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.