Thursday, 25 October 2012

Is Equitable Education Life or Death?

I am at a principal retreat and the question has been asked "How many of you think of education as a life or death situation?"  Hmmm. I sit and think, is that so?  After careful consideration these are my thoughts. . .
When you think about it, if a student does not graduate from high school, that student is subjected to a poorer paying job, no possibility of post secondary education, and likely a less fulfilling life.
As teachers, we must realize it is our moral imperative to ensure each and every student, regardless of ability, has access to the best education possible.
I mean, what teacher would say that they disagree with that? No one would stand up in a staff meeting and say, " too bad, I don't have time to make sure little Johnny gets more.  He should suffer for the rest of his adult life."
Yet, we continue to teach to the middle and hand out worksheet after disengaging worksheet. We fail to offer new ways to explain because "I already explained it three times. I can't help it that he doesn't get it!"
When will the scales of status quo drop off our eyes and we realize it is our moral imperative to do the best for all students regardless of ability? When will we meet the needs of the future generation who will be in charge of taking care of us in our old age? When will we see education as the life and death situation it is? It is then and only then our under served students will begin to blossom. 

Sunday, 21 October 2012

So Much Potential

This week a parent emailed me a youtube video showing a young girl with Autism singing with Katy Perry.  Jody DiPiazza was diagnosed with Autism at age two.  She did not speak until age four.  Her parents did not give up on her.  Her teachers did not give up on her.  And here she is. . .
What if the adults in her life thought she was too "out there" to do anything with; she was too "autistic" so nothing could be done?  She would not be doing what she is today: playing the piano and singing beautifully in front of hundreds of people.  While not every child with Autism will sing and perform in front of hundreds of celebrities, but how do we know what gift each child may possess.  What if Carly Fleishmann's parents settled for just getting by? She would not be sharing her experience with the world.  What if Temple Grandin's parents gave up and institutionalized her?  Agriculture would not be the same.
The point is, we do not know everything, therefore we must keep believing that there is more to a child with Autism.  Lana Rush puts it in the words of a parent talking about her daughter, Lily, and Carly Fleishman:
You want to know why I think kids like Lily and Carly can do things that most people think that nonverbal autistic people can't do?

Because we're talking about the brain.

One of the most mysterious organs in our bodies.

And we simply don't know everything these kids can and cannot do.

And we probably won't ever know all they can and cannot do.

Not everything in the world makes sense to us all the time.

We're not all as smart as we think we are.

Some people are criticizing Carly and saying all of her communication is completely prompted by her therapists. That her thoughts are not her own. That she thinks about the feelings of others and shows empathy, something autistic people are not supposed to be able to do.

Well, who said?

And who can really know that for sure?

I don't care what kind of degree you have or what level of expertise you've reached in your field or how many alphabet letters you have following your name, you simply can't know everything.

Nor do I.

So I'm willing to accept that Carly just might be able to show some empathy. Even though it's a recognized and accepted belief among the autism community that people with autism don't think about the feelings of others does not mean that it can't happen. It doesn't mean that every single person with autism is 100% unable to show empathy.

We just don't know. Because we don't know everything.

Again, I truly believe that the heart of the problem of autism rests in the brain. We can do all kinds of things to improve the symptoms of autism, but I believe it's similar to a brain injury. And that is the reason we are gathering up all of Lily's medical records and going to visit a doctor in California. We want to focus on the brain, not just treat the symptoms.

But that is my opinion of Lily's experience with autism.

It does not mean that I think this is what every person with autism in the world should be doing.

It may or may not work.

But if it doesn't work for Lily, that doesn't mean I'm going to write this California doctor off as a total quack who is trying to capitalize on desperate parents willing to do anything to "heal" their kids.

I'm not going to refer to his practice as a "hoax" and dedicate a blog to trying to discredit the man. If he helps one child with autism, then it's worth it.

