Sunday, November 20, 2016

Math on the Move: a framework for teaching much more than math!

I first had the opportunity to "meet" Malke Rosenfeld on twitter two years ago through the Summer Math Photo Challenge, created by the #MBoS twitter group. The idea was simple, look around your world and take pictures of everyday things that included the target math concept for the week. For my students, who love to walk around the school and who love to take pictures with their iPads, this was pretty much a dream project. I built my entire summer school math curriculum around the project. Malke was a great source of inspiration during that time, always liking the students posts, and posting pictures and ideas that turned into whole group lessons.

I'd been experimenting with movement based math prior to the Photo Challenge project: we'd done a lot of number walks and number scavenger hunts. My students have significant physical and visual challenges, so while they love it when I can incorporate movement into lessons, it can be a real challenge. Encouraged by our success that summer, I branched out, using the same photo challenge concepts to teach phonics in addition to counting and comparing skills in math. It shouldn't have surprised me that, using these tools and ideas, students who'd never seen academic success were finally learning. I was ecstatic, but I wanted more. Then, I discovered Malke was writing a book!

The text is well researched and grounded in solid pedagogy. She makes an important point that students need an opportunity to explore and understand the concepts before trying to hang language on them. Like many teachers of students who struggle with language, I tend to drill the language piece at the expense of the concepts, and her analysis is spot on! Early on, she makes it clear that "the body activity is focused on mathematical sense-making, not mnemonics, often through efforts to solve a physical or moving-scale challenge of some kind." (pg. 3)

I was intrigued that, through the first part of the book, I saw much more clearly how the ideas she put forth could be used in my reading and literacy and even my science lessons to teach basic core concepts and vocabulary, than how I might use it to teach anything I would consider "math." Many of my students struggle with imitation skills as well as basic concepts, and her ideas around using body-scale to demonstrate "big" and "little" or "same" and "different" seemed like natural extensions of something we could do in my classroom, where we'd already used scooter boards to learn about "fast" and "slow." I loved the idea of using video to have students imitate themselves. I haven't tried it yet in the classroom, but I want to!

As she delved deeper into the Math in Your Feet curriculum, I found myself thinking "I love this, but how can I modify it for access?" My previous experience bringing dance into the classroom has generally been everyone had a lot of fun but that it was unsuccessful from an actually-teaching-the-dance perspective. When she broke down the expectations for K-2 students, I found myself saying "I can modify this. My students could do a variation on that." Which brings me to the only qualm I had with the text. Her list of accommodations: it was very clearly based on the students with disabilities you typically see integrated in a public school classroom. The students who can access grade level curriculum with accommodation and minor modifications, and it read like a list of standard accommodations for those students. I can't blame her, since I'm guessing she's probably never tried the program with students in a self-contained or more restrictive setting, and honestly, it's a pretty minor qualm in what is otherwise a great text.

My students have been working on a modified version of the Math in Your Feet curriculum for a couple of weeks now. Accommodating gross motor and vision challenges, we mark off a large portion of the room as our "square." I've made a picture vocabulary list of movements we can do and locations in the square to do them. My students have shown the ability to complete two movements with 1-2 locations, and to imitate those done by others. We're working on using language to write those movements down. Remembering them over time and repeating them is still a challenge, but it's something to work for, but Malke's given us something to strive for. I can't wait to see what they come up with next!

The curriculum in Math on the Move is geared primarily toward teaching mathematical and spacial relationship concepts to upper elementary students. However, the framework put forth teaches so much more than that. Because of its robust nature, it is easy to apply Universal Design concepts and use the framework to teach even to the access levels of object awareness and imitation. I've yet to meet a student, regardless of physical involvement, who didn't appreciate movement. Malke has created a truly inclusive text that I hope will become a staple of every teacher's library. I know it's already taken a key place in mine.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Do You Have a Minute?

(Image courtesy of ASAN

I've wished, pretty much since I learned about them, that the rest of the world would implement Color Communication Badges, especially for events like conferences where so much emphasis of the benefit is placed on the face-to-face connections: in other words, the socializing - that thing I can't do. My dear friend, Nightengale, made a wonderful argument in her most recent post about why we need to introduce the badges into schools. Because what we expect people to want isn't necessarily the same as what they do want, and the first step in advocacy is ask-vocacy: ask the person.

Then I spotted this on the Internet:

That got me thinking about the benefit of implementing Color Communication Badges in my classroom, not just for my students but for myself as well. There's pretty much nothing a student can do in my classroom that will bother me, or prevent learning from happening, but there are 4 little words that can throw off an entire lesson or even an entire day:

"Do you have a minute?"

