learning

What about the “OTHER” kids?

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Last week I wrote a post about bowling as a metaphor for inclusion. You can read it here if you haven’t already. The most common question I received after this post however, was around what this actually looks like in real life. “Yes this sounds great Shelley, but what the heck does it mean in my classroom?”

I am taking a course for my PhD program right now and our assignment this week was to write a field note from the lens of self/other. I was reminded of a little guy I met last year on a technology consultation. In the midst of professional unrest in the province, this story shone though as a mighty example of what exactly I mean when I say, we need to teach to the pins who are the hardest to hit.

May I introduce you to Ali, a definite outside pin!

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All I wanted to do was make a bank deposit, but then I saw her look at my name tag.

“So…You are a teacher?” Her eyes bolted upwards towards me from the counter, but somehow strangely keeping her head in one position. On a typical day, the above mentioned question would be one of respect and admiration rather than today’s syllable inflection emphasizing instead an inference of question and judgement.

We were striking. In fact earlier that week I too had been waving at cars, trucks and bicycles, Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 12.36.19 AMhanding out pamphlets with words advertising support for “our kids.” For about 80 % of those vehicles driving by us, honouring honks were awarded, but I could tell immediately that on this particular day, with this particular bank teller, she was not a part of that majority.

“So, tell me, what do you think about this inclusion thing?” she said, as she typed in my bank card number.

Ok seriously?! On a slow day at the bank, I would have what? …3 minutes tops of possible conversation time with this person, let alone the hours I would actually need to answer this question with the rationale and justice it deserves.

I had a choice to make. I could say something like, “uh, well actually, I do work for the school board, but I’m not a teacher….I’m in …. payroll.” collect my things and walk away…

OR

I could stand with my integrity in tact and answer with a deep breathe and full sentence knowing that my words could very well just be heard, but not listened to. Before I knew it though, I realized my voice did not matter in that moment, as she continued her thought out loud.

“I just…well, I just can’t help but wonder what will happen with MY kids when they get to school. I mean why should my kids suffer because those special ed kids need extra help all the time. Don’t they just hold everyone else back?”

“..ummmm…”

“I mean, what about the OTHER kids, the smart ones?”

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“UUUhhhhh” I was speechless. It was my turn to stare. I could hear the clearing of throats behind me in line and so I did what any diplomatic strategist would…turn my response into a form of a question…

“So how old are your children now?”

“1 and 3”

“Well lets just hope all this striking stuff blows over by then!”

I was relieved that I was able to by-pass that blow without crying or screaming or pulling out the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act conveniently located in the right pocket of my bag. Walking out of the bank, however, I couldn’t help but wonder:

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 12.36.44 AMWhy does she think that? 

Where do her assumptions come from?

What did her life experiences show her that gave her such a narrow perception of ability and diversity?

Then again, maybe she just was a mom who wanted what was best for her kids. I did, however, know one thing for sure. She neither meant to offend me, my profession, nor my philosophy .. she really just believed it.

Of course this snowballed into sleepless nights filled with questions involving, well who ELSE believes this? and unfortunately for me…many people. This women marked a moment in my inquirous montage; a moment when the battle set forth before me was confirmed. I am not fighting with people who don’t care, or with people whose philosophy differs from my own… I am fighting with people, who simple just don’t know any different. I am fighting with the history and

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dynasty of traditional segregative special education practices predating the memories of people who existed before my time. This is all they know. This is what they believe because no one has challenged them to think or experience anything differently.

What about the other kids? Was I the one being naive in truly believing that everyone actually benefited from inclusion?

The following week I was asked to consult on a case involving a student in grade 4. I was invited to discuss assistive technology possibilities for a student whom I had not yet met. All I knew was that he had multiple disabilities, was non verbal and had little vision. But I also knew as I walked into this meeting, that this little guy was loved, as I was eagerly greeted by his 11 person team of every professional acronym that has ever existed.

His name is Ali. Him and his family had recently arrived to Canada. Fleeing civil war, they were clear refugees escaping oppression and discrimination already, despite the added present disabilities. I was curious as to his story. How did he get here?

When I arrived, Ali was asleep. The team was immediately concerned, as usually he was alert and excited. The family’s interpreter was asked to call home to check in and make sure everything was A-OK. As we waited (and Ali snored) my colleague to my right, passed me his file.

