Universal Design

De-Criminalizing Supports!

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Every morning of every day

what supports do you rely on

to help along the way?

We wake up in the morning,

our phones honk, chime or blast our favs

and we struggle to get out of bed

to music, horns and crashing waves

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Thank goodness for many alarm clocks

as some need extra help to get up again

and a dog licking their face 

because there are a few who are tier 3 before 10.

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Our coffee brews with the push of a button

or sometimes on its own,

with programmable toasters and microwaved eggs

as we look at the schedules on our phone.

 

The shirt we picked up from the dry cleaner

is nicely pressed and ready to go,

we even sometimes ask our spouse

if our tie matches our socks… or no?

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We get into our car with a keyless remote

and our seat adjusts to our height,

we program our GPS device

and then chose the guiding voice that’s just right.

We have choices of radio, books or music

to listen to as we drive

or we pick up a friend on the way to work

to chat with as we offer a ride.

 

An app buzzes to tell us to take our meds

as we roll in to park at our job,

and we look at the camera as we back up our car to park,

and lock it with the click of a fob.

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We talk to our colleagues about questions and topics

throughout our day as we work,

we bring and share snacks with those who may have forgot

and are hungry while they do paper work.

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On the weekends we have fun, and hangout with our friends,

we may choose to go to a movie or show.

Or relax at home, order pizza that someone else made,

as we celebrate our life with those we know.

And at the end of those extra hard weeks

or the last few days before spring break,

you might even catch us with a beverage in hand

or a little extra something in our shake.

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We build the life that we want, and seek supports that we need

to get through all our day’s pace,

choice and celebration we find

guide us to our success, and we realize that life is not a race.

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Now, lets change our perspective

to those who are scholars,

students who are very much like us

but just a little bit smaller.

 

Students who, like me

had to sit to their hands

so they wouldn’t count with their fingers

to make sure it was math they could understand.

 

Or those who are only allowed

to show their learning in one way,

rather than offering choice

and whether to go or to stay.

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Using calculators, or spellcheck

are all seen as them cheating,

they aren’t allowed to talk to others

and must be in rows while they’re seating.

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Trying to monitor advantages for some kids but not all

makes us weary,

forgetting we all have a reader and scribe in our pockets

and we all know her as Siri!

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We are running around

getting to everyone we can,

rather than building in supports from the start

helping everyone in the plan.

 

We will never have enough

staffing, funding, or time,

if we continue to retrofit our supports

instead of building it as part of the design.

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But in order to do that

we have to let go of the thinking,

that supports are only for some

and kids don’t need to prove that they are sinking.

 

And teaching instead when they need a support

to regulate their learning and others’

so they can know how to push themselves further

instead of relying on their mothers!

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Look at winter tires for a perfect example,

a support we all use to this day,

between October and March we change our tires over

so that when it’s icy our car does not stray

 

I can guarantee the mechanic would not say,

“WINTER TIRES?! Shhhh someone might hear!

Do you really want someone to know that you have them

Let hope they have plugs in their ears.”

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I can also bet that you wouldn’t hear

a tire shop owner complain,

that getting tires for winter should be something you prove

you really need before you get chains.

The best of all, (and it makes me laugh)

is thinking about winter tire reviving,

imagining if someone said to us, “Forget It!

You’ll lose the skill of bald tire driving!”

It’s ridiculous to think about,

because the opposite is true

it is changing our tires in winter that makes us good drivers,

not trying to just push though!

 

Pushing through winter conditions

even if only for one day,

can you imagine the Coquihalla

if people actually thought this way?

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Now if you see a driver with studs on in June

this might be a conversation upcoming,

or maybe they just moved to Canada and heard rumours

to get ready, because winter is coming!

 

But guess what?! It doesn’t matter!

Because I can definitely tell you,

that no one has been hurt by too many supports

but so many have been harmed with too few

 

Supports for all! This is the key!

let kids not be our education sequel,

where supports weren’t allowed and we weren’t taught to believe

that fair is not always equal.

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I will leave you with one last story to remind you

that support is not a bad thing.

A boy named Zach came up to me in Grade 8

and told me something that zinged.

 

He said, “Ms. Moore, you were my favourite teacher

but I definitely hated your class,

because you made me believe for a second

that I may have been good at math,

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and when Grade 9 arrived

it put me back in my place

and made me remember

that this is all just a race.

A race I’ve never been good at,

a race that I’ve never won,

that school is where I fail

not where I have fun.”

 

Think of your kids now,

what kind of teacher do you want to be

one that supports them to believe in themselves

or make them feel like they cheat and must plea?

 

Plea for their grades, for a pass,

or for their needs to be met.

Who is in control now?

Not the kids I suspect.

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Support them from the start!

With choice, options and many plans,

so when they look over their shoulder

They see a SWEEPER VAN!!!

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Let’s teach kids the skills and

de-criminalize supports they need to prevail!

They will self regulate their learning

and get what they need BEFORE they fail.

