Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Never Miss a Chance to Say Thank You

I loved school when I was young. I had some really inspiring teachers at every level but I can't think of anyone more impactful than my 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Blicharz. Seeing as that was 31 years ago and through the eyes and memories of an 11 year old, some details may not be quite accurate, but this is how I remember it....

Sometime in early elementary school I was identified as, "Gifted and Talented." To this day I can't imagine what I was "gifted and talented" in. It sure wasn't math (more on that to come) and I doubt it was reading but nevertheless I, along with eight others, were pulled out of grade level classrooms and met twice (but I think some years it was three times) a week for 45 minutes to do stuff. And, by stuff I mean we put on plays, learned how to play chess, and played Oregon Trail. When we played Oregon Trail, we experienced it through a booklet. After all, this was the mid 80's and my school had four computers on carts. We must have done more but those were the activities that really left an impression. When we, "went to GT" it was the same time; like 10:30 every Monday and Wednesday. While we were gone, class continued. As a result of this routine, I ended up missing the same content instruction twice a week and every year it seemed like I missed math. There were some gaps by the time I reached 5th grade that my "giftedness" was not able to compensate for.

Enter Mrs. Blicharz, my 5th grade teacher. Mrs. Blicharz was not the warm and fuzzy teacher who  wore apple sweaters. She meant business and every student in the lower grades knew that.

She was perfect for me.

Up until that time, I was really good at, "playing" school. I was compliant and put a lot of effort into what I did. I was a people pleaser and I must have been a decent test taker during elementary school because I kept getting sent to "GT" every year. She, however, saw my gaps in math early in the school year and addressed them in a nurturing way. I remember staying in from recess to get a little more help with long division, fractions and early algebra concepts. I don't remember feeling like it was a punishment. As a teacher myself now, I know she really cared. She probably had two opportunities to use the bathroom a day and she was blowing one of them on me and my math gaps that were creating insecurities.

One day, I remember her saying to me, "You don't have to go down to GT if you don't want to." Maybe my parents were involved behind the scenes or maybe she and the GT person spoke about my lack of math giftedness but the way I remember it is that I had a choice and had just been given responsibility. I didn't always go to GT after that. That empowerment to take control of my own learning was an important lesson in self-advocacy for me. I was in control of my own learning and could make decisions about it.

Mrs. Blicharz was one of the first teacher who I remember seeing as a real person. She talked about her children and her life outside of school. One day, she showed her vulnerable side and it's something that has always stuck with me. As a class, we were getting ready to correct a math assignment and she was notified that she had an important, personal, phone call. A look a worry came over her face and as she was walking out the room she said, "Andi, please correct the homework with the class." Dumbfounded with my new and unexpected responsibility during MATH class, I walked to the front of the room and modeled the behavior I had watched teachers do before with perceived  confidence. We went over answers and did examples on the board. After that, she still wasn't back so I led the class in a game of Around the World...a favorite of our class. I kept that class going until recess at which time we all left. Upon returning from recess it was evident that she had been crying. I updated her on what we did while she was out and learned that there had been a death in her family, I think it was a beloved aunt. That day I saw a strong woman who was my teacher, vulnerable. She was no longer just a super hero in my daily life but a super hero who was hurting. I just loved her even more that day.

It's been 31 years since I walked through the doors of Mrs. Blicharz's classroom. I can't tell you one learning target I mastered in 5th grade however, I did leave that classroom in June with some bigger life lessons. I found a sense of ownership for my own learning and education. I discovered that I had confidence in front of others and began to think I wanted to be a teacher too. I also began to see teachers differently. They were real people with lives and loved ones outside of work. As a parent now, I realize that children this age are incredibly ego-centric and that's developmentally normal. That's why we teach perspective taking and empathy to young children. I think 5th grade was a time my brain really started to develop and I began seeing the world bigger than just what happened in my day.

I've been thinking about this post for a few years and only this week really put some effort into tracking down my beloved 5th grade teacher. With the help of Facebook, I was able to locate one of her sons who is going to share this with her.

