Thursday, 18 August 2016

With Every Student, Always Presume Competence.

One of the great pleasures of teaching is the daily exposure to the great diversity of minds. No two minds are ever the same and it only makes sense that educators need to know as much as they possible can about how students learn and how to provide the most conducive environments for learning possible.

By understanding the concept of neurodiversity, and shifting our perspective as teachers away from the notions of disability and deficits to the notions of ability and presumed competence, we pave the way for all students to learn.

One of the great proponents of neurodiversity is Steve Silberman whose book, Neurotribes ought to be required reading for all educators. It is rich, it is informative, and it is profound. Silberman is a staunch supporter of neurodiversity. Please enjoy his recent TED talk The Forgotten History of Autism:



Recently, the TED-Ed Blog featured a Q&A with Silberman.  In it, Silberman provides insights that will be beneficial to any educator who has Autistic and/or Neurodiverse children in their care. You can access it here.

For me, Silberman's most important statement is that as educators, we must always presume competence. A child is hardwired to learn. Finding out how that child learns is of course the challenge, but in this day and age where we are beginning to realize just how much disability is societally constructed, it is perhaps even more important that we enable our teachers to be as creative and flexible in their practice as possible. Educators also need to be optimists. They have to believe, in their bones, that progress is always possible and that there is always a way. Finally, they need to have empathy. Out of empathy, arises a desire to do the best they can.

But empathy can only come from knowing. Here are two talks that do not dismiss the difficulties neurdiversity can bring into a person's life, but, at the same time, celebrate the fact that human life in only possible because of difference.

First, Faith Jegende Cole's talk about her brothers:




And lastly, a humourous and honest talk by Alix Generous:




It is never my intent to dismiss just how difficult teaching can be. Neurodiversity presents many, many challenges and a neurodivergent child's LearnAbilities aren't always immediately manifest. But if we focus first upon what a child can do before focusing upon all the things they struggle with, maybe, just maybe, we can begin to create a world where everyone gets the education they deserve.


Three Interactive Video Lesson Platforms that ALL Teachers Should Know About.

Students love videos. Teachers love videos.  We ALL love videos.  And, for many of us, we learn so much better if we can see what we need to learn. However, as every teacher knows, a video can be a moment in the class when you actually lose student engagement due to a number of factors. Videos, despite their appeal and potential very rarely extend a student's understanding in a profound manner because every student's experience with a video is different.   But, with the recent development of a slew of interactive video lesson digital tools, teachers can now take a video and essentially personalize the learning experience for their students quickly and effectively. Furthermore, the busy teacher can now access oodles of pre-made video lessons from a wide variety of sources that can be used as is or customized to suit the individual needs of any classroom or teacher.

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Three interactive lesson platforms that I use frequently are EdPuzzle and PlayPosit (fka Educanon) and TED-Ed Lessons  Personally, I really like EdPuzzle and TED-Ed Lessons, but I have colleagues who love  PlayPosit.  So, how do they all stack up? Are all interactive lesson platforms equal? I spent the last month testing out these three platforms and have come to a few conclusions



Can do audio voiceovers.
This platform is easy to use and offers a number of features that make it a really great choice  My favorite feature is it's simplicity of use.  Simply upload your video, trim to include only the content you want with a ridiculously easy to use trimming system of sliding bars, and add in your questions.  Oh, and if you want to provide narration of your video yourself, you can record your very own audio track. Pretty cool. Like all of the platforms featured in this post, you can access your class analytics.  Unlike Playposit, you can do so for free.  EDpuzzle is one of those digital tools that seems really simplistic, and, if you want, you can really just use it to teach basic comprehension of key concepts. However, it's how educators pose questions,  how they use the editing features of this platform to their advantage, and how they choose to deploy the lesson that makes all the difference in terms of whether or not the digital tool is any better than giving students the textbook and a worksheet.

Look at how this lesson uses the link tool to help students out with tough questions.  The lesson creator also uses the link tool to make students dig deeper: The Spanish Empire, Silver & Runaway Inflation



Editing Options Galore.
Like EdPuzzle, Playposit has a very simple platform.  It offers a teacher many, many options when comes to formatting and there is essentially nothing you can't do with the editing manager.  Like EdPuzzle you can trim your video. Playposit also has an audio feature which is very useful if you teach students who need audio. However, students can't record their answers in audio, and students complain about the fact that the editing manager does not include a spell-check feature. You can also broadcast and/or share your lesson, but after multiple uses of this feature, both myself and my students find it awkward to use: it does not work very well on the Chrome browser and the video takes A LONG time to load. This lag drives my students crazy.  As well,  Playposit does offer a library of pre-made, ready to go "bulbs" (lessons) that are well organised according to discipline and sub-disciplines. And, like with the other platforms discussed in this post, teachers can customise these bulbs. Furthermore, if teachers want to, they can pay for a premium mode that enables them to print out their lessons as worksheets and gain access to more question types: rather cool features;  however, to be honest, I wish such useful tools were free.

