Saturday, July 29, 2017

Finding Inclusion in a Separate Day School

This has been a hard post to write. But, as an inclusion-minded special educator, I wanted to tell the story of why I have decided to take a teaching position at a separate day school for students with disabilities. It’s not what I expected when I started looking, but I believe I have made the right decision for myself and for my students.

During my job search, I visited some schools that, though amazing educational institutions, would not be accessible to me given my own disabilities. These were places where I know I would not have been successful teaching because my access needs would have gotten in the way: classrooms that were too large, socially set up, or in an environment that I found far too distracting to focus. I also visited places that met my access needs but where I could not envision providing instruction that adequately met the needs of the enrolled students due to the space, the ratios, the technology access, or a combination of factors. I found both of these challenges to be present across settings: public, collaborative, and private. 

Going beyond physical access, I knew I needed an environment that backs up its statements about building independence and self-advocacy with real action. I needed stay away from environments that prioritize the ideal of “safe and happy” over meaningful instruction. I found each of these types of environments across settings as well, but I found the ones that most shared my teaching values in the separate day school setting.

Separate day schools don’t provide the access to rigorous grade-level instructional environment that can be found in a public school setting (if you have a teacher with the knowledge and mindset to provide access to that instruction.) However, just being in a public school doesn’t imply access, and all of the classrooms I visited operated on an “integration” not an “inclusion” model. 

Over the past two years, I have developed an instructional model that incorporates global learning opportunities to give students access to connection and collaboration with students beyond their local school community. Using this model, I am able to provide access to the grade-level classroom without sacrificing the intensive instructional supports of the self-contained environment. You can’t get that combination in a traditional public school’s grade-level classroom.

I worried about the social nature of these small close-nit institutions. Places with a strong focus on social norms can be inaccessible or even dangerous for me. But I learned this past year to value the sense of community that can be found in these environments when they are staffed by professionals who share the same commitment I do to high quality instructional access and building independence and self advocacy.

The school and classroom where I accepted a position are both small. Smaller than I found almost anywhere else. (One of many reasons why I will never name the school I work at on my blog or social media.) The reason that they had an opening at all was because they found that the students in this class were not being successful in a larger class, so they broke it up to give the students who needed it a more intensive instructional environment. We spoke about the idea of teaching vs. helping (a frequent problem in severe/multiple disabilities.) Instead of the “and how do you address that” question, I was told the story of how the school had made that mindset shift and hired staff who believe in teaching. The school values of building independence and self-advocacy really came through in both word and action.

I went into this job search looking for a placement in a public middle school. But I also went into it with a very clear understanding of what my teaching values are and where I was and was not willing to compromise. I know how to recognize an environment where it will be accessible for me to be the best teacher I can be for my students. I found those values and that environment in a separate day school. I didn’t find it at any of the other schools I visited. So, despite (or maybe because of) my belief in an inclusive environment for all learners, I have taken a position in a separate day school. Inclusion, after all, is a mindset not a placement.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Asking for Help

Asking for help is one of the first functional communication skills we teach, especially to students who exhibit challenging behavior due to frustration (at not being able to accomplish something independently) which is a lot of our students. It's also one of the skills we're least successful at teaching. I don't mean the kids don't learn it. They learn the sign/word/picture. What most of them don't learn is when and how to use it. They either never ask and we end up saying "ask for help if you need it" when we see them struggle, or they're constantly asking and we find ourselves in a never-ending cycle of "try it yourself first ..." It's clearly not a skill we're teaching very effectively.

It's something I've been aware of for a while now, and I've been trying to make an effort to model it in the classroom. But there's a qualitative difference between "Do you know where the stapler went?" and "Please help me tie my shoes." And, for obvious reasons, the more urgent situations in the classroom are not appropriate times for modeling.

As I see it there are 2 key skills that need to be taught along with requesting help. 
  1. Making an effort to do it on your own first. This means we need to make sure we are paying attention to partial successes (and failed efforts) as important and successful steps toward the larger goal.
  2. Multiple solutions to the problem. I believe that problem solving is, quite possibly, the most important skill that we can teach students, and this is a key part of it. Students need to have an understading that there is more than one approach to chose from and the mental flexibility to try a different approach if the first one is unsuccessful.

