Like many people, the start of this school year has been exciting, tumultuous and slightly a bit of a blur. But the most exciting thing for me is that I've gotten a chance to see my dreams of real professional development take fruition.
Last year I had the honor of observing and working with a cohort group of teachers who wanted to change the face of learning. These #breakthroughclassrooms teachers in Mahopac Central School District were on fire and the excitement was contagious. The Breakthrough initiative was championed by all the right stake-holders. Led by Dr. Adam Pease (who is now the Assistant Superintendent of Chappaqua Central School District) breakthrough classrooms broke through the silos of all different types of professional development and approached it all together.
Breakthrough classrooms address pedagogy, rigor, infused technology, flexible seating, approaches for mindfulness and even some teachers even started employing aromatherapy in their classes. This was just scratching the surface, every session of Breakthrough was facilitated in a fashion we would want to see our teachers facilitate our classrooms. The goal, give innovation space to prosper in a cohort environment.
The idea was to break away from rows and columns of chairs but to let students decide how to position themselves to where they learn best, to break away from the idea of technology as the end of a project but an amplifier of learning and make student thinking visible. To remove barriers to engagement and to develop deep trust that when students are allowed to take the lead in learning instead of simply complying that they will surprise all of us.
The words from these teachers: “I have been teaching for over 25 years and I am more excited to go to work now than year one!”
“It is amazing when administration trusts us to choose our professional development, to change our rooms. To be trusted by our leaders to do what we feel is best is empowering”
Needless to say I was quickly enamored of the “breakthrough way” and started to talk about it, a lot. One of the unique features about being split between 3 school districts is I have the opportunity to bring the wonderful news from one District to another. The other two districts toured Mahopac to see what I was describing
Fast forward, now two of my school districts and their courageous leaders sought to adopt something similar for their districts. We now have two cohorts in different locations that are joined by one Google+ community and a Flipgrid to support each other in this endeavor.
Speaking only for myself it is has been very lonely at times being an innovative teacher, by definition innovation is something new, undefined and progressive. Innovation is unpredictable and innovative teachers are often seen as the “wild cards” and unpredictable themselves.
It has been a passion of mine to champion these teachers, these kindred teacher spirits and to see what happens when we stop saying “no or yeah but” instead start saying “yes and”.
Follow the hashtags #InnovatePV and #DFinnovates to see the amazing work that is happening. And of course the #breakthroughClassroom Teachers are the ones who started it all.
To the “Breakthrough Teachers” thank you for embodying everything that is wonderful about teaching and being adventurous. To the #DFinnovates and #InnovatePV groups, let's have some fun!
I can't speak for all of you. But I can say for myself as a teacher and parent I am often so frustrated that I can't seem to reach my own children with their school struggles. Of course our buffet of disabilities and designations at home can also complicate this. UDL is always the answer. My co-author Stephen Tesher wrote a poignant guest blog post about his personal struggles and realizations with UDL. Enjoy! Feel free to follow Stephen on Twitter: @stesher
My 5th grade son has ADHD. He struggles to sustain attention and focus on longer tasks, or any task that he not fascinated by, which is 99% of them unless they include Lego or Minecraft. Homework is a chore. Long assignments like essays and writing projects where he has a month to do them are put off and ignored until a frantic last-minute push. His mother and I get frustrated by his short-term focus and his avoidance. After all, in my classroom, my students are expected to take their learning seriously.
I am a teacher. I teach English and English Language Arts to a wide variety of learners. I am good at what I do.
My school district asked me to build a learner active, technology infused (LATI) classroom – that’s a classroom that uses a multitude of resources so that students of varying learning styles could access and consume content they needed to think through solving open-ended problems. I was good at that. I was so good it that my district asked me to be a Teacher Leader, and help other teachers in the district.
The LATI Classroom, a term coined by Dr. Nancy Sula, creator of Innovative Designs for Education (IDE Corporation), serves to allow all students and all learners find their means of understanding content and expressing their thinking. Like I said, I was good at that.
