Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Universal Design for Professional Learning

I usually use this space to talk about student learning, but I want to take a moment to talk about an equally important topic: professional learning for teachers.

There is a lot of talk in the twitter chats I frequent about the benefit of the EdCamp philosophy of professional development. I certainly understand where my fellow teachers are coming from: I have sat through my share of speakers talking about the same basic strategies that I have been using for years or about strategies that are not meaningful for my student population without such significant modification that they lose the essence of what the presenter is trying to get at. I love the idea of teachers sharing what really works. That's why I like twitter chats. However, they lose me when they start going on about how the face-to-face interaction is so much more valuable.

The thing is: text is a lot easier for me to navigate than face to face interaction. I'm not convinced I really will get more out of it than a twitter chat. It's quite possible I'll get less. And yet, whenever I say I haven't been to one yet I get multiple replies telling me how it's so wonderful and why I should. I want to ask those teachers to stop for a moment and examine their privilege.

I'm not saying that EdCamps need to change or that they can afford to provide more accommodations (they are free events.) One of the nice things about the current state of professional development is that we have such a diverse menu of options to choose from: I'm not limited to the one speaker my school brings in this year. My point in writing this post is to point out that every teacher makes their own choices of what professional development to pursue and in what format for their own reasons. What works for one person may be very much the wrong answer for another. The beauty of Universal Design is that we can each chose not just the content but the format that works best for us without each person having to request specific accommodations each time.

We need to be flexible enough thinkers to remember that the content and format that works best for us doesn't work best for everyone. We also need to remember to seek out those voices that are not accessing the same formats we are using (for whatever reason) and make sure they are being heard too. We may not agree with what they have to say, but there may be a very good reason their voice isn't being heard in the forums we're standing in. If our mission is really about teaching all students, then we had better make sure that we are reaching all teachers when it comes to professional development and the sharing of ideas.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Losing Control

Last week at #atchat, I was having a conversation with Ricky of www.atmac.org about the challenges of teachers who fear technology in the classroom, and who fear their students being more capable with the technology than they are. That got me thinking, and I said it at the time, the essence of that fear is teacher fear of losing control over the classroom dynamic.

It is common knowledge that every first year teacher struggles with classroom management. It's one of those rights of passage of first year teaching. There's a teaching urban legend that says "don't smile until October." Great emphasis is put on having an orderly, well controlled classroom.

In special education, this emphasis is paradoxically increased. Because our students struggle with the basic skills of self-regulation that come effortlessly (most of the time) to students in general education, most special education classrooms are filled with behavior charts and other paraphernalia of teacher-directed behavior support programs (incentive programs, reward/consequence programs, positive behavior supports..... the names and philosophies change - sometimes for the better sometimes for the worse, but all are predicated on the same concept: student must do what teacher says: top down.)

How many IEP goals have you seen that have goals for following (x step) directions? Or other goals of compliance. Participation in a structured activity goals? That's a compliance goal too. We spend a lot of time in special education teaching compliance.

And then, at some point, in "progressive" special education classrooms, somebody gets the idea of teaching self-regulation. It rarely goes well. The students are unprepared for there being no "right" answer. The teachers do not want to allow the behavior to become disregulated, so they control the choices, reinforcing the students' belief that there is a "right" answer and their own belief that their students are "too low" or "too routine oriented" to understand how to self-regulate. Because without the behavior plans and structure the class would get out of control.... right?


The problem is not that the students are "too low" (I don't believe such a thing exists) or "too routine oriented." The problem is trying to teach self-regulation in a context, and based on a foundation, that does not support it. The problem is that classroom culture of behavior charts.

I am not saying that we have to do away with extrinsic motivators (rewards) for all our students in every context. I'm not saying visual behavior supports aren't important - they are. But for most of the day, if students aren't motivated to learn the material, we need to find a way to make the material motivating. For example, I have a student who has been acting out during math: he struggles with numbers. We are learning about ratios as part of the 7th grade common core standards. He has been throwing every manipulative I try to use to teach this skill. But he loves time and clocks. So we started talking about the ratio of time to distance. He loves starting and stopping the stopwatch as we check the time to travel various distances. He still doesn't love telling the numbers, but he's more motivated to do so now that they are times.

More to the point, puts my timer to far better use than it was being put giving him check marks for staying in his seat and keeping his hands to himself to earn the swing when math was done. He still might ask for the swing after math, but it's not contingent any more. Sensory breaks are important, and now he's learning both math (which he wasn't before) and early self-regulation skills.

As my students build their skills in the areas of self-regulation, self-advocacy, and self-determination (all areas of the curriculum represented on every IEP in my classroom) I don't expect I will find anyone is "too low" to make progress and develop skills. And I'm not worried about losing control of my classroom to do it, because I won't be giving up any behavior control in order to for them to practice those skills. They are working on them every day in the classroom already. My students are the primary stakeholders in what goes on in my classroom: if they're not invested in learning, I don't waste my time teaching: the standards only tell us what to teach, not how.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

To My Non-Speaking Autistic Friends: Please Help

I have a situation in my classroom right now that I need the advice from my friends who are primary AAC users on. I know what my colleagues in education say, and I want more input before making a decision.

