Saturday, December 26, 2015

Where are we headed?

The data is clear: my students are making amazing progress this year. They are way ahead of their projected targets on their IEPs. I'm more worried about finding challenging enough objectives for their state portfolios then whether they will meet mastery criteria by the time those portfolios have to be submitted. By all standard and accepted measures, what I'm doing is clearly working.

And yet, all year there's been this little voice in the back of my head that's been asking, "are we headed in the right direction?" I tried a lot of new things this year, with greater and lesser successes. Some of them I definitely want to try again, some of them not so much. That's the story of trying anything new in education. What's nagging at the back of my mind is, "which of them are getting my students the skills they really need?"

The one thing that's been elusive to me all year has been any kind of meaningful project-based learning or maker education. It's taken me a while to figure out why. There's an assumption in education about the in the creativity of children about their intrinsic tendency to explore and create. There's an awful lot of Ableism in that assumption. That physically expressed or linguistically expressed creativity is a developmental milestone that many of my students have never reached; it doesn't mean they don't have the potential, it means they don't have the skills to present it typically.

I hear a lot from other teachers about the problem of "cookie-cutter projects:" getting back 20 copies of the same thing. I hear from other teachers about the problem of students seeing rubrics as a checklist of requirements. If I give out a set of materials or a rubric I won't get back 20 copies of the same thing, but that's because I won't get back any completed work at all. The skill my students don't have, the skill I'm somehow failing to teach, is goal directed behavior. It's not a language problem, though that's related: I know how to adapt things with pictures, and they know how to follow a simple picture schedule. It's the very concept of going from start to finish with an end product in mind. It's such an essential skill for life and we seem to have missed it in our instruction.

I have spent the last year focusing on student choice and following student interests to guide instruction. It has served us well, but looking back some of our most profound classroom moments have come when students made connections between where they started and a goal: students getting excited about spelling target words, students using unprecedented amounts of language to comment when our social studies text contradicted her previous worldview.

And so I find myself with new questions: how can I model more goal directed behavior in our daily instruction without losing the choice and student interest based instruction that has clearly been such a successful paradigm for student instruction? For some students language may be enough, but many of my students will likely need visual or tangible models. What does this look like for activities that do not create product? What effect will it have on formative assessment tools used in the lesson? 
How can I implement more exploration in an accessible and meaningful way for students to learn to express creativity, which will naturally lead to more goal directed behavior?

I'm left with more questions than I started with, but I'm much more confident that I'm headed in the right direction now!

This is the first post in what will hopefully become a series of posts on implementing project-based learning in the severe special needs classroom. However, since this one took me the better part of a year to write, I wouldn't count on there ever being more than one post in the series....

Saturday, December 19, 2015

You Can't Teach Self-Determination Out of a Box

We are slowly coming to the conclusion that there is actually very little that you can teach from a standardized pre-made curriculum. If you want students to retain and integrate the knowledge, that is, those higher order thinking skills so prized by the Common Core and its adherents. Progressive educators who are embracing student directed learning and marveling at the changes it has wrought in their classrooms are discovering truths that were taught to me as a pre-service teacher in severe special education: for example using mystery and student interests to engage language. We were talking about requesting and labeling language, they are talking about higher order thinking and reflecting, but the concepts are the same. 

In many ways, special education teachers are lucky because we have no prescribed curriculum. In general, we have no pre-made curriculum or textbook that we are forced to conform to, because our students, by nature, don't conform. Yet, many special education teachers spend hours of the time they do not have trying to find a curriculum that will work for their students. Trying to fit stubbornly square pegs into persistently round holes. Yet teachers keep trying. Searching for curriculums to teach difficult but incredibly important concepts like self-determination and self-advocacy. But you can't teach those skills from a boxed curriculum, no matter how well it is adapted for the population you work with. You can't do it because of the first word in the very concepts: self. Standards can be developed (and I believe there is much work still to be done in that area) but the curriculum must, by its very nature, be personalized and individualized and you can't box that. It won't apply.

