Friday, 21 December 2012

Merry Christmas and Thank You

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from the staff at Rideau Park

This past week has been a whirlwind of practices, music, acting and finally, a wonderful production at DS Mackenzie (our partner junior high).  If you are anything like me, you have taken the time to hug your children and hold them close in the wake of a terrible tragedy in Connecticut.  As I reflect on the past year, I am reminded that we are so fortunate to live where we do, where such insanity rarely strikes. 

At Rideau Park, our past year has been filled with much learning for our staff and students.  Our staff have been working at creating a learning environment where all students can learn.  We know this has been our focus from the start but we are fine-tuning our craft to be truly inclusive and to master the art of differentiating for each and every student who is in our care.  This is, indeed, a very big commitment.

We have added simple universal supports for students including learning how to use a program called Word Q that will allow many more students to feel successful in reading and writing.  Watch in the new year for a link that will give you access to this fantastic program at home (you may find it quite valuable as an adult also).  We have offered students headphones should they need a quiet environment to work in.  We have offered students a variety of seating that will contribute to their focus.  We have introduced multiple means of representation so students can demonstrate their learning in a way they are comfortable.  We have introduced weekly intervention time for small group work with a teacher. We have begun the process to have regular common assessments in order to “catch” those students who may not have understood a concept so that we can insure they learn the concept before we go on too far ahead.  It has been a good year!

I would like to voice our appreciation for the support from home this past year as well.  We know without your support as parents, student learning would not be as effective.  In the coming year we continue to welcome your questions, your input, your feedback, and your accolades.  Our door is always open to you as we understand that you know your child the best. We value our team of home and school!

I would be remiss if I didn’t applaud the efforts of our dedicated staff at Rideau Park.  As I was reading my Twitter feed, I came across this piece of writing about elementary teachers.  While this specifically talks about teachers, I envision all of our Rideau Park staff when I read it.  It is a delightful piece of writing that may bring back memories for you and your school journey.  While the ending is sobering, it does bring to light that we should appreciate our teachers because as some media person noted this week on TV, “we appreciate our teachers because teachers are there for the kids.” 

I leave you with these thoughts. . .

Brenda Giourmetakis




by Caroline67

Do you know about elementary school teachers?

In their teacher preparation courses, elementary teachers are the ones sitting in the front row of the lecture hall, with extra pens and paper and pencils at the ready and their highlighters set out in ROY G BIV order. They raise their hands and wait their turn and take thorough notes, because this is important and someday they might need to know this. They actually use those pre-printed "To Do" lists and calendars and post-it notes, which they fill out in ink color-coordinated to various tasks and subjects, and they set up a phone tree before the final so they can help each other study.

They listen closely to lots and lots of stories about people they'll never meet and places they've been to a zillion times, told by people whose voices rise? At the end of every sentence? And then they keep going? Until they end with a nonsequitur. They listen to stories about first plane rides and first puppy dogs and first lost teeth and the first time someone met a new sibling.

They are world experts in knock-knock jokes and cootie catchers and cats'-cradle and Uno.

They understand Stanford-Binet results and Weschler scores and Iowas and CATs and NECAPs and NWEAs and DIBELS scores. They know about diphthongs and phonemes and blended vowels and word calling and invented spelling and sight words and the schwa sound. They can talk knowledgeably about social-emotional development and numeracy and literacy and affect. They know when these things matter and when a little person really needs a hug and a drink of water and few minutes of down time.

They make exciting bulletin board displays that they change regularly, unlike mine, which got half-done this August until someone rolled the Smartboard in front of it and I just gave up. They remember birthdays and Presidents' Day and the first day of spring. They wear apple sweaters in September and snowflake sweaters in January and blossoming flower shirts in April and beach shirts in June. They wear corduroy and denim and anything wash'n'wear so a few handprints don't matter. They wear PJs on PJ Day and crazy hats on crazy hat day and a smile no matter what. They wipe faces and messes and the slate clean after a hard day so everyone gets a fresh start the next morning. They perch in little chairs or kneel by little desks or sit criss-cross-applesauce on the floor so they can look their little charges right in the eye and see them, I mean really see them, while they're working together.

