Friday, January 11, 2013

Inclusion? What is inclusion?

A week or two ago I read a powerful post in a blog I subscribe to, KARE Givers, written by Sean Grainger, a teacher from Red Deer, Alberta.  Sean's recent post titled WHY EMPATHY caused me to reflect on what an inclusive education might look like in a school district.

Personally, I am a strong believer in striving to ensure our system is an inclusive school system.  I want my children, and their children one day, to thrive in an inclusive community.  I like where we are going, and to realize that reality I think we need to ensure our schools start kids off learning how to thrive within an inclusive school system.

I found it appealing in Sean's post how he helped weave together the different types of fabric that represent all of our students.  I think the case could be made that there is no normal anymore, is there?  Our students come from such diverse home backgrounds, and and bring so many unique qualities  whether they are FNMI students, have physical or cognitive issues, are gifted, etc.  My belief about inclusion is that it is a culture that embraces the goal of ensuring every student recognizes they BELONG exactly where they are when at school, and that our schools will do all they can to learn their needs and accommodate them to ensure  they have the most success possible.

As an example, several years ago when I was a vice principal and we used to convert our tests to audio cassette tape to support students with academic challenges, and it was hard work to convince students there was no need to feel self conscious when using the tapes.  Who wants to be different, even if we need it?  I shared that I chose to use audio books for a similar purpose, and I would share my experiences as a student with a 50% hearing loss who struggled to accept supports that could perhaps have helped me achieve more in school.  With our students then, we would talk at length about how each of us was different, and identify the MANY differences we all could have.  Based on that, wouldn't it be a shame if we didn't take advantage of those supports available to us?  When an advantage presents itself, it is our responsibility to take advantage of it.

At that time, we had an OUTSTANDING resource teacher (Tina, wherever you are these days I hope you are well!) and we had tremendous willingness to of our students to accept those supports.  It remains a source of pride that 'non-coded' students at that time would request the audio tapes as well.  Why not?  If it is good for one, couldn't it be good for all?  It was during that time, and in those conversations with staff and students, that my personal vision of inclusion began to be formed, long before Action on Inclusion kicked in.  Looking back I see, as Sean shared, the important role empathy would play in realizing that vision!

I'm a fan of consciously addressing empathy, and emotional intelligence, in our schools.  That was at the core of our vision at DTPS when I was principal.  Understanding emotions, and the role they play in building personal and community success, is effective at helping kids and parents understand how a school can be more effective for everyone in it.  Not everyone will show up at our schools having mastered empathy, but I believe they understand it at a foundational level and everyone has the capacity to develop it.  It is worthy of spending the time in our schools focusing on building empathy and helping people to manage/control their emotions..  As I continue to reflect on the heels of the recent school shooting tragedy in Newtown CN, and in the challenges faced by an increasingly divergent society, perhaps empathy needs to be explicitly identified as a key element at the core of our overall inclusive district vision?

From Sean's blog:  

A balance is struck in culturally diverse schools when students realize that being different isn’t a quality reserved for others, but rather a state that describes each one of them. 

Well put Sean.  Everyone is different, somehow, and is therefore deserving of understanding and empathy.  As a precursor, we have to first help students build deep understanding of themselves, and how they behave, make decisions, etc.  Once they understand themselves fully, I believe it will be easier for them to understand others and then to recognize the differences, some subtle and some more visible, and be empathetic.

I believe there is a strong connection between empathy and emotional intelligence.  I believe we need to talk about these as essential competencies/traits our students need, and I think perhaps we start here on our path to inclusion instead of focusing solely on the strategies to support those who are perceived to most need to be included.  

In summary, it is not just 'those students' that need inclusion.  We all need inclusion.   To be the best it can be, our society needs inclusion.

Friday, January 4, 2013

TEACHERS: Know Thy Impact!

At a recent session for our district's first and second year teachers, I showed a a short video of John Hattie talking to teachers about the impact they have on student success.  Clicking on the picture will open a new window and play the 1:36 video.

What I like about that short video is the powerful way Hattie communicates the message that teachers have a POWERFUL impact on both individual and collective student achievement.  Too often it is easy to get caught up in the fast pace of school, and the planning-instruction cycle, and focus on our inputs instead of the output.  The results of the daily work we do as teachers should be considered formative, and provide information so we can make different choices about what we do as teachers in order to achieve different results.

I think it is critically important to keep up with the work we are doing to change our system and our practices so we can embed the time and use it to consider our impact as teachers.  As teachers we must continually consider the output, i.e. individual student learning, and structure our daily work to ensure we intentionally make changes as needed to respond to student needs.

In the book Classroom Instruction that Works, the authors Robert Marzano, Debra Pickering and Jane Pollock identified 9 broad teaching strategies that are proven to positively impact teaching.  We reference these strategies for teachers in our district when we talk about quality instruction and making choices that are most likely to positively impact student learning.  In his book Visible Learning, referenced in more detail HERE on this blog, Hattie shared that "...just about everything works."  Most strategies will yield a positive impact on student achievement.  With limited resources (time and money) it is essential teachers choose those strategies that will have the most impact on student learning.  These are commonly referred to as 'high yield strategies'.  The point I always stress with teachers is that Marzano's strategies, and those outlined in Hattie's book, are a great place to start when considering effective teaching strategies.

Over the years I have had the pleasure of watching MANY outstanding teachers change students' lives, both academically and in other ways.  Those teachers used a variety of different styles/strategies/approaches, but regardless of the input, the output was the same.  In spite of using different strategies to achieve their goals, the teachers I can think of had many things in common though, chief among them the focus on changing what they did to meet the students' needs. 

As I reflect on the work we are engaged in and our potential for continuous improvement, I am very excited.  We have outstanding teachers and administrators in our schools.  We have outstanding beginning teachers apply for new positions.  The future looks quite bright, in my humble opinion, and I look forward in my new role to be able to work together with teachers and administrators in our district to make us even more effective at impacting student achievement. 

As we move forward, let's be mindful of what works, and strive to make choices about our behavior that will result in our being able to benefit from the efficiencies and synergy of an integrated system.

Research, data collection and use, and mindful/intentional reflection on practice are valuable tools in our arsenal for improving student achievement.  Keeping knowledge of our impact as teachers and administrators provides a strong foundation upon which we can be intentional about what we do!

Happy New Year!

May all your goals, personal and professional, be realized for yourself and your students in 2013.