Maybe I am so skeptical of boxed curriculums because I have never seen one that was usable 'off the shelf." Even the special education adapted curriculums require so much supplementation, adaptation and modification, that they served more as a guide or idea generation starting point than something I could just use. Don't get me wrong, having that guide was invaluable to me as a new teacher. I still use other people's posted lessons and units as guides or idea jumping off points in a similar fashion, though more and more often now those come from general education. General education is where the teachers are taking the risks to teach upper grade level concepts in a hands-on and student centered way. I can create, adapt, and/or modify as needed from there. 

So, no, I'm not looking for the perfect (or even "a") curriculum to teach self-advocacy and self-determination to my students. I'll teach it the same way I teach everything else: by following their lead and using their choices and interests to guide our explorations. What I would love is for all of us, as a community of teachers, people with disabilities, parents, and policy-makers, to come together and recognize the importance of this sadly neglected area of the curriculum, and to develop state and national standards that speak to what learning and mastering it really mean. I would be happy to spend the time I don't have on that task force. 

Saturday, October 17, 2015

EdCamp Relationship Status: It's Complicated

Just about a year ago, before I attended my first EdCamp, I wrote this post expressing my fears that, despite all the championing it gets on Twitter, my preferred PD source, it would simply not be the right PD environment for me.

This is not the post where I say "Then I went to one and it was so awesome, it totally changed my perspective!" (You can find that post all over the web - EdCamps are, for many people, an amazing life/PD changing experience.)

I've been to several now. I'm even considering going back to one or two of them next year. But next year, I'll have a better understanding of how EdCamps do and do not work for me, and hopefully I'll be able to get more out of them next time. I'm not anti-EdCamp, they're just hard for me in a way that I'm not sure is worth it.

The challenges:

  • Folks in your PLN update their avatars to make themselves easier to spot/connect with. I'm face-blind and a verbal learner. I never look at people's avatars, and even if I did, they wouldn't help me.
  • Even if I can find folks to connect with, I, quite plainly, suck at small talk. I have no idea how to get in or out of a conversation (and forget knowing what to say when I'm in it.)
  • Which leads to my next point: the unstructured conversation of an EdCamp. I have no idea when to talk, if I'm talking too long, if what I'm saying is appropriate to the topic (or if my minority perspective is actually unhelpful and I should just shut up and listen.)
  • I communicate best when I'm talking about my special interests: inclusion for students with severe special needs, and disability rights advocacy. Even at EdCamps, I don't find anyone who wants to talk about those topics, and when I try to post a session that relates my interest to general education or moderate needs teachers, I completely fail. People will show up and then walk out almost immediately. Among the people who stay, there is never any discussion, and I have no idea how to facilitate making it happen.
Why I get more out of Twitter:
  • I can recognize people by name/twitter handle. And if I don't recognize the name, I can use my research skills on my own Twitter account to find out if they're someone I've interacted with before.
  • No small talk! (or very structured small talk as part of the "introduce yourself" section of a twitter chat - I know how to do that!)
  • There are no conversational turns on twitter, so there's no risk of talking out of turn. If someone isn't interested in your tweet or post, they'll skip it. I can feel safe contributing my perspective without accidentally trampling on people who have ideas more relevant to everyone else.
  • Side conversations are probably one of the best parts of twitter chats. I can engage with people who are interested in thinking about my ideas and interests and how they relate to the topic at hand while we both keep up with the main chat as well.
And that doesn't even begin to take into account the social energy expended. Passing as NT is hard work, especially when my social interaction skills are being taxed. I run out of spoons long before the day ends, especially if I try to engage in connecting (socially or professionally) with the other people there. I leave feeling exhausted rather than invigorated. (Though usually with several new ideas running through my head "for when I have the energy.")

Interacting via text is easier than talking. I can't explain why, but it is. And the social connecting part of twitter is much more formulaic (favoriting tweets, following people) - I know how to apply those rules. With only 140 characters, much of the social conventions of interpersonal interaction are skipped. That gives me an "in" to connecting with people, joining conversations and making connections, that I just don't have in the face-to-face world of body language and non-verbal cues. I leave most twitter chats buzzing with ideas: and go and check them out right away, because I actually still have the energy to do something other than sleep.

I still feel a pang of jealousy every time I see posts on my timeline from people I follow who are connecting with others in their (our) PLN at EdCamps. I try to remind myself that even if I was there, I wouldn't be making those connections either. It's a social interaction thing that I Just. Don't. Get. The same thing happens when I see posts from far-away conferences that I would love to attend. My reality is that I can't travel more than a day trip unless it's to or with family or friends who can provide me with the support I need to manage the travel. I'd love to go to one of those out-of-state conferences; my administration will even approve it if I ask. But it's just Not. Going. To. Happen.