If they're art teachers like my friend Laura they introduce kids to a world crazy with colors and textures and vibrance. If they're music teachers like my friend Sue they introduce kids to a world of song and harmony and melody. If they're like both of those teachers, they introduce kids to how much beauty the world has to offer.

They deal with kids who are going bonkers because it's almost their birthday, or almost their weekend with Daddy, or almost vacation, or almost the full moon, or almost any reason at all. They have cafeteria voices and eyes in the backs of their heads and a sixth sense for when trouble is about to go down. They know who has to go to the bathroom, who comes to school hungry, and who's sneaking candy into the lunchroom. They remember who has PT and who has OT and who's in Reading Recovery and who has an IEP and who has a 504 and they treat everyone the same regardless. They handle hyperdiligent parents and irate parents and parents who aren't speaking to one another without losing their cool. They own a gross of paperweights and ornaments and mugs and plaques and desk pen sets that say "#1 teacher" or "2 teach is 2 touch a life 4 ever" or "I Heart My Students," and every year they receive a couple dozen more with genuine pleasure.

What I find most astounding, they spend all day in the same room with the same kids, teaching them reading and writing and arithmetic, and also history and geography and science and penmanship, and on top of that how to tie shoes, get along with other people, make friends, say "no thank you" politely and generally how to be an all-around decent human being, all without going stark raving nuts by lunchtime.

The other thing they do, six of them, is put themselves between a raving killer and the little people in their charge. In an act of selflessness I can't even begin to imagine myself capable of doing, they stood in the path of certain death, hoping it might make the difference for the 20 tiny lives they, collectively, put ahead of their own. When I think of the courage those women must have had in their hearts to take that step, I can't even catch my breath. Imagine that. Imagine someone else loving your child so much, so freely, that she would be willing to take a bullet rather than save herself. I can only hope that the last cognizant realization those little souls had before the darkness enveloped them was the sight of someone standing up for them, between their frail bodies and the evil about to strike. I hope their last impression of life on this earth was of the concern and caring these women embodied. I hope the final emotion that overcame their little psyches wasn't fear or anguish or sorrow or grief but love, love, love, love, love. I hope those teachers' sacrifice leaves a lasting impression on the world they left behind. I hope we never forget the value of those who spend their careers caring for the smallest, wiggliest, goofiest, neediest and most vulnerable members of our society.

Thank you, [staff names removed as I had no permission]. Thank you for songs and stories and popsicle stick art, and for reading and thinking and learning and knowing.


Saturday, 10 November 2012

Is this sustainable?

So I was down with the flu suddenly on Thursday night, meaning I could not be a school for a critical team meeting for one of my students.  I called the inclusive team to let them know I could not be at school.  The teacher knew I would not be able to stand in for her as earlier planned.  So I worried how the meeting would go down. . .

Why did I worry??? Everything went well. Why? Because we have established a home-school TEAM. We have worked for the last two years to create a space for parents, teachers and therapists to work together to create a learning environment for this youngster (who, by the way, is blossoming. . . ).  I know that in order to have an inclusive culture in a school, it can't all be about me "doing" inclusion.  It has to be about a team willing to work with parents and therapists to create the ideal learning environment for all students. We are getting there. . .

On Monday we embark on a new section of our journey. . . we are all presenting our PD day.  We are looking at the book, "Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age" by David Rose and Anne Meyer.  Rather than me presenting the book, teachers will present a chapter in partners or on their own.  In the spirit of Universal Design for Learning, the book is presented in three formats: summary, shortened with many links or the full chapter.  It was interesting to note that some teachers needed the actual book to read to meet their needs (that is a note to remember for the PD day to remind us about multiple representations). 
I am excited that we will all be in charge of our learning regarding inclusion.  Since this has been such scary territory for our teachers, I am hoping that by learning together, we will come to a deeper understanding of true inclusion and why it is important to become an inclusive school that welcomes all students to learn.  After all, the expectation was there that I should provide them with the means that they needed in order to learn! More about the PD day next post.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Fixed or Growth Mindset?

