Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Illusion of Full Inclusion with James Gallagher part 2

The Illusion of Full Inclusion is a series of essays about inclusion edited by James M. Kauffman and Daniel P. Hallahan. In it, James Gallagher penned The Pull of Societal Forces on Special Education. He discusses the social setting of PL 94-142- civil rights and racial discrimination being in the forefront of our collective conscience. One of his concerns is that full inclusion equates with equal outcomes. He states that
Few children with disabilities will go to law school or medical school, or even to college, so somewhere in the developmental progression in education these children should be separated from their nondisabled peers. How and when should this be done?  p. 75

His premise is that when we look at a 6 year old with significant cognitive challenges, we recognize that they are not going to law school or med school so providing an education that ideally prepares students for that setting is wrong. Students with low functioning levels need functional skills and we do them a disservice by not providing them. Most students benefit from more inclusive environments at an early age, but that may need to change as they age and the curriculum becomes more academically strenuous.

In full disclosure, I have a multiply disabled brother. He has cognitive and daily living skills between those of a 1 and 2 year old. In addition, he has cerebral palsy and a visual impairment. I remember my mother talking about when he became old enough to enter the junior high and the school sent a letter with a proposed schedule and locker number. She called school and asked if they wanted her to bring his diaper bag in separately or if it could be sent in with him. It was a tongue in cheek suggestion; everyone was on board with him attending a special school with a class ratio of 12:1:4 (students: teachers: aides) in which he had an individual one-on-one aide. Although class size would have permitted it, I do not think there were ever more than eight students in the class, usually fewer than six. They focused on communication, dressing, eating, physical therapy, occupational therapy, functional reading, motor skills, preschool educational goals and direction following. Until age twenty-one he attended this program, learning how to dress, developing his motor and communication skills. Would his life have been enhanced by letting him look at microbes through  a microscope? No, but several microscopes would have likely been damaged. Would he have been better off sitting in a class covering algebra? No, and it would have been disruptive to those around him. My brother was never going to be employed. Exposing him to the standard curriculum would not have benefited him. Other students would not benefit from being in a classroom where one student either was sidelined to different activities or needed constant care of others for basic needs and behavior maintenance. Admittedly he represents the extreme end of the spectrum of disabilities.

I attended a study abroad program in Denmark in the early 90's. They had been a country of full inclusion. I will never forget going to a classroom with moderately functioning students and talking with the teacher. He said, yes, they had been able to teach his kids to read, but giving them the mindset of equal opportunity was a fallacy. Denmark had a 10 % unemployment rate at the time. Employers with that much choice in employees were unlikely to pick one who needed extra support and training. The students were increasingly depressed upon graduation about their failure to be gainfully employed. Now they separated the students; different outcome expectations left students happier. I am not saying that we should condone blanket placement of anyone, but careful assessment of placement is important. Outcomes need to be considered.

In the beginning of my career, I interviewed for a job in a district that used full inclusion. At the time, I was teaching summer school in a special school setting with a maximum of six kids and one paraprofessional because of extreme behavioral needs. I was asked if I thought that all students could be successful in the mainstream with "the proper support and behavior modification plans." My answer of "no, everyone cannot have their needs served in the mainstream classroom" probably cost me the job. Professional organizations like CEC, NCLD, and NAD for example all argue for a spectrum of placement options. I still believe this.

I have heard countless parents moan that their child who has tried so hard at high school just cannot pass the exit exams and so will not be able to earn a diploma. Both the parents and the students are devastated. While I applaud the increase in graduation rates for students with disabilities, not all students will pass the tests and be able to earn a diploma. Would these students be better off in separate classes that allow a focus on functional classes and vocational skills? Would job shadowing, job coaching and school to work programs not be better than sitting in algebra class and algebra support class one more time? The decision to shift students to functional pathways cannot occur too early, but it is an individual decision. My brother did not need any Common Core ELA or math. He is not alone.

We need to think carefully about the paths we put our students on. We need to be realistic about outcomes, but since we cannot predict the future, we cannot give up too early. This decision should not be made by the state saying all kids need to have meaningful interactions with the Common Core. Nor should it be made by parents who refuse to see the hideously painful struggle their children experience on a daily basis. It needs to be made by a team of professionals and  family members working in concert, looking at both the data and the subjective experiences of the child. It should not be an all or none decision at the beginning, we should gradually reexamine the situation on an at least annual basis. We need to think about realistic outcomes for our children and provide an education to help them realize this. If this means how to put on pants, then that is what the curriculum should entail, not the major economic products of the Midwest states.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The illusion of full inclusion James Gallagher

The Illusion of Full Inclusion is a series of essays about inclusion edited by James M. Kauffman and Daniel P. Hallahan. In it, James Gallagher penned The Pull of Societal Forces on Special Education. He discusses the social setting of PL 94-142- civil rights and racial discrimination being in the forefront of our collective conscience. Special education classes then, and to a lesser degree, now were highly overrepresented by minorities. He asks an interesting rhetorical question:
If children grown up in an environment unfavorable to education- or to the valuing of long-term goals, or of compliance to adult demands- then why should we be surprised by that more youngsters form such families would be in educational difficulty than their proportion in society? p. 71

He is implying that African-American students grow up in environments unfavorable to education and thus should not be expected to achieve at the same rate as other students and also it should not be surprising that they are disproportionately identified as needing special education. Apart from the racism in this statement, we need to look at the underlying aspects of it.
  • Is it reasonable to say that if the home environment degrades, discourages, or interferes with education, that one should expect the children from that environment will more likely experience educational difficulty than those from home environments that support, encourage, and reinforce education? This seems an appropriate assumption.
  • Is it reasonable that if the home environment does not value, promote, establish or work toward long-term goals, then children will struggle more with school than those who are exposed to "persevere through challenges" and "keep your mind on the prize" mind sets? Again this is not preposterous.
  • Is it reasonable to think that children who do not grow up in environments where compliance to adult demands is emphasized will be less likely to thrive in schools where this is a central tenant of our educational system? Again, likely.