A neat lesson using the Playposit platform is: Hernan Cortes: Hero or Villain




Enables students to "Dig Deeper"



The most simple platform out the four. Don't let this fool you. Its simplicity is deliberate. It doesn't have the bells and whistles of the other three  (it really needs an audio feature) but it's neutral design and structure enables educators to do with it what they will. Furthermore, it is completely free. Just like the other platforms, teachers can add in questions and get class analytics. Each lesson has five components: Watch, Think, Dig Deeper, Discuss, ...And Finally. The more you use this platform, the more you realize you can play with those five sections and shape them specifically to your needs. Furthermore, it's simplicity enables you to integrated lessons from the other two lesson platforms into the Dig Deeper Section. Speaking of the Dig Deeper section, it is in this section  along with the "...And Finally" section that TED-Ed enables teachers to truly elevate and expand not only the depth but the breadth of learning in their classrooms by bringing in critical thinking and extension activities.  A perfect example of a lesson that pushes students to think critically and deeply is Josefino Rivera Jr.'s The Danger of a Single Story. 



The Verdict:

All three platforms are excellent provided they are used mindfully. Your initial use is often simply a "I need a lesson to teach now" moment,  but as time goes on and you commit to really playing around with the medium that is an interactive video lesson,  you will begin to discover all of the ways you can use technology to extend and expand learning.  Apart from the well-documented benefits that video lessons can do in the flipped learning environment, a few benefits that I've noticed are:


  1. Heightened student engagement. Not one of my students does not like to learn this way. 
  2. The ability to pick and choose which lesson platform best suits both the needs of my students and the purpose of a learning experience.
  3. The ability, when used mindfully and critically, to enable students to move beyond the basics of a lesson into deep, critical thought.
  4. The ability for every student in my class to learn at their own rate. As a special education teacher, this is, for me, the greatest gift.  I can also customize each of these platforms in ways that enable me to provide accommodations, remediation and  enrichment all in the same lesson.
  5. Students appreciate having video broken into manageable pieces.  A few of my students prefer to see the video in it's entirety first, but everyone always goes back to the questions.
  6. The ability for students to highlight their own learning or personal interest by building and researching their own lessons. Students can create their own lessons using the TED-Ed Lesson platform once they register as a user. It's an amazing and rich learning experience to learn how to present and teach your own lesson. 
  7. Almost instantaneous feedback. 
  8. A superb way to help a student catch up after an absence. I no longer need to re-teach and re-teach key lessons. By building a solid library of video lessons and then posting them to my LMS of choice, I provide a tool that enables every child to learn no matter where they are. 

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So, in closing, one final note:  none of these tools offer one-stop shopping.  If ever a design team comes up with a platform that combines TED-Ed's ability to elicit deep learning, combined with Playposit's suite of editing tools, combined Edpuzzle's shear ease of use, they will corner the market. Until then,  I'll leave it up to you to decide which one works best for you.

Enjoy and together, let's help our students take advantage of their LearnAbilities.

Monday, 15 August 2016

What Educators and Parents Need to Know about ADHD in Girls

ADHD can seriously hamper a child's ability to achieve their potential. In fact, research shows that 60% of children with ADHD who do not receive support or diagnosis will struggle or underachieve in school. This statistic is troubling for all the obvious reasons, but one of the most troubling reasons for this statistic is that it only refers to boys.

What about girls?

Girls, up until very recently, have had their ADHD chronically undiagnosed and this lack of diagnosis has often profound implications upon a girl's life for young women tend to internalize their struggles and it is this internalization that often results in significant problems with their mental health, their self-esteem, and their ability to lead productive adult lives. 

However, girls with ADHD, just like boys, have enormous potential and latent LearnAbilities so what can their parents and teachers do to help them out once a diagnosis has been made?

1. Educate yourself about ADHD and Girls.  Not always, but generally speaking, symptoms manifest themselves differently than with boys. 

2. Seek out treatment. There are so many options and medication is only part of the range of therapies that are helpful. 

3. Empowerment. Girls and young women need to know about what ADHD is, what it's effects are, and what they can do about it. 

4. Work towards removing the gender bias that often clouds diagnosis. 

5. Address the incredibly powerful (and often negative) role that societal pressures play in girl's lives. These pressures are even tougher to deal with when a young girl or woman is struggling with ADHD and all of it's possible comorbidities. 

6. Help girls and young women realize that while ADHD is often considered a medical condition, disability on a whole is simply a social construct predicated on a narrow and confining definition of "normalcy". There is no such thing as being normal and helping girls understand this truth will only enable them to be stronger and more accepting of their own version of uniqueness. 

7. Let them read about and listen to women like themselves who live and work with ADHD. A great example, especially for young women is Jessica McCade, a YouTuber, who has a great channel dedicated to ADHD.  

Here is McCade's video specifically for girls: 



And here is a TED-Ed Lesson to go with the video: ADHD in Girls: How to recognize the symptoms.

Please feel free to use the lesson, share it and/or customize it to suit your own needs.

Finally, there is a real need for parents, teachers and girls themselves to dig deeper into their own brains and get to know their neurological profile.  The following video, Ask the Expert: Understanding Girls with ADHD, is detailed and full of rich information.  Take your time, break it up, re-watch the parts that you need and skip over the parts you don't, but it will really help you have a better understanding of girls and young women with ADHD:




Finally, maybe the best way to help a young woman come to terms with her ADHD diagnosis is to simply be supportive, understanding and proactive. By working together to create actionable solutions, parents, teachers, girls and young women can fulfill the potential of every girl's  LearnAbilities.