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 12.38.03 AMIn respect to privacy, I will limit details, but allow you the reader to infer. Ali’s disabilities were from bullet wounds received in utero. Somehow, however, both Ali and his mother survived. Ali, unable to walk, see or talk because of his injuries and without medical services available …his mother strapped this boy to her body, and she carried him. For five years, she carried him, wrapped right around her. She carried him out. Out of war. Out of turmoil. Literally heart to heart.

Upon arrival to Canada, Ali was quickly greeted with a wheel chair to carry him now… but for the first year mom followed closely behind his new mechanical, metal and cold new form of transportation. I could see colleagues of my past quickly jumping on this… “she can’t come to school and follow him around.. he needs to learn his independence!”

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 12.38.35 AM10 minutes after the interpreter phone call, mom arrived. Ali’s back was to the door. In she walked elegant and modest in her traditional hijab and without saying a single word, Ali’s eyes opened and his head turned. The interpreter informed us of Ali’s predicted trouble sleeping and continued to explain other factors of his lethargy to the team. I, however, tuned out after 10 seconds, as I was enthralled by the interaction unfolding before me.

Ali’s mother sat beside him amongst the jargon and professional babble. She put her mouth to his ear and whispered his name over and over, adding a gentle coo and cluck of her tongue. His lips split to a smile, his hands squeezed hers. His blinking blind eyes turning towards her voice. This was the extent of their “verbal communication” as we practitioners would refer.

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 12.38.49 AMThe connection I had just witnessed between a mother and child, was one that crossed language, ability, time and place. This connection that I had witnessed in 2 minutes was a deeper connection that I had ever felt in my own 34 years of life. In this situation I was not the able bodied.

These 2 individuals connected on a level not of disability, but on a level to which everyone in the world strives to achieve. Ali and his mother were the exemplar. They were the able. They were the people to which we seek to understand, duplicate and aspire towards.

I could walk down the street right now and find 10 people who would questions Ali’s life. As a person with such multiple disabilities, what could he possibly offer to this world? To what costs and resources are being used to support him benefiting in society. A typical person on the street might assume that these additional costs for special needs children in education are not recuperated. (Mayer, 2009). I wish I could have videoed this moment of connection and shown people. I would ask them to watch it and then simply ask…. who taught you how to do this?

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Ali’s teacher had welcomed him early. She had heard he was arriving and was proactive in contacting additional resources and supports available in the district. A general education teacher, with a background in art education, her attitude was not limited and her philosophy sound in coming to work with the simple objective of teaching those for which were in front of her.

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 12.39.19 AMWith an upcoming unit about adjectives and descriptive words in writing, this teacher spent an evening collecting recycled materials, gadgets and crafty supplies. She piled them on the table and connecting to the book, “That’s Not My Dinosaur” by Fiona Watt, designed an activity where every student in the class was to create a page of the book. Using the supplies available, these students had to use texture to connect to descriptive words, and by the end, collectively, this class made a parallel book to the published.This book, however, was filled with rich texture and materials, perfect for any student, but especially perfect for a student with a vision impairment.

The students worked hard, carefully incorporating mini lessons co taught with the district vision resource teacher about contrasting colours and black backgrounds. The learning experience was authentic, rich and genuine for every student in the room.

Upon completion, Ali sat with his classmates. The book was read out loud one page at a time. The class watched as Ali Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 12.39.29 AMinteracted with and felt each page made just for him by his peers. Savouring every detail, listening to the words read and turning every page slowly. All eyes locked on Ali, ears open, hands still, all watching and learning.

I have been to many a classroom and myself taught lessons around adjectives which was not only less effective but boring. A simple task worksheet to be checked off on a thursday afternoon as we complete one standard and move to the next. Not only was Ali’s teacher embedding her lessons in an authentic learning experience, but knowingly or not, this teacher had also mastered an example of Universal Design. An activity built for one, but taught for many. A perfect framework to support the diverse, extending well beyond the walls of education and into architecture, medicine and the world.

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I would love to bring Ali to the bank. I would love to introduce him to the bank teller as “the boy who taught us.” A boy with great purpose in this world. A boy who enriches the lives of his peers, his teachers his team and my self. I would show her how we are the lucky ones, and so would be her children. Children so lucky to be in a class, where students of all backgrounds, experiences and abilities learn from each other.

At the end of the day, and many days beyond, I still catch myself wondering, how one of those 14 bullets not hit something vital to survival. I know for sure that Ali has me reflecting on this and many things, but most of all, he has taught me how we can learn from each other. That we all have strengths and that we all have stretches, but despite of this we are all in fact.. here. Here to learn if we chose to reflect beyond what we think we already know about ourselves and more importantly what we think we know about “the other.”

