Friday, 27 September 2013

Promoting Critical Conversations #SAVMP

Out in the Schools
This past week has offered many opportunities to promote critical discussions particularly around the need for assessment in our schools.

It is often regarded as a work of magic whereby an assessment by a reading specialist and a psychologist offer all the answers for the school requesting these.  We have had to have those critical discussions around limited resources in people and time in this day and age of fiscal restraint.  These conversations are not comfortable but necessary and while I am focused on the time and energy of my staff to complete assessments only during the daylight (unfortunately they have to sleep sometime!), I am cognizant of the urgency felt by the school.

However, just putting these facts out there causes school staff to reflect on the purpose of a referral.  Why do we want this information?  If we are programming for students and have had an assessment in the past, why is it necessary to do another one?  Do we need this referral for district requirements (I get this one!) or do we just think things will be that dramatically different?

From a growth mindset, I realize we may need an updated understanding of our students, but I believe a teacher should have a great handle on that.  I do realize that our current funding model causes us to have to assess a student repeatedly and I look forward to the day when we will empower (or train, if you prefer) teachers to complete level B assessments purely for programming purposes.  If the teacher understood the tool and could complete an assessment, that would give her/him a greater understanding of what part of academics a student was struggling with. Rather than relying on someone who does not know that student to complete such an assessment.

But the bottom line is very few people to do the vast amount of work that is needed or wanted by schools.

But I digress. . .
Perhaps the focus should be on the critical conversations that we need to have at the government table about how we fund schools to meet the needs of students included in our classrooms.

With My New Team
On my own team this year, I am working to create a space where we can disagree or staff can suggest what changes I need to make to create a culture where it is safe to take risks and perhaps experience failure.  WE are creating a culture of dialogue; comfortable or uncomfortable but open communication.  An example would be our schedule of team meetings.  Staff were divided in teams and met once per month.  This structure was inherited and not really working for anyone (not me for sure).  So at our last meeting, we put it on the table for discussion and came up with a new alternative that, I believe, makes better use of everyone's time.  I look forward to more open discussion as we meet monthly all together.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Participant or Observer - How Can We Break Down the Barriers for Our Students?

"Where there once was an observer, let there now be a participant"     Eliot Eisner

Last night in my university class (Assistive Technology), we learned about the SETT Framework created by Joy Zabala. And not only did we learn about it but we were graced with Joy Skyping into our class. What lucky students!

She shared about the components of the SETT framework and how important it is to consider the student, the environment, the tasks and then the tool.   So many times in classrooms, we see the next shiny thing on the market and purchase it before we consider the first three important components: the student, the environment and the task. We see the apps available on the IPad and figure this will be the answer to solve all of our problems.    

In the past year, we tried a shiny new Ipad with one of our students with Autism. We didn't consider the student.  We didn't intentionally ignore his needs but we just thought this would be a good tool for him to use to learn letters.  Why did we think he needed to learn letters?  We didn't really think it through carefully, but thought, this is grade one so must be a good idea. We didn't consider the environment.  What was happening in the classroom?  How would the IPad fit into the lessons?  Nope, we didn't think about that. . .  We didn't really consider the tasks the teacher was setting up in the classroom.  I think it all boiled down to how we really only wanted to keep him occupied.

Well, you can guess what happened next. . . the IPad was a complete flop.  It was the wrong tool for this student.  He got really stuck on the IPad and had a hard time stopping the activity, resulting in some huge meltdowns!  After some time, he was just swiping the screen and not really paying attention.  Did he learn letters?  Maybe, but the over-stimulation was the over riding factor that covered up any potential learning he may have done or could have demonstrated to us.  If I were to go back in time, I would have addressed the situation following the SETT framework completely differently!

I would have asked these questions first:  What is the functional area of concern? What does this student need to do that is difficult or impossible to do independently at this time? What are the student's special needs that contribute to these concerns? What are the student's current abilities that contribute to these concerns? What are the student's interests? (From Ready, SETT, Go!  )          

If we had started there, we would have been more specific about his lack of communication.  That was our foremost concern (not learning the alphabet!). He could not communicate independently. He had only a few approximations of words to communicate his needs and wants.  And while he was interested in computers, there are many other ways to communicate that are low tech.  We could have used a picture exchange and later on we did use simple signs that allowed him to share his needs or wants with us.