The unwritten answer to this question, of course, is "yes." I work very hard to be flexible and accessible for collaboration. It's worked. It's worked a little too well, to the point where people think it's okay to interrupt me in the middle of lessons. But the fact remains that, a lot of the time, I don't have a minute. I'm with a student or group; I'm mentally (sometimes physically) organizing the next lesson; or I'm taking a much needed breather so I can be "on" again in a minute.

The problem is, once I've explained that, no, now is not a good time (because it would be rude to just ignore you) I've already lost that focus so I might as well recoup my losses and go down the rabbit hole on whatever you wanted "a minute" about. Maybe it will be useful. So I have acquired a reputation of being always accessible that is actually counterproductive to the way my brain works.

Therefore, when school starts again tomorrow, I'm going to be rolling out Color Communication Badges for everyone, students and teachers, in my classroom. The original descriptions (edited slightly for brevity) are:

Green: actively seeking communication. May have trouble initiating conversation, but want to be approached by people who are interested in talking

Yellow: only want to talk to people they recognize, not strangers/friends from the Internet.

Red: probably doesn't want to talk to anyone (or only a few people) unless it is an emergency.


I'm going to have to tweak the definitions for the classroom environment a little bit. (They stand fine as they are for leisure time.) My preliminary classroom definitions:

Green: available to talk on a new topic/with a new person. Ready to try something new.

Yellow: can talk, if it's on the topic at hand/current instructional topic, or getting information I'm waiting for. Probably don't want to try something new/work with a new person.

Red: not available, unless it is an emergency. 

I suspect my card will spend a fair amount of time on "yellow" during the school day. I'll check back in after a couple weeks, and let you know how it goes.

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Tools We Use

This is a follow-up to my last post "What Students Need." The connection may not be readily apparent, but bear with me, and I promise I will connect the dots.

More than most other learners, my students use a lot of technology to access learning. Some of it is obvious: the wheelchairs, the iPads with communication software, the positioning and medical equipment. Some of it may be less obvious until it is pointed out: the keyboards, touchscreen computers, visual supports and schedules, social stories, staffing ratios.

Sometimes, the line between the technology and the pedagogy begins to blur. That's where we talk about things like prompting hierarchies and token economies/reward systems. The tools that teachers use to access student learning. (Not to assess it, but to gain access to the learning student so that teaching can be effective.) It's no wonder, then, that this is where the the controversy lies in so much of special education.

To understand the problem, we have to clearly separate technology from pedagogy. Our goal, always is for our students to be independent learners and citizens. To do that, we have to recognize that the wheelchair, the social story, and the token board can all be viewed as giving the student the same amount of independence or fostering the same amount of staff dependence, depending on how we teach the individual to us them.

Consider the differences:
The student who pushes their own chair (or uses a powerchair) vs. the student who has a manual chair she cannot push.
The student who is able to find or write their own social stories vs the student who depends on a parent/teacher/SLP to write social stories in order to cope with new situations.
The student who creates his schedule and works for a self-created goal vs the student who is only able to participate in class with the carrot of a reward dangled in front of him.

The second student in each example is clearly better off than the student without any of those resources. But the first student has something very important. She has the tools for self-determination. The second student will have to work much harder at self-advocacy to have their independence recognized and honored, simply because they do not have access to (or the skill to use) the technology to seize it themselves. We owe it to all of our students to give them access to, and teach them to use, all of the technologies that they will need for self-determination. We cannot limit them because of our preconceived ideas of what "assistive technology" means or looks like or because we value a certain pedagogical approach that doesn't use that tool. Our job is not to help our students. Our job is to teach them the skills to help themselves. To do that, they need all of the tools we can give them.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

What Students Need

I've brought up the concern at conferences before: the special education students who are the best at earning points in programs like Class Dojo. We've taught them to do their work to get the things they want and they're very good at it. To the point where many of them won't do their work without the reward and meltdown if they don't get it. I've had a front row seat to that show this summer.  The incentive system clearly does its job. But, for me it always comes back to the same questions: "What are you teaching? What are they learning?"

Now I want to add another question: "What do they need?"

When we use a reward system we are clearly teaching students that they should not value the academic task. After all, we obviously don't. It's only one factor that goes into getting their token (complete task and behave usually) and it takes multiple tokens to get anything they care about. They are learning to comply with teacher-directed activities and to engage in pro-social behaviors. Adding the last question makes it clear what the reward system is really driving at: what students need. Students need to care about the work they are doing. They wouldn't engage in the reward activities (they wouldn't be rewards) if students didn't care about them. If we want to get rid of reward systems we need to make the work the thing students care about.