Inclusion: It’s Critical

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I ask groups of teachers all the time, “Why Inclusion? Why are we doing this? Why are we bending over backwards, spending money, striving to make this happen in our schools? Why? What’s the point?”

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Answers range from: “because it’s the real world” to “because it’s the right thing to do…” and they aren’t wrong. But they are missing something…critical.

Here is a story. A story about bowling. Most of us have been bowling. Balls, pins, stinky shoes, glowing, garlic fries… bowling.

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When we go bowling, we throw the ball down the aisle. We try to knock down as many pins as we can. We contort our body and limbs into strange positions after we throw the ball because we think it will help. Sometimes we get gutter balls and that feels bad and sometimes we sometimes we get a strike… and that feels good! We aim down the middle, at those little arrows on the floor, and once we release the ball… all we can do is hope as we peer anxiously down the alley.

We listen to the sounds with trembling anticipation, of pins falling, and hope to avoid what usually happens to me when I throw the ball down the middle… the split.

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The 7-10 split is the most difficult shot in bowling. When the only pins left are on either side of the aisle. Even though we have another ball, the chances of knocking down both pins, is rare. In fact, in the last 50 years of televised professional bowling, a 7-10 split has only been hit 3 times.

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Sometimes we have great games, sometimes we have crappy games. If we practice, and get coached, we will get better, bowling takes skill. But even after the skill development, coaching and practice, a perfect game…even for professional bowlers, if very difficult.

My brother and I joined a league once. I liked to ignore all the coaching and whip the ball down the aisle as hard as I could. My brother, on the other hand, slowly lined up his legs on the line. He pulled back the ball between his knees and catapulted the ball down the aisle…so slowly I thought it would come to a full and complete stop. But somehow… he knocked down more pins than me. And more pins than most kids his age, as he bowled with 2 hands and fluorescent pants all the way to a provincial bronze medal one year. Little bugger. If anyone knows me at all, you would know how nuts this drove me. He still hangs his medal up in his house when I come over.

The point of this story is not that fluorescent pants will help us succeed in life, it is instead, about teaching. My question to you however, and I encourage you to really think about it is, how is bowling…like teaching?

Here are some answers I have collected over time:

–       The teacher is the ball, the students are the pinsbetween legs

–       Bowling is loud

–       Sometimes my lessons are a strike!

–       Sometimes the ball is so off the mark, I don’t even knock down pins in the next aisle

–       Teaching takes balls (seriously…this was an answer once!)

–       A perfect lesson is hard to do

–       Teaching takes skill, and practice

–       We get more than one chance

–       We get to wear radical shoes

–       One teacher flipped my whole metaphor around and said, “well I see the ball as the students, and the pins as teachers”…think about that one!!!

After some discussion, we usually come up with something like…we teach as best we can, and hope to get to as many kids as we can, but the reality is, there are kids left over that we cant get to, even if we want to.

Kind of a depressing metaphor actually.

I thought about this one afternoon. I was cleaning my kitchen and was watching the sports channel. I love sports as background noise. Football calls, cheering crowds, skates on ice, car commercials, crashing bowling pins. And then I saw it.

I stopped and watched. Professional Bowling. So fast, great outfits, serious faces…and one more thing! I noticed, not a single one of them threw the ball down the middle. I jumped on the computer and did some bowling research! This are the types of things that keep me awake at night…

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Let me just tell you, there is not a professional bowler, even my brother, who throws the ball down the middle. Professional bowlers throw the ball down the aisle with a curve. The ball spins so close to the edge of aisle, we think it almost defies laws of physics. At the last second, however, it curves and… STRIKE! These bowlers aren’t aiming down the middle; they are aiming for the RIGHT POCKET. (Note to the reader. I only know this because there was actually a professional bowler in one of my sessions once who told me this) For us non professional bowlers, aiming for the right pocket is… aiming for the pins on the outside of the lane.

Professional bowlers do not aim for the head pin. They do not aim for the middle. They aim for the pins that are the hardest to hit. The probability of pins getting knocked over is higher, if they aim for the pins on the edges, because these pins help the others… fall down. If those outside pins weren’t there, it would be harder to get a strike.

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Now…. Just think about this!!!!

