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."(

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. (
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...