Saturday, June 30, 2012

Masters Program - One Year In

Next week I move back to Lethbridge for our second of three summer class sessions.  We officially have one full year of our program behind us with two years still ahead.  It seems like just yesterday we were starting this program but it is also hard to imagine a time when I wasn't balancing masters courses on top of everything else.

When I started this program I was expecting to get something very different out of it from what I feel I'm getting out of it.  I took the program to grow my knowledge related to inclusive education.  I was hoping they would hand me some magic approach or formula or list of things to do that would make inclusion 'work'.

This program has impacted me - personally and professionally.   There have been many other things going on at the same time as this program and I can't really put my finger on which individual thing has had the most impact because I think it is is the interplay between all these factors that creates the impact.  Take one part out and it would be a different impact.  But I do believe that my masters program has one of the larger impacts.  Not because of the content that I'm learning though.  I want to try to put it in words before I move in to year two in a couple of days.

I find it hard to recall specific content from many of the courses that I've taken as it sort of just became a part of the way that I think.  I think differently about learning as a result of even just the base level of understanding of how the brain works that I have gained through our neurology classes.  I think differently about inclusion, learning, leadership...etc. as a result of the course we took last fall on UDL and differentiated learning.  Perhaps the course that had the most profound impact on me though has been the course on research methodology that I took this past semester.  I have a deeper understanding of the interplay between research and practice and a deeper respect for the practitioner research that is necessary in the area in the are of inclusive education.  I understand "rigor" differently then I did before as my thoughts about research were pretty narrow and clinical.  Although we didn't explicitly talk about "Living Theory Research" taking this course was a catapult in to finding out more about this.  It has made me rethink weather I want to go thesis route in this program.  This research class has also made me look back at the things I so often do as "experiments" and realize the elements in action research that are already there.  Finally the combination of all the courses to this point has made me want to learn more and to find others who want to engage in that process.  It has ignited a spark that was just not there before.

This masters program could not have happened at a better time as we were already in the process of changing practice towards being more inclusive for my students and this program, along with participation in the Literacy for All project and being IEPT pilot school have all come together at the right time. 

This summer I will be making a decision as to weather I will continue with the program as is or if I will be going thesis route (which will mean I will not be doing some of the remaining classes).  With everything that is going on in my job right now I am in a great place to do practitioner research - but I'm also realizing how vulnerable one must become to this type of research in a field that is controversial. 

Lots of decisions to make this summer. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Daily Five Book Study - Chapter 3

1. Why is a gathering place important?

Many of the younger students on my caseload have fairly significant sensory challenges.  The idea of a gathering place on the floor even through intermediate years holds a lot of appeal in regards to fitting sensory breaks right into the learning that goes on in the classroom.  The gathering place also eliminates other distractions that would come with sitting spread out in desks.  I have seldom seen gathering spaces for students beyond first grade so really liked the explanation in regards to this space being an indicator of changes in routines, a space that allows for more focus and a way to ensure that students are getting up and moving on a regular basis.

I do not have my own classroom so am unable to set up a gathering space but I can see how this approach would lend itself nicely to the visual schedule and choice board work that I do with several of my students in their classrooms. 

2. How did your students progress with picking appropriate books?  What went well?  What had to be changed?

I love the idea of teaching students to pick good fit books rather than testing them out and telling them their reading level and then having them pick books with that particular label.  Again - I do not have a classroom so really can't answer this question other than to say that I really enjoyed reading the section "good fit books" and the lesson with the bag of shoes.  I'm hoping that we might be able to do the shoe lesson in at least one of the classrooms (or more) where my students will be this fall as I think it is a great way to explain diversity as well as explain good fit books.

3. What rituals and routines do you need to teach for this structure to be successful?

As I read through this book I am finding myself making links to the supports that we often put in place for students with special needs and seeing how they can be done on a much more universal level.  We often do visual reminders, visual or written task breakdowns, social stories, rehearsals (verbal, visual or written) with students.  At first, we make them for students but over time we engage students in the process of making these or talking about these.  We work through prompt fading and hand over more and more of the control for these.  I think the idea of "anchor charts" really mirrors a lot of the work we do with students that I work with.  I also think the idea of keeping anchor charts up after they are made is a great idea.  I would love to see a classroom with walls full of records of the knowledge about learning that students have constructed throughout the school year.  This is an exciting idea to me :).

