Tuesday, December 30, 2014

One Word 2015 - Present

I've found it a bit more of a challenge to sit down and write lately. It is not that I do not have anything to say but more that I feel that there is so much to do that the time to sit and write is no longer there. I click almost daily on my blog and mean to write but then get sidetracked by something else. 

It is taking some time to find a new balance to my life since finishing my masters in April. I didn't realize until it wasn't there anymore how all-consuming it became in the course of the three years. I needed time to recharge but I also needed time to process so much of what we had learned in that time.

Life is beginning to settle in to a new way of being both personally and professionally. I am becoming more comfortable with what my job has evolved in to. I am finding time again to be the parent that I want to be to Mikey. And I am also finding time for me. 

I have, for some time, been clear in what I believe in and what I want to stand for but only in the past months do I feel that I can take the complexity of it all and find and articulate the simplicity of what it means right now. 

I'm not really one for resolutions but am big on reflections. There are points in any year that invite reflection and I find this time of year to be one of those points for me... not because we magically change the number behind the month on the calendar but because it comes right after a relaxing time of reconnecting with family and friends and right before my son's birthday (January 3). It's a time to reflect and reconnect to others but also to myself.  Instead of resolutions, it makes sense to me to think about the word that I want to guide my life for right now and this year "present" just seemed the right word. 

Change is wonderful and exciting and it does energize me but you can get so caught up in what the dream is for the future that you forget to stop and recognize the parts of the dream that you are living right now. Blogging, for me, has always been part of being in the moment as it is provides the opportunity to reflect and so it is my hope that 2015 will bring with it a bit more regular posts from me :).

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Redefining Bullying

"This is a different kind of strategy. It means changing an understanding of a fundamental concept in the classroom and school. The way bullying is typically conceptualized, there is a bully and a victim, and sometimes a bystander. This implies that there are "good guys" and "bad guys" which erodes the community that is essential for creating an inclusive environment in which everyone belongs and everyone is valued. Schools and classrooms that have zero-tolerance and no-questions-asked policies toward bullying and standardized punishments for bullies are failing to support the needs of all students. There is nothing cut or dry or easily defined about bullying. When one students is aggressive in some way toward another, all of the students have needs that should be met and skills to be learned. Bullying should be redefined as conflicts that need to be collaboratively solved. The focus on the classroom should be redefined toward recognizing everyone's strengths while supporting everyone's weaknesses. If we do this, we stop sending the message that there are good guys and bad guys, and we start sending the message that we are all in it together to help each other solve problems.

Redefining bullying does not mean that aggressive behaviour is okay or will be tolerated. It still means that behaviour must stop immediately. Redefining bullying means that the student who engages in aggressive behaviour will not be labeled a bully or punished and condemned as a bad person in the community. That student will be valued and supported in learning new skills. Everyone will be expected to work with everyone, not just the ones who are easiest to work with."

Source: Universal Design for Learning in Action: 100 Ways to Teach ALL Learners by Whitney H. Rapp (2014)

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Ten Years of Blogging!

Ten years ago today I started a personal blog with the plan to record my journey parenting Mikey. There came a point in that journey where I made a career change as a result of the first steps in that journey and as time went on I switched from a blogging about parenting to blogging about the cross-over between my personal passion, parenting and my job. 

Link to my first blog Red Lights: http://redlights.typepad.com/

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Supporting Students with Print Based Disabilities

"There is a place in UDL for remediation. However, we must first determine the nature of our beliefs about students and their disabilities. When I ask an English language arts teacher whether a student with a visual impairment can receive an A in their course - even if the novel or play they are studying is not available in Braille, the answer is always yes. When I ask them how they would assess this student, they quickly respond that they would read the text aloud or use an audiobook, and then assess the student's understanding of the book. For the sake of argument then, we are saying a student who cannot read the text can still receive an A in English. Yet when I ask teachers weather a grade 9 student reading at grade 3 level can receive an A in their course, the answer is almost unanimously no. When asked why, they respond that he student cannot read the texts required in the course, and is not meeting expectations for reading. In other words, a student with a visible disability can be excused from decoding, but a student with an invisible disability cannot, even if they have a documented disability. Why would we punish students with invisible disabilities? Is the act of reading about the physical ability to lift the word off the page? Or is it the ability to appreciate literature, make sense of an author's communication, draw inference and make connections, analyze plot and character, and so on?

I am not suggesting that we just give a student a student an A, but I am suggesting that we make the same accommodations for a student with an invisible disability that we make for a student with a visible one, and then mark them on the depth of their thought, not on the skill of decoding. Similarly, if I ask a teacher whether a student who is quadriplegic and cannot physically write their thoughts on paper can get an A in their course, they almost unanimously reply yes. When asked how they would assess the student, they reply they would ask the student to express their understanding orally, then rate the depth of understanding. Even in English language arts, one can mark an oral presentation for sentence structure, descriptive language organization, and other mechanics of writing. So it is only the physical ability to put pencil to paper that is compromised , and perhaps their spelling. Many of the students with learning disabilities who struggle with expressing themselves in writing, yet demonstrate a high level of understanding during class discussions, are assessed based on written tests and assignments and receive poor marks, or fail, courses across the curriculum. Again, why would we punish a student for having an invisible disability?

We discussed in earlier chapters how we punish students with invisible disabilities by devising programs on an IEP that requires the student to spend all day doing what they cannot do, and failing. We do not expect a student with a visual impairment to learn to see or a student with a physical disability to learn to walk, but we force students with learning disabilities to spend years in remediation programs that only result in frustration and failure because we refuse to acknowledge that an invisible disability is un-fixable. Instead of helping the student see what they can do, and building on their strengths by teaching them how to adapt to their disability as we would do for teh student with a visual or physical disability, we focus on what they cannot do and consider that, if we don't keep trying to fix it, we are 'giving up'."

Source: Resource Teachers: A Changing Role in the Three-Block Model of Universal Design for Learning by Jennifer Katz (2013)

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Together We Are Stronger

"The 'allegory of the long spoons' teaches us that when we struggle to feed only ourselves, everyone goes hungry. But when we focus on our neighbour’s hunger, we discover there are ways to feed everyone."