We do talk in my classroom a lot about how "help" doesn't mean I'm going to do it for you. But isn't that exactly what adults usually mean when we ask for help? Sometimes, certainly. If I ask for help because I can't get the glue open, I don't expect you to put your hand over mine and that we're going to push it open together. No, I expect to hand the glue to you, and you will open it for me. Because the expectation is that I have already tried and found my skills lacking, so now I'm asking you to give it a go. But sometimes that's exactly what I mean. When I helped my coworker email an attachment for the first time I sat down next to her and verbally walked her through each step. If I'd taken the mouse from her and done it myself, it wouldn't have helped either of us. I'm not sure, though, how one knows (except by social experience/nonverbal context) what kind of help is appropriate/expected in a given situation. And so I'm asking for your help. What is the distinction? And, more importantly, how can we teach it to our kids?

Thursday, July 6, 2017


I haven't blogged much (or at all) this spring. The school I was working at closed, and my attention was focused on my students: giving them the best last year we could have, finding them new placements, and supporting meaningful transitions. Plus, I had to find a job for next year. It didn't leave a lot of time for blogging or reflecting.

I started writing letters to my next-year's-self last year when I saw the idea on Twitter. Looking back this year it was really powerful to see what I was focused on/worried about, and how much of that is even on my radar a year later. I highly recommend it as a tool for every teacher. I'm starting a new journey this year. I'm really excited about it. As I start on this journey, I want to share with my future self and with all of your this nugget from my current-school's-teacher-self.

This year, you were forced to go back and reassess a lot of older skills that you'd abandoned or forgetten. The use of the cooldown book/room. Sensory and reinforcement strategies. Low tech teaching strategies in general. These are important teaching strategies to have in your arsenal. Some of the most fun and innovative teaching you have done over the last 4 years did not involve any more fancy technology than the students' communication systems (and maybe a camera to document the event.) It's not about the tools, it's about the learning. And more importantly, it's about what tools make the student most independent. For your class this year, that was absolutely low tech tools, which technology used primarily to document and share, not to create. You will need to remember these lessons as you take on a class that is currently doing a lot of DTT. Why are they doing DTT? because it is working for them! You need to keep an open mind about using the most effective strategies to teach your learners. Remember, you did a fair amount of DTT your first year at Your Current School too, because according to their previous teacher it was what was working for them. And then you moved away from it because you found other strategies more effective. You need to make sure you are using your data and not your prejudices.

Teach with your data and not your prejudices. It is good advice for all of us.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Math on the Move: a framework for teaching much more than math!

I first had the opportunity to "meet" Malke Rosenfeld on twitter two years ago through the Summer Math Photo Challenge, created by the #MBoS twitter group. The idea was simple, look around your world and take pictures of everyday things that included the target math concept for the week. For my students, who love to walk around the school and who love to take pictures with their iPads, this was pretty much a dream project. I built my entire summer school math curriculum around the project. Malke was a great source of inspiration during that time, always liking the students posts, and posting pictures and ideas that turned into whole group lessons.

I'd been experimenting with movement based math prior to the Photo Challenge project: we'd done a lot of number walks and number scavenger hunts. My students have significant physical and visual challenges, so while they love it when I can incorporate movement into lessons, it can be a real challenge. Encouraged by our success that summer, I branched out, using the same photo challenge concepts to teach phonics in addition to counting and comparing skills in math. It shouldn't have surprised me that, using these tools and ideas, students who'd never seen academic success were finally learning. I was ecstatic, but I wanted more. Then, I discovered Malke was writing a book!

The text is well researched and grounded in solid pedagogy. She makes an important point that students need an opportunity to explore and understand the concepts before trying to hang language on them. Like many teachers of students who struggle with language, I tend to drill the language piece at the expense of the concepts, and her analysis is spot on! Early on, she makes it clear that "the body activity is focused on mathematical sense-making, not mnemonics, often through efforts to solve a physical or moving-scale challenge of some kind." (pg. 3)

I was intrigued that, through the first part of the book, I saw much more clearly how the ideas she put forth could be used in my reading and literacy and even my science lessons to teach basic core concepts and vocabulary, than how I might use it to teach anything I would consider "math." Many of my students struggle with imitation skills as well as basic concepts, and her ideas around using body-scale to demonstrate "big" and "little" or "same" and "different" seemed like natural extensions of something we could do in my classroom, where we'd already used scooter boards to learn about "fast" and "slow." I loved the idea of using video to have students imitate themselves. I haven't tried it yet in the classroom, but I want to!