We teachers are taught to teach, grade 4 math, and grade 10 science. We are taught to teach to the middle and simplify or water down content for those students who are having difficulty. Pairing up students who need more support with  students who need more challenge, is the limit of many teachers’ differentiation and accommodation strategies. We often teach how we were taught, and in my case, I went to school during times of streaming and segregation of special needs students who were never educated with me. Classrooms have changed…for the better I think…but our education system hasn’t. We need to teach to diversity rather than to a group of students whom (Ken Robinson said it best) all they have in common is their date of birth.

What if we totally changed how we plan, teach and assess? What if we started to look at our classes and students as different communities, different communities that we also teach differently…even if they are taking the same course. Offering students varying amounts of support…not because of their special needs category or label, but just because they need it.

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What if when we teach our students, we think not about our status quo middle of the pack or the head pin (which is shrinking I might add) and instead, on Monday morning, we look at our kids we think,

“Who are my kids that are the hardest to get? What do I need to do so that THEY get it?”

Yes, because they have a right to learn. Yes, because learning within diversity is the real world, but yes, also because these kids have contributions to make. Whether they have special needs, or didnt eat breakfast that morning. Are English language learners, or have a hard time getting to school on time. These kids who are the hardest to get to, have so much that we can all learn from, and if we get them… we can get everyone.  This symbiotic learning environment is important for inclusion to work and be sustained. Inclusion, especially in high school, is often limited to physical and social contexts. In order for inclusion to be effective and efficient for teachers and students however, we need to extend this idea to not only physical and social communities. Inclusion also means contributing to academic communities. It is critical. It is critical, not just for students with special needs; it is critical for every one of us. And this my friends, I would even argue to say, is the ultimate in life skills.

In and Out and…

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I am using the following framework to help me classify the Apps I am reviewing on the App-tastic page, as well in general planning for my students. IPO (as the techies refer) is often used as a logic and design framework.  I, on the other hand, am using it to refer to our brain…which is kind of like a computer…So I think it works. Hopefully you will find it helpful in not just App searching, but in the everyday. I personally use this strategy (although my mother would argue not enough)  to remember, learn, plan for and teach new information.

Input: 

I have used this term to simply describe the information going into our heads.  We all input information through our senses, and as one would imagine, the more senses in action…the more information goes in.  This is the basic premise for many education programs and frameworks including, but definitely not limited to, Multiple Intelligences, Differentiated Instruction, Universal Design for Learning and is especially utilized when working with students with special needs who may experience deficits in one or more of their senses. It is also no surprise then why the iPad is so popular when working with these groups (and with individuals over 70 :)). It automatically takes these factors into consideration in it’s design (e.g. visual, kinaesthetic, auditory, interpersonal etc.) In terms of the iPad and, I have included apps which could be used as a source of input relying on these characteristics.

Process:

OK this is the hard part. Just because information goes into out head, doesn’t mean it stays there. How many times does someone tell you a number, or a name and immediately after you have heard it you can’t remember.  I don’t know about you, but I can also include appointments, locations, and where I put my keys.  There are many strategies one can implement, however, to promote the “stickiness” of this information.  My good friend Leyton Schnellert taught me the importance of connecting new information to other experiences, either real or fictional, to help information make sense to us. He would probably actually use the term “connecting” as another step in this process as essential when planning for teaching. Other strategies include practicing it, manipulating it, teaching others, sorting, classifying… the list could go on.  I wish I knew this in high school when I spent class after class taking notes and then when the bell went, I closed my book and ran to the cafeteria and/or gymnasium. If I was lucky I would find my notes again at the end of the term crushed in a ball at the bottom of my locker when I had to actually show what I knew on some sort of assessment, in which case I would then attempt to relearn it all, sometimes up to 3 months later!!!  which nicely leads me into the next section… (yes, I was totally THAT kid).

Output:

Ok teachers, hopefully you have not forgotten the previous step and provided the formative assessment required for students to actually show you what they know.  Output tools can be used to help communicate or present information to others in regards to something someone has learned.  For example, a powerpoint presentation, voice output, recordable stories as well as, just a way for someone to assess a particular skill. Often times I find it particularly difficult to assess my students who who are non verbal, or communicate in ways other than my own method. On those occasions, when I need to enter their world for a moment, I find the iPad a great mediator as, there all of a sudden, becomes a method of expression for the individual that includes more than speaking and writing…with a pencil…that they hate…and then they throw at me. Sigh, I love them.