Weaknesses (spoons that are too long to reach our mouths) can inhibit our daily functioning if we think only in terms of trying to feed ourselves with what we currently individually have in our hands.  If we step outside the box though and consider other strategies and other ways to use the resources that we collectively have, we can find ways that we can all be fed. When we remove students whose spoons are too long for them to feed themselves from their natural communities, we also remove all the solutions and stabilizing factors that exist within that collective community... which affects all members of the community.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Mystery at Camp ALEC - Students and Teachers Seeing Themselves as Thinkers - Part 2

Note that this post is a further expansion on my earlier post outlining the Mystery at Camp ALEC.  The experience that we had at Camp ALEC has gotten me thinking a lot about inference and how language and communication development impact the ability to gain skills in inference. 

"Inference is the mental process by which we reach a conclusion based on a specific evidence. Inferences are the stock and trade of detectives examining clues, of doctors diagnosing diseases, and of car mechanics repairing engine problems. We infer motives, purpose, and intentions."(http://www.criticalreading.com/inference_process.htm)

Inference requires reading the ideas that are behind words. Both listening and reading should be active, reflective, problem solving processes. Listening and reading require simultaneously taking in language (words) and constructing meaning about what those words mean in a given context.

Why was it that these campers, who were all proficient communicators and who all had access to unlimited vocabulary through speech or their devices, were able to engage in a process of inquiry in to "who done it" around this poster? Could a camper who did not have the autonomy that comes with access to an unlimited number of words have engaged in this process?  How did the understanding of language lead these campers to solving the mystery?  

In this process, we needed to take what was "literally" presented to us and use that as a starting point for our detective work. Early in the process, the campers tried to link what was being said to who might say those things and to explain why they might say them.  Throughout the process, they found hints or had hints point out in the language that wrapped itself around the experience. They keyed in to the ideas on the poster trying to think through if it  might be someone who had a potbelly and hair on his knuckles that would write such a thing, thinking through the sarcastic tone and the people know who might use that tone with their words, trying to remember the pronoun (we) that was used when they believed they had figured it out...etc. 

Understanding more than what is literally on the paper and going beyond just laughing at and moving on, required access to language (words), understanding of the meaning of words and phrases that were being used, understanding the social conventions that wrapped around the way we used both oral and written language through the process, and understanding the context that all these words were sitting in the middle of.  Even their final solution to get their last suspect to confess came down to the fact that they had spent some time with him during the investigation and believed that taking a round-about approach of smothering him with hugs and coffee until he confessed might work better than straight out asking had. 

If I were given a "do-over" of this mystery experience at Camp ALEC, I think it would have been good to give it a bit more of an formal organizational structure by using a K-W-H-L chart.  Although we went through all of these phases, it would have been nice to have this all more formally organized so that we could reference back to it as we went through the process.  It would have also set the stage a bit better for wrapping up the experience. 

I included the "teachers seeing themselves as thinker" part in title of this series of post for a reason. We came in to each of these days with what we thought would be interesting and useful literacy activities for the campers we were working with but in the middle of their excitement about this mystery, we had to scrap our plans and go with where they were leading us.  At one point when we tried to return to the activities we had planned, one student interrupted the lesson and asked when we were going to get back to the mystery... and then typed in to her AAC device... "I'm in to that."

I'm in to that... These are perhaps the most powerful words that can ever come from a learners "mouth". 

I came away understanding more deeply that if we want our students to engage in the active in-the-moment meaning making that is required for them to become a proficient reader, we might have to be willing to engage in the same process in the middle of the learning experiences that we are co-creating with our students.  It come down to defining our purpose.  If we know what we are trying to accomplish we can be open to the possibility of taking different paths to get there.

Our goal with these campers was to have fun (it was camp after all) and to gather the information for the informal literacy assessment that we were doing with these students throughout the week. We needed to gain understanding around these students print processing skills, their language and reading comprehension skills, their word attack skills, and their writing skills.  We could have done this in a million different ways.  Doing it this way meant that we didn't have to worry about motivating the students because they were doing that part themselves. We could then focus on engaging with them as they displayed the skills we were trying to assess in the middle of the mystery.

It didn't end with this mystery. In our work room, we ended up having campers who were reading of listening to mysteries to find language that would reveal clues, we had students who were creating clues for others to find the mystery word they were thinking of, we had students who came to understand revision through thinking of themselves as a detective looking for ways to add more necessary information to their writing.  The potential around it is only limited to the length of time that the theme would remain a motivating factor to the campers (and the limited time we had with the campers).  Did we capitalize on all the learning potential of this experience?  No. We did not. But because of this experience, the next time a student-motivated learning opportunity presents itself, we will have more to draw from and capitalize a bit more on the potential.  It was about being a community of learners.  Perhaps this was part of the beauty of merging the literal role of being a student (taking the course) and being a teacher (working with the campers).

Student engagement is a challenge for us as  teachers... particularly when we put time and energy in to planning learning experiences that we believe will be interesting and engaging for students.  If they don't engage, we sometimes want to respond by trying to make them engage. As teachers we are constantly thinking and responding to what is going on with our students. We understand the importance of focused "on-task behaviour" (aka engagement) and we want our students to learn. It's why we teach.  We know that if students are not engaged with the work they are doing, there isn't really going to be much chance of authentic learning. We sometimes even define students who are motivated by what we have designed/planned as being students who "want to learn" and those who are not motivated as "not wanting to learn". Sometimes in the process of wanting to ensure engagement in learning, we go down another path and decide that the student simply doesn't have the capacity to get anything out of what we are doing in our classrooms. We focus on the outward actions (behaviors)... the things we can see... the tangible results they can give us... and we end up putting our energy into the product rather than the process.

Sometimes when we are learning things... like the process and thinking and language involved in inference... we might not have a nice clean product at the end.  It might simply be that we are able to have a conversation that allows us to fill in that last line of the KWHL chart... and then maybe someday when a lesson is being done on inference, background knowledge can be activated as a result of the experience that took place at an earlier time.  