Carol Dweck's work on Mindset gave us a great deal of food for thought at our last staff meeting. We started by looking at the David Suzuki video, Changing Your Mind:
After watching a portion of the video (it is 44 minutes long but fabulous if you choose to watch the whole thing!), we learned fixed mindset teachers will limit what they think is possible.  They will ensure the status quo continues.  Their mindset determines how they respond to the world around them.  They limit improvement.  They believe external factors are the reason kids don't learn in their classroom.  They have autonomy to make all educational decisions for their students.  They talk about "my" students and "your" students.  They ask "why don't you just leave me alone to teach?"  They add "it is my job to teach and the students' job to learn."  They think the purpose of the school is to teach the curriculum and the results they get in the classroom are a result of the students' wishes to learn or not.  You may have heard a fixed mindset teacher say, "I don't need to improve my practice - the students need to pay attention."  OR " The majority of my students pass the provincial achievement test, so I must be doing a good job."  OR "These kids just don't have the capacity to do this work." And finally, "A professional learning community is just the latest fad and will be gone soon."  (ps. I am still here and so is our journey to becoming a true PLC!)
NOW, on the other hand, a growth mindset teacher is resilient and determined that his/her students will succeed.  They set high expectations for their students and give them the means to reach these expectations.  They don't judge their students and while they may not love every child (what does that mean anyway?), they still care about each and every child in the class.  Growth mindset teachers are fascinated with the process of learning.  They understand that all things that are hard can be accomplished with effort (both for their students and themselves).  They view failure as an opportunity to learn. They believe new realities are very possible for themselves and their students.  They believe their actions hold the key to improved students results  (borrowed from a presentation by Greg Kushnir, principal for Edmonton Public).
What a difference.  This gave all staff food for thought as I asked, "Which kind of a teacher are you?"  I realize at some time we may think in a fixed mindset way, but we have to work at always coming at problems from a growth mindset.  Particularly when talking about our students, it is imperative that we come from a growth mindset.  When you pinpoint your thinking about students with exceptional needs, you HAVE to come from a growth mindset or they will not grow.  As teachers, we have to get past our fear of failure if we want our students to venture out and try new things; if we want our students with special needs to be determined when working at something new.
Just today one of our students on the Autism Spectrum asked, "Where?"  Now that does not seem like much, but he does not have a lot of verbal language (really, just a little bit at this time) and we have been fortunate enough to work with him for the past two months.  That simple question of where brought shivers to my soul.  Just the other day, he explained using signs, the next three things he was going to do: bathroom, work and then computer.  WOW!! Where will this little one soar?  Imagine how far he will go in the year??  We have no idea at this moment, but we do know that with a growth mindset and determination, everything is possible! I wish I had a crystal ball to look ahead but I will be satisfied to sit and imagine the possibilities for him and be soooo excited! 
If our school becomes filled with people who have a growth mindset and we toss the old fixed mindset in a dusty, back closet never to be found again, our students will finally have access to an equitable education that will serve every single student where he/she is at... and then, the possibilities for growth are truly endless. 
As we are a Leader in Me school and working to become a true PLC, we finished our staff meeting by setting a school wide goal of improved reading; growth by at least one year for all students.  Is that scary for us? Yes, because now it is written down.  It is recorded and we have to do it. . . Our first task is to figure out how every single student can take part in guided reading daily.  A big job to figure out for sure, but the pay off is tremendous.  Our students will grow and we WILL see some amazing results. 
If you are reading this, what kind of mindset is yours?  What kind of mindset prevails in your classroom? Your school? Not sure, check out this online quiz to give you a quick idea of what you need to do to become a growth mindset teacher, or colleague, or parent, or spouse, or partner!

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Is Equitable Education Life or Death?

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

Sunday, 21 October 2012

So Much Potential

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

Because we're talking about the brain.

One of the most mysterious organs in our bodies.

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

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

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

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

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

Well, who said?

And who can really know that for sure?

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

Nor do I.

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

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

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

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

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

It may or may not work.

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

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

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

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

This is My Perspective. . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Inclusion is an Attitude

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

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

Try taking the perspective of the parent in this poem:

Welcome to Holland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Emily Perl Kingsley 

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

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Just when you think you have made it...

