Friday, May 31, 2013

Indicators of Inclusive Schools: Continuing the Conversation 2013

The Inclusive Education Branch of Alberta Education has released a new document titled Indicators of Inclusive Schools: Continuing the Conversation 2013.

An explanation of the indicators section of the document reads as follows:
Indicators of Inclusive Schools is organized around five dimensions
1. Establishing Inclusive Values and Principles
2. Building Inclusive Learning Environments
3. Providing Supports for Success
4. Organizing Learning and Instruction
5. Engaging with Parents and Community 

Each of the dimensions is supported by sample indicators that provide descriptions, based on current research and promising practices, of what each particular dimension might look like. A number of indicators contain links to further information, examples and resources.

Although the resource has not been specifically developed as a metric or rubric to measure changes in inclusion over time, the conversations facilitated by the resource can help schools choose a focus to measure improvements over time.
It looks like a great document to serve the purpose of continuing the conversation that will move us towards a more inclusive education system. 

Sunday, May 26, 2013

What is Inclusive Education?

A few weeks ago I posted one of the Research Digests that I had written for a graduate course that I took this spring (The Continuum of Teacher Beliefs About Inclusive Education).  In the middle of each course I find that there is just too much information coming at me and I am often able to complete assignments without really processing the full meaning behind them.  It is only later when there is time that I am able to connect it all to the larger picture of what it means in relationship to what is happening in education and how it connects specifically to my job. 
Three years ago I was teaching students from k-12 in a fully self-contained classroom and since then we have been making slow progress around trying to find a more inclusive way to educate these students.  It has not been without it's struggles and we are far from figuring it out but by jumping in and trying to do it I believe we are learning more then we ever could have by trying to lay all the groundwork first.  The bottom line is that we would have never been ready had we tried to lay the groundwork because it is not the way we have done things here before. 
I chose the article that I did this research digest on because the third group of teachers believe about inclusion what I believe about inclusion.  Although my passion is related to figuring out how to authentically include students with significant disabilities in general education classrooms and activities, I understand inclusion to be about a whole lot more than just the physical space of a handful of my students. 
I'm going back and quoting my own writing...
The final group saw inclusion as a social justice issue that was about more than just students with disabilities.  This group was the smallest group and all but one member of the group were general education teachers. They felt that inequalities in society create variability in learning. These teachers believed in the social model of disability and saw disability as one aspect of human diversity. They were concerned with larger institutional practices and policies that sever to oppress and marginalize and questioned practices related to assessment and how knowledge and learning are defined.
This gets to the heart of inclusion.  Have we properly explicitly defined knowledge and learning and do we set it as our goal for all in our schools and classrooms?  We need schools where learning is our constant with everything else being variable but so we mix it up and make the wrong things constant and learning becomes variable. And when a students doesn't learn within those other constants then they are seen as not belonging. 

When I look back at what we are doing in our self-contained classroom I can say with a lot of confidence that we had a pretty good grasp on the idea of personalized learning.  Some would question why we would be looking to take these students out of a setting where they were "getting what they needed" and put them in classrooms where sometimes it feels like we are trying to do exactly what is depicting in the above graphic. 
I speak often about "curriculum overlapping" but what we are really talking about is a personalized definition of success.  For the students that I work with goals related to communication, self-advocacy (autonomy), socialization and personal management are often going to be more important than what is on provincial achievement tests.  As we have moved forward it has become more and more evident that these goals can only be achieved in inclusive settings. 
I would say to this point we have been successful with creating both academic and routine inclusion for the students that I have on my case load.  I would say that there have been academic benefits from thinking in terms of the program of studies beign the starting point but that we have not yet figured out the academic inclusion part of this.  This presents us with an increasingly narrow focus and gives the learning process direction but at the same time it also presents the challenge of looking at the bigger picture that this all needs to be fit in to.  It is not just about this handful of students. 
It leaves you questioning how do we make sure we are not chipping away at the core of who students are to shape them in to what our larger education system defined as important so many years ago? 
A paradigm shift towards personalized learning that has so evidently started to happen when one looks around at some of the great things that are happening in education is needed. 