There are many questions worth considering. What in this can be applied to classroom where there are 20 to 30 students? Are there kids who actually don't want to learn? If there are, what would cause that? Are there kids who really not able to learn in the context of the classroom?  Do all kids need to be learning the same thing? Perhaps most important, when we are challenged by a lack of motivation... Are we aiming to increase thinking, engagement and learning or are we aiming to decrease or eliminate non-engaged or distracting "behaviour"? Is there a difference? Can we actually force kids to learn? 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

More Thoughts from Camp ALEC - Language Based Literacy Skills

I was introduced to the "Whole to Part" literacy framework during the first course that I took from Karen Erickson and David Koppenhaver a couple of years ago. When things have time to stew and you have a variety of experiences with what yo have learned, a different level of understanding starts to emerge. I think that part of this is because some of this process involves unlearning some of the things you already "know". 

We have traditionally associated early literacy success with alphabetic and sight word knowledge and as children enter school we look to support their reading development through phonics, spelling and decoding instruction. Many of us remember doing endless workbook pages that reflect this. 

The role that oral language plays in literacy development is often given less explicit focus in early literacy learning. We expect children to master "the basics" before we tackle oral language, vocabulary, sentence structure or comprehension. 

We are more aware now that for students to develop literacy skills, we need to pay explicit attention to both print-based literacy skills (alphabet, phonics, spelling, decoding...etc.) and language-based literacy skills. 

Print-based literacy skills include alphabetic letter-sound knowledge, phonological awareness (the ability to sound out words), sight word knowledge, and phonics knowledge.  Developing these skills leads to a student who will be able to spell and decode single words. These are obviously important skills to develop in the journey to literacy but they are only a very small piece of the literacy puzzle. 

Language-based literacy skills include vocabulary, semantics, sentence structure, grammar, oral language (narrative skills), sequencing, organizing, and comprehension. The development of these skills lead to being able to express oneself in writing and read a variety of text with comprehension.

Print-based and language-based literacy skills fit in the areas of Word Identification and Listening Comprehension respectively in Cunningham's Whole to Part Model of Reading Comprehension (graphic above). Having low language skills does not prevent a student from learning how to do the mechanical act of reading. It will, however, impact one's ability to interpret, predict, reason or infer information from text. 

I've heard the statement made by many teachers that up to grade 2 or 3 students "learn to read" and then after that they "read to learn". This statement implies that the definitions of "reading" and "decoding" are not all that different. It also implies that one must be able to read to a certain level before one begins to work on literacy.  It also means that when a child is struggling to read in the early grades, we simply assume that it is as a result of lagging print-based literacy skills. A quick search of reading programs for struggling readers reveals the steps that we can take to get a child reading...

I'm not arguing that a student's struggle to learn to read might be a result of lagging print based literacy skills but working with students who have language and communication delays or impairments has made it even more clear that the reason a student is not making gains in reading skills may be related to something other than these print-based literacy skills that we so often globally fall back on with struggling readers. 

For students with complex communication needs, we need to pay particular attention to language based literacy skills and we can't wait until they have acquired the ability "to read" before we start focusing our efforts on developing these skills. We need to embed and connect communication with text through shared reading experiences very early on. We need to ensure that in the process of reading books with a student we are connecting what is in the book to their world and possibly even to their way of processing the world.  We need to find ways to naturally embed pointing out the text structures that will be needed as a student moves from emergent to conventional literacy. We need to speak to the student about the text using the mode of communication we expect them to speak to us with about the text so that some day they can follow our model and be able to actively engage with text.  We need to ensure that "reading" is far more than memorizing meaningless, disconnected words and completing endless workbook pages.  Reading connected text with a student offers us many opportunities to work on reading, language, and communication skills. We need to pay attention to words in all three frames - in text, connected to meaning, and used for social purposes - to move along the literacy continuum. Social interaction (communication) and text are the sources that we can draw language from to make connection and meaning (which leads to comprehension). 

I have not ignored the bottom part of the Whole to Part visual.  Print Processing (what we loosely refer to as "fluency") is another obvious potential area of struggle for a student who has complex communication needs. Developing inner speech and projecting prosody are skills that must be learned through modeling and interaction.

The bottom line is simply that rather than starting by breaking apart and teaching each part one by one in sequence, we need to take a comprehensive approach to literacy and communication learning.  These skills sit along a continuum and what we are aiming for is movement along that continuum.  Starting by knowing the whole and working on the whole then positions us to look at the parts and figure out which part might need more attention at any given time to ensure that students keep moving along that continuum.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Coming Full Circle: Reflecting on Camp ALEC

It has been a week now since I have been home from a ten-day trip to Philadelphia to be a part of Camp ALEC. I am still challenged to put in to words a reflection of the camp. I'm sure it is going to take more than one post when all is said and done.

Just to give a big of background... Tina Moreno, one of the two ladies that made this camp happen, explained the camp perfectly in her blog post yesterday:
This was the first Camp ALEC and the first camp of its kind offered in the United States. Together, we gathered 15 campers and 14 educators, speech-language pathologists and school administrators from the U.S. and Canada at Variety Club Camp and Developmental Center in Norristown, PA for a week of reading and writing assessment and interventions–plus a typical summer camp experience.  Each camper received a total of 17.5 hours of individual and small group assessment and instruction throughout the week.  The goals of Camp ALEC included building the skills of the adults who participated and determining how the campers... can be supported in further developing their reading and writing skills during the coming school year.  At the conclusion of camp, parents had an opportunity to have a conference with their child’s educator,  as well as Karen and David, and left with a report detailing the results of their informal reading and writing assessment and instructional recommendations.  Our hope is that parents will share those recommendations with teachers so that they can implement evidence-based instructional strategies that will ensure greater progress in school. (http://voices4all.wordpress.com/2014/08/11/what-i-learned-from-camp/)
In June 2011, I attended the kick off to the Literacy for All community of practice in Alberta. It was the first time I was exposed to the Whole to Part framework and to the resource  Children with Disabilities: Reading and Writing the Four Blocks Way. In August 2011, Linda Burkhart came to our area and did a two-day PODD (Pragmatic Organizational Dynamic Display) workshop.  The combination of being a part of this community of practice and gaining a deeper understanding of language and communication through Linda Burkhart's workshop and the fact that we were trying to figure out how to create more inclusive programs for students with complex communication needs in our division projected me down a path of exploration related to language/communication, literacy, inclusion and empowerment. 