I have a student who is just learning to use his AAC device. He is at the stage where he mostly uses it in an exploratory manner. Lots of pressing buttons repeatedly to hear what they say. He also spends a fair amount of time trying to get someone to unlock the iPad and let him into the games that are also on it.

This is a student who exhibits some challenging behavior who, for whatever reason, was never previously taught a break request. He's catching on to the break request quickly.

Here's my problem: When I ask him to start an academic task (and stop for the moment exploring his device so he can listen to instruction) he asks for a break because he wants to go back to exploring/playing with the device. (Yes, there's a slip in presumption of competence there, but I'm not sure he understands that the communication app is different than the games, and that may be where his frustration/confusion is coming from.) I don't want to take the communication device away, but I don't want him to learn that asking for a break is a way to get out of academics and get to play with the iPad. Is it okay to go to low tech symbols on his desk (Yes/No, bathroom, break) to communicate  during a break?

Thanks for your help and insights!

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Assessing Our Place

The controversy over state and national assessments, the common core, and the place of students with disabilities within that structure is a loud and large debate on which everyone has an opinion and everyone knows best.

I don't know best, but I do have an opinion, which I would like to share.

The MCAS-alt (Massachusetts's alternate assessment protocol for students who are unable to take the state test, even with accommodations) may not be a valid, or even meaningful, test of student progress toward meeting grade level standards. However, it is an important requirement of all students educational program because it requires teachers, for 40-90 lessons out of the school year, to provide at least some academic instruction to all students, regardless of perceived "ability."

These are the teachers, and some of them have been my colleagues, who are inordinately proud of themselves for keeping their students safe and happy. They feel that is proof that they are doing a good job. I can't help but wonder if they are familiar with the difference between the job description for babysitter and the job description for teacher - and which one they think they are doing?

These teachers truly believe, and have convinced many wonderful parents as well, that the MCAS-alt is a waste of both student and teacher's time because it takes away from focusing on the important (usually developmentally-based) skills that the student "should" be working on according to her/his IEP.

Yet, when the IEP is written with the grade level curriculum as the starting point (as opposed to the outdated and usually bogus notion of the student's "developmental level") as the starting point, the MCAS-alt portfolio flows naturally from the student goals, even for students who do not have a formal communication system and students who are working on "access skills" (not necessarily an interchangeable group.)

These teachers get offended at all the requirements to keep a portfolio from being marked incomplete. (10 different dates. Data on work samples must match data on graphs if the dates match. etc.) Yes, it's a pain, but if you actually teach the lessons throughout the year, it's really not hard. And that's the point. Fundamentally, this assessment isn't about whether the student learned the grade level material (because if they can access grade level material, why are you doing alternate assessment?) It's not even about showing student progress and mastery (because teachers chose both the skill - within limits - and the mastery criterion.) No, at its most basic level, the MCAS-alt is about forcing teachers' hands to ensure that all students get at least a little access to instruction in the academic curriculum. And as long as we have teachers who don't think their students "are ready for" academics we will need the MCAS-alt portfolio assessment, with all its hoops, to make sure they give their students at least a little bit. For the rest of us who are teaching curriculum and trying to move our students forward into more inclusive environments? Well, it's one more bureaucratic hoop to jump through, and in the world of special education, who will notice one more?

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Rationing Time

In the classroom, time is, always, our most limited resource, and if students are receiving one service or participating in one activity, it means that they are not receiving another service or participating in another activity. That is the same argument used by proponents of full inclusion for why all related services should be push-in, so that students do not lose access to the instruction and peer access available in the general education environment. But that coin has another side, and those students *are* losing access to time spent in direct instruction of specific skills. And I'm worried that's time we can't afford to lose.

This video, of a young lady who has been fully included, was touted as evidence of the benefit of full inclusion for the development of real meaningful social relationships at a webinar I recently attended.

Did you notice what was missing? Jocelyn's mother was interviewed.  Jocelyn's friends were interviewed. Jocelyn was not. Everyone else spoke about what they *thought* Jocelyn wanted/thought/believed. They don't know. Because they can't ask her. Why? As far as we can tell from this video, Jocelyn has no formal communication system (not even a yes/no.) For all we know, Jocelyn wishes these girls would leave her alone and only tolerates them to make her mother happy.  We don't know.  We can't ask Jocelyn.

And that's what worries me about full inclusion for students like Jocelyn - and for the students I teach. I worry that their limited classroom time will be focused on social integration and on access skills that make them part of the classroom instead of on developing meaningful functional communication systems that will help them create independent lives for themselves as adults.

Listen very carefully to the voices of non-speaking self-advocates. Their intelligence was realized by others after someone taught them how to use a communication system and they were able to communicate their desire to learn (or what they had already learned.)  Access to education is nothing without a system to communicate what you know. If we are going to implement full inclusion, we have allocate the time and resources to develop functional communication skills from the very beginning. And for our older students who have not had access to the communication and academic instruction they should have before now, for whatever reason, we have to recognize that our number one priority has to be communication - and that takes time.