So as the picture of what we are doing becomes both more focused and wider through the process of exploration, it has become clear to me that for so many students what is on the provincial achievement test is not representative of each of their personalized learning needs. And this is where we sit as the presence of my students makes that a whole lot more black and white then if they were not there.  The question is what is the next step? 

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Learned Helplessness

I like to clear time to just read blog posts each Saturday morning.  As I come closer to end of my graduate studies, I'm finding myself drawn to posts about "leadership" and wondering why I have never been reflective on the idea of "leadership" before.  As teachers we are leaders and the way we lead impacts our students learning and growth. 

This morning, I came across a post titled "Leaders should remove barriers... sometimes they make them worse" and it put in to words thoughts that swim around in my head about "learned helplessness".
"It’s a learned helplessness that occurs when you, or someone with influence over you, decides that something can’t be done, or perhaps in the case of business, can’t be done right."
In the field of special education we so often think about "learned helplessness" be a product of how we interact with students.  Do we overprompt?  Do we do things for them that they can do themselves?  Are we stepping back enough?  Are we pushing them to independent enough?

I think sometimes it comes down to not truly understanding the difference between independence and autonomy.  We believe that if a child can do a certain task without help then we have achieved.  Working with students that I work with kind of puts a monkey wrench in that approach.  But... the students I work with can, and should, achieve autonomy. 

This post reminded me of this video, not so much about "faculty" but about students with disabilities...

In both this video and the blog post that I linked to above we see animal studies where the environment that we set up dictates what the "animals" will do.  The important thing to note in each of the videos is that even when the barrier is removed, the animal behaviour remains the same.

It should make us step back and think about what happens when we put students with disabilities in to self-contained environments.  At that point we are orchestrating their environments in a way that says we believe they are incapable of functioning in the same environment as other students.  Are we setting up barriers to their learning?  Is it possible that we think we are helping them by creating a safer environment (putting on the lid) but in reality we are creating a deeply rooted "learned helplessness" in them? 

I have heard the argument of how we are setting them up to fail by leaving them in the general education classroom becuase they "can't keep up" or the "gap is too big"... that they are better off in self-contained settings where they can "feel good about themselves".   I guess it makes me wonder though if we should be okay with the idea of having environments in our schools where not every child can feel good about themselves when they are in them.  What do we need to change so that they can? 

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Conditions for Learning

In the book The Learning Tree: Overcoming Learning Disabilities from the Ground Up Stanley Greenspan and Nancy Thorndick Greenspan propose that "becoming a better thinking ins't primarily about learning facts. It's about mastering senses, movement, and emotions"  and then go on to say "intelligence is the progressive transformation of our emotions to produce more mature thinking abilities.  Said another way, each transformation builds higher levels of thinking and intelligence into a view of the world where each sense and emotion is strongly developed and integrated with the rest."

Pedagogy is the study of teaching methods, including the aims of education and the ways in which such goals may be achieved.  How we define what learning, thinking and intelligence are impacts our practice as educators.  The combination of taking graduate in both neurology and inclusive educational practices, changes that are being made by Alberta Education and the experiences that I've had in my job over the past few years has put in a place of constantly questioning these definitions.  Again and again, it seems to come back to the idea that (1) sensory modulation and processing and (2) social and emotional thinking are critical building blocks for student learning. 

I don't think anyone would argue around the importance of these.  I think the question we should be exploring is how explicitly should be teaching these things on the universal level and how important they are at the intervention level.  Perhaps a necessary condition for learning is a classroom environment that focuses on self-regulation and social-emotional thinking skills as much as it focuses on traditional academic courses. 

But in the spirit of inclusivity, I'm not convinced that these things need to be separate from traditional academic courses.  I'm reminded of Alberta Educations 21st Century Learning visual...