As she delved deeper into the Math in Your Feet curriculum, I found myself thinking "I love this, but how can I modify it for access?" My previous experience bringing dance into the classroom has generally been everyone had a lot of fun but that it was unsuccessful from an actually-teaching-the-dance perspective. When she broke down the expectations for K-2 students, I found myself saying "I can modify this. My students could do a variation on that." Which brings me to the only qualm I had with the text. Her list of accommodations: it was very clearly based on the students with disabilities you typically see integrated in a public school classroom. The students who can access grade level curriculum with accommodation and minor modifications, and it read like a list of standard accommodations for those students. I can't blame her, since I'm guessing she's probably never tried the program with students in a self-contained or more restrictive setting, and honestly, it's a pretty minor qualm in what is otherwise a great text.

My students have been working on a modified version of the Math in Your Feet curriculum for a couple of weeks now. Accommodating gross motor and vision challenges, we mark off a large portion of the room as our "square." I've made a picture vocabulary list of movements we can do and locations in the square to do them. My students have shown the ability to complete two movements with 1-2 locations, and to imitate those done by others. We're working on using language to write those movements down. Remembering them over time and repeating them is still a challenge, but it's something to work for, but Malke's given us something to strive for. I can't wait to see what they come up with next!

The curriculum in Math on the Move is geared primarily toward teaching mathematical and spacial relationship concepts to upper elementary students. However, the framework put forth teaches so much more than that. Because of its robust nature, it is easy to apply Universal Design concepts and use the framework to teach even to the access levels of object awareness and imitation. I've yet to meet a student, regardless of physical involvement, who didn't appreciate movement. Malke has created a truly inclusive text that I hope will become a staple of every teacher's library. I know it's already taken a key place in mine.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Do You Have a Minute?

(Image courtesy of ASAN

I've wished, pretty much since I learned about them, that the rest of the world would implement Color Communication Badges, especially for events like conferences where so much emphasis of the benefit is placed on the face-to-face connections: in other words, the socializing - that thing I can't do. My dear friend, Nightengale, made a wonderful argument in her most recent post about why we need to introduce the badges into schools. Because what we expect people to want isn't necessarily the same as what they do want, and the first step in advocacy is ask-vocacy: ask the person.

Then I spotted this on the Internet:

That got me thinking about the benefit of implementing Color Communication Badges in my classroom, not just for my students but for myself as well. There's pretty much nothing a student can do in my classroom that will bother me, or prevent learning from happening, but there are 4 little words that can throw off an entire lesson or even an entire day:

"Do you have a minute?"

The unwritten answer to this question, of course, is "yes." I work very hard to be flexible and accessible for collaboration. It's worked. It's worked a little too well, to the point where people think it's okay to interrupt me in the middle of lessons. But the fact remains that, a lot of the time, I don't have a minute. I'm with a student or group; I'm mentally (sometimes physically) organizing the next lesson; or I'm taking a much needed breather so I can be "on" again in a minute.

The problem is, once I've explained that, no, now is not a good time (because it would be rude to just ignore you) I've already lost that focus so I might as well recoup my losses and go down the rabbit hole on whatever you wanted "a minute" about. Maybe it will be useful. So I have acquired a reputation of being always accessible that is actually counterproductive to the way my brain works.

Therefore, when school starts again tomorrow, I'm going to be rolling out Color Communication Badges for everyone, students and teachers, in my classroom. The original descriptions (edited slightly for brevity) are:

Green: actively seeking communication. May have trouble initiating conversation, but want to be approached by people who are interested in talking

Yellow: only want to talk to people they recognize, not strangers/friends from the Internet.

Red: probably doesn't want to talk to anyone (or only a few people) unless it is an emergency.


I'm going to have to tweak the definitions for the classroom environment a little bit. (They stand fine as they are for leisure time.) My preliminary classroom definitions:

Green: available to talk on a new topic/with a new person. Ready to try something new.

Yellow: can talk, if it's on the topic at hand/current instructional topic, or getting information I'm waiting for. Probably don't want to try something new/work with a new person.

Red: not available, unless it is an emergency. 

I suspect my card will spend a fair amount of time on "yellow" during the school day. I'll check back in after a couple weeks, and let you know how it goes.