We fell into the trap of a quick fix and did not take the time needed to really investigate the full situation.  And we paid for it with a student who was frustrated and angry much of the time because we did not understand him.  The IPad, although shiny and exciting, was not the correct tool for our guy! It pains me to think how terribly we failed this little guy for the first three months at school.

Looking forward, I am grateful for learning about this framework that will allow me to improve, maintain, or increase functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities. (from our lecture last night). I will work to remove barriers to performance for our included students.  In Canada we don't have a law that insists we look at AT as an option.  It is my experience that AT is considered as a last resort rather than up front.  I have heard about the SETT framework in the past from two individuals, a speech language pathologist and an occupational therapist.  But it has not come up any other times in the years I have worked with students with special needs. However, with this new knowledge in my toolbox, I will share with staff in the many schools I am working in this year.  My past mistakes will inform my work as I move forward.

I am excited to work with a speech pathologist who is about to go through this process with a youngster in a kindergarten class who requires some AT to participate fully in class.  I hope to learn a great deal from this colleague and see the framework in action.  I will keep you posted.                               

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Building the Plane While Flying It #SAVMP

Today I attended an intial meeting to begin the work with the Edmonton area Regional Collaborative Service Delivery or RCSD as we are fondly calling it (and no, that is not the Roman Catholic School District!).

 The vision of the RCSD is to "deliver regional supports and services to enable Alberta's children and youth to succeed in their learning and well-being" (Strategic Plan, June 26, 2013). At this time, service to children is provided by School boards, some service by an outreach team that travels all over Alberta, some service by consultants through SHiP money, and some through home care. Lots of people doing similar jobs.

 While we all mean well, there is a lot that can be improved to give service to our students in terms of speech, occupational therapy, physio therapy, psychology, reading specialty, mental health and home care. We talked about the need for the children of Alberta to be at the centre of everything we do. We talked about the "threat" we might feel about changes that might occur and we also talked about the "threat" of remaining status quo. Would that be best for children?

 The vision for the RCSD is to "work collaboratively through inter/multi-disciplinary teams to provide the right support and services at the right time and place by building the capacity of school staff, service providers and families in enhancing student success." We realize that only through collaborative problem solving can we do the best for children. That we must look through multiple lenses to really see what is best; the lenses of the child, the parent, the teacher, and the principal to see what service is best and by whom. We can no longer work in silos and only use our personal lens to see the needs and solve the problems presented. That will definitely change the current landscape for our individual teams. Is that fearful for staff? I would think so. . .

 We asked the question: "How do we get from multiple teams to one single team seemlessly delivering service?" We know that processes exist in each group that are not the same. We have multiple referrals processes, multiple rules for consent by parents, and multiple ways of sharing information gathered. What will it take to get to that single team?

 After an excellent process of examining the facts, reflecting, sharing emotional reaction, considering next steps and stating decisions to move forward, we realized this is a one year process, a year of transition, a year of "building the plane while flying it." We know that this transition will be difficult for our staff and staff in schools to understand completely, however, we realize the need to push onward to create a system that will best serve the students and schools of Alberta. We are hopeful that we will work to create such a system while each team skillfully shares the common message of this transition. We expect our new system to be efficient and effective. I am excited that our included students will have streamlined service from all service providers in a timely manner to promote each students' personal potential. I look forward to sharing more of the building of this plane as we fly through known and unknown territories, building as we go...

Thinking back to my last post on innovation.  Here we will see innovation at its best.  Great minds coming together to realize a vision and a goal of effective and efficient service delivery.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Can We Encourage Innovation or Does Innovation Happen In Spite of Us? #SAVMP


How do I promote innovation in my work space?  As I am new to this space, I would like to give this some big thought!  I work with a team of dedicated individuals who want to do the best for all children, who want to make the barriers fall so each student can be successful.  Given such a situation, I would expect innovation to be popping up here and there.  To an extent, our department promotes opportunities to be innovative.  In terms of inclusion, innovation may be more difficult to promote as we work in schools across the district.
In one school we visited, the history shared was one of a space where students with needs where counselled out or not really even known about.  In the past two years our staff have shared ideas for strategies for the inclusion of students who had identified needs.  Apparently, the school has come miles in the past two years to meet the needs of the very diverse population in their school.  However, there is one area of hold-out. There remain a couple of students who have very complex needs who still do nearly all, if not all, of their schooling in a separate space with an educational assistant.  NOT inclusion.  So our next steps will be to come up with innovative ways to include this student.  How to promote this innovation?