   

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Universal Design for Learning: Changing the Context, not the Child

Rather than focusing on "fixing" students, DES (Disability Studies in Education) places an emphasis upon things that are actually within teachers' spheres of influence by placing the focus on changing classroom structures and practices to supporting a full range of student learning needs within diverse and inclusive classrooms.
-Kathleen Collins & Beth Ferri "Literacy Education and Disability Studies: Reenvisioning Struggling Students


What if we looked around our classrooms and  asked the question "What constraints are standing in the way of ALL my students mastering the curriculum I teach?" and then went about mindfully removing those barriers? What would I have to change for equitable learning to take place? 

This post is a provocation.
It's a provocation asking educators to do better in ensuring that the classroom environment they design with their students is universally accessible to all of their students regardless of their preferred learning mode.

This provocation came from two places. Kathleen Collins' and Beth Ferri's excellent article in this month's Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy (Collins Kathleen & Ferri Beth. (2016). Literacy Education and Disability Studies: Reenvisioning Struggling Students. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 60(1), 7–12. doi: 10.1002/jaal.552) which you can read in its entirety here, and Elise Roy's splendid TEDxMidAtlantic Talk "When we design for disability, we all benefit" which I've included below.





In response to the provocation to design better, more equitable learning environments for my students, I wrote a TED-Ed lesson based upon Elise Roy's TED Talk that explores how design thinking plus universal design for learning could solve much of the difficulty that marginalized and/or struggling students often encounter in school.  You can access that lesson here. By no means exhaustive, the lesson does provide video definitions of both design thinking and universal design for learning and a few resources that should enable any educator to begin to design a more inclusive learning experiences for all students. Feel free to use it, share it or customize it.  

Finally, I've included  two more useful resources. The first one is a TED playlist about designing for disabilities that is sure to provoke you, inspire you, and make you want to rush out and embrace universal design.   The second one is a superb resource available to educators from 
IDEO a design organization that pioneered design thinking. You can download their free toolkit for educators here.     

One last note. I opened this post with a quote from Collins & Ferri's article.  I'd like to close with one more as it speaks to the heart of what LearnAbilities is all about: 


Intentional inclusive classrooms foster a sense of belonging by providing a challenging and supportive curriculum and creating a positive classroom and school culture where every student is valued, respected (Shogren et al., 2015), and represented.
-Kathleen Collins & Beth Ferri "Literacy Education and Disability Studies: Reenvisioning Struggling Students.
Everyone has LearnAbilities and inclusive education is, at its heart, democracy and equity of opportunity. Let's continue to work together and make learning possible for every student.  


Universal Design for Learning: Changing the Context, not the Child

Rather than focusing on "fixing" students, DES (Disability Studies in Education) places an emphasis upon things that are actually within teachers' spheres of influence by placing the focus on changing classroom structures and practices to supporting a full range of student learning needs within diverse and inclusive classrooms.
-Kathleen Collins & Beth Ferri "Literacy Education and Disability Studies: Reenvisioning Struggling Students

What if we looked around our classrooms and  asked the question "What constraints are standing in the way of ALL my students mastering the curriculum I teach?" and then went about mindfully removing those barriers? What would I have to change for equitable learning to take place? 

This post is a provocation.
It's a provocation asking educators to do better in ensuring that the classroom environment they design with their students is universally accessible to all of their students regardless of their prefered learning mode.

This provocation came from two places. Kathleen Collins' and Beth Ferri's excellent article in this month's Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy (Collins Kathleen & Ferri Beth. (2016). Literacy Education and Disability Studies: Reenvisioning Struggling Students. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 60(1), 7–12. doi: 10.1002/jaal.552) which you can read in its entirety here, and Elise Roy's splendid TEDxMidAtlantic Talk "When we design for disability, we all benefit" which I've included below.





In response to the provocation to design better, more equitable learning environments for my students, I wrote a TED-Ed lesson based upon Elise Roy's TED Talk that explores how design thinking plus universal design for learning could solve much of the difficulty that marginalized and/or struggling students often encounter in school.  You can access that lesson here. By no means exhaustive, the lesson does provide video definitions of both design thinking and universal design for learning and a few resources that should enable any educator to begin to design a more inclusive learning experiences for all students. Feel free to use it, share it or customize it.  

Finally, I've included  two more useful resources. The first one is a TED playlist about designing for disabilities that is sure to provoke you, inspire you, and make you want to rush out and embrace universal design.   The second one is a superb resource available to educators from 

IDEO a design organization that pioneered design thinking. You can download their free toolkit for educators here.     

One last note. I opened this post with a quote from Collins & Ferri's article.  I'd like to close with one more as it speaks to the heart of what LearnAbilities is all about: 


Intentional inclusive classrooms foster a sense of belonging by providing a challenging and supportive curriculum and creating a positive classroom and school culture where every student is valued, respected (Shogren et al., 2015), and represented. 
-Kathleen Collins & Beth Ferri "Literacy Education and Disability Studies: Reenvisioning Struggling Students.
Everyone has LearnAbilities and inclusive education is, at its heart, democracy and equity of opportunity. Let's continue to work together and make learning possible for every student.  