The subject/discipline areas are further out on the circle with the competencies inside of the circle.  Developing the competencies become a critical part of learning while the actual content becomes less important.  Ideally we want to get to the comptencies outlined in this document but initially it seems that we need to build that base of social-emotional thinking skills and self-regulated learning skills.  When working with students with complex needs these big picture ideas need to be broken down further in to the little steps and sometimes also need to be looked at from a developmental perspective. To appropriately support some students we need to really get to the root of it.  Getting to the root of it with these students serves all students as it allows us to understand how to support all student's learning. 
It also ties perfectly in to the concept of Universal Design for Learning.  By giving students multiple means of representation, expression and engagement, students are encouraged to come to understand themselves as learners.  They come to understand their processing strengths and weaknesses and use this awareness to ensure that they are making choices that allow for optimum learning.  Learning is about meaning making and meaning making involves interaction with people.  That indirection may be direct (dialogue, connection on internet...etc.) or indirect (reading, researching, watching video...etc.) but it is still interaction with someone else's thoughts.  Learning cannot happen without social-emotional thinking skills. 
The bottom line is that if a student is having trouble learning, perhaps it is about those literacy and numeracy skills but I think we also have to deeply consider what we can do to support sensory modulation and regulation and social-emotional thinking as developing and supporting these skills ensures that we are supporting learning at the student's ability level rather than remediating learning at a level that may be reflective a skill deficiet in one of these areas. 
Are we doing this or do we fall back on remediation and "teaching kids at their level" rather than working to create the right conditions for learning for that student. 
And my last question for this post... is it possible that we could focus on "conditions for learning" in every situation where we currently focus on "behaviour"?   

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Death at School: Parents Fight Back Against Deadly Discipline

What is there to say really? This video pretty much speaks for itself.
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Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Butterfly Circus

In the book Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Strength-Based Strategies to Help Students with Special Needs Succeed in School and Life Thomas Armstrong asks us to reimagine disability as a natural part of the human condition.  His message is not unlike so many others.  The first time I came across the view was probably shortly after I adopted my son and discovered Kathy Snow's book and website Diability is Natural.  Thomas Armstrong takes the idea of disability being a natural way of being a step futher and speaks to the celebration of the diversity of the human person.  He digs in to strengths that are often associated with specific "disability" labels and talks to how we should be capitalizing and focusing on these strenghts rather than focusing on the deficit inherit to a given disability. 
This stuff speaks to my heart.  We all have strengths in this world and I believe it is our job as educators to work with students to discover and nurture these gifts and strengths.  As we come to understand gifts and strengths we can co-create a path to excellence with our students.  When it comes to the students on my caseload, strengths give us a window in to the things we can do to break down barriers to social, academic and routine participation and learning.  If we don't profile a student's strengths, we will be less equipped to support that student's learning.
But it is not our job to do it for our students.  It is our job to help our students discover it in themselves.  And sometimes that means stepping back.  In the end, our job is not unlike the folks that run the butterfly circus in the following video.  I often try to explain the difference between supporting and helping and can't quite find the words.  This video speaks very eloquently to this idea. 

Monday, May 6, 2013

Let's do things with people rather than to people...

Quote: "Oberle says he's happy to hear from the clients, advocates and parents. He also says if the timeline for the cuts is too aggressive, the government may have to adjust its expectations. "If we can't do things with people rather than to people, then that's not acceptable and we will adjust our timeline if we have to." he said."


Momentum around "inclusion" in every aspect of life seems to be gaining force recently. I process these things both as a parent and a teacher and sometimes that means conflicting thoughts and feelings. As a parent, there is a level of fear around the safety of your child and a question of ensuring they will have the services that they need to live a meaningful and connected life. How can they access the world without these "very important services". 

Today on Facebook, I came across this visual...

Is this what we are really trying to do in education? Hold corks underwater? Are we trying to inhibit the cork from what it does simply by the nature of what it is? When we look at little children and the way they explore the world and compare them to students as they move for highschool, do we ever stop to wonder if this is the natural progression of growing up or if perhaps there is something in this idea of holding corks underwater that results in those of us in education taking the desire to inquire out of the students we teach? How do we foster that exploration and excitement for learning? How is this connected to the current movement that we are seeing around adult disability services? Is is somehow tied to the lines that I've highlighted and put in red in the original quote here.