I like the thoughts related to "muscle memory" and the need to actually physically do the things that we are learning.  We have been focusing a lot lately on "sensory tools" and "sensory regulation" at a universal level in schools in my area.  Although I am a big fan of addressing sensory needs, there is something that doesn't sit right with me around some of the ideas that are being presented because they do not seem to be linked to learning.  The approach outlined in this chapter around practicing for the length of time that a student is able to sit still and then building stamina over time sits much better with me as the final goal in this approach is about learning.  It is evident that this might be a slow process for some classes but once through the process it seems it would make a world of difference for the rest of the year. 

I think it is great that all of the ideas outlined in this chapter are related to increasing student awareness of themselves and their learning and that all of the techniques will ultimately increase student independence and ownership.  The framework is given but the details are co-created with the students as they move along.  Anchor charts are not already up but rather students contribute to them both in the beginning and as they check-in to see how they are doing they will add more to them if needed.  I really like the idea of never giving a thumbs-down for check in as being indicative that all students do the best they can and also sending the message that learning is a process and it is okay to be on the path. 

4. What is one statement that stood out above everything in this chapter?

"Whatever we teach, weather learning to walk down the hall correctly or learning to read independently, we were mistaken when we assumed that once shown how to do something children would do it successfully ever after.  If we provided practice time, we often made the first few practices too long or did not repeat the sessions often enough to ensure success for all."  (page 36)

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Inclusion Through "Mommy Eyes"

Just sharing some pictures of my son who has Down syndrome and Autism Spectrum Disorder and is included in a grade 6 classroom.  This is the first year in several years that he has been included as he spent the four years before that in a self-contained classroom.  He was integrated for a fair number of non-core courses when he was in a self-contained classroom and the students in the general education classrooms that he was in were always kind and accepting of him but we never real saw interactions beyond the surface level being nice to a child with a disability.  He has come a long way in regards to social interactions and independence this year as a result of being constantly exposed to and interacting with peers in the general education setting.  I'm including some pictures of him with his classmates on the camping trip they went on this past week.  The first set of pictures have Mikey (my son) chasing a squirrel around camp.  He quickly engaged other boys in assisting him with finding the elusive squirrel and eventually they all headed up the hill in chase of him.  The second set of pictures is at the beach the next day.  I also included some pictures of him at the end of the day all worn out.  I was not there with him (as what grade 6 boy wants his mom at camp with him) and am thankful to his teacher and classroom learning assistants for opening up this opportunity to him.  Enjoy the pictures.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Daily Five Book Study - Chapter 2

Chapter 2 speaks to my heart.  I believe very strongly in truly inclusive learning and this chapter does a great job of explaining a lot of what I believe inclusive learning to be about.  It speaks to setting priorities related to developing community and student agency.  It speaks to setting up learning environments that ensure that all students are engaged and learning.  It speaks to scaffolding and supporting students to become independent, focused learners.  I see so much potential in creating inclusive classrooms that are responsive to each student's learning needs based on what is written in this chapter. 

Because my role is not that of a classroom teacher I am answering the questions for this book study from a bit different angle. My role is support the learning and inclusion of the students on my caseload.  All of those students have multiple complex needs and most of them have complex communication needs.  Programming for these students in general education settings requires adaptations, modifications, assistive technology (AT), alternative and augmentative communication (AAC), alternative assessments...etc.  Sometimes we get so caught up in thinking about all the specialized supports and approaches that students with significant disabilities "need" that we end up actually narrowing our focus too much and creating barriers to authentic learning.  The foundational concepts discussed in this chapter speak to the base that is needed for all students to learn - including those with significant disabilities.  I would tend to argue though that although these things are not always freely given to students with disabilities, they tend to be given to them more then to those with disabilities.  Sometimes in our efforts to help students with disabilities to learn we end up unknowingly taking away from them some of these foundational concepts (example: we have learning assistants hover close to them rather than find natural supports that would allow them independence or we step in an help them when we see them start to struggle rather than give them the time and space and resources to figure it out themselves).  All too often with students with disabilities we reduce things to "skills" rather than focusing on cognitive processes and in doing that, we actually make things harder for them because we take away motivation and the picture of the bigger why.  

1 .What goals do you have for your classroom as you work to implement the principles and foundations of the Daily 5 discussed in chapter 2? What support do you need to do this?  