Sunday, 31 July 2016

There is nothing wrong with YOU: Coming to terms with your ADHD diagnosis.


Possibly present in approximately 3-5 percent of the population (Mental Health Canada ADHD) and described in detail in the American Pychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders ( click here and here for more info on the DSM),  ADHD or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a real condition. But like so many neurological conditions, it is not well understood by the general lay population.

As a teacher, I think that part of my job does (should) involve helping parents understand that their child's inattentiveness, hyperactivity, and troubles at home, in their social lives, and at school have nothing to do with being lazy, ill-behaved, or defiant, but everything to do with their ADHD brain.

Now that doesn't sound particularly reassuring, but it should be. ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) is the result of a brain-based biological condition.  It's not a child's fault; they were simply born that way. Furthermore, there is A LOT that you, your child and your child's teacher can do to help your child manage their ADHD symptoms.

It's also important to note, that their ADHD is not your fault either. Yes, it is often genetic and runs in families, but you can't do much about your genes and your parenting did nothing to cause it to happen.

The point behind this post is to help you and your grade-schooler, tween or teenager better understand their ADHD. It does not serve as a diagnostic tool, but simply as a resource bank that can help you along your way.  If you are interested in knowing more about the basics of ADHD check out this previous post: What is ADHD? 

To begin with, there is so much out there in the the cyberworld about ADHD. A lot of it is good, scientifically based information and a lot of it isn't.  A good place to begin (and a humourous place to begin), is with the YouTube Channel: How to ADHD.  I particularly like the following video. It's lighthearted but honest. Watch it with your child and you will probably have a good laugh.




To further help you and your child understanding of ADHD, I've created a TED-Ed Lesson around this video.  It's chock full of really useful resources.  You can access it here: How to know if you have ADHD: A lesson for kids, tweens, teens & their parents. 

Feel free to use it for your own personal use, but don't hesitate to share it or customize it for your own needs.

Finally, I think it is really important that young people with ADHD get to see that they can be VERY successful despite their ADHD. This article and slide show from ADDitudemag.com, an on-line magazine about ADHD and learning disabilities, is a great place to go and help your child see that with the support of their family and educators,  they are going to be perfectly and wonderfully okay.







Wednesday, 27 July 2016

What is ADHD? A quick look at a complex condition



I don't think that many of us really understand what it means to have an attention disability. ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) is a brain-based disorder that can make learning very difficult for a student. Children with ADHD are often described as unfocused, disorganized, inattentive, forgetful and hyper.

But does that truly paint an accurate picture?

Probably not.

My students with ADHD are also energetic, inquisitive, personable, enthusiastic, motivated and incredibly good at focus WHEN their interests are piqued. In fact, there is nothing quite like the laser focus of a student with ADHD who finally discovers their interests and strengths.

If you teach, you have students who are ADHD. And if you teach, chances are you might not feel like you know enough about this disorder to provide the kind of educational environment in which students with ADHD can thrive.

So, for the next little while at LearnAbilities I am going to post a new article, resources, and/or lesson on working with ADHD students every week. I hope to provide enough information to you so that when September rolls around and classes begin, you can start off the year confident in your ability to help all your students succeed.

For those of you trying to understand ADHD a little bit better, here is a very quick TED-Ed Lesson that you can use, customize, or share: What is ADHD? A Simple Primer. It provides a brief overview of the condition and a few resources that would prove helpful to both educators and parents.

If you want to dig a bit deeper, I also urge you to take 30 minutes and view the following video.  It's chock full of superb information and was a game-changer for me in terms of beginning to understand what it means to have ADHD.




I'll leave you with one final thought. It is a well known fact that when ADHD students are engaged in something they find interesting, many of their difficulties seem to dissipate. As educators and parents, how can we take advantage of this LearnAbility and use it to help these children thrive?

Next week: How to ADHD: A Lesson for Children, Teenagers and Parents.




Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Command Central: Understanding Executive Functions and the Role They Play in Learning


Imagine never really knowing what is going to happen next.

Imagine not knowing how to start a task.

Imagine struggling to organize your school bag.

Imagine what it feels like to consistently misplace your lunch.

These scenarios are a daily reality if you struggle with a set of skills referred to as executive functions. The best way to describe executive functions is that they are the like air traffic control for the brain and when a student has an attention or learning disability, they often also struggle with at least some of the skills controlled by executive functions.

Executive functions is also a set of skills that until I began to work exclusively with students with learning disabilities and ADHD, I was largely unaware of because when you don't struggle with executive functions, you take what these skills enable you to do for granted.

Executive skills are responsible for impulse control, emotional control, flexible thinking, working memory, self-monitoring, planning/prioritizing, task initiation and organization. Pretty important skills that time and time again, teachers and parents don't realize are often the "symptoms" of attention and leaning disabilities. Weaknesses in these skills are enormous stressors and sources of frustration for not only parents and teachers, but also for students who struggle with executive functions. And, the problem is, we often don't address these skills at all in school.

With a number of relatively simple tweaks, changes, and mindful practises and strategies, we can really help students take control of their own executive skills thereby enabling them learn and feel much better abour their ability to independently manage their lives.