The beauty of connecting globally, for me, is the combination of synchronous and asynchronous communication. It's the ability to connect with and learn from amazing people without the baggage of face-to-face social interaction. At EdCamps, the interesting things always seem to be happening next door. 

So I'm going to try again, to see if I can make this PD method work for me. Because there is something to be said about getting your PD from multiple sources - and when all your sources are online or books.... But I'm going to try and do it with the following insights/suggestions in mind:
  • use the twitter back channel to connect and comment - done right that can be a springboard for face-to-face interaction with others who are also back-channelling.
  • try to use the google docs notes better as a resource during and after the EdCamp
  • session-hop more. sessions I don't participate in are emotionally draining, and those are spoons I don't have to spare. Try to find sessions where I'm at least excited to listen. Which brings me to my last point:
  • don't post a session unless there is absolutely nothing that interests me on the board in that time slot. expending social energy facilitating a discussion is not worth the limited reward.
I don't know if that will be sufficient accommodation to make EdCamps work for me. I really do want to like the model. I'm going to try. Ask me again in a year, and maybe I'll have a better idea of how to handle being a Connected Autistic Educator. For now, the short answer is: it's complicated.

Friday, July 17, 2015

What are you teaching? What are they learning?

Back when I ran a very behavior based classroom, the fundamental question I asked when designing any program or intervention was "What am I teaching my students with this program?" because I learned early on that you needed to look well below the surface to understand the answer to that question. (That's the point of an FBA.)  The example I always gave was the student who acts out out (yells, spits, runs, whatever) to get attention from a staff member. If you say "stop" the student will stop. But that is not an effective intervention, because what the student has learned from it is, "if I act out, I can get your attention - you will tell me to stop." The behavior will maintain or increase long term. (Effective intervention for behavior like that is a longer digression and not the point of this post.)

I've moved away from the behavior intervention/positive behavior supports model of classroom management, but I find I'm still asking the same question. For example, I have a student who tends to express both joy and frustration by yelling. I made a comment to one of her therapists that she does know how to keep her voice down when traveling in the hallways if you ask her to. Her response was to ask me if we should set up a reward program for walking quietly in the hall.

After my knee-jerk "no reward programs" reaction, I stopped to think about what such a program would teach her, and whether that would be in line with my goals for her.
It would teach her:
1. It is not okay to express joy or frustration in the hallway. (or whatever else she is expressing with her yelling - she is a non-speaking student.)
2. Bending to authority's will is more important than expressing yourself.

For a student already at high risk for abuse (by virtue of being both non-speaking and having physical disabilities) these are most emphatically not lessons I want to teach her!

At the same time, it would be beneficial for my student to learn that the expected behavior in the hallway is quiet and to express herself in a more restrained way when it is appropriate to do so. So when we travel the halls, we have conversations about her voice level. (Yes, conversations with non-speaking students are totally possible. Yes, I do most of the actual talking.) Most of the time she does keep it down, and when she doesn't she usually has a good reason. What's she learning?
1. I should try to be quiet in the hallway.
2. It's okay to express how I'm feeling.

Those sound like the lessons I'm trying to teach! (And yes, I worry about prompt dependency and that she won't learn to be quiet in the halls without having a conversation about it, but if the trade off is her expressing herself too loudly without a prompt vs learning that it's not okay to express yourself at all, then that's a prompt I can live with.)

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Tell us your story

I signed up for #clmooc this year but I wasn't really sure why other than "I want to learn more about the maker movement." This is my reflection piece prior to maker cycle 1.

One of my big pushes this year (actually a professional learning goal) was to involve my students in social media. My stated rational and goal was this:
For many AAC communicators, due to the delay inherent using the device, seeing the pay-off of using their device to communicate can be difficult, which can decrease motivation to communicate. By opening up the world of social media, where all communication is text and image based, AAC users are on an level playing field when it comes to communication, and need little or no accommodation in order to participate. This fact, combined with the motivation of seeing their words get real-world responses beyond their immediate world of family and teachers, is a powerful tool for motivating and engaging AAC communicators at every level.
So far, my students have had limited interest in using our class twitter account. They've enjoyed participating in the twitter projects we've done (e.g. #mathphoto15) but no particular care for posting their finds to the account, and even less for seeing the reactions their posts have gotten. They have less than zero interest in responding to posts from other classes we follow or for checking out what other people participating in the projects have posted or responding to those posts.

