in age-appropriate general education classrooms with supports provided to students and teachers to enable them to be successful."  (Institute on Disability (2009). Brief highlights of research on inclusive education. Presented at the Inclusive Education Leadership Summit. April 10, 2009. Durham, NH: Institute on Disability, University of New Hampshire)
    I like it but I sometimes look at it and think that it isn't big enough.  I truly believe that inclusion is not just about students with disabilities and as time goes on I'm starting to think it's not just about students even. I wonder at times if we just took out the phrase "students with disabilities in age-appropriate general education classrooms" from the above definition if it would create the definition of inclusion that I "feel in my gut". To me inclusion is about acceptance, belonging, support, learning for everyone involved in a school (students, teachers, parents, support staff, administration) so it would cover that part of it.

    The parts that a bit too implied in this definition (as they are not missing but they are also not front and center) are related to the concepts of community and collaboration as I think those are part of the base that inclusion sits on.

    In the end, I do not yet feel I have a solid definition for inclusion but it is always worth putting down some thoughts to get a little closer.

    Wednesday, July 27, 2011

    My Thoughts After the First Two Courses

    "Day Zero" is seeming like a really long time ago!  A lot has happened in these past few weeks.  I completed the first two courses in my Masters program that is focusing on Neuroscience and Inclusive Education and can now clearly see the link between the two.  I'm excited about what the next 3 years will bring as there is much to be learned and tried.

    This summer's courses were mostly background information that should give us some good grounding for our other courses.  Our Neurology class was mostly learning about the brain and how it works but we did get in to some "neuro-myths" that have gotten inflated as they made their way in to the educational field.  It was interesting to look at things from both a developmental psychology/education standpoint (our second class) and a neurology standpoint.

    This fall we get in to the nuts and bolts as we start looking at classroom practices that support inclusion - in particular UDL (Universal Design for Learning), DI (Differentiated Instruction) and how assessment is used in the classroom.  They are areas that I'm familiar with but I'm looking forward to learning more through reading, collaboration, critical analysis, and action research.  I'm looking at doing an action research project related to allowing for a wide range of learners in a general education classroom (as my students will be included in these classes this fall).

    I'm still processing but wanted to take this first step in starting to write down what I'm thinking.  I feel like there is so much all mixed up and it's hard to start to sort it out (so my blog might reflect my messy mind for the next little while).

    Sunday, July 3, 2011

    Neuroscience and Inclusive Education Masters Program: Day Zero

    Mikey (my 12 year old son) and I checked in the University of Lethbridge residence yesterday afternoon. We will be here for three weeks, in which time I will complete the first two courses of my Masters program.  Over the next three years we will return here for two more summer stretches and I will be taking courses online during the school years.

    I actually never imagined taking my Masters degree but a lot of things seemed to align at once and I saw an opportunity to "be the change I wanted to see in the world" and I applied for this new program at the University of Lethbridge and then was fortunate enough to get in.  The timing  of the program could not be better as it is coming at the same time as our province and our school division are making some big changes around how "special education" is approached/delivered.  In the beginning steps of this process I feel I have found my passion and purpose.  Which makes being here today a big event for me! 

    I feel the need to record it - to remember this moment.  This time university is so different.  This time I'm here to learn.  Last time I was here to get a degree that would lead me getting the job that I wanted.  This time I want to take in every moment.  Last time I wanted it to go as quickly as possible so I could get to what I wanted.  This time I understand that it's all about learning.  Last time I was sure it was all about teaching.

    There have also been many changes in 20 years and it will be interesting to me to see how those changes have impaced how university works.  I'm back at the same university I got my undergraduate degree at so I'm already seeing all the expansion as far as buildings and just the sheer size.  I had to go out today and drive around this area of town as back 20 years ago it was just a few blocks of houses with very little by way of retail anything.  In that time it's exploded and seems equivalent in size to the other side of the city (it is divided by a coulee).  It's beautiful here.  I am taking many walks down memory lane as I see things that were such a major part of my life for those 4.5 years that I spent here the first time.  So much has changed... so much has stayed the same.

    Today is day zero - the day before it all starts.  I'm hoping to use this blog as a place to reflect on what I am learning (and hopefully applying) as I go through this process. 

    Inclusion: What Does It Take?

    7I'm working on building up my list of resources related to the things that I believe are foundational for creating an inclusive education system.  I have included these as links across the top of the page.  These pages are works in the making.  Note that there is space for reader comments on all the of the pages.  I welcome any input, feedback, links to great sites...etc.

    A brief outline of what I'm thinking for each page follows.  I will expand on my beliefs in each of the areas in future posts.

    Attitudes and Beliefs Related to Inclusive Education: These are the things that I think are necessary understandings for building fully inclusive schools.
    • Assumption of Competence of All Students
    • Ableism and the  History and Rights of People with "Disabilities"
    • Schools as Community
    • Collaborative Practices on All Levels
      Universal Design for Learning:  I'm really just starting to understand the depth of UDL and I think it is absolutely foundational for making inclusion work.
      • Multiple Means of Representation (Recognition Network)
      • Multiple Means of Action and Expression (Strategic Network)
      • Multiple Means of Engagement (Affective Network)

        Effective Instructional Strategies that Support Inclusion:  Many of these strategies are simply "best practices" that we already know about. Using strategies that focus on student learning are effective with all students. Students with disabilities should be included in classrooms that use current research based instructional strategies.
        • Differentiated Instruction
        • Peer Support Strategies
        • Participatory Learning
          Authentic Assessment: Just as it's important to ensure that instruction is designed for all learners to participate, assessment should be designed in the same way.  Designing assessment in this way makes assessment more authentic for all learners.
          • Assessment for Learning
          • Universally Designed Assessment
          • Decreased Focus on Academic Competition
            Eliminating Barriers: I originally named this section "supports and services" but have changed the title to "eliminating barriers" as I think that "eliminating barriers" does a better job of speaking to the idea that it is the curriculum that is disabled and not the student.  All students need to be supported by ensuring that we have removed barriers to learning.  This section is simply about a variety of ways to do this.  Again - there are many universal supports that will be beneficial to all students that come in to play here.
            • Learning Environments
            • Executive Functioning Skill Teaching and Support
            • Positive Behavior Supports and Restitution
            • Therapy and Other Consultative Services 
            • Supporting Teachers