Storytelling Extravaganza

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Last year I was so honoured to receive a SSHRC scholarship to support my research in inclusive education. The SSHRC award is given to scholars across the country highlighting research that supports innovation and the quality of life of Canadians. This funding has allowed me to work with schools and teachers and students all over this province including my own home district in Richmond, BC. An additional contest for award winners announced this fall was called the “SSHRC Storyteller Award.” Our job was to create a 3 minute video of our research as a STORY!! Is this perfect for me or what!!!!

Unknown.jpegThe even more exciting news is that it was announced today that my video is a top 25 finalist. Me and 24 other scholars across Canada will be highlighted at Congress in Calgary. I chose to share the story of the Outside Pins. If you have seen me present before you know how much I love my bowling metaphor. I have written a blog post about it before and it has been highlighted on the think inclusive website.

Well now I have a video! I hope you enjoy it and please feel free to share. Let me know how you use it if you find it useful, I love to hear the stories of the stories!

 

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Lessons from Daniel

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On January 16, 2016 I was wearing a new outfit, just bought new boots, had a fresh haircut and I was ready for my big day! I had friends and family come from out of town, and the chairs were filled with my people…it was like (and will probably be the closest thing I get to) my WEDDING!!!

January 16 was TEDxLangleyED, where I was invited along with an incredible line up to speak to24468365421_01bf95299c_z innovations in education. It was a day filled with inspiration, laughter, tears and connections. I will rate it as one of the top 3 days of my entire life without a doubt.24523633186_6d7b30c1c2_z

I was joined by the many speakers to share our thoughts and questions including Chris Wejr speaking to the incredible importance of teaching to strengths, Vikram Vij’s powerful metaphor of life as a Sword, and awed by the strength and talent of Amanda Worlmald. Along with the many other amazing speakers, I was also joined by my two bowtie wearing side kicks Jos Chois and Alexander Magnussen, who inspired us with amazing facts and shared stories of struggles and triumphs.

This morning, my video was released. I was so excited to see it because I was so nervous on the day of, I could barely remember what I said. I am pleased to share this with you having complete relief that my hair stayed in place!

Enjoy with hopes that you also learn one of the many lessons that I did from my student Daniel.

AND NOW, for you, my TEDx Talk: Under the Table: The Importance of Presuming Competence

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Other Videos of the day!

Jennifer Lee: My Best friend Max!

Dan Pontefract: How Schools Can Save Companies from Collapsing

Ryan Radford: Harnessing the Power of GEEK in your Classroom

Holly Clark: Are you ready to Disrupt Learning?

Hannah Perkins: When You Grow Up?

Nancy Crawford: Against the Grain: Creating Opportunities for Creativity

Cecelia Reekie: A Journey of Discovery, Truth and Reconciliation

Samantha Ettus: The Secret to Unlocking a Child’s Potential

Hugh MacDonald: Youth in Sport: Keeping Kids in the Game

 

 

Pull out the Pink Shirts

CQVs2VsUYAEkYHU.jpg-largeLast October I was invited, by the lovely Maria LaRose, to present for the Dalai Lama Centre’s Heart Mind Conference complete with a slate of speakers that left me speechless including Kim Schonert-Reichl, Deborah MacNamara, Peter Senge and others. We were brought together to speak to the changing tide of technology and our role as digital citizens, and what emerged was a collection of stories and perspectives that cradled our hearts and challenged our minds.

I get asked all the time, “Why inclusion? Of all the topics you could research, what is it about inclusion that stands out for you?”

The alignment of this question with the conference seemed a perfect match, and so a story emerged of my own experiences as a student, the value of teachers who t/caught me and the importance of the lenses which informs my inclusive rationale driving both my philosophy and practice.il_214x170.657248195_b32w

We are quickly approaching anti-bullying day, and paralleling with this theme of lens and perspective, I invite you to watch with an open mind and heart and ask yourself, How will you find out the story??