I feel that to successfully include the students on my caseload all those that work directly and indirectly need to adopt all of the principles outlined in this chapter when working with them and those around them.  I think operating from these principles would build a good base for an inclusive classroom.  In the world of special education we focus a lot on "independence" but sometimes the things we do in the name of independence end up creating barriers.  There is a story in the building stamina section that references walking around and praising students while they are trying to teach stamina and how doing that actually created a barrier to what they were trying to achieve as students became focused and dependent on the teacher feedback.  In our desire to help and to push a student towards independence we sometimes create dependencies by over-prompting, over-directing and over-reinforcing when we don't really need to and create learned helplessness in our students.  We talk about this with students with disabilities but I think the same is true in general education when we think of truly independent self-directed learners - it is just perhaps just a bit more subtle.  I once read something that referenced how when you look at a kindergarten room and  a grade 12 classroom in referenced to independent SELF-DIRECTED learning we seem to be doing things a bit wrong.  The kindergarten students have centers where they explore and interact and the grade 12 classrooms have rows of desks where teachers stand in front and feed information to students.  It seems that somewhere along the line we have mixed up the definitions of memorizing and learning. 

The six principles and foundations of the Daily 5 are:
  • Trust:  This one makes sense but in practice it is a challenge because it goes a bit against what we believe as teachers.  It goes further than just believing that our students can follow the routines to the point of believing they can direct and create their own learning.  
  • Choice:  I like the way this section is outlined as choice within structures.  The structures are taught but then motivation is created by giving the student control of choosing things like order and what books to read and what to write about.  This is a great way to ensure that each student's learning is personalized. 
  • Community:  I like how this section described behaviours in a positive light by referencing community members holding each other accountable for behaviours of effort, learning, order and kindness.  This section speaks to helping each other to remember expectations and supporting each other in learning and speaks to the need to look to building a learning community rather than creating discipline or management plans.  It also speaks to the often untapped resource of peer influence and interaction when it comes to "on task" behaviour. 
  • Sense of Urgency:  This section is about ensuring students understand the why of learning.  Not understanding the why is perhaps one of the biggest challenges in a lot of special education approaches because in our need to simplify we often take away the why.  We break things down so much that the student we are "teaching" cannot see the bigger picture and understand the why. 
  • Stamina:  This section speaks to the understanding that we need to scaffold and support students in being able to do literacy activities independently for extended periods of time.  It speaks to needing to take time to build and learn these skills.  It is a bit different from breaking it in to pieces and then putting the pieces together afterwards. 
  • Stay Out of the Way:  This one ties it all together.  Once everything else is in place we need to stop our urge to jump in too often and continue to trust that students will not only continue to follow routines but that the things they do within those routines will actually build their own learning.  They need the time and space to interact with what they are doing without interference.  When it comes to students with special needs we find this one particularly difficult as we believe we are helping by always directing and "teaching".  But there is a difference between teaching and learning and we need to let all students own their learning.  Of course... there is a balance which I'm sure we will learn more about when we start reading about mini-lessons and conferencing. 
2. What stands out as the most significant aspects of this chapter? 

I'm pulling some of my favorite quotes that I think speak for themselves to answer this question...

"Not when we trust kids enough to show them how." (page 19)

"A sense of community provides members with ownership to hold others accountable for behaviours of effort, learning, order and kindness." (page 21)

"If a student is disrupting others during their work time, the community will joint together to encourage, support and hold this child accountable for his or her learning behaviour."  (page 22)

"If we are instructing so much that the students don't get a chance to read, or if we are counting working working in a workbook as reading time, then we're not giving them enough time to become better readers or writers." (page 24)

3. How do the foundational principles of the Daily 5 structure (trust, choice, community, sense of urgency, and stamina), align with your beliefs that support your teaching strategies and the decisions that you make about student learning? 

