Friday, December 14, 2018

And it's Inclusive Practices for the Win! Or, Maybe it Was Just Good Education?

Last summer, my school's Applied Tech department went through a major remodel and with the help of community partnerships, grants and the school district a Fabrication Lab became a reality after years in the making. The Fab Lab, as it's known around Brookfield Central, is a place where teachers can bring their classes down to create. The possibilities in the space are endless; there are 3D printers, laser cutters/engravers, CNC tools, video production equipment, vinyl cutters, dye-sublimation, and embroidery (and I'm probably forgetting something) machines that can help you bring your vision to life. I've been pretty excited about this space for some time. I had the opportunity to co-teach with the visionary behind this space last year, Tom Juran, so simply by working in close proximity to him, I got to see some of the planning. When he told me this fall that he was looking for a teacher to be brave and plan a unit that could utilize the FabLab, I volunteered one of my co-taught Physics classes. I figured Mike Mohammad would be fine with it, or at least I hoped he would. After all, we have makerspace in our classroom but the students primarily build out of cardboard, popsicle sticks, plastic cups and anything else that they bring in or that they can find. Mike has a busy semester teaching two sections of Physics with me and then two more to make for an overload. I was a little hesitant given his already large workload but my gamble on Mike's interest was accurate; he was in.

Mike has already blogged about the process and lesson design so I'm not going to re-write about the experience from a lesson planning perspective. Instead, I want to share a few stories about the big inclusive practice win took place as we built chariots for our robot spheres, otherwise known as Spheros...

To summarize the project, we looked to build our own Sphero Chariot. A Sphero is a programmable robot sphere. The chariot must hold a rider of at least 50 grams and be able to navigate a course. The Sphero could not be manually controlled but be programmed through the use of the SpheroEdu app. In the FabLab, we wanted each team to design one component of their chariot to be 3D printed and one component to be cut on the laser engraver.

Our class is comprised of 29 students and one peer collaborator for a total of 30 students. The peer collaborator is there to assist a student who receives instruction that's in line to the Common Core Essential Elements (CCEE) and is graded on his progress towards meeting his IEP goals. I'm going to call him Dave. In all of his other classes, he has an adult assistant but in Physics we were able to pair him up with a student. Simply put, it's awesome. There are two other students in the class who have similar goals. We'll call them Kerry and Nichole. There are also five other students in the class who have IEPs and three of those five require a fair amount of advanced planning on our part due to executive functioning deficits and significantly below grade level reading or math skills. Actually having inclusive groups has been something that I've had to work at. It didn't organically happen but by getting to know the students in the class and letting them know how much I appreciate their gentle nature, compassionate spirit and patience I've got a core group of peers that welcomes these students into their lab groups after a little prompting on my part.

The class was instructed to split up into groups of no more than three before we began the project. I usually allow some of the groups to be four if one of our most diverse learners is part of the group. As it turned out, we actually had three girls who work well together approach Kerry and Nicole. For that group, we approved a five person team. Inside, I was doing a happy dance...I didn't even care that group got larger than Mike and I originally planned. These kids were approach by peers and asked to  be in a group. Dave, was asked to be in a group that had included him during previous times. The "neurotypical" crowd is very kind to Kerry, Nichole and Dave but like I wrote earlier, these partnerships don't happen organically. It has taken instruction on my part throughout the semester on how to work, communicate and what to expect. It's not enough to just have Kerry, Dave and Nichole  sit in the group but we need to find meaningful ways for them to participate.

I was pleased that all three really gravitated towards the block programming. One day, I received an email from Kerry that begged, "Can I please come in during block 1? My friend Sami is going to be working on the program and she needs my help."

My friend Sami.

Kerry was begging for a pass to miss one of her other classes so she could come in extra to work on the program. Prior to this school year, Kerry wanted little to do with her regular education peers in a regular class. Now, she viewed this girl as a friend.

