“One should not pursue goals that are easily achieved. One must develop an instinct for what one can just barely achieve through one’s greatest efforts.” —Albert Einstein
This term we are undertaking a media project that has our students explore the theme “Make me Visible”. Working with students with disabilities I am always seeking ways to promote, challenge and extend their abilities rather than be judged, measured or held back with a deficit model.
As our project has evolved we have decided to explore the concept “See Me Not My Disability”. During my initial research to find some inspiring stories, I came across the following video, which I believe illustrates this “dream big” and encourages us to look for what CAN be achieved not what cannot.
How do you go about creating innovative practices in your schools?
How do you know if they are making a difference?
How are they revisited to ensure that they have the same impact that they once had before?
I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to be part of a team to establish a faculty all shiny and new. Not only was this a fresh beginning as a new faculty but I was also new to the school, thus not entirely compromised or pressured by previous practices, history or approaches.
I was adamant that we would not create a carbon copy, but base all our decisions on what is best for our kids and their learning. That might mean that some of our choices reflect that of other schools, but would not be because of other schools. I had only been working in the area of disability for a year prior so had again, not been influenced by traditional practices, approaches or expectations for how this new environment should run.
No limitations, no deficit model in sight!
Working with students with disabilities comes with many assumptions. Misconceptions about students “abilities” to be problem solvers or to manage technology. Attitudes towards “wasting” time, effort and money on students with little to contribute to the community and ignorance to the expertise and skills required to support these young people to access opportunities despite their personal challenges and the limitations from these external forces.
If you enter our learning spaces you will quickly see that our students are negotiating their learning, problem solving and manipulating a wide range of technology to enhance their development. Our space is innovative, not because we have 1:1 iPads, interactive whiteboards and laptops, but because we approach learning as a constantly evolving practice, always trying to find ways to improve both the teaching and the learning.
I develop innovative practices, by constant reflection and asking these questions:
- Is it authentic?
- Is it student driven?
- Is it improving student understanding and skills?
- How can we do it better or replace it with something better?
I think these questions are valid for all learning practices and environments, do you?
What other questions would support the development of innovative teaching and learning?
What people do quite naturally is, if it’s work, they try to figure out how to do less. And if it is art, we try to figure out how to do more. And when we put kids in the factory we call school, the thing we built to indoctrinate them into compliance, why are we surprised that the question is “Will this be on the test?” – Seth Godin
Comply, fit in, be quiet! – NO!
I work with students on the autism spectrum, students with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and multiple other physical and intellectual diagnoses. If I was after “normal”, I chose the wrong profession! At the same time, this is what I also protest should not be considered in any way abnormal or weird but I will get to that later.
I have a new team of teachers to work with this year and a new group of dynamic young people have come through our doors also.
One student in particular has a very unique way to look at and experience the world and because he doesn’t do this quietly like some of our other students, it can be quite confronting for some. I had a discussion with a peer who said it was embarrassing when he behaved so silly and when people laughed at him. I asked, who is embarrassed, you or him? I asked her to question when she went to change his behaviour, was it about him or was it about her? Obviously this is a simple way to look at things and behaviour and “fitting in” to society is a complex and valid aspect of being part of a community. My question is, to what extent and to what measure do we take to normalise children as opposed to educate for the development of a more just and fair society?
One of the best lessons I have learnt in my life so far, and the most useful strategy as a parent and and educator, is not to say no until you understand the reason why you are saying no.
There are so many reasons we say “no” as parents and educators, some of which are unreasonable:
- I am uncomfortable with what is being asked
- no one has ever asked that before
- saying yes would mean I have to actually do something
- at times it’s just an automatic response
We say that we want our kids to be individuals, not to resign to peer pressure, to be themselves, to be unique, but we do this only to the extent that it suits us. To a point where we don’t feel uncomfortable. To a point where we can feel safe.
Nothing ever improves or evolves by doing the same though does it. Do we think that over the history of culture that things that were deemed abnormal, unnatural, abhorrent or even deviant have been static over time. Of course not! I often refer the work of Michel Foucault, because I find his discourse of “power” and “abnormality” to be inherent in education, disability and equality. Social constructs have changed over time, including race, religion, sexuality, gender and law. Education has a major role to play in this social construction. Just as we were educating to build factory workers and complacent housewives in the 1920’s we need to be educating for the citizens of tomorrow today. Times have changed and so our schools must reflect that.