We are all unique individuals. What works for one person may not work for someone else.
She is so right.  How can we decide what people can or cannot do?  We can merely be the ones who work to find the best a child can be, whether he or she has "special needs" or not.  As teachers we need to provide every single student with the best education we can; because we do not know what the future holds, but we do know that every child deserves our best! I recently had the good fortune to attend the Alberta Teachers' Association Special Education Conference and listened to Dr. Robin Gibb teach about the new research regarding the brain.  More and more is being discovered regarding the brain's neuroplasticity.  We simply must not settle for the lowest common denominator but strive for the most possible. Dr Gibb stated that brain development is prolonged (not static) and by giving more experiences, changes can be made.  There is simply too much potential to say, "that is all we can do."  Don't settle (for inspiration, click here)

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

This is My Perspective. . .

A parent at my school wrote this piece in hopes that all teachers would understand her perspective.  Her son is diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder among other diagnoses that affect his ability to function in the classroom.  He has been at our school for three years and as a staff, we have moved forward but every now and then, disbelief and an attitude of segregation rears its ugly head.  Both mom and I realize that we are trailblazers for the next students who come to our school community.  Sometimes, though, it makes us weary. . .

I am a parent of two children with exceptional needs.  Our son lives in [your community] and your school is his school.  Quite often I have to remind myself when frustrated that our Universities are robbing our teachers by not instructing Universal design, remind myself to not point fingers and judge those who are doing all they can to educate my child.  I cannot get mad for what you do not know. 

Back in the good old days there was a school for children like our child and then sadly only a community school for children like our daughter who is close to being at genius I.Q.

Today, life is about choices. Today, life is about blending and acceptance.  Our other child with her very high I.Q. could be in a gifted program but we chose a bilingual program and in that program she helps many of her classmates which teaches her empathy, kindness, patience and esteem and confidence.  More importantly she wishes to be a teacher as she is inspired by how many she is helping.

I see that often when I come to the school.  So many who are so interested to inspiring at whatever level.

Often you don’t think I know how you feel about special needs, our about how you feel about my child in your school.  Just like you hurt when you hear parent gossiping, we parents feel the same.  You may not say anything in the hallway but your discussion around the lunch table is heard.  Your eyes dropping or lack of social engagement to me or to my child, screams volumes to your non-acceptance of my child.

My child may have challenges but one of the gifts is high intuition.  Your negative thoughts or beliefs are being transferred onto my child, only they don’t know you see that they should be somewhere else; they assume you simply don’t like them.  Is that really what elementary school should be transferring onto any child?

Children in elementary are only at the beginning of their destiny.  Your input will echo throughout their lives always; your input creates not only their destiny but their destination.  What you believe you create.
She is right - what you believe, you create.  When you believe students with special needs should only be somewhere else, you create a community that does not accept differences.  When you believe all children can learn and will learn in your classroom, you create a culture of acceptance and inclusion.  As we grow older, I hope this next generation is accepting of differences, because before long, you and I will be different - we will be old and unable to care for ourselves.  What a different kind of world we would live in if we were still accepted as important members of society. Just a thought. . .

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Inclusion is an Attitude

Today I read Chris Smeaton's blog post, Inclusion is About an Attitude.  He talked about the fact that we have made some gains in the past thirty years but as he said, we still have much to accomplish before we can say that we are truly an inclusive community. When I began teaching high school in 1985, streaming students was the most common practice and congregated programs or non-attendance at schools were the only options.

He continued to say that over time his learning has changed. Knowing that our attitudes have to change in order for inclusion to be successful, he stated that when our attitudes shift to our children instead of those children, we will recognize:
  • The beauty of diversity                                                                     
  • The belief in uniqueness
  • That every child brings strengths
  • That every child deserves our best…all the time    
We definitely have to experience a paradigm shift regarding who these little people belong to! We cannot keep saying "those kids" and "my kids".  They are all our kids. You know, it seems so easy for teachers to talk about our exceptional students as aliens on our planet. I guess they don't understand if they have never walked in the shoes of the parents, but we have to be able to step into their shoes; teachers have to be able to take the parents' perspective.  Show some empathy and compassion. . .

Try taking the perspective of the parent in this poem:

Welcome to Holland

I am often asked to describe the experience of raising a child with a disability – to try to help people who have not shared that unique experience to understand it, to imagine how it would feel. It's like this…

When you're going to have a baby, it's like planning a fabulous vacation trip – to Italy. You buy a bunch of guidebooks and make your wonderful plans. The Coliseum, the Michelangelo David, the gondolas in Venice. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It's all very exciting.

After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The stewardess comes in and says, "Welcome to Holland."