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

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

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

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

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

Student Voice has Impact

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

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Should students be included in the IPP process? Yes!

Last week we tried a new approach to individual program plan writing. We met as a team with the family of the student, the consultants from our Inclusive Learning Services, the teaching team (including the Educational Assistant) and me, the principal. At then of our time together, we had the skeleton of an excellent IPP. What a valuable time for all. Everyone had an opportunity to speak and be heard. This week, the teaching team will finish this initial draft and share with the family. All in all, everyone left the table feeling heard and satisfied that they had a voice. This week we will take the same process and meet with the rest of our families. I only had one regret... We didn't include the student. I think that to truly make this an inclusive process, we need to include the voice of the students. I am sure they will have a say but I think they would be surprised to be included in the conversation. I think they are so used to having education "done" to them that they would need some encouragement to speak up at an IPP meeting. After the week's meetings are done, I will report back at how the student voice was included in this process. I expect each student will be pleased at being included. After all, it is their education so why shouldn't they be able to speak up?

Friday, 31 August 2012

So Much to Do - So Little Time

Here we are in the last two days before school.  Our first meeting done and now in collaborative teams struggling to make sense of all we need to do.  We are learning to create a guaranteed curriculum for all students without short changing anyone.  That is hard. But we know teaching is not for the faint of heart!
We want our students to be engaged and we want high expectations but what about that child who comes to school hungry? or tired? or comes after listening to his parents fight? or cry? or worry? or maybe the child struggles to make sense of what we are saying? Do we lower that standard? No as Todd Whitaker says in What Great Teachers Do Differently: 17 things that matter most, "we must always work to engage the students.  If the students are not focused, great teachers ask what they themselves can do differently" (p. 34). We can't just keep bumping along and doing what we always have been doing.  When asked about trying centres for a subject, one teacher replied, "I don't think so.  I have my way of doing things.  I will try that first." When countered with, "These students can't manage with lots of worksheets. They need hands-on" the teacher stuck with the original plan because that is how it has been done.  Hopefully, the obvious need for reflection will kick in once this teacher notices students are not engaged.  AND these students will make it clear they are not engaged. 
As the reponsible adult in the room, we need to be responsive to the needs of the students.  This is a major paradigm shift in education.  One size does not fit all (It never did but we looked the other way!). Until we start realizing this, our lives as educators could become quite uncomfortable.  I mean, look at that face.  Would you want to see that everyday?  Not likely.  By being responsive to all students' needs, we can change the face of anger, disgruntlement, boredom to one of pleasure and curiousity and a love of learning. so as we scurry around to get our classrooms ready to receive these little people, hopefully our hearts are ready to share a love of learning and to be reflective in all that we do.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Welcome Back to School

This is the first post of the new school year.  I read the welcome back letters of a couple of other principals and thought this would be a great idea.  Following is the letter I sent to parents.  I took out a couple of bits of information (including teacher names for the organization of classes) because I didn't ask their permission to post their names.

August 20, 2012

Dear Rideau Park Family:

As the summer ends I thought I would like to take the time to write you a letter letting you know what I have been up to and what great expectations I have for our wonderful school for the 2012 -2013 school year.  This summer I enjoyed a week at Kootenay Lake with my husband, my son, Nathan and our new puppy, Snoop.  Snoop is the cutest little (but not for long) labradoodle.  We enjoyed taking him for walks around the cabin and the lake.  I also got to go watch my youngest son, Simon, play lacrosse in Maple Ridge, BC for a weekend and then the two of us drove home.  It was a nice time to connect with him as he as been away at school in Buffalo, NY for the past four years.  I took in the Edmonton Folk Music Festival which is always a superb weekend of music and finally, I went camping and took along my grandchildren.  We had an amazing time at Red Lodge Provincial Park floating on the Little Red Deer River.  I feel energized and re-charged, ready for a new school year.

As well, this summer I took the opportunity to enroll in a graduate level course at the University of Alberta.  I learned about Level B Assessment of students in reading, writing and mathematics.  I can report that I did very well and am now qualified to assess students in these subjects.  I look forward to using my new skills to help our students find success in their learning and to working with staff to provide the best programming for each and every student at our school.

