This past week Pauline Hanson’s comments about young people with autism in schools have provoked a range of responses. Once again her perspective is derived from a lack of understanding and fuels divisive and fearful rhetoric in our community when we should be looking for holistic and inclusive approaches to respond to the inequities in schools.
I feel that it would be iniquitous of me not to comment on the richness and value I have gained as an educator and a human for having worked with young people on the autism spectrum. So here are three of the lessons I have learned and the value I have gained from having young people with autism in my life.
The world is not vanilla!
The details in everyday objects can be overlooked by the ‘average’ person, but a young person with autism can help you to see the detail, the nuance and the magic of the simplest things. Whether it be the way it feels on your skin, how it sounds, how it tastes or the details in its pattern or colour.
Time is a construct
When you are truly in the moment, don’t splinter it to fit into a schedule. Be in that moment, because that’s when ‘vanilla’ turns to a rainbow tapestry.
Understanding is priceless
The moment a child with autism knows that you are committed to understanding what they are trying to say or express, stays with you. It made me realise that it is the most valuable gift we can give anyone. Taking time to understand another person is where caring cultivates. Being open to explore a different perspective can be the most valuable gift you can give to a young person, sometimes it just takes longer with some than others.
So if your life has been enriched by the inclusion of diversity, be sure to celebrate it openly in some way this week. If you are a teacher of young people with autism, please take the time this week to let that young person know they are wanted and valued or share a positive story with their parents. This week they need our solidarity to ensure that the words of an ill-informed Senator do not sit within them.
Needs-based funding is critical
Are our schools as responsive, dynamic and engaging as the world we live in? – Physical Spaces
At my school, we are working on a range of factors that foster pedagogy that is responsive to the learners we are working with. One of these elements is the disruption of the physical spaces to allow for more dynamic learning experiences for both staff and students (all learners). My own exploration of the power of space in supporting different pedagogies has been facilitated through the development of three large spaces in our school. The first, The Learning Hub (LH), was instigated over five years ago, and whilst I didn’t have a direct role in managing the build, I along with other staff played a key role in utilising and re-imagining the space over time. This year, it is exciting to see the space once again transform under the leadership of my colleague Melissa Smith (nee Mulholland).
The second opportunity emerged as we developed our Senior Space which was completed in March of last year. This space built upon the understandings developed over time using and reimagining the LH along with ongoing reading, collaboration, exploration and site visits.
The third, is by far the most extensive, with a makeover of our science and maths areas into a flexible, multipurpose interdisciplinary space, due to begin later this year.
In planning and leading out such a significant change, consideration must be given to the following:
- How will the environment promote new pedagogies requiring a variety of spatial settings (e.g. inquiry learning, problem-based learning, interdisciplinary approaches, vertical grouping)?
- How will learning be facilitated by multi-disciplinary teams of teachers who need agile and flexible spaces?
- How will the space support and coerce collaboration between groups of staff and groups of students?
- How can the environment and configuration generate creativity and curiosity over a focus on productivity?
- How can the spaces foster ubiquitous learning, i.e. learners becoming more self-directed, collaborative and flexible in using a variety of spaces/settings?
- How will the space support and enable teachers and students to develop digital literacies and competencies that enhance the use of space in a variety of ways to good pedagogical effect?
- How will the environment utilise natural light and natural environments to incorporate light and air?
- What PD will be required to support teachers to visualise and understand spatial possibilities – including modelling the use of such spaces?
Making over physical spaces can soak up a lot of time, energy and money. In the end, you can achieve “beautiful” results in the aesthetics, but if genuine collaborative consideration is not applied to the factors above, what will emerge is beautiful spaces with 20th century pedagogy staring back at you from comfortable chairs, behind tables on wheels!
No amount of consultation with those who have tread the road of disrupting spaces is adequate. I am particularly thankful to the wisdom and generosity of Stephen Harris, Anne Knock and the team at SCIL in addition to Stephen Heppell, Matt Esterman and a range of other online eduadventurers who have been open either online and/or in person sharing their wisdom, experience, successes and mistakes.
A small sample of research utilised in planning for and designing learning spaces:
Blackmore, J., Bateman, D., Loughlin, J., O’Mara, J., Aranda, G., 2011. Research into the connection between built learning spaces and student outcomes. http://www.education.vic.gov.au/Documents/about/programs/infrastructure/blackmorelearningspaces.pdf. [Accessed 30 January 2017].