"Holland?!" you say. "What do you mean, Holland?" I signed up for Italy! I'm supposed to be in Italy. All my life I've dreamed of going to Italy.

But there's been a change in the flight plan. They've landed in Holland and there you must stay.

The important thing is that they haven't taken you to some horrible, disgusting, filthy place, full of pestilence, famine and disease. It's just a different place.

So you must go out and buy a new guidebook. And you must learn a whole new language. And you will meet a whole new group of people you would never have met.

It's just a different place. It's slower paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy. But after you've been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around, and you begin to notice that Holland has windmills, Holland has tulips, Holland even has Rembrandts.

But everyone you know is busy coming and going from Italy, and they're all bragging about what a wonderful time they had there. And for the rest of your life you will say, "Yes, that's where I was supposed to go. That's what I had planned."

The pain of that will never, ever, go away, because the loss of that dream is a very significant loss.

But if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn't get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things about Holland.

Written by Emily Perl Kingsley 

If that doesn't make you change your perspective, I am not sure what will . . .
I know my job as principal is to lead change, to champion the changes needed in a school, but this time my heart is heavy and I am having a hard time overcoming.  I spent the weekend at the ATA Special Education conference surrounded by folks who work day after day with exceptional children and make a difference.  They are keen to help students demonstrate their strengths, to overcome their challenges.  We have such a big job to change the attitude of those who still think our students do not belong unless they measure up to their "normal" standard (that is so funny because what is normal??). Can I do it?  Can I lead an effective change?  I pray for the strength to keep at this task, to finish the journey. . .
I close this post with Chris Smeaton's closing,
A change in our attitudes will cause a change in our practices. Our attitudes will drive a continuum of support for every child as opposed to a default position of segregation. Our attitudes will develop school environments that will change societal views. Our attitudes will bring more than tolerance. They will bring understanding and acceptance.  And eventually, we will get to a place described by this quote.
“ When someone is truly included, no one will question their presence- only their absence.”- Renee Laporte
                                  photo from

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Just when you think you have made it...

Just when you think your school has made great gains with respect to inclusion...  Just when you think staff are at the point where they understand the inclusion of students with special needs in their classes...  Just when you sit back and enjoy the changing landscape... Crash!!!
It all comes smashing down while you sit in a staff meeting to look at your school plan, your accountability results, your PAT (provincial achievement tests) results, and your HLAT (highest level of achievement tests). 

It was painfully clear that we are not there yet!  When we saw some results that we were not happy about in the area of parent involvement, there were a lot of excuses flying around!  It was clearly not our fault that parents felt they were not included in decisions about their child's education. In fact, it was likely mostly the principal's problem because final decisions about class organization and inclusion fell to the principal. Or it was the government and the school board that were to blame because there isn't enough money making combined classes and inclusion even necessary. Okay, I should have seen the big red flag waving in my face but no. . .  I kept going. . .
Next, we moved to a survey result about the quality of education in our school. Satisfaction in this area had dropped about 20%. and was indicated as an issue to address.  Pretty significant. 

Staff started to say the parents probably didn't understand the question. They were satisfied with that thought.  However, further investigation of the survey question showed it was actually teachers' responses that brought the score down. WELL, the floodgates opened.  Extreme frustration burst to the surface and was evident with the facts that the landscape of our classrooms were indeed changing dramatically and causing significant discomfort. 
What floored me were comments from veteran teachers like, " because we have included students, our bright children and others are being held back," or " because I have these kids in my class, I can't do a good job of teaching.I can only be mediocre." 
These comments knocked me on my butt.  My son was one of "those kids" and I could feel my blood boil. As a principal, I know we have to be so professional, but sometimes I think teachers need to see the human side. I did tell them that these comments made me very sad as I have been that parent who was not welcome. I have been the parent of a student who struggled with the curriculum.  I have been the parent of a student who's teacher worked to create a fantastically successful learning environment and teachers who said they just wanted him out of the classroom.  I reminded them of our charter of rights and freedoms that indicates a right to education regardless of disability.  The response was the kind of "okay but not in my back yard" type.  
Although we have discussed, read, learned, viewed, there is still the overarching view that students with challenges impede the education of others.  When someone stated they didn't feel supported, I was hurt.  I was assured right after that I support the teachers, but the government does not.  How am I, as an administrator, supposed to bridge this gap?  What steps to take next?  I know I am passionate about including students in the regular classroom but what more can I do?  Except continue what I do: share information, support through IPP writing and following through, offering professional development, sharing my passion. . . 
Is it possible these teachers are tired, worn out, ready to do something else?  Is it because they were trained to stand and deliver, hand out worksheets, mark and return the worksheets, expect ultimate compliance and turn out children ready to work in the "factory?"  Compliant and doing whatever the boss tells them? Well, teachers, we are not in Kansas anymore. . .  big news. . . students (both typically developing and different abilities) need to be equipped to enter a workforce where you have to THINK on your own.  Solve problems on your own, create on your own. . .  If we don't change as educators, we are dooming our students to a life of disability - the lack of creativity disability, or problem solving disability.  SO by saying you can't teach with included students because then you can't teach how you have always taught, you are ultimately creating a life of a different disability - the disability of adults who cannot think for themselves.  