For some students, making the work the thing the student cares about is as simple as incorporating the students interest into the instructional activity. You're talking about auditoriums? Okay, let's find the letters in auditorium to spell it into google and get a picture. Write three sentences and we can print it out. Let's count how many doors there are between here and the school auditorium.... (This idea make sense to you? Want to run with it? I recommend Paula Kluth's book Just Give Him The Whale!)

It's a strategy that has worked remarkably well. Some content is harder to fit in (science, social studies) but we find other ways to make it fun and more often than not those activities become the things that students are talking about. (Think I'm crazy? Learn from the Pirate Master himself, Dave Burgess in his book Teach Like A Pirate)

For some students, it's not as easy to see what they need. Because interest and perseveration are not always the same thing. Because we don't always have enough context to tell what is self-calming speech, what is anxiety-speech and what is social speech (assuming we can understand the speech at all.) Because the same tools that a students enjoys can be exactly the wrong tools for learning for a student who has trouble context-switching.

The fact remains that teacher-directed instruction is still important. Teaching pro-social behavior (and reducing or eliminating dangerous behavior) is also important. There will always be cases where we can't see they pay-off for completing something (because it's too many steps down the line) and we need to give ourselves a little extra reward. I know I do it for myself. (How do you think this blog post got published?) Rewards aren't evil. But students need to know that learning is important, fun even, and not just because you can get the computer after you fill your token board for doing it.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Autistic and Disability Culture - The Forgotten Cultural Competencies

This is the first post in a series of posts for Autism Acceptance Month unpacking the impact of being autistic in education and why we need more autistics in education at all levels.

I often get into conversations about cultural competency on Twitter and elsewhere and find that the voice of disability culture is un-heard and unrecognized in the conversation. Teachers who are otherwise very aware and active in trying to be culturally competent are completely unaware of the inherent biases of the educational system against Autistic and disability culture. So, piggy-backing on the excellent post by my friend Nightengale of Samarkand about practicing cultural competency in medicine, and in honor of April and Autism Acceptance, I want to see if I can unpack the concept for my fellow educators.

 First let's look at how educators encourage students to demonstrate and share their culture:
1. Sharing their food.
Many autistics have specific food preferences due to sensory sensitivities. These may have to do with texture, color, taste, or smell. Teachers at the elementary level could capitalize on this to re-frame the autistic students as experts to teach about the five senses. But that's not what happens. Seen as a medical deficit instead of cultural difference, students are given behavior plans to learn to eat what their typical peers eat in the way that their typical peers eat it. We would chastise a teacher for doing the same thing to a student from China who insisted on eating traditional noodles with chopsticks. We would encourage that student to share their tradition. But it is seen as perfectly acceptable to do to an Autistic student. Students with a variety of disabilities require specialized diets and food preparation for a variety of reasons in order to eat safely at school. Their peers are naturally curious about these differences, as much as they are curious about any other difference in food. While it may not be safe for these students to share food with peers, making it taboo to talk about leads to fear. Yet, many teachers are afraid, because they have limited understanding beyond the inservice they received about how the student could die if they let them near the wrong food (assuming they have any training at all.) This leads to unnecessary segregation: from separate tables to students who are required to be fed by nurses or even eat in the nurses office. This creates a clear and unnecessary "us" vs "them" distinction in the name of "safety."

2. Sharing their language.
Many people with disabilities are able to very articulately describe their experiences, but for many autistics and other people with disabilities, spoken language is not their primary means of communication. And most special educators will tell you "all behavior is communication." For many non-speaking autistics, physical and visual interaction with objects and people are meaningful forms of communication, so are scripting and echolalia. Yet, most speaking people are unwilling to listen to that communication unless it is translated for them into spoken language. Special education has only one translation manual, it's called the FBA, and it says that non-speaking students are only saying one of 4 things in every communication interaction: "I want this," "I want your attention," "stop this," or "this feels good." This problematic belief is what justifies providing limited vocabulary and not introducing robust AAC. When we ask a student from France to share something of their language, we are not surprised to hear greetings, stories, and poetry. When a student who uses AAC does the same, it makes the local and sometimes national news. The disability community refers to this as "Inspiration Porn."

But there is an even more insidious worm than the problems I have laid out above, although it is integral to all of the examples listed. The problem is not just that Autistic and disability culture and excluded from the conversation about cultural competence. The problem is not just that Autistic and disability cultural differences are treated as medical or educational deficits to be remedied or swept out of sight in the name of "safety." The real problem is that Autistic and disability culture is not on most educators' radar at all, even that of special educators (perhaps especially not that of special educators.)