To further my own professional learning, I have really benefitted from my Twitter account as I follow a number of excellent educators and administrators who have shared many ideas, philosophies, and research on Twitter.  It has been an excellent source of learning for me and I look forward to sharing with staff.  I also follow several blogs on a regular basis and have learned and been inspired by many writers.  I have begun my own blog and you can read it at  You will find several pieces on inclusion and I have posted inspiring videos and tools for students, parents and teachers to use.  This year you can now follow Rideau Park School on Twitter.  See @RideauParkEdm for information on upcoming events and other important stuff! Watch for other new additions to our website as we strive to offer you up to date information about our school.

Each summer, I am excited to finally have the time to read.  I have read both for pleasure and for learning this summer. As part of my pleasure reading, I read some titles that are in our library to become acquainted with our collection:
            Skeleton Man by Joseph Bruchac: This story is based on an Aboriginal (Mohawk) legend but       wrapped
            up in a mystery about a girl’s missing parents.  A great read by an excellent author (we have other titles
            of his in our library as well).
            Fatty Legs by Chrisy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton: A story about an Aboriginal (Inuit)
            girl’s experience in a residential school.  A well told, true story.
            11 Birthdays by Wendy Mass: A fantasy story about a young girl who experiences her 11th    birthday over and over as part of an old curse until she learns a lesson in friendship
            The cupcake Queen by Heather Hepler: A realistic fiction story about a young girl who’s parents
            divorce causing her to move away from her friends.  A story of understanding and growing up.
And a book from my own collection: Jann Arden: Falling Backwards: An autobiography of Jann Arden, Canadian singer-songwriter who is from Alberta.  What a fun read while learning about her life before music.
As part of my professional reading, I learned a great deal from Todd Whitaker: What Great Teachers Do Differently: 17 things that matter most (2012), What Great Principals Do Differently: 18 Things that matter most (2012).   I read a leadership book shared by our Assistant Superintendent, Ron MacNeil: High-Impact Leadership for High-Impact Schools: the Actions that matter most by Pamela Salazar and Classroom Instruction that Works: Research based strategies for increasing student achievement by Ceri Dean et al.  Both of these books offered great strategies to add to our school success.  Finally, I read several books on Autism including 10 Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew by Ellen Notbohm and You are Going to Love this Kid by Paula Kluth as well as Carly’s Voice: Breaking through Autism by Arthur Fleischmann with Carly Fleischmann.  These titles offer excellent insights about children and adults with Autism.  As we are an inclusive school and meet the needs of students with Autism, these books offered strategies for children with Autism as well as other students experiencing difficulties in many areas (social, behavioural, emotional). 

Enough about me. . .  I am excited for the coming year.  As a staff we are continuing on our path to becoming a true Professional Learning Community.  Our staff are organized in collaborative teams and each team works to insure all students find success in their learning.  One of our successes last year was the beginning of common assessments in each grade level.  Teachers worked together to create a common assessment for each essential learning outcome in the English Language Arts curriculum.  We tried some things, we tweaked some things and we re-vamped some things.  This year our plan is to continue this important piece but work on identifying the essential outcomes for social studies, science and mathematics as well.  This will ensure students are assessed equitably in each classroom and if students do not understand an outcome, their learning will be addressed immediately.  To this effect, we began Intervention times last spring.  Three times each week all students came to the gym with reading or work to complete under the supervision of myself and the educational assistants.  Teachers kept students in the class who needed to review a concept or relearn a concept.  Teachers could also keep students behind who needed an extra challenge.  This was so successful last year that our plan this year is to have an intervention time daily.  By making this a priority we are hoping all students will meet the curriculum as outlined by Alberta Education.  Our staff are dedicated to the success of all students.
We have many of the same faces on staff this year but with some new organization as follows:
          (Teacher organization removed)
I know you will continue to offer your support as we work together to meet your child’s needs.  As a staff, we are so fortunate to have such supportive parents in our school! 