My current principal sends the students and staff off at the end of the day with announcements and this saying:  Always search the world for the positive and never miss a chance to say thank you. Yesterday, he challenged the entire school to take 10 minutes and send an email of gratitude to someone. It felt like the time had come to finally get this post written and shared. Thank you Mrs. Blicharz for your years of service to public education. If there was ever a question about a life you touched, know you touched mine.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Personalization vs. Individualization and Special Education

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the 9th Annual Convening on Personalized Learning and present alongside Mike Mohammad, Shannon Maki, Stephanie Radomski, Matt Schroeder and Ryan Milbrath. Our session was titled, "All Mean All, An Epic Smackdown of UDL Strategies." Mike put together a comprehensive blog post right here with all our resources. The presentation went really well and we were even approached by a local administrator who asked if we'd be available to present to their staff. The feedback we received was overwhelmingly positive.

The other highlight of my week was having the opportunity to sit down with Andrew Easton, the host of the Westside Personalized Podcast, and talk about the work I do with Learner Profiles and co-teaching in a Personalized Learning classroom. The topic of personalization vs. individualization came up and that's something I really haven't thought deeply about for a few years - not since Shannon Maki and I did a full staff development around this chart a few years ago. At the time, the term personalized learning was new to our staff and we needed to provided some PD around the use of the words, personalization, differentiation and individualization.

PDI chart v3 from Kathleen McClaskey

Special education teachers are masters of individualization and differentiation but where does personalization fit into the equation? Mike Mohammad, my co-teacher, and I re-evaluate where our classroom is headed often to make sure we aren't slipping into legacy practices...which are comfortable. I heard a speaker last summer ask the question, "how many of you are masters at a practice you don't really believe in?" The speaker was referring to inclusive practices so not exactly this context of personalized learning but I think the question is still relevant. We provide a lot of choice in assessment options that challenge learners to connect learning to interests, talents and aspirations. We put students at a starting point with content and let them decide what direction they want to go and make them responsible for identifying their needs (to which we respond). We make reflection a valued part of our class and set aside time for students to reflect on their learning.

So, where do my skills as a special education teacher fit into all of this?

Recently, our students began their passion project, which will end up being the "final exam" grade for the term. They can pick anything, it doesn't even have to relate to physics because we are looking at the process they take, not so much what their topic is. One day a week is going to be devoted to this project. There are three learners in the class who fall into the category of, "alternate curriculum." I'll be honest, a lot gets individualized  for them. When the class is reflecting, this group is also reflecting but is provided sentence stems and word banks. They have also chosen the option to voice record their reflections (actually, any learner in the class could do this but they don't). Back to the passion project...My three learners who, several years ago, would have been in self-contained classrooms all day, embraced this passion project. They had no problems coming up with something they wanted to learn more about. As a teacher, I totally lucked out when two of the three picked making cookies from scratch (they mostly just have experience with frozen cookie dough and I say lucked out because the number of IEP/transition goals/objectives I'm going to be able to hit is astounding) and the third picked learning more about the baritone and woodwind instruments. I bounced between the three of them and guided their thinking to help them determine what the learning goals are going to be and what the end product was going to look like so they could start planning a map to get there. The learner who identified the music project had his mind blown when I shared with him an app on the iPad that will help him analyze decibels and then started a conversation about sound waves. In general, I feel pretty good about how learner driven everything was to this point.

This last week, the class had to do research on their topic using databases. This is where I stepped in and did a lot of individualization. To be frank, it doesn't matter if I have a way create an audio option for any articles found, they aren't going to be appropriately leveled for these learners. For these learners to be independent with their work the reading levels need to be at the elementary level. Otherwise, an adult is reading out loud, paraphrasing and honestly just telling them what they need to know. There's too much on the shoulders of the teacher and leaves the learner with very little responsibility. To combat this, I use resources like Newsela and to find articles and then assign them to students. The student logs in and often can even listen to the article. I provide some guided inquiry questions and they responded. Again, I do the searches and learners read what I find for them. Sounds a lot like a legacy classroom. The reality is, it would take an unreasonable amount of time to have the learners do the searches. This activity was completed on a day I was out of the classroom and I was thrilled to see that they did it independently. Huge win. Based on the emails I received from the learners, they were clearly engaged and started to ask new questions that can be weaved into their project.

I'm truly excited to see where these projects take these learners. They are actively designing what they want to learn about and I'm on the side making sure the route is accessible.

Stepping back and really thinking about personalized learning again, I think that my role as a special education teacher is to make sure the path the student wants to take is accessible. My role is not to tell them what they need to learn but making sure what they want to learn is available to them. We still have an obligation to make sure learning is accessible to ALL learners through UDL principles. That might mean spending time differentiating and individualizing but making sure our starting point is driven by the learner.