Before we launch into a lesson on executive functions, it would help us to understand how the brain is "built". The following video by Albera Family Wellness is a great place to start:


If you want to learn more about executive functions, what it's like to struggle with this set of vital skills, and strategies that help, please access the following lesson and resource bank: Executive Function: The Air Traffic Control Centre of the Brain


Finally, the proliferation of digital oranizational tools that are free or relatively inexpensive and simple to use is astonishing. Here is a list of tools that can really help students who struggle with executive functions, take control of their lives. The two following lists come from Understood.org; in itself an amazing resource site on all things having to do with learning and attention difficulties.

8 Apps to Help Younger Kids With Self-Control

10 Apps to Help Kids With Note-Taking

Google Keep

And a number of really exhaustive lists with many other entry point are AppCrawlr's "Best iOS apps for Organizing Thoughts" list and "Best iOS apps for Task Management".  They are quite amazing and there is literally an app for any need. All lists are also available for Android as well.

So, the long and short of it is, executive functions might actually be the starting point for many students who struggle with attention and learning disabilities. Once everyone involved has a better understanding of these skills and strategies and tools that enable students to succeed, we can get down to celebrating their LearnAbilities instead of their disabilities.












Tuesday, 21 June 2016

The Toughest Question of All

"Will my child be okay?" is hands down the most difficult question a parent can ask.

It's so difficult because, when a parent asks this question, there are often really complex issues driving the query.  Issues that do not have, and will never have, easy and pat responses.

And, I personally feel that the only teachers who are permitted to respond with a resounding yes to such a question are those who are brand new to the profession and have yet to develop the ability to respond to such a question with insight and plausible, workable solutions; who have yet to develop the confidence and insight that would enable them to answer "Yes, but. . .".

I also think that this is a question that reflects just how difficult it can be to raise a child, let alone a child who struggles .  A parent doesn't ask this question of just anyone.  They must truly feel (or expect) that, as teachers, we CAN fix the problems their children are experiencing; that we have the skills and knowledge to HELP. It is this incredible level of trust, perhaps even blind trust, or, probably more accurately, fear that their child isn't going to be okay,  that makes this question even more challenging.

So.  When I am asked to respond to this question what do I do?  What do I say? Well, I hope my response is guided by the late Rita Pierson whose mission in life was to find a way to help EVERY child learn and fulfill their potential.

I hope that my response, although guarded, is always hopeful.

I hope that my response highlights the strengths of the child.

I hope that my response honestly takes into account the child's challenges.

I hope that my response offers up plausible, actionable, possible solutions.

I hope that my colleagues and my administrators can  diplomatically voice our misgivings,  find common ground, and then work together to bring these solutions to life.

I hope that my response is taken in good faith, as I don't know everything.  I can only work to find solutions. I can only base my responses on what I see and know from my daily interactions with the child in question.

This leads me to another aspect of my response to the question "Will my child be okay"? Many times, there are things the child can actually do.  I love this quote.  In my classroom, I can always provide learning experiences that are interesting and personalized.  I can learn as much as I can about a student's learning preferences and style, I can be their champion and let them know daily that I believe in them, but at some point, a child who struggles is going to have to decide for themselves whether or not they are going to  be an active participant in their learning journey, instead of letting themselves be victimized and defined by their challenges.  This lesson is hard and not always palatable, but it has to happen.  In such a situation, though I hope:

That the child's voice will be heard.

That the child's own fears, misgivings, hopes and dreams will be taken into account and respectfully integrated into the proposed solutions.

That the child's needs supersede the expectations either explicit or implicit that I, the school, or the parents might have.

And finally, (and so many of the parents I have the privilege of working with do this with so much grace and aplomb that I marvel each and everyday), I can only respond to this difficult question when the partnership between myself and the child's parents is open, honest, and based upon mutual respect. Revisioning a child's path involves: finding solutions, building confidence and self-esteem, enabling learning, supporting curiosity, and looking towards a positive and productive future.  Those are my goals as a teacher.  But, without an entire team working together to engineer actionable solutions, I cannot  respond appropriately to the question posed by the concerned parent.

When we all work together as a team.  When we are  a kind and caring community,  when we look past marks and standings, when we stop pointing fingers and making excuses, when we sit down with our all our cards out in front of us and honestly express our hopes and fears, THEN, together, as a team we can all say "Yes, absolutely" to the most difficult question of all.

All students have LearnAbiltites. Let's make sure we give them what they need.

Celebrating Diversity of the Mind: Five Ways to Support Students with Learning Disabilities.


Let's celebrate diversity. Not diversity of cultures, race or religions. Not diversity of teaching practices, but diversity of minds and five actions that a strong and supportive family and school can do to nurture students who, as exceptional learners, have a diagnosed learning disability.


But first, why do I care about exceptional learners; those kids who are the definition of diverse minds? Well, working as a teacher in a Learning Disabilities Academy puts me front and centre into the world of diverse minds and the incredible gifts these children possess.  These students are as intelligent as their peers, but, for some interesting twist of fate and brain development, the way they learn, process information, produce ideas and interact with the world,  is markedly different from many other children.  They come to us often utterly defeated by the school system and their own difficult, if not impossible, effort to fit in.  They come to us scared, withdrawn, or spitting mad. They were often the kid that the teacher and other kids didn't like, they were the discipline case, they were the invisible child at the back of the classroom so quiet the teacher hardly notices their presence, or they were the social butterfly or jock who use bluster, bravado and popularity to hide the fact that learning is hard for them.  