In the past three years, our school has taken on the journey to becoming a safe and engaging place for all students to learn; a place where every student is included regardless of ability.  We have become part of the family of schools where leadership for all students in a priority within the Leader in Me program.  We are working to live the 7 habits of highly effective people every day in all that we do at school.  As an inclusive school, I am reminded of the goals of Alberta Education:
            The goal of an inclusive education system is to provide all students with the most appropriate learning environments and opportunities for them to best achieve their potential. In Alberta, inclusion in the education system is about ensuring that each student belongs and receives a quality education no matter their ability, disability, language, cultural background, gender or age.  An inclusive education system is best realized when leadership is shared between school, home and family.  Moving towards an inclusive education system, as described in the Setting the Direction Framework and supported by the Government of Alberta’s response to the framework, has taken considerable time.  It will take even more time because, for many, the shift in thinking and practice is significant.  See for more information on this important topic. At Rideau Park, we have begun this shift.  We continue to work at viewing our students in terms of abilities rather than disabilities.  We know that habit 4 tells us to think win-win and habit 5 says we should seek first to understand and then be understood.  By working on these two habits, we know we can be inclusive for all students who come to our school.  Really, when you think about it, we are already inclusive of the following “disabilities”:
1.      Your child is shy in new situations: social disability
2.      Your child has difficulty with math and times tables: math disability
3.      Your child wears glasses: vision disability
4.      Your child has trouble reading: reading disability
5.      Your child has trouble with writing thoughts: writing disability
6.      Your child has trouble with fine motor skills (poor writing skills): fine motor disability
7.      Your child has trouble with sports, athletics: gross motor disability
8.      Your child has trouble with friends (arguments, drama with friends): social disability
9.      Your child has trouble remembering homework or organizing: executive function disability
10.  Your child has difficulty with music: listening disability or musical disability
11.  Your child has difficulty listening to instructions (yours or others’): hearing disability or listening disability
12.  Your child focuses on only one thing (is quite taken with a topic, a collection, etc): some would see that as obsessive issues or a disability

So as you can see, it would be easy to focus on disabilities or see things as problems, but rather, at our school we would prefer to focus on students’ abilities and to believe that we have already been inclusive for a long time.  Your child may have benefited from a strategy that helped him/her with some part of the learning journey and rather than throwing up our arms and saying, “Find somewhere to help your child. We can’t do it” we focused on a strategy to help.  That is what inclusion is all about:  all students having access to an equitable education in their community school.  This basic right is guaranteed for all students so when you hear someone say ‘Rideau Park is being ruined by that inclusion thing,’ stand up and say what a rich fabric our school is becoming because we are inclusive and we can learn from each other.  Our students with challenges have a great deal to offer our students who find learning easy such as compassion, understanding, patience, and love.  I expect that all Rideau Park students will leave our school with the understanding that every person they meet has value, regardless of challenges.  Every person has a value to our society and as our students grow as leaders, they will learn this and take it with them out into the community.  Because of their learning and leadership, our future as a society will be stronger.

Our district priorities are five fold: to provide supports and programs that will enable all students to complete high school, to deepen students’ understanding of equity and empathy as key citizenship traits, to ensure all students and their families are welcomed, respected, accepted and supported in every school, to promote health and wellness for all students and staff and to listen to staff, honour their contributions, and support their opportunities for collaboration, growth and professional development. As a school I can attest that we have embraced the priorities of the district as we focus on being an inclusive setting where all students are valued. See for more information regarding Edmonton Public Mission, Vision and Priorities.

Finally, I am excited about the next steps we are taking with the Leader in Me program.  By December of this school year, all of our students will have a leadership responsibility at our school.  These positions may be small or large but will allow students to take responsibility and leadership to make our school a better place.  Staff will focus on habits month by month as we work to become a Leader in Me Lighthouse School in the district.  We are well on our way toward this goal and are excited to see “great happening here!”  Last year, we watched as students lead most of our assemblies and did a fantastic job.  Students led activities and spirit days, handed out recess equipment regularly, sold milk, led with technology, were office helpers, greeted people in the morning, and led in club activities. This year we look forward to all of these positions continuing and to students leading at recess to engage all of our students in positive games and activities each recess as well as creating a live stream announcement segment for our students to watch in the mornings.  Our students are learning and living the 7 habits: Be proactive, begin with the end in mind, put first things first, think win-win, seek first to understand and then be understood, synergize and sharpen the saw.  For more information about the 7 habits, parents and other community members are invited to meet the 7 habits on September 12 so please put that date on your calendar! 

