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.

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