….OR if you are just really curious as to what I looked like as a 5 year old, take a peek 🙂

2015 Heart Mind Conference: What’s the story?

What about the “OTHER” kids?

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

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.

Today, Tomorrow and Yesterday

I am an inclusive teacher. I believe in inclusion both philosophically and personally. That being said, as much as I believe that students learn best with their peers, I also understand the need for time where some students receive explicit and targeted instruction. Having additional opportunities, for example, for some students to address developmentally appropriate literacy and numeracy goals can compliment inclusive classroom learning and assist in students being more successful when working with peers. Some students may also have additional goals that are irrelevant, and sometimes inappropriate to be contextualized within the general education classroom. Students may have physical or speech therapy, or need instruction around toileting, where location needs to be considered for effectiveness, and to maintain the integrity of the students. Although inclusion is valued and philosophically strived for, having opportunities for explicit instruction in some areas can reinforce transfer and personalization when students come back into contextualized classrooms.

Regardless of where students are located when receiving inclusive instruction, the question becomes not where they are learning, but what are they doing within each context. The difficulty in any setting however, is how to match instruction to our students’ needs in general, let alone setting up programming for students who often are difficult to assess diagnostically to help set goals in the first place. I myself am guilty of attempting to provide explicit programming for my students in both classrooms and resource room settings, trying to appropriately match individual goals of 10 or more students, and feel at the end of the day, like nothing was meaningful at all.

When looking at research-based practices, it is supported and intuitive to conclude that the more opportunity a person has to practice skills in multiple settings, the more a learner retains it. In addition to this, however, activities that meet multiple goals at once are an efficient way to meet these needs when working with multiple students with diverse needs. This not only provides the time for deeper learning, but also addresses the assumption that teaching is simply ensuring coverage of a lot of content over short period of time. I struggled for this for years, and then I walked into another Kindergarten classroom. I love Kindergarten.

If you ever walk into a kindergarten room I guarantee you will find in the corner a wall covered with a calendar, a graph labeled with pictures of suns and clouds and if in Vancouver, a lot of rain. Counting sticks numbering 100 days of school, lyrics of songs for learning the days of the week, pictures of the classroom helper, the lucky recipient of this week’s show and tell, amongst many other morning routine activities.

Of all the different Kindergarten classrooms, isn’t it amazing how they all do these activities in some way or another? It is more than just educational standards and curriculum guiding these teachers through these routines. A major concern for any teachers is making sure they “cover” the curriculum. The beauty of kindergarten and this deeply established calendar and routine systems, is that these standards are planned in exactly the opposite way. When looking at the BC educational standards for kindergarten, for example, it doesn’t take long to see that many of the activities that students participate in during these morning routine systems cover more than one curricular standard at any given moment in time.Image

Taking a look at a matrix which cross-references the prescribed learning outcomes in the BC kindergarten curriculum, with activities in a morning routine, you can see how rich these activities are as they address multiple goals in cross curricular areas. It becomes clear, how inefficient teaching can become then, when it is planned as a linear sequential checking off standards. Working with students on one goal at a time, is not only boring, but also exhausting for teachers who are trying to keep up with students at different levels meeting goals at different paces within a given time frame. Kindergarten is such an excellent example of NOT doing this. These morning routine systems are worked on and practiced everyday, and because they are planned so effectively, these students are also being deeply embedded in these goals throughout the year. In addition to practice, having an activity meet multiple goals, it is much more manageable for teachers to increase complexity enough to challenge students who learn quickly, while at the same time still creating access and continuing to build on prior knowledge of students who need extra time and practice. A reminder of how all teachers should view curriculum and planning, the efficient and effective way of not only ensuring “coverage” of standards, but also the quality of understanding them.

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For example:

Working with the class on a calendar and guiding them through counting activities and identifying ‘today, tomorrow and yesterday’, addresses up to 15 separate prescribed learning outcomes, in 7 different curricular domains. For more example check out the matrix here.