We are fortunate to have had corporate sponsorship for each of our students to receive a 7 habits t-shirt designed by two of our own students.  We will wear these at each assembly or special event and then at the end of the year, students will be welcome to take them home.  Thank you to our sponsors: Sheppard Insurance Service Inc., Details Insulation, Dreamscapes Coaching, Mark “G” Auto Service Ltd, Ancoma Scales, and Oasis Graphics.  We appreciate your support and look forward to our partnership in creating leaders for our community.

Just a reminder if you need to talk to me, you can reach me a number of ways.  You can always phone at 780-437-0010, you can make an appointment to talk in the office or you can reach me by email at  I look forward to meeting you all and catching up on your news or meeting you for the first time.  Our office is open from 8:30 to 4:00 p.m. starting on August 20.  School begins September 4 at 8:30 a.m.  Check out website for handbook information and upcoming events.  Watch for a blog on our website that you can follow and comment on.  We hope to have our blog set up by the first day of school.

These are exciting times at Rideau Park School as we continue to develop 21st century skills in our students who will become creative thinkers, critical thinkers and strong problem solvers of the future.  Our mission statement says that we want to prepare our students for a purposeful role in the global community.  We cannot do this alone.  We need your help!  Together we can face this most important endeavor, to make a difference in the lives of our students and in turn, in the lives of our community.  The time is now to make this difference and we look forward to a strong partnership in this, the most important endeavor we will ever undertake.


Brenda Giourmetakis

I am hoping this will help parents understand what we are all about. . . 


Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Let's Go!

Here we are near the end of summer. This morning I woke up to a 7 degree morning and realized there are few beautiful days of 20+ left and school is literally around the corner. . . I haven't really posted in a while and after completing a course on Level B assessment in July at the university, I really took the summer off. Okay, I did do a bunch of professional reading but I read for fun, went camping, took off to Vancouver to watch my youngest son play lacrosse, did some site seeing and slept in many a day. I enjoyed our new puppy (well, my son's new daily companion) and watched this dog grow and grow and grow. He was so tiny when we got him. He is a beautiful black (but turning reddish-brown) labradoodle with an easy-going temperament that makes for a perfect companion for my son who is hesitant to leave the house or join a crowd at any time. He is diagnosed with Schizophrenia which is well controlled (finally) with medication and this dog will nudge him to leave the house for walks and will be a companion who never judges his motivation or lack there of, never judges whether his ideas are "different" and just loves him unconditionally!! Why we didn't do this before? Not sure, although having a puppy in the house in June was a bit brutal on the nerves due to the lack of sleep. "Snoop" is not an integral member of the family who loves his big brother, Nate!

As I approach that day. . . the day I have to go to work (next Monday), I am nervous, excited, and trepidatious. We are in year three of working toward becoming a true Professional Learning Community. The road has not been easy. We have had to unlearn some deeply rooted beliefs and realize that we are ALL responsible for every student in the school. Our two programs have had to join together to collaborate rather than being us and them. Students with exceptionalities are being included in our Bilingual program rather than being counseled to join the English program. In itself, this is a major paradigm shift that is not entirely in place yet. I am excited this year to include a young first grade student as part of our bilingual program. His family speaks the target language at home and he understands requests, however, he is non-verbal in English or his family's first language. Knowing this, I read 10 Things Every Child With Autism Wishes You Knew by Ellen Notbohm .
This quick read gives the reader an elementary understanding of Autism and I will share this with my new student's teachers. This excellent book reminds the reader of the humanity of the child with Autism and reiterates that the child is NOT the disability.

I am currently reading Paula Kluth's book, You are Going to Love This Kid . This should be the Bible of teachers who are serious about including students with Autism or really any difference. Chock full of great information and ideas, this will be one of your best read resources.

