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. 

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