Miller, Herman., “Rethinking the Classroom” 2017. Rethinking the Classroom http://www.hermanmiller.com/research/solution-essays/rethinking-the-classroom.html. [Accessed 2 February 2017].
Miller, Herman., “Adaptable Spaces and Their Impact on Learning” 2017. http://www.hermanmiller.com/research/research-summaries/adaptable-spaces-and-their-impact-on-learning.html. [Accessed 2 February 2017].
Wolff, Susan J., “Design Features for Project-Based Learning, February 2002, http://www.designshare.com/Research/Wolff/Wolff_DesignShare_3_7_02.pdf
Today the South Australian Government and the opposition made announcements regarding intentions to make it easier to prosecute families of students who truant. AAAARRRRGGGGHHHH.
Don’t get me wrong, chasing up attendance and connecting with families, some of whom don’t seem to mind that their teenager prefers to stay home, is one of the most frustrating aspects of my job! However….and that is a BIG HOWEVER….. not for one minute do I think that the solution to any social issue is best addressed by punitive approaches.
If we want families and young people to value education we need to build communities that value learning, and hold teachers in high esteem. If we want communities to value learning and hold teachers in high esteem, then we need to ensure our system is able to facilitate opportunities that meet the needs of the diverse cohort and their families and has the resources to intervene and support when needed. We also need to build a Human Resources profile of teaching professionals that our community respects and admires.
But hey, that would take dedicated funds and time, not just a headline grab and or a term of government!
This past Friday my school along with 16 others who belong to a partnership in the southern region of Adelaide, came together for a conference organised by school leaders. The conference was a great day of learning and connecting, kicked off with an entertaining opening keynote from Dan Haesler weaving stories throughout powerful messages of mindset and student voice. The day culminated with a student panel involving 8 students from four of the schools involved, 4 senior secondary students and 4 upper primary students.
— Wirreanda Secondary (@WirreandaSS) June 3, 2016
It was wonderful to have student voice shared, which is too often void in education conferences. It was also a challenging experience for these 8 young people to step out of their comfort zone in front of 540 adults, which I am sure many adults would be reticent to do themselves. (Mind you, I think Dominic (REC) was revelling in the opportunity to have an audience, quite the performer!)
Amongst many of the prompts and questions from both Dan and the audience, the student panel responded to, what their favourite day at school would be like and aspects they value in their teachers and how they feel about school.
Overwhelmingly, the message from our students endorsed that they were empowered when teachers fostered their passions, whether that be drama, music or leadership. That the best teachers saw something in them, that they didn’t necessarily see in themselves. That teachers who challenged them and respected their opinions and contributions are the ones they value, along with those who include them to design their own learning.
Additionally, these students used terms like “home”, “comfortable” and “belong” and phrases such as “where I can be me” when referring to their schools. Multiple warm fuzzies in the crowd.
feels like home
means family & history
is a comfortable place
is a place of motivation
is a place where I can be me#panapart
— Melissa Mulholland (@MelissaMulh) June 3, 2016
What a great job we have all done, patting ourselves on the back in the audience, warm hearts, big smiles, looking at proof that our efforts have resulted with young people on a stage, confirming how we impact their lives in incredibly positive ways. And what an amazing bunch of young people they are.
But let’s get real….these were 8 SELECTED students out of a possible 4000 in our schools.
Easy to be swept up with this wonderful student panel, but important to remember that not every student feels connected to school #panapart
— Rhoni McFarlane (@rhonimcfarlane) June 3, 2016
This student panel is fantastic, but not all students can articulate what they need/want/feel. Important to ask those students too #Panapart
— rebecca hepworth (@bechep2) June 3, 2016
It is not like as school leaders we are going to put 8 disengaged kids on stage who could potentially say “school is shit for me and I wish I didn’t have to go”. Or could we? If we are going to “get real” about impacting on young people, if we are going to face what is truly NOT working in our systems, then shouldn’t we be hearing the voices of those who are the most disaffected?