These principles align very closely with my beliefs.  The challenge always comes down to bridging the "knowing-doing gap".   On paper these sound great but in practice old habits die hard.  We want to help and we believe that helping involves stepping in and giving advice, ideas, directions...etc. We say we trust our students but this goes deeper than just trusting them to follow routines.  This chapter is about trusting them to direct and monitor their own learning.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Daily Five Book Study - Chapter 1

I have been part of the Alberta Education "Literacy for All" pilot project this year.   This project included being a part of province-wide community of practice of educators who were exploring literacy instruction for students with significant disabilities. We were told at our wrap up that the project will now become "Literacy for All: Going Deeper" and continue in to a second year.  The focus of the second year will be linked the books "The Daily 5" and "The Cafe Book" by Gail Boushey and Joan Moser.  I'm excited and I immediately started re-reading "The Daily 5" book I have and ordered "The Cafe Book".  Imagine my surprise when I came across this book study on the blog Special Education Strategies and More.  I figured because I'm reading the book anyway it might be fun to join in to this online book study.  I look forward to reading and learning other people's posts about this book.  

I am not a grade 1-3 teacher but am hoping that we will be able to implement some of the strategies outlined in these books in the 1-3 general education classrooms that the students I support are a part of.  My role is that of a inclusion facilitator for those students - kind of a cross over between Alberta Education's Learning Coach model and the role outlined in the book "The Inclusion Facilitator's Guide".  All but one of the students that I serve are in the process of developing alternative or augmentative communication approaches (AAC) so this adds some challenges in regards to figuring out appropriate literacy instruction and assessment strategies for them.  

Some of my thoughts that link to the things I have been learning in the last while as well as the population of students that I teach include the following... 

Extension Activities 

I have been teaching this population of students for six years now.  When I first started almost all of my literacy lessons were made up of "extension activities".  We would read a book or story or poem and then do an active activity that allowed students to do something active - cooking, crafts, visuals, games...etc.  Sometimes we would do cloze activities or vocabulary activities as well.  With a few of the students, we would work on site word reading programs (often with visual symbol support) or functional reading by way of learning what environment signs mean.  Over the past couple of years I have been exploring the concept of comprehensive literacy instruction for students with significant disabilities and the links between the use of AAC and literacy learning and coming to realize the need to have the ultimate goal of literacy instruction for these students to be print based generative reading and writing.  I have explored other comprehensive literacy frameworks and this idea of no longer thinking of extension activities as literacy instruction seems to come up again and again.  We need to be engaging ALL students in the actual acts of reading and writing for extended amounts of time every day.  This book aligns with the direction that I would like to go with literacy learning for the students I serve. 

Learning Environment

The authors of this book reference this as a "Management System" but I would tend to think of it more as focusing on and setting up a learning environment.  I really like the focus on developing independence in meaningful activities.  The idea of spending at least a month at the beginning of the year creating the environment for learning is one that speaks to the concept of inclusion.  The tasks that are being done are related to community building, understanding citizenship (roles and responsibilities), defining and practicing expected behaviours, building stamina and coming to understand the needs of each unique group of students.  It speaks to knowing students as individuals and responding to their unique needs.  This, to me, is a huge element of what inclusion is and in the descriptions given in the book I can see that every child could function and learn in the environment that is created through this system.  It holds a lot of promise for inclusive learning. 

Student Agency

The structure is obviously one that is meant to facilitate independent learning.  Teachers respond to and work with individual students.  There is a reference in the chapter to a student being able to pick an area that they are struggling with as a goal they want to focus on.  I skimmed through "The Cafe Book" when it came in the mail and I was excited to see the focus on students setting individual goals.  This speaks the to what I believe the purpose of school to be.  Student need to understand and take responsibility for their own learning.  The idea of aiming for intrinsic motivation is one that I believe strongly in.  I think it is great that it is stated that kids can do this no matter what age they are.  To me, spending time on this is time worth spending.  It may take longer at first but it will result in more authentic learning.  


On page 10, the question "How will we know students are learning if they don't hand in worksheets for us to correct?" is referenced.  The shift from assessment FOR learning to assessment OF learning requires a philosophical shift but it also requires a shift in processes.  I think if we are really doing assessment of learning we are using different strategies then we would if we are doing assessment for learning but I'm not sure if this is what always happens in practice.  When we use things like worksheets as assessment for learning it kind of shuts down the learning process as it becomes about the process rather than the product.  Again, I took a quick look through "The Cafe Book" and some of the pages for keeping assessment notes that come from conferencing.  This concept is one that I look forward to digging in to further as I read through both of these books.  

