Saturday, June 15, 2013

Are We Focusing on Learning or on Work?

"Being busy is a form of laziness -
lazy thinking and indiscriminate action."
(Tim Ferriss)
When Mikey (my now 14 year old son) was almost a year old he did something amazing.  He was sitting on a little stool by a chair and he pulled himself up in to a stand position and then he stood there for several seconds before sitting back down on the stool.  I got excited and started celebrating and he looked at me like I had lost my mind.  I was so sure that walking could not be long in coming.

Months passed. He went from pulling himself up from a stood to pulling himself up against a chair or coffee table from the ground and then to pushing himself up midfloor in to a stand.  He would stand for increasing lengths of time in whatever position he was in - against the chair, against the couch, against the coffee table and even mid-floor. 
I wanted so desparately for him to take his first step and I would try to hold his hands and encourage a step or entice him with a toy.  I bought him three different kinds of walking toys hoping one would inspire a step.
Months passed.  He would stand mid-floor watching a whole episode of Barney with his feet planted firmly on the ground.  I would reach out my hand and he would bat at it and stare me down in stubborn defiance, refusing the whole time to take my hand.  I would catch him watching me and others in the house walking.
I kept putting things in front of him, hoping he would take a step but then I tried a different approach.  I started putting him on different surfaces in a standing position.  I could see some of them made him uncomfortable and I could see him start to shift his weight around a bit.  I would dig up dirt so it was soft and put him on that.  Put him on gravel.  Put him on the edge of a side walk so one foot was on cement and the other on grass.  I could see his stability was a little thrown off.  And sometimes I could even see fear in his eyes as he worked to feel  sense of equilibrium.
Looking back, I know that I probably could have forced him to take steps.  Rather than let him bat my hands away, I could have pursued it and got him to hold my hands and made his little legs move in a walking motion.  But he seemed content and proud of his ability to stand so instead I celebrated with him each time he would stand.  I applauded him each time I saw his little legs waver a bit from standing too long or from being on a diffferent surface. 
And every chance I got when he we were playing games, I would challenge his balance, work his low-tone core (many many games of row-row-row-your-boat), lay him on the ground and move his feet one after the other, play with him with his toys and highlight how his teddy bears would walk across the room to see him.  I even bought him toys that walked across the room and we would play with those. 
Then one day he was standing mid-floor and he saw a toy across the room on the couch that he wanted and he took his first step and then about 15 more with complete stability to go and get the toy.  He picked the toy up, turned around and walked back to where he was without ever losing his balance or stability.  He then stood there playing with the toy but he dropped it.  He bent down, without falling, grabbed the toy and returned to stable standing position.

He never crawled much after that.  He just sort of started walking everywhere. 

Through the years since reaching this milestone, I have found myself frustrated as he stood before many other milestones.  I wanted to help.  I wanted to guide him.  To show him.  To step him through the process.  The more I tried though the more he would back away.  And eventually I would just decide to give it a rest and try again in a while because there was no use pushing forward when all it had become was a power struggle.  And then he would watch me or someone else each time we woudl do that very thing that I had given up helping him with.  Sure enough, there would then be a day where he would start doing it in his own way.  Once he had started, he would come to me and want me to show him or else he would stop and observe to figure out what to do next.  We would see slow and steady progress and the beauty was that he owned it. 

Yesterday was the wrap up for the "Literacy for All" project that I have been involved in for two years now.  It was clear to me that there has been a culture shift since we got together for this project in June 2011.  The focus then was tied to selling us on the idea of comprehensive literacy instruction for students with significant disabilities.  It wasn't that we were not thinking about literacy for this population but more that the approaches that were being used were more rooted in reductionist theroies then constructivist ones. 

One of the goals for the project this year was tied to assessment practices for students with significant disabilities.  How can we demonstrate growth and learning for this population given that they may be in the emergent literacy stage or that access challenges inhibit the use of standardized assessments.  We talked about the growth we have seen in the students with significant disabilities that we teach and/or support.  In many cases the learning that was happening was about a whole lot more than reading and writing.  Messages of negative or inappopriate behaviours being replaced by emergent literacy behaviours as result of the Daily 5 approach that has all students learn about and build stamina in their literacy behaviours came through loud and clear.  Talk of increased socialization, communication and personal management came through as well.  And several times the message that this structure that is designed for "general education" works for all students came through. 

A few could put numbers on the learning they saw this year.  There were a handful of students in the project who could be benchmarked and growth could be measured in numbers but there were many for whom that was not yet possible.  Yet we all had evidence of learning for these students.  Some of it was evidence related to reading and writing skills but there was also evidence of growth in emerging literacy behaviours, socialization, communication, personal management, decreased behaviours, increased engagement...etc.  We were all able to articulate what we know from working with this population... that learning is personalized and can't always be measured in numbers. 

As I look to next year, I am seeing the need to build learning portfolios for the students that I have on my caseload... partially as evidence of learnin but also just to capture the amazing things that are happening for them as sometimes we just don't stop to reflect.  When you do, you realize all the learning that is happening.  In the middle of it, you don't.

Sometimes with the students I work with it is no different then what it was when I waited so impatiently for Mikey to take that first step.  For so long it appeared like nothing was happening.  I wanted to take control of it and make it happen but I was sort of powerless.  In school we are not always as powerless as I was in getting Mikey to take those steps.  Unfortunately, in school, sometimes we try to exert our power in those moments and we shift the focus from learning over to behaviour and the good stuff can get lost.  But just like with Mikey when he started to stand it wasn't really that I was doing nothing.  I would always celebrate him standing.  I would show him how to walk and give him reasons to walk.  I would make sure that there was nothing unsafe around him in case he fell.  I provided the tools like a walking toy and my hands if he so choose to use them.  The beauty of me being paralyzed to do it for him was that whene he did walk he owned it.  And becuase he owned it, his confidence in his ability to do allowed him to able to bend over and pick things up and walk clear across the room right from the start.  It was never my accomplishment and that is a good thing.

I know we can't always stand back as educators.  Sometimes we need to do something.  But I think sometimes we do get so caught up in doing it for them that we don't let them own it and with students with special needs this creates that true learned helplessness that is rooted in their believes about themselves.  We need to be so careful in our quest to be busy and to look busy because it has the potential that the accomplishments of our students will end up being owned by us instead of our students.  It creates quicker initial progress but what happens after that?  

I have come to a deeper realization in these past few years of what the difference between focusing on learning and focusing on work is. 

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