In May of 2012, I flew to Toronto and attended a week long intensive Litearcy in AAC course taught by from Karen Erickson and David Koppenhaver. Although I learned much about literacy during this camp, the context that I was in the middle of in regards to being in the beginning stages of a Masters program in Inclusive Education and Neuroscience, our changing focus for the students that I had been teaching in a self-contained classroom and this immersion in information about language/communication and literacy, drove me to start thinking more deeply about learning more generally rather than just focusing in on all the amazing literacy and communication content.

It was becoming clear to me that although I had been teaching for almost 20 years at this point, I had never really taken the time to time to define or understand learning. I had thought more about the content I was trying to pour in to students then designing and facilitating exploration and discovery. It was actually only as I made the shift from general to special education that I started to see the difference between training/teaching and learning.

Sadly, this is probably because in special education we may have gotten trapped in believing that learning is rigidly linear, that learning with accommodation is not "real learning", that people with intellectual disabilities learn differently than those without (i.e. need everything broken down in to small pieces), and/or that it is more important for people with intellectual disabilities be drilled through "life skills" programs than to learn curriculum-driven academics. Rather than focusing on the function of what is meant to be learned, we focus on the broken apart steps/skills and/or the content  and we conclude there is nothing that a student with an intellectual disability could get out of it. We don't recognize the opportunities that exist if we shift to focusing on function of what is happening in the learning experience. We want immediate tangible results so rather than engaging in the sometimes slow and frustrating process of finding ways to break down barriers to curriculum-driven learning, we fall back on a reductionist behaviour training approach and end up trapping these students in a world that will be hard to ever expand because expanding works inside-out rather than outside-in. 

In the middle of everything that I was learning and experiencing, the question of how we shift the paradigm and start thinking about learning from the inside out instead of the outside in for and with this population of students emerged. It seemed there were a million separate pieces to answer... that maybe I the answer would never be one that could be clearly articulated because it was just too complex.
Training is often a passive process and is rooted in compliance. It is often a one-size-fits-all process. In education we like to train because the result of training is behaviour or simple memorization and we can objectively measure behaviour and memorization. We also like to train because we view it as an efficient process as we can "reach" a whole bunch of students at once. Training is an outside-in process. It is driven by those doing the training. Training results in putting our effort and resources in to managing and directing other human beings. The realm of training is limited... particularly to those who need support or accommodation to engage in the process of learning. 

Learning is about developing and empowering people from the inside out. Learning is about the individual... but it also about the collective as learning is social and interactive process. There is a recognition that each person will learn something different from an experience because each person comes to the experience with their own unique background. Learning is messy. Learning can be noisy and chaotic. Learning can be frustrating. Learning might not result in a final product. We ultimately cannot actual control other people's learning. We can only create the conditions for it and support it. Learning is about design. Learning results in putting our energy and resources in to design and support and the growing of other human beings as individuals. The realm of learning is unlimited as long as one has the facilitated freedom and the literacy and communication skills that are critical to the learning process.

I have much to write about from this past week at Camp ALEC but I'm starting with the fact that this feeling of upset... of cognitive dissonance... of all of this being too big to manage or do anything about or to articulate... that I have been feeling since I sat in that first meeting for the Literacy for All Community of Practice three years ago is starting to subside to a manageable level. I am beginning to see the path through the forest. This camp allowed me to work directly with kids who were developing (or had developed) strong language/communication and literacy skills. I could clearly see how this is a starting point for all the other things that are part of the forest. These kids were empowered and driven and full of life... and the life they were full of was very much their own. Their futures were not limited to what others had decided for them even though they relied on others for care-related needs.

At the end of the week I was sitting at dinner with one of the campers and the same lady (Tina) whose blog I linked to above. This camper had known Tina for years.  Tina had a son who was attending the camp who was close in age to this camper.  This young lady was explaining to Tina how she needed to step back and let her son be independent of her at camp.  She stated that he is a young man and he needs to be able to make decisions and function on his own without his mother's interference.  I was able to get to know Tina's son through the week as he was one of the campers and she clearly did not need this lecture.  Her son was an amazing and independent young man.  This conversation was more one that this young lady needed so that she could consolidate the empowering experience she had during her first whole week on her own.  She said it so passionately. She clearly was not just reciting rhetoric.  She knew this as a result of consolidating her personal experiences.  This ability to articulate thoughts like these comes from focusing on authentic language and literacy learning.  It is not just about the words that are coming out... It is about the fact that she would be able to expand on and defend what she is saying because she clearly understood and owned it. She had made her own personal connections rather than just reciting what had been dumped in to her.

This past May I completed my Capstone project for my Masters program.  At the time I was trying to answer the question of how we create cohesive and continuous inclusive programs for students with complex needs.  When I was done writing the paper I mostly just felt frustrated.  I felt that, although there was a lot of great content in the paper, it was still too big and too scattered and too overwhelming to figure how to move all of the theory in the paper in to practice in reality.  I could not see the path in the forest... it was all still trees and underbrush. 

If I were to write the paper now, after spending this time at Camp ALEC, I would narrow it down to focusing in on building solid communication and literacy learning opportunities because it is now clear to me that everything else that was in the paper will expands out from there for these students.  If we get that piece right with them, they will have the skills and understanding needed to make the other pieces right themselves.

It amazes me how dynamic and non-linear (and exciting) the process of learning and understanding can be. The experience of these past three years has helped me to more deeply understand how what we key in to and process and integrate at any given time is extremely dependent on the background that we bring to learning.  Each time we are exposed to new ideas we will see something different because we come to them from a different starting point than the last time.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Mystery at Camp ALEC - Students and Teachers Seeing Themselves as Thinkers - Part 1

I will start by just telling the story of what unfolded with the group of students that we were working with at Camp ALEC. Over the next couple of days I will share some thoughts related to the story...