This method, to me, was the exact solution I needed for my own classroom. Rather than planning multiple activities for individual students, I could plan one activity that met multiple goals. I could finally go home before the sunset and hang out with my dog!!

In reflecting on my own classroom, where my expectation was to provide this explicit instruction in a meaningful and appropriate way to students with developmental disabilities who ranged in age from 12-19, I moved to thinking about the content of these kindergarten routines and activities. It seemed the goals of these routines were just as relevant to my students, and a great context to embed literacy and numeracy skills as well. Thinking about my students’ own experience in kindergarten, I can imagine they simply were just not ready to learn these routines with their peers. At the time, many of my students’ program goals were behaviorally based because they were learning ‘how’ to go to school. It doesn’t make these skills, however, irrelevant. For many students, gone are the days of learning concepts of ‘today, tomorrow and yesterday’ (and other meaningful primary concepts), if the student with developmental disabilities is in a grade 8 science class.

Just because these concepts are no longer being taught in the current classrooms of students over the age of 10, it doesn’t mean the concepts should no longer be taught. These relevant skills are perfect examples of the life skill type goals that students could benefit from long beyond the years of their formal schooling.

These goals were perfect for my students. The problem was that the commercial resources available for teaching these skills look like this:

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There is a HUGE hole in age appropriate resources for students whose cognitive challenges are greater than their peers. Plastering a high school classroom, in a pull out resource room or otherwise, with a giant pink and purple calendars covered in bumble bees, are far from desirable to grade 9 boys. Cognitively disabled or not, I have heard on numerous occasions from my students, “this is for babies.”

The frustrating part for me was, when viewed within an age appropriate context, classroom routine systems could be an excellent way to expose students with special needs to information and interests of their peers. In addition, exposing my students to new ideas and topics is something critical in helping them evolve past interests typically associated with younger children (e.g. blues clues, Barbie, fisher price pianos etc.).

In addition, my goal when designing these age appropriate and cognitively appropriate activities was not only such that the stigma attached to them is gone, but to try to make them appealing to age appropriate peers as well. I know that an activity is successful when my students with special needs have not only engaged in it, but the rest of the class also wants to participate.

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A great example was when we introduced a hockey playoff pool to group of students with developmental disabilities in a high school. Regardless of whether this was a familiar sport, we realized that the students could engage in many aspects of this topic; locations of the teams, mascots, colours, uniforms, players etc. Some students chose their teams based on statistics, others chose teams based on the proximity to Disneyland. We were also able to embed numeracy goals such as more/less, counting and values of numbers 1-5 using the scores; as well as address some literacy goals using team name, player names, logos etc. as the vehicle. The success in meeting goals didn’t just end there, every morning when we gathered to find out which teams had won, the 4 classes surrounding our resource room, all gathered as well. We quickly drafted up pcs symbols and voting charts and within days, we had over 50 members of our pool voting daily in this age appropriate AND cognitively appropriate activity. A highlight was when a parent called chuckling, sharing how the night before, his son with autism, walked into the living room and for the first time asked, “hey dad, what’s the score?”

Creating these activities with both peer and cognitive factors in mind, student’s motivation and confidence are built in both domains. Many challenges I faced early in my career, was a barrier in either one or both of these factors. If an activity was designed based on the students’ level of cognitive ability, but did not consider the students’ interests and the interests of their peers, students would quickly display a lack of motivation, confidence and/or agreement of the task. A similar scenario would exist when the interests were considered, but the task was not designed to address the students’ zone of proximal development.

The big question evolved to: How could I design tasks which addressed cognitively appropriate goals while at the same time embedding age appropriate interests of the students AND their peers?

Routine systems can be implemented in many different ways in schools of every grade. I have seen these systems in pull out resource rooms, in inclusive classes, and built up as strategic social grouping with a combination of students with and without disabilities. The older the student is in age the more age appropriate considerations need to be taken.

