Saturday, December 7, 2013

Masters Capstone

A week ago, I attended our second last formal gathering with the masters cohort that I have been learning with and from for the past 2.5 years.  The next time we will get together as a group is in April to present our Capstones.  These past 2.5 years of balancing going to school, work, parenting and personal have been far from easy but I would never trade the experience and learning and getting to know the amazing people in this cohort for "easy".  I'm humbled every time I get together this this group of educators as the passion and compassion that they have for education, students and humanity shines through in everything they say, share and do.

The process has been even more meaningful as it has occurred at the same time as my job and the way we serve the students that I work with has evolved.  We started this program in July 2011 and in September 2011 we began the process of making the general education classroom the primary placement for the students that I had, to that point, taught in a self-contained classroom based out of an elementary school.  I would be lying if I said the process of moving these students to age appropriate schools and taking the first steps in figuring out a different starting point has been smooth.  I would be lying if I said we have it all figured out. What I do know is that the growth and learning that I have witnessed in these students (and some of the students around them) is substantially larger then what I witnessed when I was teaching them in a self-contained classroom. I see a confidence and happiness in each of them that is different from what was there before. We are all dreaming different dreams for them and exploring learning possibilities that just could never be available to them in a setting segregated from their peers. I would go so far as to say that we are redefining what education means for this population of students through this process. 

I've learned a lot but there are times when it is evident that it is probably just the tip of the iceberg as the we are still really in the infancy of figuring this out.  It is only in my lifetime that it has even been a requirement that we provide an education to those who fit the profile of the students I work with. There is still so much to learn. 

Personally, I have to take a deep look at my own established "mental models" often through this process.  It has required finding time to reflect more deeply to ensure that we aren't just doing things because that is the way we always did them.  Most important in this journey for me has been the experiences of really listening to those who are the true experts - self-advocates.  We need to listen both to those who can use words to communicate and those who cannot.  There are so many people stepping forward to tell their experiences which can help us to better understand and hopefully create educational (and life) approaches with our students rather than for our students.

I've learned to attend more closely to what is going on... to step back and try to figure out all the subtleties of the situation rather than just immediately reacting and trying to "fix things".  I've learned that sometimes helping doesn't actually help at all.  I've learned that sometimes overcoming a barrier through struggle is the greatest learning experience for both myself and others.  I've learned that we all have our own pre-defined beliefs and experiences that will impact how we interpret any situation. It's been more of a personal than a professional journey in many ways.  But perhaps there is not as much of a defining line between the two as present-day society would want us to believe. 

And here I sit... feeling that finally I am coming to a point of this making sense... not in the lets wrap this up and be done with it kind of way, but rather in the I see where this is just the first step on a journey kind of way.  This experience has changed me and impacted what my hopes and dreams. 

It wasn't really that difficult to piece together my focus for this Capstone  As interested as I am in the larger picture of "inclusive practices" in education, what drives me is tied to inclusive education for students with complex needs.  What does it take?  How do we ensure coherent, comprehensive, and continuous programs for this population is we are serving them in the general education setting?  Can we create the same continuity and cohesion to their programs as we could if we educated them in self-contained classrooms with a specialized teacher that they often stay with for years?  Should we be aiming for that if we reference the concept of "dignity of risk"?   What framework and supports would make this sustainable? 

We so often try to define the problem and solution with the mental models that we currently have. We hear only what we recognize. We interpret things based on our experiences and feelings.  We then draw the same conclusions that we have drawn before. 
"We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them." (Albert Einstein)
When we think about educating students with complex needs (any students, actually), we often fall back on a curriculum-driven perspective.  This keeps us stuck in believing that we need a duo-track system to serve the needs of students who just fit too far out of the bounds of how we currently deliver and assess curriculum.

What if we shift the paradigm and thought of education for students with complex needs (any students, actually) to an inquiry based perspective rather than our curriculum driven perspective?  What if we saw the education of these students as a multi-year process of working with the student and those who are naturally a part of the student's life to figure out how to ensure increases in the areas of access, engagement and autonomy?  Is it possible to equip any student, even those with what we consider the "most severe challenges", for a lifetime of learning? 

A lot of it ties to the heart of "Person Centered Planning".  It's been around for  quite some time now in the field of "disability".  It's a great idea but has it been realized in practice... and, more specifically, has it been realized in the way we educate students with "disabilities"?   Can we realize it within the current structures and belief systems? 

There are a lot of questions and a lot of thoughts.  It seems only fitting that it is now time to pull it all together.  To look at what has been accomplished and what we still have to accomplish and begin to piece together a framework that fits in to our current and evolving context.  This is what my last step in my masters journey will be.  I'm excited about it. 

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