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.