On Tuesday (Day 2) of Camp ALEC the group we were working with began working on a writing project that began by examining Shel Silverstein's If You Want to Marry Me.  Before reading the poem, we generate a list titled If you want to be my boyfriend... Our plan for that day was to make a comparison between our list and the list included in the poem.  We were thinking that we would revisit the same text the next day and use it a model for writing (a mentor text). We were going to have students define what they felt various people in their life should do in their lives.

It seemed an innocent enough learning activity... but the next morning we came in to the room that we were doing our literacy sessions in and found a new poster on the wall...

When the campers arrived and saw the poster we began the day by wondering who might possibly have broken into our word room and posted the poster over ours.  The other group of campers that was working in our room joined in our pondering and before we knew it, we were immersed in "a mystery" and statements like "this room is on lock down" and "we need writing samples from all of the potential suspects" were being thrown around.  The Mystery of Camp ALEC had begun.

That day we did a lot of thinking and writing related to how we could figure out who did it as well as what we would do once we figured out who it was. We focused both on possible clues as well as investing through having conversations. We thought through what "interrogation" questions might help us in finding out more information. We recognized very early on that just asking someone if they did it wouldn't really get us any closer to solving the mystery.

We left camp that day not yet having solved the mystery and we decided we would revisit it the next day and think about what our next step was...

When we arrived (the literacy counselors) arrived at camp the next morning, this is what the entrance to our work room looked like...

We had to wait until the campers arrived before we could go in as we were informed that it was the campers themselves who had done this and not the "mystery people" who had put up the poster the day before. Once they arrived, there was much giggling and excitement as we went in to find what they had done. This is what we found...

After some giggling and wondering, we returned back to trying to solve the mystery of the day before. At this point, one of the campers piped up and told us that Karen (one of the instructors at the camp) had "slipped her lips" and told them she was involved in the poster we had come in to the day before. The campers called her and called on this. Apparently when they were being hands for the campers the night before and were asked to put the poster up, the question of where was asked and they said where and Karen responded with a clarifying question of "Oh do you want us to put it up over the poster we put up." All the campers picked up on it and they thought the mystery was solved but when they called Karen on it that morning she pointed out that she had used a pronoun they needed to think about. When they remembered her using the word "we" they needed to then figure out who the other person was. They decided it had to be other the instructor (someone they had suspected right from when they asked him to give a handwriting sample and he wrote a sample that was obviously not his own). Having exhausted all of their interrogation questions, they decided to take another approach and give David (the other instructor) hugs and coffee (it was morning and it had been a long week) until he admitted to doing it.

The mystery was solved.

But there was still the poster we had found that morning to figure out.  We did eventually figure it out when we decided we needed to gather all the pictures together and write about the steps we had gone through to get to the point of solving the mystery.  At that point we were given pictures of the group of campers working with Karen and Dave (and Alison) on creating the last poster in the series of posters. We had hard evidence of who had done it and the campers could not believe that they had been "ratted out" by the person who gave us the pictures for this final project. 

The week unfortunately ended too quickly as, although we had time to reflect on and sequence the the process, we ran out of time to reflect more deeply on the thinking process. More to come soon on my thinking processes around this experience... 

Friday, August 8, 2014

Supporting Students with Significant Communication and Literacy Needs Learning Series

During the 2014-15 school year I will be co-presenting a case-study learning series on supporting students with significant communication and literacy need. This will be a new experience for me and I'm looking forward to working with other educators who are looking to tweak and share their student's literacy and communication programs. It will be a unique learning experience as I will be presenting at the same time as I'm doing case studies with several of the students that I work with. 

The focus of the learning series is designing learning opportunities to ensure that every student has opportunities to speak, listen, read, write, view and represent in their academic and social lives. The emphasis will be on comprehensive instruction that aligns with the general education English Language Arts Program of Studies.

A "case study" approach will be used, with each participant considering one student with whom enhanced literacy instruction and supports will be addressed.

This series focuses on:
  • Providing the Context and Framework: Presumption of Competence, Centrality of Literacy and Communication, Comprehensive Literacy Instruction, Literacy Beyond ELA Class, Emergent Literacy vs. Readiness Skills 
  • The Communication Literacy Connection: AAC, Communication Inventories, Aided Language Stimulation, Symbol-based Supports, Voice Output, Core Vocabulary
  • Tools, Tips and Techniques for Instruction: Comprehension - Guided Reading, Vocabulary Development, Connecting, Developmentally Appropriate Reading, Language for Anchoring and Applying, Program of Studies as Comprehension Context
  • Tools, Tips and Techniques for Instruction: Expression - Word Work, Writing 
  • Understanding Assessment Strategies: Assessment as a Process, Dynamic Assessment, Portfolio Assessment, Benchmarking

The workshop series is through the Calgary Regional Consortium. For more information, check out this link: Supporting Students with Significant Communication and Literacy Needs Learning Series