And, unfortunately, sometimes these children come to equate a learning disability with the inability to learn; with an inescapable fact that they might never be successful.  I think that for those who are still struggling to come to terms with the uniqueness of their own learning, it is so very easy to see a learning disability diagnosis as a terrible thing:  a label, a sentence, a definition.  

I don't see it that way.  

But what I will acknowledge as a hard truth is that is is often the side-effects of those learning differences that are far more debilitating than the dyslexia, dyscalculia, or dysgraphia your child has. I truly feel, that if the learning challenges are appropriately addressed , than every child with an LD code is going to be successful. But, so often this is not the case and then, it is the anxiety, the low self-esteem, the aversion to taking risks in learning, and the fixed growth mind-set that the child embraces, that are far, far more harmful to the child's future as a learner than the learning disability itself. 

I look at my students and I see how five important actions celebrate and acknowledge their exceptionality and diversity of mind.

1.  Early identification 
If you or your child's care provider notices anything that seems to particularly different about how your child learns or interacts with the world, see your doctor. Talk to your child's teacher.  Do some reading.  Listen to your "gut", don't dismiss your child's kindergarten teacher as an idiot, don't hate your mother-in-law who might have made an unsubtle comment.  Be proactive and get your child assessed. A comprehensive ed-psych report will go a long way in helping you and your child understand exactly what your son or daughters' strengths and weaknesses are.  Here in Alberta,   students who have a learning disability will not receive any kind of  meaningful help if their learning challenges are not identified by a registered educational psychologist.  Once a specific learning disability is diagnosed, coding and funding begin to fall into place and then, and only then will your child receive the help they will need to succeed; help such as access to a learning strategist, pullout time,  remediation, accommodation and differentiation. Early identification and meaningful supports can do so much to eliminate so many of the side-effects mentioned above.

2. Accommodations.
Accommodations level the playing field for students with LDs.  They are not a crutch and they are not "cheating".  Diverse minds access information and demonstrate learning in many, many ways. Accommodations recognize differences and  learning challenges and give your child a fighting chance.  Accommodations range from extra time, use of assistive technology like speech to writing software, consistent use of a laptop or iPad, sound-diminishing earphones,  note-packs, digital copies of textbooks, exams on different coloured paper, exams with significant amounts of  white space and audio versions of all assessment materials.  These things might seem so simple but if, for example, you are dyslexic, having all of your texts, assignments, and assessments available as an audio file is the difference between failing all of your subjects (because even math requires a student to be able to read a huge amount of material) and passing  all your subjects. And, achievement aside, how do you function and thrive in this current information age if you do not have the tools that enable you to access, interact with, and produce that information?

3. Differentiation
Your child is blessed with a beautiful and capable brain.  It is not broken, it just accesses, processes and  retains information differently. Your child's teacher's job is not to "fix" them, but rather, to help them develop the ability to learn despite their exceptionality using, literally, every strategy and tactic at their disposal. Yes, it is true that if diagnosed early, a great deal of remediation is possible,  especially with dyslexia, but how a child learns is uniquely them and is something to embrace, not rail against.  That is why I am a such a great proponent of differentiation.  Differentiation is mindfully examining instructional and assessment practices and personalizing  one or the other (or both) based upon the needs of the child. It is one of the most respectful acts of pedagogy as differentiation is the explicit acknowledgement that your child is exceptional and therefore deserves a personalized education that best suits his or her needs.   However, it is vital that parents and teachers understand that differentiation is not modification of curricula or assessment.  A child with an LD is more than capable of excelling within the parameters of standardized curricula, but will shine even more if their teachers understand that how they deliver the curriculum will often make the greatest difference. It is also important to note, that differentiation is not a total re-shifting of a classroom and a teacher's pedagogy.  Often times, small tweaks make more than enough difference. I consider it mindful teaching.  Sometimes, I do have to radically rethink a lesson, and sometimes, everyone can cope simply because I provided an audio file of the novel we are reading or I made sure the notes for the lesson were up on Moodle or I give the students the choice between writing down a response or recording it using digital tools like Audacity, Voice Memo or Croak It.

4. It takes a village....
Andrew Solomon, in his talk Love, no matter what  tells the truth that "Ironically, it turns out, that it's our differences, and our negotiation of difference, that unite us".  In the world I work in, it is never just one person who makes the difference in a child's life.  It is never just one person who takes that child from academic failure and/or challenge and brings them into the light.  And, because every person in my building is  a hand-selected, active and willing participant in a collaborative, innovative, and supportive environment, we "negotiate" these differences together because we are all on the same page. I cannot stress how important it is that this village, this school be united in a singular purpose, but that the inhabitants be permitted to achieve this purpose in what ever manner they know will best suit the student, for modelling how to embrace the diversity of minds is far more powerful a teaching act than simply extolling their virtues.