My vision is of a school where my students are part of a blur of what is normal. Where disability, sexuality, race and religion are invisible. When I say invisible, I don’t mean they do not exist, I mean they are no longer seen as an abnormality but as fundamental.
I want my school to be a place where care is at the centre, where students are given and create opportunities in a supportive environment to work in “real time” on things that matter.
Where students have a genuine voice in what they learn, how they learn it and a voice to whole school action and change.
I want a school where families are part of the learning journey and have opportunities to celebrate together the growth and development of their children.
Where relationships are core and where ideas and passions are valued. Where students teach/lead other students and staff and share their teaching/learning with a global audience.
I want a school where achievement is measured by personal growth not a one fits all test. Where hard work, grit and determination, reflection and community service is part of everyday learning and a highly valued part of achievement.
Where each student develops a personalised, unique path of learning and completes their school years when they have a tool kit for coping with the challenges of an unknown world not because they achieved a chronological milestone.
There are more things I would add, but these are the things I am most passionate about, it’s what I work towards every day. Thinking outside the square won’t be “weird”, a passion for the peculiar will be embraced and the attention will be on the possibilities, not the deficit of students abilities.
This term I have been fortunate to be a passenger on the Peer Mentor ride. I have been privy to boys developing into young men, showing leadership, with genuine compassion and interest in developing relationships with my students with disabilities. These young men have impressed me, but more importantly, they have connected and the benefits are immeasurable.
Let me put this into context. I was brought to my school with the establishment of a Unit for students with disabilities. A brand new challenge for my new colleagues, many of whom had never interacted let alone engaged with students with intellectual disabilities. Never had to “include” students with disabilities into sports days, assemblies, year level or whole school activities and schools events. I also arrived, prepared for the potential bullying and harassment of my students. Aware that students with disabilities are far more likely to be the victims of bullying and furthermore, those with obvious physical conditions (such as cerebral palsy or down syndrome) being more likely to be excluded or made fun of. In an attempt to be proactive and prevent such things, I set about to have my students involved in all whole school and year level activities. I aligned myself and sought support from staff whom were enthusiastic, accepting and inclusive. The student response was overwhelmingly positive, it was a good start. Pushing forward from this point I was in search of something more than just short term class buddying, or one off activities here and there. Fortuitously I was approached by a passionate, energetic colleague who had taken on the challenge of working with a group of at risk, disengaged boys. Identified by staff due to their “disrespectful” behaviour, poor attendance and/or avoidance strategies towards class work. I jumped at the chance to work together to try something new! A Peer Mentor Program.
Whilst I had some apprehension and a slight mother cat protective arch in my back as we approached our first session, it was quickly defused by the enthusiasm and positive manner in which the boys approached the opportunity. I was astonished by their maturity and their commitment to potentially looking silly just to engage my students. What “cool” teenage boy wants to lose a tag game to a child who is hardly going to break the land speed record for duck-duck-goose? But they did, over and over and over again, chasing and cajoling them. We played several games in that first session and immediately there were some boys who stood out.
Initially I thought they showed none of the behaviours that led to them being “identified” as at risk, but then I started to reconsider. They showed great leadership, perception, energy, compassion, and respect. If these students have these qualities, yet seem to be some of the most disengaged in our school, then what is that telling us? They challenge, they think for themselves, they set an example and others follow. In a classroom where they are not challenged, not valued, not identified for their obvious strengths and given opportunities, I can imagine they could cause chaos! To me, they are heroic, prepared to take a risk and not wait until someone else was brave enough to dive in first.
After 6 short weeks, my students were trying things they would never have imagined. The greatest highlight – taking on the rock climbing wall! Secure and confident in the support of their mentors, they not only put one foot above the other to scale a wall physically, they also scaled to heights of confidence and self-esteem through embracing the challenge. This would not have been possible without the belief, support and encouragement of these young men.
They have inspired me. They are motivation to continue forging ahead with our vision to build the capacity of staff to establish positive relationships, supportive and challenging learning environments and to negotiate the learning process with our students. We must enable these boys and their like peers to flourish, to develop their skills and to lead their peers in positive endeavours, not to send them to detention because they challenge us.
Let’s not be frightened of non-compliance, sometimes it just proof they can think for themselves!
Cautious, careful people always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about a reform. Susan B. Anthony