Friday, July 11, 2014

Attainment's Early Numeracy Program

The first two thing that jumped out at me as I read through the Implementation Guide are these quotes:
This curriculum is intended to help students become fluent in early numeracy skills to better prepare students to participate in the general education curriculum.
The Early Numeracy curriculum is not a precursor to teaching grade-aligned academics in mathematics, but should be used concurrently in order to strengthen students' numeracy skills while also providing opportunities to practice the skills in different contexts, environments , with different material, and possible with different instructors.
The curriculum focuses on counting with one-to-one correspondence, number identification, naming numbers, rote counting, creating sets, beginning addition with sets, identification and understanding of numeracy symbols, identification, extension and creation of ABAB patterns, using and understanding calendars and measuring with nonstandard and standard units.  These skills are the foundational skills that students need to be able to meaningfully participate in mathematics learning of general education curriculum.  This program is designed in a way that allows for the flexibility of supports, instructional methods, materials, and time needed to ensure that students are able to master the concepts.  
 The program includes teacher-directed lessons that include direct work on rote counting and number recognition, a math story that include several opportunities to stop and work on early numeracy skills, math skill practice time and a game to review the concepts from the lesson.  The lessons are meant to be repeated over several days with different practice work each day.  Hands-on student materials and organizational mats are included so students are able to actively engage in their learning. In the context that I work in, I'm envisioning these lessons as being pull out lessons with me going through the lessons with student and learning assistant (in groups or individually dependent on context) once a week. A learning assistant would then repeat the lesson each day that week with the student doing a different practice set each day. The practice sets are set up on worksheets.  This allows me to assess where students are at each week and to ensure that we are using methods that are working for the student.
The second part of the program is related to finding times and ways for the student to continue to practice the same skills within the general education mathematics context.  This is done in two ways. The first is to find natural times during the class to work one-on-one on the skills that are being worked on in the lesson.  The second is by embedding the skills in to the lesson that the rest of the class is doing.  The later does involve some brainstorming and thinking through when what is being done in the class can be used as the context for working on these specific skills.  An example would be to take work that is being done on finding the area of rectangles and use that as an opportunity to practice counting with one-to-one correspondence or measuring with standard or non-standard units. A nice thing about the processes is that they are ones that can be taught to peer supports with the guidance of myself or the learning assistant so as opportunities for this present themselves in class they can be capitalized on.

With the students that I'm working with, I'm also looking to embed as many opportunities for communication as possible.  A couple of them already have math page sets (either tech or non-tech) but I'm looking to expand these based on what is in this curriculum and what I'm learning as we keep moving forward with what we are doing.  I will post about this later in the summer as I'm still thinking this part of things through.

We still plan to continue to find the opportunities that students can engage in the same mathematics as the rest of the class be it through modifications, peer supports, use of manipulatives (virtual or concrete), use of a calculator...etc.  Some of my students are past this stage and I'm looking at other similar ways to supplement their programs so that we are continuing to move toward finding that balance between remediation (working on foundational skills where they are at) and compensation (finding the work-arounds that allow them to participate in what is happening in the community around them). 

I'm excited that we will be taking another step in figuring out how to do this and so glad to find a resource that starts from the idea of supplementing participation and learning of general education curriculum for students with complex needs. 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

A Mommy Walk Down Memory Lane

Nine years ago today, a couple of weeks after my son Mikey had finished Kindergarten, I sat down and wrote a document titled "My Vision for Mikey".  I wanted to have some record of the dreams that I had for him as he ended in to the world of graded education. 

I went back to look at it last night and I can't say that my dreams for him have changed all that much.  I still very much want him to have a life that is his own.  The steps that we need to continue to keep trying to take to achieve that can be both frustrating and wonderful.  In the nine years since I've written this, I've come to realize that the road is not always easy but it is meaningful and worth it. 

Here is the statement I wrote back then. Original post can be found on my personal blog which I no longer write on. Link: http://redlights.typepad.com/red_lights/2005/07/my_vision_for_m.html.

I believe that each person on this earth has their own special gifts and talents and when these gifts are discovered and nurtured, they become the passions that make up the meaning of life.  I see my role as Mikey's mommy as being that of providing him with the opportunities and support to ensure that he is able to discover his own unique gifts and talents and then to ensure that he has the tools, supports and proper environment to nurture these.  Ultimately, the goal would be for Mikey to take charge of his own life and understand and be proud of what he contributes to our world. 
I believe in Mikey's uniqueness and do not want him subjected to pressure to conform to standards that may not be right for him.  The struggles he faces in day to day living activities need to be balanced with many success activities throughout the day.  I want him to feel success more often then he experiences failure.  I want him to understand that success is not only in the final product but in the effort put in to get to the final product.  I want him to believe that he can do whatever he sets his mind to but at the same time, I want him to be the one in control of what those goals will be.  I believe people who come in contact with Mikey should set realistic, yet challenging expectations of him so that he can learn to do the same for himself and strive towards being the best Mikey he can be.  I want him to have a full understanding of the difference between doing his best and being the best and to be proud of the times when he does his best without comparison to others. 

I want him to lead a life full of love, joy, discovery, real relationships, balance, and a positive sense of self.  Throughout life, I want him to strive towards independence.  I want him to take responsibility for himself - to make his own decisions and to take responsibility for the way those decisions play out.  At the same time, I want him to understand that true happiness for anyone is found in interdependence and not in independence and I want him to have a full understanding of who is in his support system.  I want him to turn to these people (or seek out new people if the situation demands it) when the need arises with the understanding that he is showing strength and not weakness.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Great Video on How to Model AAC for Communication Partners

ISACC (International Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication) defines communication as "the essence of human interaction and learning"...
The nature of communication is dependent on interaction between two or more individuals and understanding is constructed through that interaction.
Communication is a basic human right and essential to our quality of life as a social species.  As human beings, we use communication to: relate to others, socially connect, greet, call attention, share feelings, express an opinion, agree, disagree, explain, share information, question, answer, tease, bargain, negotiate, argue, manipulate, compliment, comment, protest, complain, describe, encourage, instruct, provide feedback, show humor, discuss interest, be polite, make friends, express interest or disinterest...etc.  
Source: https://www.isaac-online.org/english/what-is-aac/what-is-communication/ 
As both a parent and a teacher I feel a level of urgent anxiety around figuring out how to support my son and the students in the area of AAC. It feels like there is some illusive magic bullet to making this happen.

Tonight Lauren Scchwartz Enders, an AAC consultant that I follow on Facebook shared a training video related to modeling the use of an AAC system to the user that I thought was really well done.  Many wonderful reminders in the video of staying the course when it comes to Input before Output.  I am sharing the video here as I think it is worth spreading around to teams who are working to support students develop communication through an AAC system. The story at the end of the video also spoke to me as a parent about the need to be modeling the use of the system at home.


