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.