Culturally inclusive educators do not teach about autistic and disability culture. Autism awareness in schools has everything to do with wearing blue on April 2 and nothing to do with learning about Autistic Culture. Even in special education classes specially designed for Autistic students, they do not learn any disability rights history. They might learn about the civil rights movement (if they get that much access to the general education curriculum, many don't.) But they won't learn about how their own history is intertwined with that history. They won't learn about the community that exists (mostly online) out there if they chose to get involved in advocacy.

Some of this is unintentional. Many teachers simply do not know about the history of the disability rights movement. Many, despite their best intentions, still think of their students as children. I have had conversations with many very well meaning teachers where I have to remind them repeatedly that I am talking about the student getting access to their community, not just the parent. But some of it is intentional. I have been blocked from providing inservice about disability history because it is "too political." Disability history is not pretty. What has been done to people with disabilities by well meaning professionals is not something to be proud of. But, as professionals, we have to own that history if we are going to change it. It is no different that any of the other hard parts of our history. Or am I the only one who reads Satayana any more?

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Knowing What to Say

This spring, I'm taking a course in Sheltered English Immersion (SEI) through the MA Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). At our class last week, the teacher prompted us to write an answer to the following question:

What does it mean to know a word?

I spent a long time thinking about my answer. I believe strongly in Presuming Competence and I wanted to make sure that was reflected in my answer, that my answer did not reflect any unintentional ableist biases around being able to speak (in complete sentences) or perform academic tasks. What I came up with at the time was:

To be able to recognize a word when you hear/see it. To be able to take action based on the word.

That definition got me thinking about the over-reliance on vocabulary identification tasks in special education. My teacher mentor during my student teaching was actually very explicit about it. We were teaching a science unit about the life cycle and she told me, "The state thinks I'm teaching [science] content; really I'm teaching vocabulary." When I think about my own teaching, most of my vocabulary-based instruction is at the identification level. I spend time on identifying the symbol (picture or text) that corresponds to a given word, and on using words in context. I have lots of conversations with my SLP about how my students are so inconsistent in their identification, likely due to lack of motivation for the task, and how we will really be sure they know the vocabulary when they start using them in meaningful context. As emerging communicators using robust AAC devices, they are starting to do just that. This course I am taking is showing me in dramatic relief that I am missing a key middle step to supporting my students success in language and vocabulary aquisition. When I'm teaching symbol ID, I'm presuming knowledge of meaning. Yet, experience has shown me that my students will find the right symbol to express what they mean even if I haven't taught it explicitly. I need to presume competence: that they know what they want to say but I need to spend more time focusing on the middle stage of vocabulary learning -- meaning -- to make sure they know what words to use to say it.

Tiering vocabulary is a common practice in vocabulary instruction (though one I was unfamiliar with prior to taking this course.) Level one vocabulary are the common words that most people know. They're the ones that you can easily take a picture of. In AAC, these are mostly our basic fringe vocabulary. They're the nouns that many of our AAC learners never get past. In a robust AAC system, all these words should already be there. Tier 2 are the tricky words, the multi-meaning words, the pronouns, the phrases and idioms, the connecting words that are so hard to explain but absolutely essential to meaning. It's where most of our AAC core words are. They are the words that are hardest for English Language Learners (ELLs) to learn, and they're also the words we should be targeting with our AAC learners. They make up the bulk of what we need for comprehension. Then there are the Tier 3 words. These are the domain specific words that are needed for a specific text, unit, or subject. Some of these are fringe words, like our Tier 1 words. They're domain specific, so they can be explicitly taught in context, though they are more complex than Tier 1 words. We can go crazy trying to program this vocabulary into AAC devices for students to participate in inclusion or classroom activities using AAC. Kate Ahern has written a wonderful article about why we shouldn't and what to do instead.

So, I propose a four-staged model of thinking about vocabulary knowledge for AAC learners: awareness, identification, meaning, and usage. Our students can show knowledge of vocabulary at any step. A student might show awareness of a word by using other words to make a comment about it, by identifying related words, or by making meaning with other words. This allows us to continue to target our instruction at core words. It avoids what my professor called the "tourist vocabulary" and Kate calls "non-recyclables" - words we only visit once for a unit or maybe once a year and never use again, but still allows us to provide meaningful access to the content and that Tier 3 vocabulary. (What if that topic turns out to be an interest of the student that they want to pursue? Then it becomes a fringe word and into the device it should go! But we won't know that unless we teach it and give them a way to talk about it.) 