I'm normally a very student-lead educator. My instruction is driven by my students' interests. So why do I keep coming back to social media when my students so obviously don't care? (Other than the obvious need for data on my professional learning goals for teacher assessments.)

The hardest thing about teaching my students is not the lack of formal language; it's not the physical needs; it's not the behavior challenges either. The hardest thing about teaching my students is that they do not create product. Interaction with the physical world itself is a barrier and challenge for my learners. It's hard for me, because I have nothing to show to point to my learners' achievements; it's hard for my learners' parents, who want to see what their child is doing/can do and who cannot simply ask their child to tell or show them what they know and can do.

And so I turn to twitter. To digital portfolios. To blogging. To the maker movement. To find a way for my learners to share their stories: with me, with their families, and, yes, with the world. It doesn't have to be Twitter just because that's where I like to tell my story. I will keep looking until I find someplace that works for them.

 I do it also in the hope that other teachers who have learners like mine in their classes will dare to tell their stories too. So we can change the story of education for learners traditionally labeled severe/profound. Because that's my story.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Assessment Review

On Friday, one of the staff I was working with was asking me about ABA: what it is, how it's used, why I don't teach that way. This isn't that post (I may or may not write it) but the conversation got me thinking about data collection and assessment. Then Mark Barnes posted this challenge on Brilliant or Insane. Whenever the #TTOG (Teachers Throwing Out Grades) discussion comes up, I usually proudly declare "I've never given a grade in my life" and move on, because, after all, IEPs require written progress notes not report cards. Recently though, it's been nagging at me: is the data collection I dutifully report in my progress notes really any different?

I started my career working with students with challenging behaviors (many of whom were on the autistic spectrum) which means I have been given significant training in ABA. I don't agree with their teaching methods - but that's not the point of this post. The piece of that training that has stayed with me, long after I have rejected the rest, is the data collection. I still dutifully take data on the accuracy and independence of everything my students do related to their IEP goals. I sum that data every week, adjust my instruction accordingly, and it is those numbers that I report in my progress notes. I feel an obligation to use them to show how the students are progressing to meet their year-end goals (which have a numeric accuracy and independence target.)

Massachusetts state alternative assessment requires that data collection, so I can't throw it out entirely. As part of those state alternative assessments, I have to include 2 student work samples for each area being assessed. The best feedback I get from parents on those portfolios are from what are called "teacher scribed worksheets" which usually look something like this:
Parent feedback also tells me that the most useful reports I give them about their child's progress are not those data-filled progress reports I write each quarter (I never hear a word about those) but the pictures and videos I send periodically of their child in action. 

One of the biggest things I hear from parents is that they want to see what we do at school so they can carry it over to home because their child "won't do it for them." I am wondering what engagement and feedback would look like if my progress reports were made more out of pictures and the worksheets above and less out of the percentage filled paragraphs I am used to reporting?

There is an important stakeholder missing from the conversation here: the students. Under neither system are my students getting any meaningful feedback about their progress. (What they tend to get is far too much meaningless praise and platitudes: about their smile, their outfit, how cute they look, their chair, how good they look in their stander... things they have no control over.)

Last month, I introduced a digital portfolio in my classroom, to give my students some agency in the pictures, videos, and work that gets shared with their parents and to give me some feedback on what they value in their education. Our student driven schedules also give me feedback about their academic interests and motivations. Getting feedback is a challenge when students have very limited formal communication skills (as mine do.)

What isn't happening, and needs to, is a better way for me to give feedback to my students about their progress. I can do better than noting if they answered questions or used vocabulary accurately or not. I can do more than modeling correct answers and language use. It's not so straightforward when you can't sit down and have a conversation. I think rubrics might be a good place to start. Another idea is to use the same teacher scribed worksheet charts that parents value and re-scribe them with symbol supports as student feedback. I need something that is generic enough to be re-usable, (because it is impractical if not impossible to be creating new symbol supports to give feedback to each student on each lesson in real time) but specific enough to provide useful feedback.