Sunday, April 6, 2014

Believe in Good - Celebrate Interdependence

"Our deepest calling is to grow in to our own authentic
self-hood, whether or not it conforms to some image of
who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find
the joy that every human being seeks -- we will also
find our path to authentic service to the world."
~ Parker J. Palmer ~

Saturday, February 1, 2014

SIVA (Supporting Individuals Through Valued Relationships)

This past week, I attended both a SIVA (Supporting Individuals through Valued Attachments) Training and a Train the Trainer session.  I'm pretty excited about the framework and the possibilities in using it to help facilitate increased intrinsically motivated self-management skills in students.

SIVA is a safety management framework with the focus of working with people to pro-actively identify and maintain safe behaviour and situations. Foundational to the SIVA philosophy is the belief that true safety is built on communication and the establishment of trusted relationships. An understanding that an intervention can never be of greater importance than a trusted relationship is the key to building the relationships that assist with avoiding crisis situations and ensuring that students are available for learning.

Some key take-aways related to SIVA from this past week for me include:
  • SIVA is specifically designed for supporting people with complex needs (disability and mental health). The framework factors in the person's individual needs as well as the fact that there is often a "caregiver" involved with that person on an ongoing basis (not necessarily one on one but there is extra human support involved in some way). 
  • SIVA is an overall model that guides support and interaction rather than a crisis intervention program. SIVA philosophy guides how we perceive, think and problem solve to ensure safety at all times. 
  • SIVA is a dynamic system. It is not rooted a trajectory about a person and then creating a static crisis response plan. The work done within the framework is about supporting and scaffolding growth towards valued relationships and self-management. 
  • SIVA is goal-directed rather than consequence-driven. The goal is to successfully maintain safety (emotional, psychological, physical and spiritual) at all times.  When we are able to maintain safety for an individual, we are able to discover with them ways to increase their level of participation and engagement in inclusive activities and settings.  
  • Collaborative teaming is a key component of the framework. This involved including the student and all stakeholders in the dynamic process.  The framework is set up so that even those with the most complex needs can play an active role in the creation and ownership of their safety management plans. 
  • SIVA promotes self-management and empowerment. The approach starts with the understanding that when people feel powerless they are also feeling unsafe. When they feel powerless and unsafe, they will begin creating artificial ways to gain power.  We often call these behaviours "maladaptive". We need to work with the person to feel safe (aka "empowered") so we can reduce the need for that person to create the maladaptive ways of gaining power and replace them with appropriate ways to self-manage and have power and control. Power and control are not bad things as having power and control of one's self also means having responsibility for one's actions. Power and control only become an issue when it infringes on the rights of other people.
  • SIVA believes that it is the strength of the relationship and the ability to create safety that allows a person to be available for interventions, therapy, education...etc. We cannot deliver programs to students if they are not first available for learning. We need to be cognisant at all times that what we are doing is creating the safe and trusting environment for this to happen.  
To learn more about SIVA, check out their website at http://www.sivatraining.ca/.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Worth Thinking About: Charity or Solidarity

Reminded me of Emma Van der Klift & Norman Kunc's


I post new "Worth Thinking About" questions on Sundays. 

In reality, some might be more "and" statements rather than "or" statements. It is about finding the right balance so that we are aware enough to be effective in supporting student learning.

Click here to check out more "Worth Thinking About" posts.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

New Year's Resolutions, IEPs, Learning Portfolios and Supporting Self-Determination

I came across the above Tweet the other day and at first I thought it was really funny.  I even responded with the same humor as the original Tweet...
But then I started thinking about IEPs and suddenly the concept wasn't quite so funny. I admit that in writing IPPs (what we call IEPs in Alberta), I have taken on the task of making plans for what others need to work on with little more to go on then a two-page blanket form filled out by parents if they so chose to fill it out (and many of them chose not to).

The changes we began making a few years back in how we serve and program for students with complex needs in our division is about so much more than just their physical placement in general education classrooms.  It will probably take years for us to realize the full impact of what this movement/change is actually all about. I personally have become increasingly more aware with each step we that perhaps at the heart of this is about the way we value (or don't value) each individual person's voice. This definition and explanation of inclusion that I came across in the article Promoting a Lifetime of Inclusion recently speaks a bit to the depth of what this has become about...
“Inclusion is not a place; instead it is a lifestyle in which a person is an active participant in his or her life, rather than a passive observer and recipient of decisions someone else has made. To this end, inclusion promotes quality of life by (a) empowering individuals to have control over their own lives, (b) providing individuals with the opportunity to select the lives of their choosing, and (c) conferring individuals with the sociopolitical power to defend their choices. Thus, in sum, the conceptual basis of inclusion is to create a life that is both satisfying and successful for a person with a disability.”
Much of what we are trying to do through this process is rooted in person centered planning approaches.  One of the key elements of this approach is to foster the skills and conditions necessary for students to develop self-determination and self-advocacy skills so that they will be able to live self-directed adult lives.  This means making a distinction between aiming for "independence" and aiming for "autonomy" and ensuring that awareness guides the work that we do.  Independent task completion is meaningless if you don't have a voice in your life.
We need to ensure that this is not actually a fact. This means thinking about what we may be doing to get in the way of people being able to advocate for themselves.  We need to ensure that when we take on the role of "speaking for" someone else we are not actually speaking for them, but rather opening the door and/or providing the accommodations or facilitating the learning of the skills that they need to speak for themselves. We need to ensure that we have a broad enough definition of "speaking" to ensure that everyone has a voice. We need to make sure that the people who deeply know a person who does not "speak" in conventional ways is present when planning with individuals with disabilities as they are the ones who will have the best insight in to what that person is actually communicating.

It has now been 3.5 years since we took the first steps toward a more physically inclusive approach to programming for the students that I used to teach in a segregated self-contained 1-12 classroom. It has only been 1.5 years since all of these students have been in age-appropriate schools and for some it has only been a half year since they have been integrated in to general education classes.  Some of these students have a schooling history that is almost completely related to being in a self-contained classroom for a large majority of their time.  It has taken time for all of us (the students and those of us who support them) to become familiar and comfortable with a very different social world from what we all had known in the world of self-contained education.  The process has been, and continues to be, organic. As is the case in most of education, practice often precedes deep professional learning which precedes our practice becoming more effective.  It is often something we experience as a teacher that makes us rethink our long-held beliefs and then search out the information to try to deal with our cognitive dissonance. This process has often involved stepping back and rethinking many of our beliefs and practices. It has also often involved an evaluation of whether we are actually acting in a way that aligns with what we say we believe.

