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...