I believe that feedback needs to augment not supplant my data collection. My data drives my instruction. I also need it to report to districts and the state. At this stage in the game, at least, I am not sure how feedback is more than putting a student/parent-accessible face on the data I am used to collecting. I think that is extremely important to be doing, and that I'm not doing it enough, but that by itself it is not sufficient to track progress. Maybe I will feed differently after I have been doing it for a while. I also need to figure out how to expand feedback beyond the accuracy and independence on IEP targets that I am used to tracking. I think I'm getting closer to more clearly defining my professional learning goal for next year....

Monday, May 25, 2015

Presume Competence

Since I work with students best described as "consistently inconsistent" I frequently find myself going around and around with well meaning colleagues on the idea that students need to "prove" that they know A or B (usually vocabulary.) (As if any typically developing child is required to "prove" their knowledge of every vocabulary word they can utter.) We usually get stuck because most of my students will not consent to participate in assessment-style activities. They will produce inconsistent or meaningless responses because they simply cannot be motivated to identify a "fork" from a field of 4 pictures. And so, the skeptics tell me I cannot "assume they have the skills:" I have to teach them.

By presuming competence, I refuse to do either. My teaching does not assume that my student can identify a picture of a fork (or numbers, or whatever other vocabulary is in question.) Nor do I spend my time direct teaching basic pre-school vocabulary. I can teach the 8th grade math curriculum (geometry and equations) without knowing for certain if my student knows number symbols. Will I teach number symbols in the process? Absolutely. I can teach mid-grade literature without knowing if my students can identify so-called "functional" vocabulary or know what a "wh" question is. Will they learn that in the process? Probably. They'll also read some really good literature that is appropriate to their age. (Please don't get me started on "wh" questions - I have found that when most people say a student doesn't know "wh" questions they really mean the student doesn't have a certain level of general knowledge, which is generally to be expected of students with complex disabilities and fundamentally Not. The. Same. Thing. One is skill, the other is content. Can you guess which one I care about more?)

My students, like all other students, will use vocabulary to answer questions and create assignments. That will tell me what they know. I don't need them to identify pictures on an assessment they don't care about. I need them to use them in a meaningful context. My students, for whom formal language continues to be a weakness, will demonstrate comprehension of concepts in a myriad of non-linguistic ways, and I will accept those as equally valid measures of their comprehension. Because I understand that, especially for students just learning formal and symbolic language, the symbolic representation and the concept are not the same thing.

That is what Presuming Competence means to me. It means not letting the fact that I cannot prove whether or not a student knows a concept or has a skill through formal assessment hold me back from teaching them higher level materials. Simply put, it means believing that all students can learn and teaching them.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Self Determination through Choices

Several of my students had IEP goals this year around sequencing events on their daily schedule. Sequencing is an important pre-reading and pre-numeracy goal, and working with the familiar concepts of the daily schedule is a logical way to teach that skill. Its a common goal for students in my class and my students mastered it. Along the way, two learner types emerged: the Memorizer and the Requester. The Memorizer attempts to memorize the sequence - bathroom is always first, then reading, and so on. That works fine if the daily schedule never changes (spoiler alert: it does!) and if you always start at the beginning and go all the way to the end (not helpful if you want to check your schedule after lunch, for example.) The Requester sees the list of activities to be sequenced as a menu to be chosen from and will pick the items s/he wants to do - potentially demonstrating a false negative for understanding the sequence.

This year, I had 2 Memorizers and 1 Requester. All of them were able to demonstrate mastery of the concept of sequencing. So at the end of April vacation, my paraprofessional and I decided to try something new. We decided to throw out the structured classroom schedule and let the students create it. We had already been doing this a little bit: morning snack was optional and at different times (one student needed breakfast first thing, one frequently skipped it, and one needed to eat around an inclusion class.) We simply wanted to take it one step further. The new classroom schedule that greeted the students looked like this:
Some activities, like therapies, lunch and inclusion classes, have set times. The rest are listed as choices. Students can make individual and group choices about what to do when.