Sometimes through this process, our next step gets defined by the actions of one the students that we are serving.  This time it happened to be a young man who is currently in grade 12 at our high school.  He spent the first years of his education in an inclusive classroom and then in grade 3 he moved into a self-contained classroom.  He remained in that same classroom based in a k-6 elementary school until he was finished grade 10. Then he, along with two other students from the classroom, moved to the high school and continued with a self-contained program there. We did put a large focus last year on becoming familiar with the high school and getting out of the room they were in as often as possible to ensure interactions with other students and staff.  Over time, the room actually became a social "hang-out" and study room for other students and these students were socially included for the first time in many years.  Their academic programs continued to focus on the development of literacy and communication skills in the middle of an increasingly broad range of content so that those of us who work with them could come to understand how these skills could be embedded in to programs situated in general education classrooms.

Starting in September of this school year, this student has finally been re-integrated in to general education classes.  His whole demeanor and skill set has changed in this past year and a half as he has connected with same-aged peers and has been exposed to meaningful reasons to develop literacy and communication skills.  He has even been able to gain significantly more control in using his head switch system with power mobility... something we had worked on for years in the self-contained setting but saw very few gains. I wonder if this is not also related to a new motivation in regards to the new level of freedom and control he has over his life in the middle of a programming approach that puts human connection front and center.

One of our focus areas this year has been to incorporate the iPad in to his program, learning and communication.  We started out with his interest in sharing his stories.  To this point we have been doing that through the use of a step-by-step switch where we work with him to record an outline of what has happened during the day or evening and speaking with him using his PODD communication system about these things.  This year we have been able to take pictures throughout his day and use the Pictello app to work with him to put together stories that he is able to share with others.  Once he had the stories, his desire to share them with anyone who would listen exploded.  It was not enough to just carry them home to his parents and siblings.  He began telling others around the school, family members and basically anyone who would listen to him.  People were impressed and engaged!  I was amazed at the impact that giving him this small tool to self-advocate had on increasing people's awareness of what his capacity really is.  All the talk in the world by us about "presuming competence" did little in comparison to the emotion and responsiveness that he displayed, and then was mirrored by others, through the process sharing these stories.

It has become clear over these past couple of months that it is time to move from our initial focus on "general education membership" (really - just being there) and "social inclusion" and begin to address a larger picture. There are so many parts of this that we still need to figure out.  The hard part sometimes is figuring out what is the next manageable step. This student made it clear to me that we are now positioned in a way that it should no longer be just us (the "professionals") advocating for these students. By the definition of inclusion above it doesn't even make sense that it would be inclusive if that is our approach. This student has demonstrated that he is clearly able to advocate for himself.  We just needed to give him the tool to do it. It makes it clear that we need to start looking for what we can do to facilitate this for all of them.  

Which is a long lead in to my focus as we move in to this new year.  The challenge in all of this is that it always seems too big with so many different things to focus on.  It's important to continually find and define what our current "North Star" is. The other challenge is that each time we try to aim towards a new "North Star" it begins as a messy process. It also is hard at times to keep the focus because learning new skills can be a long process and we do not always see enough of the dream fast enough to have the motivation to keep going. We always have to be okay with just taking little steps at first and that can be hard as we live in a society and work in a system that values end product more than process. 

I have looked many times at the website I'm Determined and have thought about how important it is to pull students in to the IPP (in Alberta, we have IPPs instead of IEPs) process but I have hesitated because of the communication barriers that I have assumed exist for the students that I work with.  As I looked through it again this past week, now with the experience of seeing this "non-verbal" student tell his stories, I began outlining the modifications that I could make to the resources to ensure that the students I work with could meaningfully participate in their IPP meetings. I also noted that when they started this project they started small and recognized that there was a need to step-by-step teach students who to be involved in this process. 

At the same time, I have been working on creating online (private) "Learning Portfolios" for all of the students that I work over the past couple of months.  The idea was to have them (with the appropriate support) start adding to these portfolios as part of their literacy programs after our Christmas break. The categories on their portfolios are the same as their IPP focus areas.  
These learning portfolios are meant to serve several purposes:
  • Act as a tool for communication with all the team members that are involved with these student's programs.  Information about the student and his/her goals as well as progress towards those goals will be included.
  • Act as a tool to inform our practice.  The posts will serve as great conversations starters around what is working, what isn't, what supports we need to put in place, which ones we can pull off, how we can expand skills in some activity...etc.  
  • Allow the student's to understand and share their progress towards their IPP goals.  By having them be a part of the process of updating it, we can have conversations with them about their goals, accommodations, supports, preferences...etc. We can also celebrate with them and give them a tool that they can share and celebrate with others (as although we are working on communication, many of them are not able to share this depth of story completely independently). 
It seemed enough to just start here but the I'm Determined website kept coming back and right now I can see a simple first step in to involvement in IPPs through the use of this blogs.  I can see that we can bring the students in March IPP meetings and have them actively involved in the conversations if we ensure that the posts that are put up on the portfolio are picture rich.  I can see that we can take another step in to deeper involvement in IPPs when June comes around as students can prepare for them by using what is in their portfolios.

The added bonus for me is that there always seems to be a list too long to tackle in what to do next with any one of these students.  This will help focus us in on the part of the picture that currently has the most energy around it and we can move forward with that as it is so much easier to move forward when their is motivation for that move. 

The "perfect use" of a tool like this will be a long time in the making but we will never get there if we don's start trying and figure out whatever little piece we can right now.  We can begin to create a more defined framework for it all as we learn with these students.  Ultimately, the goal would be for it be something we use to guide practice rather than "just paperwork that has to be done".

I'm excited to see where it takes us...