Dave really enjoyed controlling the Sphero and spent hours during his Guided Study practicing manually controlling the robot. This gave him some nice background experience so when it was time to program his Sphero he knew how sensitive it was. You can see in this video how his group found a way to include him during the testing.
Another favorite moment occurred with a girl who happens to received special education services. I'm going to call her Melissa. Melissa is not a good group member and I wouldn't say that's a result of her learning disability. Attendance isn't consistent, she doesn't take initiative and is one of those students who is addicted to her phone. She happened to be absent the day groups were set and got left out of the group of 4 she usually works with (I thought they probably would be two groups of two). Instead, Melissa found a group with two other girls who have similar characteristics when it comes to group work. Let's just say that Melissa OWNED this project. She organized the other two and made sure things got done. This group was consistently ahead of schedule and built a solid chariot. They had more time to program than any other group and more opportunities to revise their design. One day, I overheard another student say, "Do you think it's bad that Melissa's chariot is going to be the best one in the class?"

I exercised restraint from going full blown Mama Bear on this boy.

I interjected by saying, "Why would you ask that?" He had nothing. It made him super uncomfortable and I hope he thought about why he'd say such a thing. Did he say it because a group of girls was  dominating this project up to that point? Did he say it because maybe he knows Melissa struggles academically and was dominating this project? Or, did he say it because Melissa turned out to be an amazing group member and any group would have benefitted from her participation in this project? It doesn't matter why, as a female and advocate for students with disabilities I was annoyed he'd say something like that.

The other chariot that made heads turned was also designed and built by students who receive special education. These two boys usually pick on another to be partners and are the youngest in the class. I'm fine with them working together. One of the boys usually has difficulty communicating his thoughts and ideas. He was able to work with a peer from the engineering class to make his 3D vision come to true. He also has a home where parents work third shift and there's no one at home to tell him to stop playing video games and go to bed. Consequently, it's not uncommon for him to be falling asleep in class because he only got a few hours of sleep. He didn't show signs of being tired during this entire two and a half week project. Unbelievable.

I've heard Shelley Moore speak about inclusive practices and she uses the following graphic to illustrate what inclusion should look like. I'll be honest, the physics class doesn't look like inclusion all the time but I really work hard to spread those colored dots out as much time as I can. This was one of those projects where I felt it wasn't just an inclusive practices win but a huge EDUCATION win. Often times I look back on a classroom experience and immediately start thinking about ways to make it better from strictly a special ed perspective. For this project, I can identify things that Mike and I need to do better from a project design perspective but am so proud that the kids with very diverse learning needs were included by their peers, found meaningful ways to participate and felt a connection to the content. Everyone was successful. This is what classroom should be like. Everyone feels successful.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Creating Student Agency, Ownership and Empowerment...and the IEP

About four years ago, I began using a Learner Profile that was inspired by Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey's book, "How to Personalize Learning."  In a nutshell, it was a grid that explained strengths, weaknesses, needs and preferences as it related to Universal Design for Learning. Students would go through an interview process with me, we'd fill it out together and then the student explained it at their IEP meeting. If I was lucky, the student would also use it to advocate for themselves in the regular education. After a few iterations of the process, my students began to think more about their learning, develop agency and taking greater ownership in classrooms that were designed around personalized learning principles.

So, here we are several years later. 100% of my caseload now have Learner Profile documents that are presented during IEP meetings to the team. This has been a complete game changer for student and parent engagement during the IEP meeting. The meeting itself has turned into a conversation around the student's strengths, weaknesses and what the student thinks works in terms of support. Now, the IEP meeting has turned into a positive and meaningful conversation that hits many parts of the IEP (strengths, weaknesses, supplementary aides and services). We will spend time talking goals and data but that is not at the center of conversation. At the high school level, we still need to try and close achievement gaps but we also need to teach students to identify what assistive technology, apps, extensions, whatever they need to be successful to overcome the identified weaknesses in the classroom. This is what IEP meetings should be all about and the Learner Profile addresses this.

This week I presented the following presentation at SLATE on engaging IEP meetings and shared out a number of resources to help teachers move in a direction of student led IEP meetings.