So I throw a challenge to my colleagues, to my school, to myself. Let us give voice to those who do not get a chance to be heard. Let us hear from students who don’t feel like “home” at school, who cannot identify even one adult that they can confide in. Let us shake up the next student panel and take a risk. If we continuously hear the good stuff, then we are blindly moving forward without the feedback that can make the most significant difference.
Check out the Storify from the day.
Part of my leadership responsibilities this year has been to support the development of student voice. There have been multiple highlights throughout the year with students being involved in a range of key decisions, and instigating change at our school in the ways we approach making decisions and managing processes, some of which have been entrenched for a significant time. Developing these opportunities for students has been a natural fit with the way I work with students and an extension of the way my classroom teaching has evolved. Listening and acting upon student ideas and feedback has always been important to me as I imagine my own children in the young people I work alongside daily.
This past term though has seen a shift in Student Voice at my school with the opportunity to plan and organise a forum inviting a range of student leaders from other schools. This would be the second student forum for our school, the first one held last year.
I am well aware of my inclination to be particularly controlling over events/activities that I am responsible for. To say it was only a little unnerving to relinquish the control would be a significant understatement. Allowing students to be in control within your own community is very different to inviting the outside in and risking failure on a very public scale. Yet this is exactly what I did and, how they rose to the occasion (you can see a post about the forum here).
The difference with students being involved and heard versus students owning the project/event is tremendous. One allows the student to feel valued and the other empowers them to be invaluable. I look forward to making space for more authentic opportunities for students to own.
For two weeks this month I have had the fortune to work closely with staff and students in a school in a province in the North East of Thailand called Kanthalakwittaya, a co-ed school from years 7-12.
As an English speaking foreigner visiting Thailand, language becomes the greatest barrier. Beyond “hello”, “yes” and “no”, the majority of rural Thai do not speak, read or understand English. Additionally my Thai is limited to……. well nothing! It is no wonder that many who visit Thailand stay in Bangkok or popular tourist destination Phuket, where the influx of English speaking tourists demands the capacity to communicate in a common tongue.
This is however, not where the richness of Thai culture is experienced.
Kanthalakwittaya is a school without the bells and whistles of my own. Students are often amongst 45 peers in a class with concrete floors, broken wooden tables and chairs blackboards and chalk dust. No devices, no screens, no flexible furniture or spaces. Yet their is immense richness in their school community and by this I am not referring to the monetary kind.
Their wealth is in their kindness, their generosity, their overwhelming commitment to help each other and to share everything. Their caring, nurturing approach is evident and was demonstrated in every classroom, every staffroom and every home I entered.
Community is at the heart of Thai culture, in fact their school curriculum identifies it as one of eight “Desirable Characteristics” as “Public-Mindedness”.
Having an authentic Thai experience (and not the white tourist version), allowed me to see how very much my own community is disconnecting from some of the things that matter most. That in our schools, it’s not the bells and whistles that matter most as we all try and get as many “things” as we can, but indeed the opportunities we provide for students to do work that truly matters. Great joy comes from the happiness of others, from being part of family (related or otherwise), from “Public-Mindedness”.
We live our lives in the company of others and that is where our legacy will be left; in their hearts and minds. It is the nature and quality of the relationships we build that will determine if our legacy, whether it be in a school or beyond, is long lasting or fleeting. This year I have had many opportunities to work with different groups of students and staff, and it has made it more apparent that we cannot underestimate the value of an interaction, large or small.
Gratitude is such an important sentiment and one which the end of a year can bring to the forefront as we reflect on a year passing. Something I intend to make a genuine commitment to in the new year is ensuring I don’t pass up on chances to let others know they are appreciated, or that they matter.
We can be swept away in the busyness of school and miss opportunities for simple acknowledgements or appreciation. I hope to be more conscious of these opportunities and not let them pass me by. I know this will lead to deeper more meaningful connections with our kids, their families and staff.
It worries me, and the fact that it worries me worries me!
I am generally a very optimistic person. I like to focus on moving forward and finding solutions or alternatives rather than dwelling in the problem or “worrying”. I am also frustrated by scare mongering and blatant propaganda to incite mistrust and panic.
BUT….it worries me that we respond to a problem with solutions that treat the symptoms and not the cause.