When designing these activities then, the names, the look, the content, the resources and thesupplies all need to be presented in a way that would be considered appropriate for the students as well as their peers. The first step we decided in making these changes was to streamline the traditional commercial materials, looking at these products minus the pastel colours and cartoon animals, and viewing them as what the essential core goal would be. We bought rolls of electrical tape from the dollar store and went to work on the white board. To our luck, all of the whiteboards in our district are also magnetic, so this became the backdrop of our routine system and on it we used the electrical tape to organize the space for the variety of activities that could be created.

ImageRecently, I have been working in a resource room, program planning for 3 students with developmental disabilities in grade 8 and 9. Although we are working towards them being included into classes with their peers, because most of the students’ schooling careers were in isolation with an educational assistant, their immediate goals were addressing the initial steps of working first in a small group instructional setting.

They were a perfect example of a group of students who could benefit from the goals and
activities of morning routines established in a primary setting, but who needed the age appropriate context of a high school.Image

As a part of their program, we designed their day with a ‘class meeting’ (instead of ‘carpet time’) setting the stage for their day. An ‘agenda of the day’ (instead of ‘shape of the day’) and within this structure, we planned a variety of activities that we aimed to meet multiple cognitively appropriate goals as well as address age appropriate interests and topics relevant to their peers.

You will see many similarities between these activities to those in primary classrooms, but notice how the names and look have been changed to make them appropriate for high school settings.

When looking specifically at students with developmental disabilities, we all know how the cognitive gap for these students increase exponentially as their grade level increases with their peers. Closing this gap is the job of teachers, support staff and families. Routine systems are an example of how we can do that, but commercial products alone cannot be depended on to meet our students’ needs.

For more information about calendar systems and routines, check out:

Koralek, D. (2008). Teaching and Learning through Routines and Transitions. YC Young Children. 63(3). 10.

Squires, J. (2009). Use of Embedded Learning Opportunities within Daily Routines by Early Learning Teachers. International Journal of Apecial Education 24(2).

Tunde Szecsi , Joohi Lee , Joo Ok Lee & Jill Fox (2009): Teaching Strategies: Time Here, Time There, Time Everywhere: Teaching Young Children Time through Daily Routine, Childhood Education, 85:3, 191-192.

I see a difference… Can you see a difference?

This is a Christmas card from Robbie, one of my students. When I got it, I took one look at the two bubbly yellow characters with ears right on the top of their head and said, “Wow, those are really nice…. bears.” He quickly and sharply corrected me saying, “No No No Ms.Moore, those are people and it’s me and it’s you can’t you tell by their hair look mine is orange and spikey and yours looks like Justin Bieber.” Other than the stutter, it was said exactly like this; no pauses, one breath, rocking body… picture it.

I never made that mistake again. I quickly learned which “bear” was me, as I received 7 more of these cards for every year I ever worked with him (and will probably continue to receive). A yellow line on the top of the card, an orange line down the right side, the Robbie and Ms. Moore bears in the top left corner and its painstakingly consistent message inside reading, “Dear Ms. Moore Merry Christmas. I hope you enjoy my card. I like you Ms. Moore. From Robbie.” Every. Single. Year.

I should also mention how his lack of muscle tone and fine motor skill difficulty prevents him from writing curves, presenting his freehand drawings and written communication to others, as an invented cryptic language, consisting of a series of up and down lines and no spaces… which he could totally read.

As sweet as this sounds, the increase of perseveration resulting from the anxiety developing immediately following Halloween became overwhelming. The looming deadline would distract him and decrease his learning capacity exponentially, until we finally realized that in November and December, scheduling “card making” time during his day saved the sanity of Robbie, his family and everyone working with him. As Christmas got closer, however, he always somehow found a way to re-create these time consuming hand made Christmas cards, for every important person in his life. The structured rules in his brain making sense of the continuum of relationships by separating his family’s and friend’s cards with the closing “I love you” and the latter respectfully substituting, “love” for “like”… these cards could easily number in the 50s.