We can't just teach core words any more than we can just teach at the symbol identification level. We have to provide access to vocabulary, symbols and meaning, at all levels for students to have rich comprehension of material. That doesn't mean every word has to be in the student's device. That's not possible. We need to teach students the skills to talk about anything, including ideas that no one has ever had before, or we are limiting their communication. Focusing on teaching meaning of Tier 2 vocabulary is a means to that end.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Teaching in the Balance

Where I work, there is a lot of focus on being a Trauma Sensitive School. It's a very sensible program and perspective. We have many students in our program who have significant trauma in their past in addition to their intellectual and mental health disabilities. For the students I work with, who come from stable loving homes, their medical history and long experience with educational neglect and communication poverty (many were teens before being given access to any form of AAC) is another form of trauma requiring the same level of understanding and intervention. When talking about students with complex medical needs, the conversation gets framed in terms of needing to do Maslow before you can do Bloom. It's absolutely true. The problem I see is too many teachers take it too far to the extreme and use it to justify educational neglect. I have heard too many teachers of students with complex learning needs proudly tell me "my students are safe and happy, so I know I'm a good teacher." Or "My student has lived far longer than predicted, so we know we are doing right by him. We are keeping him safe and happy." Some teachers, working with students with trauma and complex behavior needs are even more upfront about it: "We didn't get any teaching done today; but that's okay because the kids were safe and happy and that's what is important."

I have frequent cause to wonder if these teachers are familiar with the difference in definition between a babysitter and a teacher, and which one they feel best applies to them? 

I believe a balance can be found. There is a time and a place for focusing on social-emotional learning; it is an extremely important part of the curriculum for all students, but especially for this population. But those can be hours and days in the schedule or embedded parts of the academic routine - not the schedule and totality of instruction itself.

I think of my student who was so anxious about his mother's illness he could barely stay in the classroom. So we integrated his math and reading goals into the walking and picture taking in the hallway that calmed him and helped him self-regulate. Those math and reading goals actually progressed ahead of expectations, allowing him more time to focus on in classroom goals once his anxiety level decreased. 

I think of another student who simply did not come into the school building for hours. It took the better part of the year and the expertise of multiple teachers, administrators, and outside consultants before we hit upon the magic of a vocational task that provided the right mix of motivation and security and brought him into the building and into class. In the meantime, he missed a significant amount of instructional time in the classroom. But we provided instructional access during that time wherever he was, some of which he was able to access. The amazing progress he made once he began participating in class, advancing multiple grade levels in both reading and math within a year, was proof that our efforts were worth it.

It can be a scary teaching medically involved students, especially those who have experienced educational neglect. (Those who have been kept "safe and happy" with no singnificant instructional demand placed on them - often for years.) When we initially engage their brains in learning, we often also engage their brains in seizures. Brains need to learn to self-regulate as much as our bodies do. That's why they are in school. That is our job as teachers. We cannot stop teaching just because we are afraid of the accompanying increase in seizure activity. We can keep them safe from individual seizures while giving their brains a chance to learn to self-regulate so they can learn and grow. 

Knowing what we know about the effects of trauma on behavior, on learning, and on everyday life, we cannot in good conscience be the perpetrators of further educational neglect. Yet that is what we do when we allow our classrooms to be dumping grounds and babysitting services where the achievement criterion is set at "safe and happy." We need safe and happy, but our students deserve more.

Friday, January 1, 2016

One Word: Connection

Like many teachers, I am convinced that the year starts in September, not January, so this is a period of mid-year reflection for me. Also, most of what I have seen posted and tweeted about #OneWord2016 has been uncomfortably Christian for me. Still, thinking about the idea of "One Word" has been a useful reflection tool as I out together my next units: laying out the lessons for the next several weeks or months. Trying on different words it became very clear to me that there is one word that describes exactly what I want for my students and their learning; exactly what I am trying to instill in them to help them grow:


I want them to learn to use language to connect with their families and friends, both locally and via social media. I want them to understand that they can use language both to get their needs met and to connect socially. 

I want them to make connections between their real life experience and our classroom experience both to enrich their personal experience in ways they may not otherwise have access to but also help them better understand and retain the classroom material they are learning.

I want them to make connections between where they are and where they want to be, to build goal setting and problem-solving skills, the skills they will need to tackle any problem in their lives in the future.

I want them to make connections between objects and possible actions that object could do or that could be done to it. That is the basis of creativity, of wonder, on which all inquiry and scientific discovery is based.

I want them to become independent learners and this is where it starts: with making connections.