There are several things that concern me about this clip, and whilst most of the comments and endorsements on his message express horror and concern that the minority report or worse is “happening”, I am more concerned that our solutions lie in deleting our histories, for them never to have existed.
Don’t get me wrong, I am an absolute advocate for privacy. I talk to students on a daily basis about protective behaviours, yet I also talk about being positive online and treating each other with respect.
At the core of it, these spaces only magnify a problem that is reflected and facilitated by these applications. When I walk down the street and someone “greets” another by sticking up their middle finger and the reply is something to the likes of “how are ya c…” it makes me wonder if the way we treat each other and expect to be treated is eroding in our community.
Maybe, I am just old fashioned?
Instead of a rise in anonymous messaging and self deleting applications, I would like to see us promote and foster plain straight forward decorum. Do we talk to our children or our students about “trolling“, do we talk about “haters” or even for that matter “doxxing“?
We all make mistakes, now these mistakes are often online. Shouldn’t we be teaching our children more about forgiveness, more about kindness, respect, human courtesy?
Couldn’t we teach our kids to disagree, without putting others down, without making it personal, without losing our cool?
I would rather see the rise of more @westhighbros than more of “this message will self destruct”.
What do you think?
One thing that has become glaringly obvious over the past two terms with my leadership of our Year 8 cohort is that teenagers make mistakes…..newsflash!
On a daily basis I have had to respond to, comfort, delegate, punish and refer onwards issues and actions that these 13 and 14 year olds participate or create.
Many of these involve media and I can’t but help reflect on my own teenage experiences and remember the mistakes I made and the risky situations I put myself in where media was not there to magnify the situation or outcome.
I know that social media frustrates many of the teachers, parents and authorities I work with as they see how quickly an image can spread, or harassment can escalate. The problem is this is just a reflection upon something else that’s missing.
Over the past weeks I have been speaking to these young people about empathy. I ask them if they have ever made a mistake, I admit to them that I have made hundreds and many of them in my teenage years. Yet it was different, my peers couldn’t take a picture and post it online in 5 seconds flat, or create an anonymous profile to comment on my personality or appearance. My friends couldn’t “like” or “share’ someone else’s comment and I wasn’t left with ambiguity around what that meant.
I ask them if they too have made mistakes. They never deny it. I ask them if they regret doing some of these and what it would feel like if that mistake was publicised on social media. I am yet to have someone wish for that end.
We talk about forgiveness, we talk about empathy. We talk about everyone having the right to make a mistake and when someone’s mistake hits our “inbox” or “timeline” it is our choice, right then, to decide if we punish them for making a mistake and pass it on, or we show understanding and delete.
I think we could get a little better at this.
Now that technology keeps us connected 24/7 we hear constant messages about maintaining work/life balance.
In the ten years from 1986 to 1996 work-life balance was mentioned in the media 32 times.
In 2007 alone it was mentioned 1674 times.
Twitter chats are full of people sharing how to manage time away from work, ironically these same educators are spending time on education chats!
If someone counted the amount of hours I spend working, I am sure there would be more than a few that suggest my work/life balance is skewed. Perhaps this is where my view on what is healthy differs.
I am an advocate for spending your time in meaningful ways. Spending time “in the moment” is more important to me than how long I am there for. Finding value in what you do and how you do it and developing your own sense of integrity.
I would rather find a short moment in my day to find quiet moment, listen to a music I love, be still, enjoy a coffee, see the beauty in nature or the embrace or laughter of a child and for a brief moment feel genuine gratitude and peace, than count the hours that I am at or away from work. My mother demonstrated to me that it was not the extent of time she spent with my children (she lived 5 hours via plane away) but the quality of the time she spent with them that developed their deep bond that is still felt today 6 years on from her passing.
“Who among us are the most happy? Newly published research suggests it is those fortunate folks who have little or no excess time, and yet seldom feel rushed.” – John P Robinson
So busy is not bad, but a sense of calm is important.
Ever since my mother passed, my children and I have made a tradition of getting out into nature on Mother’s Day. This year was no different as we headed for a bush walk in the Adelaide Hills. I took the picture above and in a moment when the three of us stood in awe of the magnificence of the tree, we felt genuine appreciation and joy.
I like being busy, I love challenge and I crave new opportunities. Perhaps it is by taking a little time to be “in the moment” that enables me to keep centred.