5. And a whole lot of TLC.
When working with exceptional learners in a building where daily, we celebrate the beauty of diverse minds, it takes a teacher not only well-versed in the technical/theoretical aspects of pedagogy, but also a teacher who brings a lion's heart filled with empathy, kindness, tenacity and, hope to help a disengaged, challenging child with no belief in themselves  find and revel in what the delightful Rosie King calls their brilliant individual light. It's hard work, it's emotional work, it's exhausting work.  But, for those of us who work and learn from exceptional students, for those of us who have come to marvel at the sheer wonder of their diverse minds, it is work that is fulfilling and important.  It is fulfilling because we give hope. It is important because there are no greater gifts an educator can give to a student than the ability to shape their own future.



It's nothing to be ashamed of....

"Anxiety is like having someone hold your head under the water while you try frantically to surface."   Grade 8 Student 

Students know themselves best. We just need to make a point of creating a safe environment condusive to dialogue so they can share their knowledge.  A few weeks ago, I asked some of my students who I know struggle with anxiety if they would be interested in helping me better understand what it is like to be them. Final exams were coming up and I wanted  help them manage the stress that they feel around this time of year.

What started out as an invitation to have lunch together and chat, turned into a series of lunchtime meetings characterized by trust, openess, candour, empathy, and to be honest, a few tears. For four lunchhours, I just sat back and listened. I asked a few questions, but I let my students take the lead. Pretty soon, they were grabbing big sheets of chart paper and drawing out their ideas. Brainstorming ways to describe how they feel when, as they put it, "the world would come crashing down on their shoulders". They soon came to realize that they knew a great deal about anxiety.  They were experts in themselves and they were ready to share their knowledge.

Working together with minimal guidance from myself, my three students built a TED-Ed Lesson on anxiety.  Using the extremely intuitive and simple Adobe Spark Video tool, they wrote and created a short video outlining what anxiety is, briefly outlined some background knowledge for the viewer, and presented a host of strategies they felt were important for people with anxiety to know about.


The result is a video with impact and a lesson that any teacher, parent, or student could use to help better understand what it means to struggle with anxiety.  "Please feel free to use, share or customize Anxiety: Making Peace with Your Enemy for your own needs.

 When you are done, please take a moment to think about how we need to let our students take the lead. Their experiences are powerful, their wisdom profound, and their potential is great.

Let's celebrate their LearnAbilities. Afterall, you never know what kids can do until you let them surprise themselves.




Monday, 20 June 2016

Accommodations and Differentiation: Yes Please!


In my second year of teaching in an  impoverished rural community, I had a young man in my Grade 10 Language Arts class that was profoundly dyslexic. He was a great kid, personable and kind, but his reading level despite much remediation had plateaued, and, frankly, his writing wasn't much stronger. This was nearly 20 years ago. Assistive technologies like Dragon NaturallySpeaking and text-to-speech programs like  Read and Write for Google Chrome or speech- -to-text programs like Google Voice Typing, were pretty much still in the realm of science fiction or prohibitively expensive.  If you wanted to provide an audio copy of a book, it literally came as a case of 10 cassette tapes and you had to order it through the public library. Often, I would simply resort to reading everything out loud to his entire class.

There didn't seem to be much by way of accommodations back then, but, necessity is the mother of invention and I began to find ways to help out this young man. I began to record all of my lectures as this student couldn't read my lecture notes.  I recorded every text we read in class. And, whenever possible I would let him respond orally or I would scribe for him.  He still found ELA class difficult, but he passed ELA 10 and, with continued accommodations, went on to graduate.

The accommodations I provided him most definitely enabled this young man to reach his potential and learn, but there was a benefit I hadn't considered.

When this young man wasn't using the recorded books or my lecture tapes, my other students were. I no longer needed to "re-teach" a lesson to a student who was away.  I could just hand them that class' tape,  they could take it home, and they could listen and learn. Students also began to borrow the textbook tapes I'd made. They talked about how, if they could listen and follow along, they understood what they were reading better.

http://eduwells.com/2016/01/04/star-wars-posters-for-educators/
The accommodations I was making for that one student, were, in actuality, benefitting ALL of my students. Of course this is hardly rocket science, and now, in an era of personalization and differentiation, such accommodations of a child's individual learning needs seems almost archaic.

But, are they really?

Fast forward to today.  I now work in a school in which every student has a diagnosed learning disability, an Individualized Program Plan, and a number of mandated accommodations that they must have. Yet, I still have conversations every week it seems with some of my parents, and with many of my students, who see the use of accommodations as a crutch or as something to be ashamed of.

Seriously! No one questions the accommodation of eyeglasses one must wear in order to see. No one questions a paraplegics' need for a wheelchair.  And no one asks the athlete with a prosthetic leg to take it off during the 100 meter dash as it is a "crutch".

For a person with a learning disability, the necessity of an audio version of a unit exam, the need to use a word processor to write an essay, or the use of a standing desk so as to be able to better manage their hyperactivity, is not a luxury or a crutch.  It is simply an ethical and mindful response to the fact that some learners need a different way to learn. And, for some learners, that difference is as profoundly challenging as it would be for a myopic person to drive without glasses or physically disabled person to perform some physical tasks without help.

To this end, I have written a TED-Ed Lesson on accommodations, differentiation and the need for parents and educators to help students learn how to advocate for what they need in order to learn.  I hope that you find it useful.