 

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This poem was from our first Richmond School District Ignite. 20 slides, 15 seconds each, 5 minutes… SO HARD!!!! And so naturally I thought…What a great opportunity to have a try at Suessonian Verse!

I will post the video here soon!

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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The Sweeper Van

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UntitledSo, yesterday I was fortunate to spend the day co-presenting with two of my colleagues, mentors and friends, Faye Brownlie and Leyton Schnellert. The three of us were invited to be the featured speakers at the BCSSA Spring Forum, which brought together leaders including superintendents, administrators, directors of instruction and teachers from around the province, for a day with a theme of inclusive education. I contemplated writing about my session for you here, but my presentation was captured on camera! SO today, instead of writing, I get to TELL you about a moment in my life that has forever changed my practice and beliefs about teaching. I invite you to watch, share, and hopefully laugh without offence 🙂

May I present to you… The Sweeper Van.

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.

I see a difference… Can you see a difference?

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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.

Everything I need to know (about Universal Design), I learned in Kindergarten.

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I remember the day I learned about Universal Design. A framework whose influence extends (and originates) far beyond education. I have attended numerous workshops since, but the one example that still resonates with me, is the image of the ramp in construction and building design.

I am quickly taken back to the high school I attended. A monstrous brick building constructed in 1957, housing over 2000 students in central Alberta. I remember being in grade 10, when construction was being done to retrofit a stairwell to accommodate a student attending who was in a wheelchair. The commotion (and cost) that this created made it obvious to even the students, as to why this wasn’t considered in the original plans of the building. This exact idea is the main principle of Universal Design. We would be hard pressed to find a building constructed in recent years without a ramp or an elevator designed in the blueprints from the beginning, assisting not only the users in wheelchairs (who the supports are designed for) but also benefiting mothers with strollers, 12 year olds with skateboards and dogs with sore hips.

If you extend this metaphor to represent learning in schools, teachers become authorized to view supports and strategies which may have been designed for one learner, but can aid in supporting many learners.

I was fortunate this year, to work with a lovely Kindergarten class in Richmond, British Columbia. I spent a couple days with this group, including attending my first 100 day party (and even made my own hat)!! I remember drawing trees resembling that of Dr. Seuss, with a single strip of blue sky along the top of my page in Kindergarten, but this class was like a kindergarten wonderland. Paying particular attention to the emotional development of her students, this young teacher is already a master at fostering cooperation as well as self reflection in her 5 year old companions to promote conflict resolution and social responsibility in these little humans.

On one particular day, I was there to observe the centres in the afternoon (which by the way should totally have a place in classrooms WAY beyond kindergarten!) Kids flocked to the sand table, unpacked the plastic fruit from the house corner, built un-wavering structures from lego, raced timeless toy cars and cozied up in a corner with a pillow and a picture book. All students engaged, not with pencils, papers, chairs and tables… but with play.

I was called in to observe and support one little guy , who was identified with special needs. As with many students, explicit instruction in social skill development is beneficial, and often students need additional attention paid to structure and opportunities to practice these skills. What I noticed immediately, however, was how the teacher utilized these strategies to support not only her student with special needs, but how she used these strategies to support ALL of her students. Examples of these Universally Designed practices were all over her room. Visual count down clocks, transition strips and clear visuals were available for everyone to see and use. Choices offered to students for centres and where to sit, allowed students to start managing and recognizing what supports they need, and promote this beginning self regulation of their own learning. What was also important to note was that none of these supports included an educational assistant. The “assistant” instead, was in the design of the class.

To further support this particular identified student, we thought that some additional steps in “how to clean up,” centres beyond the general class clean up cue would be helpful. We decided that having an additional visual cue outlining clean up procedures in no more than 3-steps, could help facilitate this student to be clear about the expectation, and as well, prevent some behaviour which was occurring during this less structured time. It didn’t take long, however, to realize the benefit to not only this student, but to all the students, again reinforcing the teacher’s commitment to responding to the needs of her diverse learners.

What I loved about visiting this class, even in my short time with them, was the clear philosophy regarding diversity. Immediately seeing benefits of supports and how they could be used to in terms of all students’ learning, there was no concern (or air time) for un-fairness, or the “othering” mentality of us vs. them. This class is a great example of a teacher simply educating her students… all of them and a working model of inclusion.

Universal Design is a philosophy, and (I am convinced) once adopted, both a more effective and efficient means to educate students. There are so many retrofitted lessons and activities surrounding us as educators; and just as archaic brick buildings are modified, trying to force students into pre existing formulas and structures, can be costly and disruptive.

These students are fortunate to benefit from such a clear rationale of supporting diversity; learning from each others’ strengths and responding to their stretches, regardless of label, category or funding allocations.

A big thank you to this class, for reaffirming, despite our year of tensions and over stretched resources, that meaningful inclusion is possible.

For more information on Universal Design for Learning, CEC (council for Exceptional Children) has published a great reference text.