Kids had use of many Google apps and tools, like Google Classroom, and the Google tools suite. I used Screencastify to let students hear my voice in a video recording as I guided them through necessary concepts and made it available over and over again. The IDE term for this is to clone yourself. I cloned myself. Over and over.
Students in my classroom had access to tons of websites, links, and other tech-based or web-based tools to assist them in their pursuit of deeper thinking.
At home, my son had me and his mother. His mother is an old-school, write with good penmanship, proper spelling and punctuation; hand in neat work, nothing sloppy type. She would sit and drill him through his efforts. And she is good at that.
In my classroom, students were encouraged to use each other before they asked me for help. They were encouraged to view each other as experts in various parts of the learning process, each one a master in their own field, working together as a team. My classroom was a team.
At home, my son had me. Only me. Me and his Mom.
I was not able to see my son’s abilities due to the frustration of watching his disability take over. Alone, with only me to guide him, he would bounce from a bathroom break, to a water break, feeding the dog, asking off-topic questions – good questions, interesting questions – and insisting on pursuing those thoughts instead of returning to the task at hand.
Each time he swerved off-task, it was a labor for him to come back. The flow of the work pace would build and then die out. We’d build it again, and again, a distraction would kill it.
Do you know how exhausting it is to constantly be restarting something? It’s awful. It requires more mental effort to restart than to keep it running. Cars use more fuel when they start than if you left it running while parked.
My son never left himself running in park, with the heat on and the music playing. He’d turn it all off, start something else, then turn that off and restart the thing he did not want to do in the first place.
And yet, he wants to do well. He wants to be accomplished.
I shouted, I banged the table with my fists. He’d feel terrible and beaten down. By the end of what seemed like forever, we were both frustrated and tired. I went to bed questioning my abilities as a teacher. What’s worse, he, I’m certain, was in his bed questioning his ability to learn. A ten year old boy experiencing self-esteem bruises. It was awful.
Jenn Cronk worked in my son’s 4th grade classroom as a tech consultant. She introduced him to voice recognition in Google Docs. Suddenly, the kid who didn’t like to write found an easier way to express his thinking. He only had to speak clearly into the microphone of a chrome book.
Why didn’t I think of that?
And if I wasn’t fond of it for my students, I certainly wasn’t a fan of my son using it. Until I discovered that it worked for him. However, the longer the writing assignment, the longer he had to work at it, the more likely he was to bail on it. Still, using voice recognition software made the act of ‘writing’ more engaging.
Fast forward about a year. Jenn Cronk invites me to co-author a book on - guess what? – UDL! So, while I had created the LATI classroom beautifully in my classroom, for my job, I did not understand the basic concepts, as written and expressed in words, of the UDL process. I read and I read and I read. And Jenn taught me plenty more about it.
The basic idea behind the need for UDL is that every kid is bright and capable in their own way; not every child learns the same way. We must allow them the opportunity to access knowledge and express their thinking their way.
Shortly after embarking on the book, I was again sitting with my son, helping him write an essay. While he worked, I began to see him as the unique learner that he is. And I began to see his abilities and his needs. I considered how I could help him find alternative means of expressing his thinking.
He didn’t want to rewrite the essay he had done. Most kids, especially those with disabilities, dislike having to redo anything. It’s a lot of work to complete the first draft, can’t that be enough?
After I acknowledged that most of what he had done was good he was willing to dig in and rewrite. He felt confident and engaged. His face was the picture of determination as he busily scrawled words onto the page. We discussed possible alternative words, synonyms for the appropriate 5th grade syntax he had chosen. His suggestions blew my mind. His vocabulary was far richer than his writing conveyed.
I had a sudden realization: My son is incredibly smart. When I stopped looking at him as my son, and as a unique student who learns differently, I saw the whole of his intelligence, not just what he was able to show. What a wake-up call as a parent.
My son’s disability – his distractibility and his ADHD – get in his own way. He and I talk candidly regarding how his brain works. We talk about how he thinks. We discuss means of helping him express his thinking. He has great ideas. He is beginning to know himself; he is beginning to become metacognitive. Being metacognitive is the ultimate goal of the UDL process. Teachers want kids to recognize what they need to learn and express their thinking best and to advocate for those needs. What parent wouldn’t want that for their own child?