 And then as I continued to scroll through my Facebook feed today, I came across this...
I am part of a six person PLC in our division this year related to the Daily 5 litearcy/management structure. In our past session we ended up talking theory some of the time. We talked about literacy interventions and contrasted it with the message in the book "Beyond Leveled Books" which speaks to the need to explicitly foster a love and passion for reading in our students. It speaks to using books that will set students up to develop their own strategies rather than guiding them through the strategies. Is leaves you wondering if facilitating a love and fascination for books might be more effective in creating readers than direct and comprehensive guided reading instruction.

In the end, it probably is about balance but it seems in times when we get uncomfortable with the idea that we may not actually be as needed as we have always believed we are, our instict is to pull back and look for something that has "accountability measures" that further justify doing things the way we have always done them. 

But what if we are wrong? What if it is our job is to faciliate discovery rather than to impart wisdom and knowledge? What if we are defining our jobs the wrong way?  

My passion is linked to creating equality for people with complex learning disabilities and differences but I ultimately believe that by looking at things in the extremes, we come to see things that exist in the more subtle.  

I'm ending with a talk that is worth thinking about in the middle of all of this...

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Respecting Diversity Program

"The RD program is designed to build an inclusive learning community. The activities in the program help students develop a positive self-concept and respect for others, reduce challenging behavior, and create learning teams that support diverse learners." (Source:

In her book "Teaching to Diversity: The Three-Block Model of Universal Design for Learning", Jennifer Katz lays out three blocks that she feels are important in creating inclusive classrooms and schools.  The blocks are (1) Systems and Structures, (2) Instructional Practices and (3) Social and Emotional Learning: Developing Compassionate Classroom Communities.  The following graphic summarizes her approach:
The first component of the program is the "Respecting Diversity Program".  This program consists of 8-9 lessons (depending on if you choose to the 8th) and focuses on students understanding themselveas a learners using Gardner's Multiple Intelligences.  I'm struck again and again each time these come up by the fact that there is actually no conclusive research that using Gardner's Intelligences enhances "learning".  I wonder if it is because of the way that we try to measure "learning" and if we have gotten that definition correct.
The program is wonderful as it has students look at their learning strengths and challenges and think through how they can use their strengths to maximize their learning and then it expands in to the benefit of working with others who have different learning strengths from you.  Students can start to see the true power of collaborating with others when it is framed this way.  The whole truly can become more then the sum of the parts when we stop to think about how the diversity of the group can add to the final product. 
The last lesson in the program is the lesson that speaks to my heart as it addresses the diversity of "disability" and speaks to the fact that for those with disabilities, some of their "intelligences" may create more significant barriers.  For example, a person who is blind would not be a strong visual learner.  But then it flips it around... that person who is blind often has a learning strength (often auditory learning) that he/she can use to maximize his/her learning.  In the end, we all have our learning strengths and challenges and it is just a matter of degree. 
I think one of the things that struck me with the whole program was how it ties directly in to the Psycho-educational Assessments that we often do in "special education" as these assessments often give us glimpse in to processing challenges that a student may or may not have.  Particularly for students with Learning Disabilities, we will see a processing challenge that creates a barrier to "intelligence".  It speaks to the importance of Universally Designed Learning so we can help students to understand both these challenges and their strengths and then find tools and methods for them to use their strength so that they can demonstrate their knowledge.  When we restrict that student to paper and pencil methods, the only choice we have is to "dumb down" or remediate the work they are doing.  When we put that student in a self-contained setting we often are looking to keep using the process that we have traditionally defined as the "right process" and remediate the work.  When we place this student in an inclusive environement we are challenged with the task of helping them to find the tools, modifications, adaptions that will help them use their processing strengths rather than focus on their processing weaknesses.  This is where we get to the concept of "high expectations for all" that comes with inclusive approaches to education. 
The idea behind this curriculum though is that we shouldn't just be restricting these supports to those with special education codes.  We should be teaching all students about their learning strengths and challenges, exposing them to a variety of tools and methods that link to those strengths and challenges and then give them choice and freedom to use these as they need to so they can maximize their own learning.  We often feel overwhelmed with the idea of having to differentiate for students but perhaps we should consider the possibility that if we provide them with the right background and the right tools, students will actually be able to differentiate for themselves.

Maybe this is one of those situations where we should work smarter instead of harder.