For the class I am currently taking at the U of A with Kathy Howery (who has a great deal of expertise in Assistive Technology and UDL), I am reading a paper by Dave Edyburn. He describes innovation as advances made "because of create insight or the ability to solve a technological challenge" (p. 10).  For one particular student at this school, I feel our team must be diligent to solve partly a technological challenge as this student has no speech and there doesn't appear to be any past discussion to give this student a method of communication.  In this instance, how will we promote innovation?  Certainly by presenting the problem and then giving optimal space and time to discuss the possibilities.  It is my hope that this discussion and collaboration will produce what Edyburn describes as disruptive change  or innovation that produces a "deep and profound change" (p. 10) for this student.  The seeds have been planted with the consultant team and we will go out again in the next week to plant the seeds with the school team with hopes that the collaboration will produce some innovative ways to include this student. I am confident that our time and space provided for collaboration will lead to the innovation needed to benefit this student.

Innovation definitely depends on the provision of collaborative space and time for staff.  In the past, in my time in school, our staff room discussions definitely lead to innovative practices as well as staff weekly designated collaborative time.  Staff were encouraged to explore possible practices and sometimes innovation was born out of necessity in situations where teachers were not sure what their next step should be with a student or a classroom.  For example, the grade 5/6 math teacher had so many levels of student ability that she needed to address that she came up with a very innovative way to meet these diverse needs.  She created a website of videos to explain concepts (either made by her or by her students to demonstrate their learning).  This became a tool for students who did not understand a concept if she was busy working with a different group of students.  The students found these videos very helpful as they could start and stop or repeat the video as needed. They experienced success due to her innovative practice of "flipping" her classroom.

Of course, as leaders, we have to ensure there is a culture of risk in our schools if we are to promote innovation.  Staff (and students) need to feel safe and secure in trying something and possibly failing in their quest to an innovative practice.  Innovation can only be born of the ability to take risks and to not fear punishment for inevitable failures.

Will innovation happen in spite of us if we do not promote this culture in our school?  Absolutley. I think innovation will happen within classrooms in response to needs of the students, particularly if the teacher in very much in tune with her students.  Hopefully, we will get away from the traditional silo of innovation and work in schools as schools promote collaboration between teachers.  This collaboration can only benefit all of our students, particularly if we truly believe in inclusive classrooms

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Yup! I Made It Through Week One!

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Phew!  I made it through the first week of my new work.  I met with staff, I met with a cohort group, I met with principals and I completed a ton of computer work on Google.  There is so much to learn in a new position and I always worry that I might be missing something.  But I realize that if I do miss something, I am sure someone will tell me about it.  Staff have been very kind in gently reminding me of practices they would like to continue.  

I am excited to have met with principals who are including students in their school and looking for positive ways to be more inclusive.  We have talked about possible math inservices for a junior high in order to differentiate for all students in the class as some are struggling.  We have talked about the possibility of students in a life skills class being integrated in some classes to start the year.  We have talked about how to support students on the Autism Spectrum to insure their success.  This is all very exciting to hear as folks begin to embrace inclusion as an expected practice.  But ... there are stories of teachers who are reluctant to welcome all students in their classrooms.  I expect I will hear more about these stories but for now, I am happy to hear principals are open to including all children in their schools.

One worry on the horizon was some discussion from a person who used language that was less than inclusive.  Words like "dumb" and "stupid" have no place in our vocabulary and to say "kids with IQs of 30-40 will never be able to do anything" should not be heard in our meetings.  My next step will be to have those difficult conversations with staff to insure we are respectful of all of our students we will be working with.  We still need to view students from a strength based view rather than dwelling on their challenges and to realize these people in our care are somebody's kids!  I would not want anyone talking about my children like that!