It is no coincidence that Jenn Cronk of #transparently teaching asked me to join her in writing a book that she had been asked to scribe. Learning and writing about the universal design for learning for all students has opened my eyes; I am a classroom teacher and I am a father. I have the glorious obligation to be a great teacher to my son. A great teacher spends the school year helping students find their own voice and grow as learners.
A great parent does the same, but for a lifetime.
Here is an excerpt of a large writing project of I have been working on:.
Top 10 things NOT TO SAY to a student with a learning disability. I think this is important to address because many teachers do not realize that they can be unintentionally patronizing or demeaning to students with learning disabilities. These are the most common phrases that I heard through out my academic career and that I still continue to hear kids gripe about.
I can’t speak for other students, but I included my internal response to these phrases that I heard the majority of my life.
10. “You're not even trying”.- Maybe for me, trying my best is simply getting through the classroom door in the morning.
9. “If only you just applied yourself more”…Maybe I don’t know what that looks like. Who will teach me what work ethic and grit looks like?
8. “You have got to do your homework!” Maybe I don’t understand why, or I am ashamed because nearly every attempt at my homework is wrong.
7. “You're making all these careless mistakes”.- Maybe those are the most educated mistakes I have ever made.
6. “What do YOU think?”- Maybe I wouldn’t have asked if I knew. Maybe I have learned to not trust my thinking, (see #7 & #8)
5. “Why don't you copy/sit next to ( insert a ‘bright’ student’s name )?” Maybe I already feel like I am not good enough, and this just confirmed it.
4. “You are going to have to know how to do this in the real world”.- Maybe, the field in which I will excel has NOTHING TO DO WITH THIS CLASS. Do you know what I am passionate about?
3. “Why don’t you control yourself better and sit still”? - Maybe I have been sitting for the better part of four hours and am crawling out of my skin. Maybe I am working so hard to sit still that I have no brain power left to listen and analyze what you are saying.
2. “If I do that for you, to be fair I have to do it for all”. - Maybe what’s “fair” is giving me what I need to succeed and not expecting me to be like my peers
And the number #1 most frustrating phrase...
1. “You have so much potential.”
PLEASE! I don’t know how to access it. Can someone show me?
How accessible are the directions and the unwritten rules of your classroom? Sometimes we teachers (myself included) can forget that just figuring out WHAT TO DO is just has hard as how to accomplish it.
Big shout out to the PPS team that I was working with to come up with this nifty little workflow hack. Problem: Trying to track individual IEP goals can be daunting. Solution, a simple blend of bookmarks and G-Suite forms to save the day. Considerations: Only case worker owns all data from forms/sheets.
P.S. All names are demos, my cats and dog are happy to finally be used in a screencast.
Take a listen to the newest episode with Trevor MacKenzie as we discuss the Inquiry process for students. This interview was so enlightening for me and drove my thinking to a much deeper place of respect and wonder at the student discover process. I hope you hearing from Trevor as much as I did and begin to think about how this may have a place in your classroom.
Correction- Heidi Bernasconi is from Clarkstown High School North, not South. She is an excellent resource for 20time applications in the class and in general regional rock-star.
Trevor MacKenzie is a growing name in education because of his fabulous book "Dive Into Inquiry". The moment I read it I was hooked, and I could immediately see the wonderful impact that this pedagogical approach could have for our Special Education Students.
This is the first part of a two-part podcast. Enjoy!
I realize I will need to back fill my podcasts, but here is episode #4
This podcast is a quick reflection on the concept of multiple means of expression through the UDL Guidelines. Expression means that we give our students the opportunity and agency to choose the way interact with content and represent their learning. For more information on the UDL Guidelines please visit the UDL center. To access a PDF of the Guidelines please follow the resource link below.
I am a technology leader, professional developer, teacher, parent and proud owner of an IEP. Let's talk about some fabulous learning experiences.