I tell you this story, not to describe how and why it could be difficult to work with Rob, but more to give you an idea of what his brain is like, restricted by the boundaries he has been forced to create to cope in, what many refer to as, “the real world.” Robbie’s secondary symptoms, common to individuals who have Prader-Willis, involve Obsessive Compulsive tendencies, which trap him (and his family) into routines which most of us will neither experience nor understand. I admire his structure, routine and ability to manage his life, among a giant universe of inconsistencies and the forever changing rules and expectations placed on him to fit into this “real world” by typical and able-bodied people. From my (and many others’) perspective, he has done phenomenally.

I am sure one can imagine what Robbie’s Individual Education Plan would look like. Traditional, category specific goals around self advocacy, awareness of disability and self regulation followed him for all of his schooling which is valuable, don’t get me wrong, but meant little to teachers who were teaching him art, science or really anything outside of the resource room setting.

A few years ago Rob brought me his report card. It was a piece of paper cresting the school’s symbol and motto, listing his name, his courses and the amount of times he was late and/or absent. Looking down his course list, where on a typical report card percentages and letter grades were housed communicating a students progress, Robbie’s course progress markings included (and were limited to) asterisks, a perfect 100%, a single line which stated “see comments attached,” or the most common, just left blank. Attached however, to the back of this report card, were rarely comments, let alone any description of progress of Robbie’s performance in any course or content expectations outside of resource room and traditional special educational programming. Progress was arbitrarily limited to “he’ll get something out of it,” but no one (including myself) really had any idea what that “it” was.

For a school (and district) priding itself on inclusion of exceptional students, this infuriated me. After my initial freak out of, “What is wrong with you people?!?!?!” I realized that it wasn’t that the teacher didn’t want to assess these kids or give them an ethical report card, but that they had no idea how. The goals on Robbie’s (and other low incident student’s) Individual Education Plan (IEP), had little or nothing to do with the content of the courses they were in. In secondary schools, juggling 30 plus students (special education or otherwise) in 7 or 8 blocks quickly adding up to the responsibility of up to 240 students is common. Attempting to provide them all with meaningful programming around their grade and course level Performance Standards, understandably leaves the keeping track of and reporting on toileting routines a low priority.

This also does not take into consideration the factor that 99% of these teachers may have only received the single required special education course taken by teachers in university, which simply extends their pedagogy of special education to DSM IV labels and diagnoses. Differentiation strategies (at least when I attended) included in the lesson plans created by my fellow future teaching leaders, was simply a single line at the bottom stating, “I’ll pair them up with the bright kids.”

Although pre-teacher training in post secondary institutions are getting significantly better in preparing educators to respond to and plan for classes of diverse students including those with high incidence disabilities (learning disabilities, English as a second Language, behaviour, reading and writing difficulties etc.); Teachers are still not provided sufficient background knowledge on how to differentiate, adapt and modify content for the students with the most significant needs, including Autism, Down’s Syndrome, students with multiple disabilities, Deaf-Blindness etc. Clearly a frustrating factor, with inclusion being expected for many of these teachers in schools today, as a result, these students’ inclusive experience in secondary settings are limited to greetings and taking attendance before being pulled out, a few minutes in Phys. Ed and (if an amazingly supportive teacher is found) minor participation in elective classes (Home Ec, Art, Wood working etc.).

Don’t even get me started on academic classes like science and social studies…. I’ll save that blog for another day.

This is a great time to acknowledge the incredible educational assistants (EAs) who make ANY of this possible. If these students ARE given the opportunity to attend a class with their typical peers, it is these incredible individuals who are often the ones doing goal-less modifications and adaptions on the fly to help these students participate as meaningfully as possible, whether it is their contract of roles and responsibilities or not.