"I Know What I Need: Accommodations, Differentiation, and Self-Advocacy

Together, let's remove the stigma that still exists surrounding learning disabilities and neurodivergence. Let's focus upon the LearnAbilities of ALL our students so that they can maximize their potential and enjoy the right to learn.


Three ways to add a little more neuroharmony into our classrooms.

The next social justice frontier just might be an acceptance of everyone's own unique form of neurodiversity.  We all are different, and how we learn and manifest our intelligence is no exception. Although many proponents of neurodiversity suggest every learner is unique, much of the current focus upon neurodivergence is in it's most common manifestations: Asperger's Syndrom, Non-Verbal Learning Disabilties, Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorder.  In the meantime, before society  begins to take a long, hard look at how a student's neurodiversity shouldn't put them at odds with society's norms in terms of socially acceptable behaviour teachers in schools around the world must learn to help neurodivergent students knowing full well that there is never a magic bullet.

So, what are some ways that teachers can bring neuroharmony into their classrooms now?

1. Start by developing at least a basic understanding of Neurodivisity and Neuroharmony. The TED-Ed Lesson Educating a neurodiverse world  is a great place to begin. Feel free to use it, customize it for your own needs, or share it with friends or colleagues. Read Steve Silberman's fabulous NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodivirsity.  While you're at it, watch Temple Grandin's seminal TED Talk The world needs all kinds of minds.  She speaks a truth that all teachers need to hear. Andrew Solomon's simutaneously heartwrentching and uplifting book Far From the Tree will leave you with a profoundly deeper understanding of difference and why difference is ironically what makes us the same.

2. Employ the concepts of Universal Design into the management routines of your classroom and the lesson structures of your classroom. What can you do to make your classroom as neuroharmoneous as possible?  The link above leads you to a fabulously deep resource that enable every teacher to create a learning environment that benefits all students. As well, Technology has had a huge impact upon how educators can help students learn and represent their learning. This list just published by ISTE contains a number of digital tools and apps that let educators make the principles of Universal Design come to life: 27 Tools for Diverse Learners

3. Start to learn how to think like a student who is Neurodivergent. One of the most profoundly humbling and eye-opening experiences as a special education teacher was the day I attended an "experience dyslexia" workshop. During that workshop, myself and 25 other teachers rotated throughout a series of simulations for a wide variety of common learning disabilties. Within 5 minutes of the dyslexia simulation I wanted to cry, yell and punch the facilitator. The level of frustration I felt changed how I teach Language Arts from that day forth. How powerful would it be for an educator to spend a day experiencing neurodiversity? The following resources (a mixture of fiction, talks, and resources from reputable websites) will help you gain understanding and empathy for your neurodiverse students.

Understanding Nonverbal Learning Disabilities

Pervasisve Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified

Asperger/Autism Network 

Graeme Simsion's The Rosie Project

Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night

Rosie King's How autism freed me to be myself

Alix Generous's How I learned to communicate my inner life with Asperger's

Steve Silberman's The Forgotten History of Autism  and his article The Geek Syndrome

Let's access and celebrate the LearnAbilties of all of our students.








Saturday, 18 June 2016

We are all learners.

Everyone can learn. 

It's just a little bit more of a challenge for some students. 

Our job as teachers, is to find a way to help every student maximize and exceed their potential. It is our job to help everyone of our students, despite their learning challenges, to develop a growth mindset.  It is our job to enable all of our students to see that they have LearnAbilities instead of just focusing upon their Learning Disabilities.

This blog is a place to access information and resources for teachers, parents and students regarding a wide range of topics or issues that a child with  learning disablities might face. It is important to note, that this blog is just a resource and should not be used as a diagnostic tool. The blog posts represent my opinions entirely and the lessons I have designed and suggestions or ideas I put forth are intended to primarily assist a teacher gain a better understanding of what Learning Disabilities are and what strategies seem to work best. Furthermore, this blog has come into being as a vehicle for the innovation project I completed as a member of the first TED-Ed Innovative Educators Cohort. As a teacher in a school who specializes in students with diagnosed learning disabilities, I found that it wasn't always easy to find the information I needed in order to understand and help my students. My innovation project was initially designed to be a series of TED-Ed Lessons on specific aspects of learning disabilities I found important to learn more about. 

However, this project has become so much more. It has become a labour of love. There is nothing more important than ensuring that teachers have as much information about the students they teach as is possible. Without knowledge and specific, workable strategies, it can be overwhelming to try and make learning possible for everyone. 

This project has also resulted in so many amazing conversations with my students, my students' parents and with my colleagues. It is through these conversations, that I have begun to understand how truly difficult it can be when you can't seem to learn with the same ease as others.  I have been priviledged to the most profoundly honest and heartfelt stories of adversity, frustration, sorrow, heartbreak. And, most of the time, for not every story has a happy ending, stories of acceptance and perserverance and hardfought victories.  


So, LearnAbilities is for all of those students who don't fit the norm. For all of those parents who are fighting tooth and nail to find the best possible education for their child. For those teachers out there who know that knowledge is a powerful tool. But most of all, I would like this blog to be a celebration of learning. 

Everyone can learn. Isn't it time we start doing something about it?