I read a great post this summer by Jonathan Martin. He suggests principals write a "welcome back letter" to all parents.  I thought this would be a fantastic idea and an opportunity to share our school vision for inclusion as we still have a number of parents who think we are "ruining our school" by letting "those students" in (as if they are part of an exclusive club. . . sheesh!). Watch for my letter in the next week as I prepare to share this vision up front so it is understand and if there are questions, maybe the letter will answer them?? Finally, I am putting it out there so I can't go back on it... my goal and promise is to blog at least once per week. I know this will help me make sense of the journey I continue on in my school and I hope will be of value to others experiencing the same things. Now that it is on the web, it will have to be so.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Carly's Voice

Carly's Voice: Breaking Through Autism by Carly and Author Fleishmann What an amazing book! This is a must read for all teachers and folks who work with students with special needs. While the story unfolds about a child who is non-verbal with severe autism, it certainly teaches the reader not to assume that because a child is not communicating in the way we are used to doesn't mean the child is not communicating at all. This child discovers her voice through typing and the reader is given a glimpse of what challenges she has. Here is a brief excerpt from YouTube. This is inclusion at its finest, but what hard work the parents had to do to get her there. Kind of a sad note on our system really. I wonder why this happens and then I realize, many times teachers are just afraid of how to deal with students who cannot communicate like we do. And schools do need support and need to learn about how to meet the needs of our exceptional students. Finding time and resources to do this is always a challenge no matter how well intended you are as a teacher. This is an amazing book. You can follow Carly's blog and you can follow her on Twitter @CarlysVoice What an amazing young woman.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012


I know that sometimes it is hard to stay motivated when trying to create the "perfect" inclusive class. you come up against roadblocks either from the "system" or trying to meet all needs. You get tired. . . You get pushback from colleagues. Parents make demands of your time. After all, we are only human in this journey toward excellence for all. Well, I came across the video in my Twitter reading. What a way to define yourself as a teacher and to meet each day. I love the final question: Was I better today than I was yesterday? Daniel Pink's book, "Drive" is one that I haven't read yet but is on my summer reading list. Anyone have any thoughts about the book?

Thursday, 19 April 2012


Sometimes everything aligns just right. . .
I had the distinct pleasure to sit in on a meeting with two parents, two teachers, one educational assistant and two mental health nurses to discuss one student. We met to discuss the progress of this youngster who had recently received a specific diagnosis that rose out of his significant challenges. Parents were wondering how everything was going and brought along the mental health nurses to support this transition to our school.

You know in many case conferences I have sat in on, there has been a tense atmosphere as parents and teachers see each other as "us" and "them." This was NOT the case for this meeting. It was wonderful to listen to the parents share, listen to the EA share, and then listen to the teachers share this little guy's strengths and subsequently observing the team working together to problem solve to meet this student's needs and areas of challenge. It was clear all parties left the meeting feeling positive, realizing that every single person in the meeting had this student's best interest at heart.

If only every situation were the same. What a wonderful world of inclusion for all students we would see!

I was so impressed at this meeting as teachers listened, really listened, to the experts - the parents - who know their child best. As well, the parents listened carefully as school staff shared their ideas. Finally, the mental health nurses applauded the efforts being made and offered their expertise about the specific disorder. Such positive teamwork and what an example for other staff at the school as we navigating the journey of inclusion. We were a TEAM!

Gayle Hernandez, special educator, talks about the importance of working with home and school to facilitate successful inclusion and says,
· The families of the children I teach are the first teachers and are to be valued and included in their children’s education.
· I do not work in isolation in my classroom.I continuously draw on the expertise of those around me to help when I hit a dead end and don’t know what to do next. I don’t have all the answers and grow stronger through collaboration with school based colleagues, our resource team, district experts, and of course parents too!
She realizes the value of parents and school staff working together, along with the community experts.

I was so encouraged by this positive meeting and further encouraged when I received an email from the mom the next day stating how great she felt after the meeting, knowing that her son was in a place where everyone cared for him as a student and a person. What more could a principal ask for??