My other bottom line on the concept of worksheets is that I see them used way too often with students with disabilities.  I think it is linked to a "behaviourist" approach.  Break things down in to rote skills and then repeat, repeat, repeat.  I am not a fan of the approach and I find the approach is used with students in self-contained classrooms more often then it is used with students who are included in general education settings.  Non-worksheet instruction is just so much richer in regards to experiences and connections that can be made.  What is important is finding a way for that instruction to account for all students and I think this method is looking like it holds promise at least in the area of literacy instruction.


Now onto the questions...

1. On page 4-6, the authors present two different pictures of their classroom.  In thinking about about and reflecting on your own practice, how would you characterize your literacy block?  Does it look more like the first or the second scenario, or is it somewhere in between?  How will you change it?

As we are in the middle of transitioning our approach to educating the students that fall under my umbrella this is a difficult question to answer because more than half of my students now join general education classrooms for literacy instruction.  Most of these classrooms have a balanced approach to literacy and as I said above we are looking to possibly do some work with the Daily 5 in two of those rooms this fall but both rooms already have great literacy programs.

With my students who will be going to the high school we are looking at a schedule for them that will include both time together and time integrated in to other classes in the high school.  We are looking at using one of the four blocks in the day as a literacy class to address literacy learning that is appropriate for them.  I am looking to set the classroom up based on "The Four Blocks" literacy model with a modifications and assistive technology as needed.  Because there are only three students it will look a bit different but the idea of having a comprehensive program with micro-teaching and then lots of time to read and write and do word work will be in place.  

2. The typical teacher is very busy having students do lots of different activities.  How is what you are having students do now in your classroom creating quality writers and readers?  

This year I have been trying to focus more on reading and writing and using communication systems in literacy learning rather than just literature exposure, extension activities and sight word programs.  It was a stat and we probably saw the most excitement in the area of doing word work with this population.  Next year, I am looking at further expanding to look the four blocks and include:
Word Work: Planning to do both word wall work and using Patricia Cunningham's Working with Words with students.  With my students we need to tie in their communication systems as well as ensure that the students have access to do this work (through pointing or eye gaze).  Modifications have to be made to allow for participation. 
Writing: Planning to explore the use of "Alternate Pencils" (will write a post about this soon) as well as generating a variety of sources for students to pull from to decide what they are going to "write" about.  At first we will be thinking of writing in terms of just generating a list of letters related to a topic and also incorporate the use of their communication systems to talk about what they are writing about.  I'm planning to use remnant books as one source that student's can generate ideas for writing.  The explanation of this will take more than a few words here and I plan to write a post about it soon.  I'm excited to add this piece to our literacy plan because writing to this point has consisted of mostly doing cloze passages by eye gaze to picture to make choices about what word to put in sentences.   
Guided Reading: This will be done with the whole group and we will be looking at doing an Anchor-Read-Apply sequence with a piece of writing.  We will be rereading the piece of writing several times with a different purpose each day.  This I will also write more about.  Many of my plans came from the Literacy and AAC course that I attended a few weeks ago. 
Self-Selected Reading: Here we will be doing both partner reading and using technology to read.  One sight that I am going to explore extensively to find "just right books" is going to be Tar Heel Reader.  I'm seeing I have a lot of posts to add in the near future :). 
I think that this will cover each of the elements of "The Daily Five" even if it is in a bit different format.  My interest in this method for my high school students is actually in the "The Cafe" book as I am hoping to get some ideas related to assessment for that.  

3. What sets the Daily Five structure apart from what you are doing in your classroom?

As I have already mentioned, we are just in the process of changing our approach to literacy and programming with these students so there are many changes that will come from thinking in terms of more comprehensive literacy instruction for this population. 

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Today's Quote...

"Action research problematizes the values of the institution by challenging and questioning its practices in the institutional context, which can pose a threat to them.  Therefore, action research needs to probe the moral foundations of the institution, while at the same time constructing local groups or communities that collaborate to sustain the moral and intellectual life of institutions.  It is a risky and frustrating activity to try to raise awareness about moral responsibilities that have become obscured in the technical practices of institutions.  To make inclusive practices a reality, moral aspects of institutional activities need to be addressed.  Such challenges are best supported and achieved through discussion, debate and reflective action.  

Action research for inclusion may be met with antagonism and hostility, because a collaborative commitment to explicit actions and practices will threaten institutional policies, especially those that rely heavily on bureaucratic procedures." (p. 25)