To begin to tackle this issue in our school, I went on a hunt for a teacher. I needed a teacher who was willing to spend some time with me to try and create some explicit goals around a particular content area…and where did I go? Straight to the art room! I didn’t have the diagnostic assessment necessary that could clarify specific goals he needed in Art, simply because they don’t exist; BUT I did have… the Christmas card. A great piece of evidence that could be used as a baseline performance-based assessment, to help determine some Art related goals. I reviewed the Christmas cards, and made a list of ideas that looked something like this:

Possible goals for Robbie:

  1. Consider an audience when writing- i.e. type messages instead of writing
  2. Use a color photocopier to decrease the amount of time and mass produce the parts of the cards that are the same
  3. Photocopy templates where he could insert information easily
  4. Take and use photos of him with the person the card is directed to

All of these ideas, I thought, would help ease his anxiety and perhaps help him enjoy the pre-Christmas excitement that happens the 4 weeks before the holiday break.

As I contemptuously brought my list of ideas down to the Art teacher, I was all ready to review them and see how we could incorporate them into her program, thinking this would be a great way to inclusively provide a direction for Robbie’s program in Art. I am wondering right now if you the reader can see where this is going? Clearly, I DID NOT.

Within 1 minute, Mrs. Shelling looked at the Christmas card and said, “Oh, well he needs to work on filling up white space, using a variety of shades and colours, and background and foreground.” There you have it. We now had goal, and none of them were mine. What I had failed to realize was, that although my intention was to include him meaningfully in this Art class, I missed the entire purpose of my quest; none of my goals were content related.

This was the moment I realized the value of collaboration. Although, as his case-manager, I knew inside and out the inner most workings of Robbie’s category related program, I was neither an Art expert, nor had the background knowledge and lens for which to view Robbie’s Christmas card to determine the Art related goals he needed. I could easily have been deflated, but rather was thrilled. I got it! I NEEDED these teachers, just as much as they needed me. I did not in fact, know everything.

After this simple three minute conversation, we (not I) were able to draft up an Art specific Individual Education Plan, we later coined, “One-page IEP” for Rob, which was content related and now a guide for both the teacher and the educational assistant. With a purpose to the activities, everyone now knew what to focus on, while participating in and completing the assignments along side their age appropriate peers.

A perfect example of inquiry, this concept snowballed, and we started to compile together one-page content IEPs for students who were modified and included in secondary classes. The amount of time in classes, work output and student independence increased exponentially. The EA’s loved it, and the teachers started to get involved. These IEPs became relevant, the teachers became invested, and these simplified content goals started to become the universally designed and enduring understandings that everyone in the class could benefit from seeing and understandings as well.

In my 7 year tenure, our school went from 0% to 100% teacher participation in goal development, implementation and/or assessment of modified students with developmental disabilities included in their secondary content classes. The One-Page IEP listed the goals, and eventually evolved to include a rubric to assess student progress. Parents started to receive report cards that read, “see comments attached,” and there would be not only a comment, but also a rich description of the activities, progression of students, and now an entire new set of data to help determine goals for the following year.

This became our departments mission, to continue to develop the goals to make inclusion of these students meaningful, starting first with electives and eventually moving onto academic subjects. A sustainable concept, which is still going strong, 2 years post my departure. There is nothing more satisfying that seeing the torch being passed and continued, brilliantly I will add, by my successor and former team members.

So…Did it work? Did Robbie learn? Did he achieve his individually set goals for his Art class? Well, I will leave you with this. A picture submitted to the school’s annual silent art auction fundraiser. A perfect summative assessment and piece of evidence used to communicate to his parents when report card time came around, that Robbie did indeed, exceed expectations. Filling up white space, using a variety of colour, considering background and foreground. Check. Check. Check.

Despite the fact that I had to fork out $325 well deserved dollars to get this piece of art to hang in my office, it is a great example of the effects of collaboration and the simple belief that indeed, everyone can learn. More importantly, however, it is Robbie’s own way of telling me that, there is absolutely nothing about his cards that needs to be changed; for I am one of at least fifty proud people, who every year, await our cherished Robbie’s Bear Christmas Cards.