A teacher in my school shared a great article to read that gave information regarding both "sides" of the argument for and against inclusion.  This Master's Thesis by Shannon Berg researches the whole picture and offers great insights.  Berg states that one of the reasons for inclusion is to deinstitutionalize those with disabilities because until recently these folks were "feared, ridiculed, abandoned or placed in institutions that isolated them from the general public" (p. 11).  She talks about the controversy of inclusion and states the opponents of inclusion often feel teachers are incapable of meeting the needs of these students and students in regular classes should earn their place.  In other words, if the student is incapable of the work they are offering, the student should not be there (p. 22).  I wonder by who's standard do we set that bar?  Do we only use the Program of Studies or does that acceptance also depend on the whether or not the student fits our standard of behavior?  Are these students fully compliant (even if we are incredibly rigid and have unrealistic standards?) to everything we do?  If not, they don't belong?  Sounds like an elitist attitude that does not belong in public education!

Have I answered all questions? Will I ever answer all the questions?  No, but I hope teachers in my school realize inclusion is here to stay and if they have no willingness to change their attitudes, their pedagogy, their culture in their classroom, they have no place in the changing landscape of education in Alberta.  Time to find a new "job".  Is that harsh?  I don't think so.  If you come to your "job" everyday hating it, why would you want to stay? If teaching causes an inordinate amount of stress, find something new.  Our students need and deserve teachers who are passionate about making sure every single student is successful. Our students deserve teachers who love them no matter what is hard or what is easy.  Our students deserve a teacher who embraces the changes in education, knowing the changes are a fact of educational life and they can't be "wished away".  Our students deserve the best!
Phew, that feels better. 

Student Voice has Impact

What a great experience last week. Our IPP process last week was praised by parents and teachers and consultants. For the first time at our school, all stakeholders were present at the table. To top it off, we included the students we were writing the IPP about. Everyone shared hopes and dreams for the student. To start the process, we asked the students what they thought they were good at. I was a bit surprised that this was really hard for every student. But, when I thought about it, these students are used to being told they need help, they are wrong and so on.  Thinking about what they were good at took some effort. Without exception, they all seemed quite embarrassed to come up with something they were good at.  Seems to me that our work is cut out for us with only that information.  Why is it so hard to think about something they are good at? My hope is that each teacher noticed that also. These kiddos need to know they have strengths and not only challenges. Just another case for strength based assessment and planning. For these students, we are often so focused on "fixing" what they cannot do, we forget what they can do! Just watching their faces as we teased out what they were good at was reward in itself. It is my hope they will remember that part of the discussion for a long time.
After letting the students share, parents had their turn. Teachers stepped in with what they had discovered and then consultants offered their insights from class observations. We left the process with the bones of a fantastic IPP that will guide teachers throughout the school year. Teachers felt very supported by the consultants who will be making regular school visits to support both teacher and students. And parents felt very supported and honored by the school team.  In fact, they felt they were an integral part of the team! We know we can only make a difference if we work together to further the education of our students.
This was a real "feel good" day ( albeit exhausting for the consultants and principal who sat in all meetings!) for all involved  Hopefully, this will be the standard for all IPP processes in the future as it can only add value to the education of the student and his/her family.