We’ve only been at this a week, so a lot more work needs to be done to scaffold the language of choosing activities, especially the peer interactions of choosing group activities. My students do not yet have the language to ask peers to join them in an activity or to bargain. But I heard lots of question words being explored on communication devices. We did a lot of language modeling: using those question words and the time words of “first” and “then” (familiar to our students from their sequencing experience,) moving symbols around on the classroom and student schedules as students made choices and then modified them based on peer choices.
decorated manilla folder on a table sideways with 4 picture symbols vecroed in a line on top, two picture symbols are on a mostly empty strip of velcro on the bottom. In the middle it says "I can choose" on the bottom it says "when I do it" and "what I do"
Completed Picture Schedule
Empty Picture Schedule
Examples of student schedules before and after they are filled out.

My initial impression of this change is very positive. I felt like my students engaged in more instructional activities for more of the day. I will have to wait until I’ve had a few more weeks of data in order to see how much of that was our excitement to engage them in this new learning activity and how much was caused/supported by the change in classroom structure.

Two take-aways from the first week:
1. I may need to stack the deck a little bit or there are IEP goals we will never address. Right now I am taking this as feedback about areas of the curriculum that need to be addressed to make them more student-friendly. (e.g. Nobody picked math without prompting. However, the students did seem to like the new unit we started, so I’ll be curious to see how that affects their choices next week.)
2. Only one of my students looked to the classroom schedule when asked to choose what he wanted to put on his schedule, visibly having difficultly choosing something on his own. One of the Memorizers, this is my least physically independent student. More so than the other students in the class, this student is used to having his choices, not just made for him, but physically done to him. This is a poignant and important reminder about the importance of giving these students control over their lives, not just academically, but in every domain.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Prove it: A Post for BADD 2015

This is my post for Blogging Against Disabilism Day 2015. Read more posts here.

A kindergarden student, learning to read, gets periodic assessment of their reading, and based on those assessments, moves up or down in their reading instructional level.

Yet, when my nonverbal 13-year-old student, who is also learning to read, takes the same assessment and I say I am going to move her up in reading instructional level as a result, I am met with the following response:
1. assumption that I read the passage to her.
2. push-back that I must do many more assessments before I can say for certain that she can read at that level.

When I use the formal assessment tools built into our phonics program for assessing symbol/sound awareness with one of my students and comment to one of my colleagues that my student (a non-speaking 14-year old who communicates with a low-tech eye gaze board) seems to know his consonants and be ready to move on to learning CVC words, I get the following response:
1. questioning whether I am going to assess all the letters or “just the ones on this page?"
2. commenting that “well those are the hard ones” despite the fact that I clearly stated that the section needed to be gone back to, not because the student had struggled but because the student had fatigued in using his eye gaze system and needed a break.

Why? Because they are non-speaking and the concept that a non-speaking person who is not yet using formal communication could read is completely alien, even to my fellow professionals working in the field of severe special education.

If they had been a verbal, typically developing, kindergarden students, no one would have questioned the validity of the assessment results. Yet this happens all the time when instructing students with limited formal communication skills in the general curriculum.

Yet there is a hypocrisy here. Because there is one assessment that they only had to take once. It’s the most flawed assessment they ever took, not least because it was a language based assessment given to someone with no formal language. I’m referring of course to the IQ test. The test that showed all the things they couldn’t do. The test that provided the justification for an assessment and therapeutic based education instead of a standards-based  education. No one seems to have any problem taking the results of that single assessment at face value.

That is the heart of ableism. We are only comfortable with accepting with assessments of individuals with disabilities that show us how they are disabled; the ones that show us what they can’t do. (If that reading assessment had shown she couldn’t read it, I doubt anyone would have asked me to do more assessments to make sure I wasn’t wrong.) Show an assessment that challenges those assumptions, an assessment that shows how they are skilled, and people will refuse to believe it without additional irrefutable proof.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Autism Acceptance Month

Yesterday, in a discussion of ways to observe Autism Acceptance as professionals who are on the spectrum, I posted the following in the comments of a friend's post:

Change comes slowly when it comes at all. 
But the best change I can make is teaching my students to be productive independent citizens. Whatever that looks like for them. So that's what I'm spending April doing. Just like every other month. 

With that in mind my contribution to Autism Acceptance Month is this: I will be participating in the #AprilBlogADay educator reflection project. (I probably won't post every day, but I will post regularly.)