Monday, 23 December 2013

Literacy for All Means ALL?

Did I mention I love my job?  This past month has been a flurry of activity in many schools but one school stands out for me...
In our district we have schools called Individual Support Programs.  This program is described as a class where students will "build functional and communication skills that enhance the quality of life."  As well, it is stated that "all Edmonton Public Schools programming is based on curriculum determined by Alberta Education. Students enrolled in Individual Support will receive the same high-quality education offered in all of our programs."  This sounds so promising and hopeful.  Who wouldn't want their child with complex needs to be in a small class where such learning will take place?

Fast forward to reality...

In one classroom, the teacher worked to create "story boxes".  While these were designed according the website for students with visual impairments, they are brilliant for students with severe learning issues.  This teacher has created stories that are meaningful to the students with inserted experiences that included music, singing, actual objects to touch, see and smell.  In my observation, the students LOVED these.  ALL of them responded in some way and every student had an opportunity to take part.  The morning included three groups doing three different activities: gym, concepts (colors, letters, IPad activities - depending on the level and abilities of the group) and story boxes.  Because the story boxes were based on curriculum, the teacher could report to parents in a report card each term.  How exciting for parents to have their children take part in a regular rite of passage for every student.  This teacher used a resource called Tasks Galore to help shape her concepts time and her story boxes.  It was evident these students came to school to learn and not just sit.  Loved this class.

Now on to the others. These classrooms (and I am only speaking about two of the three classrooms I have visited thus far at the junior/senior high level) have little in terms of building communication skills.  There is NO planning of curriculum based on the Program of Studies.  Sure, there are "activities" and some may include math for some students... These rooms are glorified and very expensive baby sitting services.  A focus on compliance and being quiet equated to being good.  Lots of crafts being down by the grownups while the students sit quietly (that is the expectation of a "good" student).  Beautiful Christmas ornaments were made last week by two educational assistants while the students watched or didn't watch...

I am not sure what happened to these classrooms.  In one class the teacher said she was tired and had no ideas left.  In the other class, the very young teacher was doing the best possible with no training in this area. This was frustrating for me to see. My heart is hurting to see these students just sitting all day in their silence with no real stimulation.  How is that quality of life? 


My team was eager to make changes and in the one class, the teachers agreed to meet monthly so we could help with programming.  We began by completing a file review on each student to learn about past practices in terms of communication - what worked best and what assistive tech had been used in the past.  We learned about medical conditions that may be barriers and then we discussed what steps needed to be taken next for each student to overcome these barriers.  We listed questions we had for the team for each student. We learned A LOT!  And then we shared our learning with the staff.  They had never done this and were very appreciative of this action.  

Our next step is for the class to list all assistive technology they have in the classroom so our speech pathologist and occupational therapist will know what is available.
Then we asked for their daily schedule so we could plan the learning within their schedule so it wouldn't feel like they were doing more or extra.
Finally, we shared curriculum that would match parts of the program of studies and that had been piloted successfully by Alberta Education in the past two years using the Meville to Weville packaged curriculum.  Although the focus for the pilot was on elementary students, the actual curriculum can be used from k-12.  The teachers in the first class were appreciative of a curriculum to follow.  And we were excited to share.

Our next steps will be to meet with the teacher to help design the lessons to come to include all of the students and to insure the students ARE LEARNING and to meet these objectives as outlined on our website:
  • Structured learning environment with regular routines and close supervision
  • Physical accommodations such as wheelchair access, specialized furniture and assistive technology
  • Smaller classes for more targeted instruction
  • Community service providers offer additional services for students as needed
  • Opportunities to participate in school-wide and recreational activities
While we are excited about this move toward transformation, we still need to complete this same exercise for the other class.

This is a class that historically we have not been invited in.  Not sure why?  Anyway, I visited last week and offered the teacher the same services that we undertook in the other class. She was receptive and now I wait to see if the administration is also receptive.  Haven't heard back yet.  

These students are our most vulnerable. They can't speak up to tell us they are bored, they want more, they are unhappy.  We usually see this in terms of behaviour - behaviour that is punished by the adults in the room.  I can't imagine how frustrated I would be if I had to sit day after day and watch people do the things I wish I could do but couldn't tell anybody what I wanted.  I am grateful my team feels the same way and wants more for these students; wants to improve their quality of life. We have to presume competence in our students and as Doug Biklen stated, "Presuming competence is nothing less than a Hippocratic oath for educators. "  We MUST presume all of our students are competent and then move forward with them in their learning. Dr. Caroline Musselwhite shares several videos about good literacy instruction for all here. Great stuff to get you thinking and get started.  

I am excited also that Karen Erickson (one of the authors of the Meville to Weville curriculum) will be in Edmonton.  I have invited all principals and teachers to take part in this valuable professional learning. Another great tool for improving learning that I found is this great wiki including ideas and success stories.  

Finally, we have invited all staff to a regular monthly cohort to learn and share ideas.  All teachers expressed interest.  It is my hope the elementary teachers will come as well because their programs are full of learning and hope for these students.  I pray their enthusiasm will rub off on the teachers from the junior/senior high programs.  We will likely start in February and I am excited that great things will happen for these students; that excellent programming will occur in these classrooms; that we will improve their quality of life through literacy and communication instruction.

A big job? Yup, but I am energized to serve these students and their teachers.  I know that through regular collaboration we will see transformation in the classrooms.  Slow but steady change for students and staff alike.

Have you got any ideas for me as we move forward?  Love to hear them...

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