Sunday, July 26, 2015

Alberta Summer 2015 Course on Supporting Literacy for Students with Low Incidence Disabilities

Over four years ago, I received the book Children with Disabilities: Reading and Writing the Four Blocks Way as one of the resources for a provincial community of practice I was involved in. The book was the answer to this nagging feeling that there had to be a way to think about "real literacy" for the students that I was working with. So that year, with PODD training behind us and this book in hand, I began the process of shifting toward comprehensive literacy instruction with the students that I work with. Toward the end of that year, I traveled to Toronto to go to a week long course with the authors of the book, Karen Erickson and David Koppenhaver. I returned home and began the process of implementing  what I learned, but the fact that we were also shifting from self-contained to inclusive practices meant that there were times in the next couple of years where decisions about priorities had to be made. After two years of experimenting, I felt we were in a much better place to take a more systematic approach to things and so, last summer, I went to learn from Karen Erickson and David Koppenhaver again at Camp ALEC. I returned from that camp not only fired up about literacy, but also fired up about core vocabulary and ensuring that students have a language system that allows them to more deeply engage in literacy learning and life in general.

As this past year ended, I was feeling like we were now on the right path and then the opportunity to see Karen and David again, this time right here in Alberta, presented itself.  I have just returned now from spending another week learning from them and am once again excited to put what I've learned in to practice. I am sure that it will take me some time to fully process all that I've learned but for now I am just going to share my thoughts around the things that most resonated with me at this point immediately following the course.

It's All About Language and the Connecting Arrows
Last summer, when I was able to interact with proficient AAC users, I came to better understand the need to focus on language and communication as a larger part of the picture than what we had been doing. Last week the diagram that is presented very early on in each course and speaks to how speaking (AAC), listening, reading and writing develop in interaction with each other with language permeating every aspect of learning spoke more loudly to me. It was interesting that the statement was made that as time goes on, there is an increased understanding that "the arrows" are what is important about this diagram because that perfectly reflects what I've been discovering over the last few years of trying to put this in to practice. I also find it interesting how language sits as the heart of what thinking and learning are and that I was well in to my teaching career before I ever thought intentionally about language.

A Deeper Understanding of Emergent Literacy
The first course that I took was focused on conventional literacy and so when I returned, I started immediately to try to implement the conventional components with students who were actually at the emergent level. Through the next couple of years, I researched and modified to try to create programs that were more geared toward emergent learners.

Last summer, at Camp ALEC, it became much clearer to me what emergent and conventional programs should look like.  I have a couple of students though who would appear to be "conventional" because they know all of their letters and a whole lot of sight words and can even sometimes answer rote questions from 1970's reading programs. The problem is, these students do not engage in generative writing or just talking about books during shared reading. They are literally lost for words in these situations... either because they are just coming to be able to use their communication system in a generative way or because they have a history that doesn't include any exposure to this type of generative approach to learning.

The statement made this year that emergent literacy is connected to opportunities to actively engage and construct meaning over time with print really resonated with me and confirmed much of what I had been thinking through this past year as I backed up with some of these students to working on the emergent, rather than the conventional, literacy "to do every day" list that was shared during both this course and last year at Camp ALEC. I walked away with more clarity around the idea that for students at the emergent literacy level it is about us creating these opportunities for engagement so that all the foundational pieces can be in place before we focus in on the conventional level.

Universal Design for Learning and Students with Significant Disabilities
I have posted quite a bit in the past about UDL so really appreciated that there was time dedicated to speaking about what it means to  apply UDL concepts to planning for instruction for students who have significant disabilities. Ultimately, applying UDL concepts to this population of students works against the traditional behavioural approach that has been taken in special education and requires a paradigm shift.

UDL is founded on the idea of learner variability and an understanding that the learning process engages three different brain networks including the recognition network (the what of learning), the strategic network (the how of learning) and the affective network (the why of learning). To design learning that addresses learner variability means ensuring that there are multiple means of representation (recognition network), multiple means of expression (strategic network) and multiple means of engagement (affective network). Traditional approaches to teaching students with disabilities is not rooted in a multiple means approach as it is often about rote, repetitive learning of the single task that is currently being "mastered". This approach looks at the what of learning in isolation of the how and the why and often involves some type of extrinsic way of motivating students. The shift to thinking about repetition with variety to ensure multiple means of representation and expression and to focusing on engaging students by focusing on the functions of literacy can be a pretty big paradigm shift when looking at how education should work for this population of students.

Ultimately, I was just thrilled to be sitting in a room where UDL was being discussed with explicit focus on students who seem to often to be left out of the UDL discussion.

Supporting Communication
This is one that I came back from Camp ALEC last summer understanding much more deeply but the work that we did with core boards during the workshop last week got me even more excited. David and Karen have been doing work around developing core vocabulary boards that will be available to everyone that can be used as a bridge for those students who need a way to communicate but do not have a comprehensive language system. For a better explanation of this, check out the module on core vocabulary from the DLM Professional Development website. During the week, we used the core boards a few times to engage in different literacy activities and it was great to see just how much conversation could be generated with just the first 40 words. The bottom line is that being able to engage in conversation during literacy activities does not have to be restricted to answering yes/no to lists that have been generated. I went in having a pretty good feel for the power of core but being able to engage with it during the week has me even more excited about it as I could see how it can be used in creating back and forth interactions and in developing much needed skills related to being strategic with the words that are available.

One other important statement that was made during the stretch of time that we were playing with core in one of the activities is that it positions us as communication partners to really support the student and ask questions to understand what they are trying to say. This moves us away from the idea of not responding until something is said in some predefined format and toward authentic and meaningful communication.

Dynamic Learning Maps Professional Development Website 
I wanted to end this post by including a piece that I was very aware of before taking this course but came to better understand how it can be used in implementation during the course. So much of the information that David and Karen present at these workshops is now available to anyone online for free through the Dynamic Learning Maps Professional Development website. What a goldmine this is for people who were in the position I was in four years ago - feeling like there was so much more to what literacy instruction could be for these students but not really confident about how to make that happen. Now, all it takes is to go to the Dynamic Learning Maps Professional Development website and begin working through the modules they have there. The great thing from the implementation standpoint is that a person can work through the modules on their own or use the facilitate module resources to work in a group through the modules. This also opens up opportunities to go back and relearn the things that have been presented or have something to pass on to those who want to learn more about any component of a program that we are trying to implement.  It's such an amazing resource!

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