“There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” ~William Shakespeare~
Confession, apparently is good for the soul and my confession is rich with irony. When I was a boy in school; I was that student. The one who often gazed out the window during class, rarely sat still (especially when told to do so), frequently called out when I knew the answer and, almost always brought home report cards that lamented my inability to ‘reach my potential’.
My parents aside, no one was more surprised at my career choice than I- why I made the decision to devote my adult life working in an institution that was often my sole source of torment is still, frankly, beyond me. Regardless of the why, I’ve worked hard over my 24 year career to explore how I could connect with, and engage all the students I have had the chance to teach. But I must admit my affinity with, and empathy for, those students who share the restless, sometimes compulsive, seemingly scattered and frequently creative characteristics that bind us- meet my people: the squirrel chasers.
I grew up in an age where my impulsivity, apparent inattention and abundant energy were not viewed as a disorder but rather the byproducts of my gender and an underdeveloped character-something that a mix of stern discipline, frequent outdoor play and maturity would eventually fix. As infuriating as I’m sure I was to my parents; they knew and accepted me as I was; baffled that a child who could never seem to stop moving (even when asleep) quickly and, at an early age, learned to read, write, could absorb massive amounts of information and would habitually complete projects and study “when I felt like it.” I envied my siblings and friends, they could sit still, they followed the rules and enjoyed blissful days in idyllic classrooms. As an educator, I’ve spent a lot of time working with, and reading about my people, the squirrel chasers. I’ve learned about what actually impacts learning, about effective teaching practices and about neurodiversity.
Over the next few posts I’m hoping to explore some of this research; this piece by Andrea Gordon in the Toronto Star offers a small sampling of how we need to be working to better understand, support and activate the potential of the squirrel chasers in our community of learners.
“If you don’t underestimate me, I won’t underestimate you.” ~Bob Dylan
The wonder and beauty of human life is its diversity. The fact that we have different skills, appearances and dispositions is one of the reasons we have been able to evolve into the capable, adaptive and successful species we have become. Difference is good; and diversity is our greatest strength. With this in mind; it’s important to stress that not all of us learn the same way, at the same pace and with the same level of interest and engagement. The term that scientists now use to describe this is neurodiversity.
Over the past 20 years the information that neuroscientists and geneticists have made in understanding how the brain develops and operates has been staggering. So staggering that those of us who work in the related fields of education and mental health are only now beginning to understand the implications this knowledge can have on our practices. This needs to change. We now know that the assumptions that many of us have held about teaching and learning (as parents and as educators) no longer apply- particularly where it concerns students who learn and communicate using strategies or skills that don’t reflect the practices of traditional teaching methods.
We can no longer categorize students who learn or communicate differently as being disabled, or look at these differences as a defect or weakness- this diversity is our strength and the ways that all classroom teachers design teaching, learning and the assessment of learning needs to adapt to respond to these strengths. As a leader, I have a sense of urgency to create a climate where the staff I am leading can work together to learn, adapt and change how they teach so our school can respond the needs of all our learners.
It is time to change both our mindset and the tools we use; to use our creativity and our technology to adapt the ways that we design, assess and evaluate student learning. It’s time to change the ways we respond to student behaviour and alter the both the beliefs and the structures we use to provide remediation and meaningful instruction in a way that values the diversity of each child in each classroom in every school.
“We read to know we are not alone.” ~William Nicholson~
Over the past few weeks I’ve been checking in with our Full Day Kindergarten (FDK) teachers to see how our youngest learners are progressing as readers and writers. Though it may seem from my blog posts that I’m just a ‘math guy’; our staff would tell you I’m just as happy to talk about literacy teaching and learning and the importance it holds in our school.
I mention our FDK team specifically because it is a big part of a shift that has lead me to some deep thinking and reflection. We have a great team of educators on our Park Avenue FDK team; they create learning spaces that are engaging, nurturing and challenging-all in a manner that is developmentally appropriate for our youngest learners. The core goal of our FDK team is developing the early literacy skills and dispositions of all our students. We do so through focused, regular instruction; transitioning from oral language instruction with our JK’s towards early writing and reading during the SK year- we do a great job in this area with almost all our students.
The balanced literacy instruction in our FDK classes is helping nearly all our students become proficient users of language. Our district provides us with guidelines for the expected reading behaviours and text difficulties that we can refer to in order to benchmark the progress of our FDK students- our team assures me that almost all our students have met, or exceeded, this benchmark.
I’ve observed a concerning pattern in the information our teachers have shared with me; the only students that are not progressing as a result of this instruction are those students who have phonological processing issues (commonly referred to as dyslexia and dysgraphia). Ironically, this is partly a result of the overall effectiveness of early reading instruction and emphasis that many parents place upon developing the pre-school language capacities of children; we used to have many more struggling readers in our schools, these days we just don’t. Of course, this makes those who are not progressing in this area stand out even more and that is what has caught my attention.
In conversations with our special education team we’ve recognized that meeting the needs of the students within our school who have phonological processing issues must become a priority and that our current accommodations and interventions (including our Reading Recovery program) are not accomplishing this goal.
Moving forward, our strategy for intervention must account for the challenges that we are actually facing and allow for flexibility to be employed in meeting these challenges; one size fits all interventions can no longer be the norm. Additionally, we must be prepared to invest in developing the capacities of the specialist teachers who work with students in this area; teaching children with phonological processing deficits requires a regimen of focused, precise remediation that is not currently common practice- this will need to change.
This is not a call for mass phonics instruction (please, no return to the reading wars). Reading is code breaking and making meaning. Most of our students leave kindergarten able to do both; some do not and they must be able to break the code in order to make meaning. We know who they are and we know what we can do to help them; as long as we are prepared to rethink our intervention resources and models and act accordingly.