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; 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.
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?