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Tools We Use

This is a follow-up to my last post "What Students Need." The connection may not be readily apparent, but bear with me, and I promise I will connect the dots.

More than most other learners, my students use a lot of technology to access learning. Some of it is obvious: the wheelchairs, the iPads with communication software, the positioning and medical equipment. Some of it may be less obvious until it is pointed out: the keyboards, touchscreen computers, visual supports and schedules, social stories, staffing ratios.

Sometimes, the line between the technology and the pedagogy begins to blur. That's where we talk about things like prompting hierarchies and token economies/reward systems. The tools that teachers use to access student learning. (Not to assess it, but to gain access to the learning student so that teaching can be effective.) It's no wonder, then, that this is where the the controversy lies in so much of special education.

To understand the problem, we have to clearly separate technology from pedagogy. Our goal, always is for our students to be independent learners and citizens. To do that, we have to recognize that the wheelchair, the social story, and the token board can all be viewed as giving the student the same amount of independence or fostering the same amount of staff dependence, depending on how we teach the individual to us them.

Consider the differences:
The student who pushes their own chair (or uses a powerchair) vs. the student who has a manual chair she cannot push.
The student who is able to find or write their own social stories vs the student who depends on a parent/teacher/SLP to write social stories in order to cope with new situations.
The student who creates his schedule and works for a self-created goal vs the student who is only able to participate in class with the carrot of a reward dangled in front of him.

The second student in each example is clearly better off than the student without any of those resources. But the first student has something very important. She has the tools for self-determination. The second student will have to work much harder at self-advocacy to have their independence recognized and honored, simply because they do not have access to (or the skill to use) the technology to seize it themselves. We owe it to all of our students to give them access to, and teach them to use, all of the technologies that they will need for self-determination. We cannot limit them because of our preconceived ideas of what "assistive technology" means or looks like or because we value a certain pedagogical approach that doesn't use that tool. Our job is not to help our students. Our job is to teach them the skills to help themselves. To do that, they need all of the tools we can give them.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

What Students Need

I've brought up the concern at conferences before: the special education students who are the best at earning points in programs like Class Dojo. We've taught them to do their work to get the things they want and they're very good at it. To the point where many of them won't do their work without the reward and meltdown if they don't get it. I've had a front row seat to that show this summer.  The incentive system clearly does its job. But, for me it always comes back to the same questions: "What are you teaching? What are they learning?"

Now I want to add another question: "What do they need?"

When we use a reward system we are clearly teaching students that they should not value the academic task. After all, we obviously don't. It's only one factor that goes into getting their token (complete task and behave usually) and it takes multiple tokens to get anything they care about. They are learning to comply with teacher-directed activities and to engage in pro-social behaviors. Adding the last question makes it clear what the reward system is really driving at: what students need. Students need to care about the work they are doing. They wouldn't engage in the reward activities (they wouldn't be rewards) if students didn't care about them. If we want to get rid of reward systems we need to make the work the thing students care about.

For some students, making the work the thing the student cares about is as simple as incorporating the students interest into the instructional activity. You're talking about auditoriums? Okay, let's find the letters in auditorium to spell it into google and get a picture. Write three sentences and we can print it out. Let's count how many doors there are between here and the school auditorium.... (This idea make sense to you? Want to run with it? I recommend Paula Kluth's book Just Give Him The Whale!)

It's a strategy that has worked remarkably well. Some content is harder to fit in (science, social studies) but we find other ways to make it fun and more often than not those activities become the things that students are talking about. (Think I'm crazy? Learn from the Pirate Master himself, Dave Burgess in his book Teach Like A Pirate)

For some students, it's not as easy to see what they need. Because interest and perseveration are not always the same thing. Because we don't always have enough context to tell what is self-calming speech, what is anxiety-speech and what is social speech (assuming we can understand the speech at all.) Because the same tools that a students enjoys can be exactly the wrong tools for learning for a student who has trouble context-switching.

The fact remains that teacher-directed instruction is still important. Teaching pro-social behavior (and reducing or eliminating dangerous behavior) is also important. There will always be cases where we can't see they pay-off for completing something (because it's too many steps down the line) and we need to give ourselves a little extra reward. I know I do it for myself. (How do you think this blog post got published?) Rewards aren't evil. But students need to know that learning is important, fun even, and not just because you can get the computer after you fill your token board for doing it.