I do feel like I am madly treading water as I navigate this new journey but expect the pace to not necessarily slow down but to accustom myself to the needs and the duties of the days ( and to eat my lunch each day!)

Monday, 2 September 2013

Developing Leaders One Person at a Time #SAVMP

I think during the next couple of days I will make up for the lack of writing as I have several posts brewing in my brain!


For week 5 of the School Admin Virtual Mentorship Program, we have been asked to write about leadership development.  I can't write about this topic without acknowledging the program we had at my school for the last three years.  Our school (I know, it isn't "my" school anymore but...) was part of the Leader in Me program that has a one tagline, "developing leaders one day at a time."  With this philosophy in mind, our goal was to develop leadership in our building, whether that meant students or staff.  

In order to develop leaders, I think it is so important to create a culture of safety in taking risks.  Both students and staff needed to feel comfortable in taking risks without fear of reprisal from someone "higher up." Whether that meant your teacher or your supervisor.  As well, in order to develop leaders, there needs to be opportunities to actually lead.  And then, as a leader, you have to be willing to take a back seat AND be happy with how things turn out.  

I remember taking a tiny step toward this outcome by giving students the responsibility and leadership with our bulletin boards.  They were so excited and I was happy to let them take over.  When they were done, I noticed some of the board was crooked and maybe not up to my (overly lofty) standard but I had to be okay because they were so proud of their work and leadership.

I was excited to hear about a staff member from my school who took the lead in the professional development of the school prior to school opening, leading staff in the next steps in the journey of the Leader in Me.  She may not have done that in the past but she was ready at this point.  Did I have a hand in that?  Maybe and I hope so... I did encourage her to take the lead in the previous year as she definitely had the capacity to be the leader in this area due to her passion and knowledge.

Our district offers potential leaders opportunities to learn about leadership in a job embedded scenario.  Participants will take part in formal learning modules, with the opportunity to take the learning back to the school while taking on leadership roles in the school.  Staff taking part sign up with their principal as mentor or some other person who acts in that mentorship capacity.  The hope is that by developing leadership capacity at the school level will result in many different leaders who will lead in the future in many capacities in our district.  I will have the opportunity to work through these modules with a staff member who seeks to have a leadership position in our district.  By taking part, I hope to gain a greater understanding of the program.

This year I will work with many new folks who have many skills.  I will hope they will step up and be leaders as there are many opportunities to be so.  They will take leadership with schools and meeting with administrators because I can not be everywhere at the same time.  They will lead in parent meetings as they are the experts.  They will lead in terms of professional development in their cohort groups as they should because they know what they need.  Educational assistants will lead in terms of their work in the classroom as they work and have to make daily decisions with the students they are responsible for.  

As I take part in this virtual mentorship program, I hope I will have the opportunity to encourage our little group to step outside their comfort zones to be the leaders they can be. As Krissy Venosdale writes, 

Growth. When it’s happening, you can feel it. You feel tired. In places in your brain you didn’t even know existed. Your thinking is stretched. Your answers take longer than normal. You’re finding reflection happening in moments in the car when you use to just hum along to music. Someone says something that makes you think even more. You wake up in the middle of the night with ideas, you jot things down, you have some big ideas that are constantly rolling around in your head like marbles, clanging, back and forth, smoothing out, until you’re ready to put them into action.

Leadership requires us to step out of our comfort zone, to be tired, to feel like you can't go on, but you do. If we are to develop leaders, we need to give space for this metamorphosis. We need to support those around us to be the leaders they can be. George Couros spoke about his first steps in leadership with his principal:

One of the best things that I had as a teacher was a principal that believed in me. I remember having a conversation with her about technology in school, and she asked me what I thought the budget should be for the year and what we should look at purchasing. I was perplexed by the question as this was traditionally the principal’s call and she looked at me and said, “I hired you for your knowledge in this area. Why would I make decisions for something that I do not know much about? I trust you.”

After that, I would have done anything for that principal (and still do as she is still my boss as the division level). When you give over power and responsibility it says one thing, but when you say where people excel and build upon it, that is also an important trait.

As we wrote about trust in our last post about building trust, it is important to note that trust and relationships are the foundation to building leadership capacity. We have to trust our people. After all, we did hire them for their knowledge! Let's show them we believe that...