The problem emerges when we assign these traits to a culture or race. If these are the values that will make school easier for students, should not we try and intervene far before the child is struggling in school? Early home visits with school personnel to help with establishing education friendly policies might be helpful. Many families with struggling students do see education as the brass ring- the tool that will help their children escape the poverty they live in. These families do not need to be taught to value education- they already do. They may need to be shown that education, schools, teachers and principals have their backs and how home can have school's back.

Very few home environments lack valuing long-term goals. Homeless families have goals of getting a stable place to live. People addicted to drugs often have long term goals of getting clean. People in poverty want their families to live better lives than they do. How many poor kids seek to find their riches through the world of professional sports? If they can work toward a long term goal of athletic excellence, they can work toward other long term goals as well. What is more often lacking are the skills to achieve these goals in a meaningful way. Support systems, health care,  mental health services, quality nutrition and hosing, academic problem solving skills, knowledge of "the system" and reading and math skills to name a few areas in which deficient systems, knowledge and skill sets sabotage success.

When it comes to compliance to demands we have a huge can of worms. Some would argue that compliance is a bygone educational goal. Schools need to involve students in rule creation and achieve social contracts that do not require compliance so much as buy in and negotiation. Others may argue that compliance in and of itself is not a good thing. Hitler achieved compliance, but that was not an admirable accomplishment. Some would argue that rather than compliance we need thinking children to evaluate the rules and use civil disobedience to fight what they consider as unjust rules.

To complicate matters more, what if compliance with adults at home contradicts compliance at school? What is a student to do when the parents say you need to stay home and watch the little sibling so I can go to work, interview, doctor,... but school says you need to attend? What choice does a student have when parents say in order to eat you need to work in the restaurant when you get home from school, you should not have to bring homework home? There is no end to the competing stories students must navigate around to survive.

While students in poverty more often struggle with these areas and minorities tend to be overrepresented in the poverty roles, we cannot allow this to justify poor performance in school. We can acknowledge that these challenges exist, but that is not an excuse to avoid exerting extra effort to maximize potential.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Presentation Zen and the powerpoint presentation

I remember the first major assignment for my AP English class was to develop a presentation about the women in Macbeth, Death of a Salesman, All My Sons, and Cyrano de Bergerac. The instruction we were given was to not be boring. This was before the advent of laptops, power points and easy projection technology. I still can see Dan's presentation where he dressed as an old lady darning a sock and talked about the women in these plays. It was fascinating. To grade it, our teacher had a rubric and had to pay attention because it was ephemeral. Within a minute of the presentation, the grading was done and the next student was on the hot seat. Today, I feel certain the request would have been for a power point or Prezi on the topic. Unfortunately, most of the presentations would be word for word on the screen, the teacher could grade it without the student presence and the other students could sleep in the darkened room.

Garr Reynolds' book PresentationZen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery looks scathingly upon the typical power point and describes how to improve presentations with the use of visuals. Typical student presentations, and other business presentations for that matter, are a series of bulleted slides that encompass every detail to be discussed. While we want students to discover and describe the indirect characterization of the protagonist, their presentations had better not have anything indirect about them. We want it spelled out and read- but then we are bored and disgusted with their presentations. If my presentation removes me from having to be an expert about what I am talking about, if I do not even need to be there because you are literate, what is the point of my being there? This is certainly one of the main themes of the book. Power point is to support, bring emotion to and enhance a presentation, not to be the sum total of information being presented.

As teachers, this is a lesson we need to take to heart. If we are preparing students for the real world, presentations cannot be about animated lists, colorful backgrounds and slides with more words than a children's book. Yet we demand that they demonstrate use of animation (kids need to know how to do this), intense detail (we have to grade the content) and the kids can read it verbatim to us and that is good enough. In fact we argue that such a presentation is better for our struggling readers and writers because they do not need to write an organized essay. We are being so misguided.

First, we are doomed to bad presentations if we do not teach presentation skills. Erik Palmer's PV-LEGS concept embraces this idea. He breaks presentation skills into poise, voice, life, eye contact, gestures and speed. More ideas around this concept can be found at his website here. This is the beginning of teaching kids that a strictly read, head-down, lifeless presentation is bad no matter what. Reynolds touches on many of these points- mostly around engaging with the audience and having visuals reinforce what you say, not say what you say.

Second, Reynolds points out that an effective presentation is well-organized and well understood. A student needs to play with the information to get it to be focused and organized. Reynolds suggests one theme and up to three supporting points. (Think a five paragraph essay- introduce theme, three paragraphs to support it, and wrap it up with a conclusion.) This format makes the presentation equitable with the essay. The key being that every detail is not written, but the details are fleshed out in speech. The student must really understand what he is talking about. For struggling learners this may be even more intimidating.

A third point that Reynolds focuses on is the simplicity of the slide. Little text, few bullets, only pictures and animation that reinforce the theme. We have all been to presentations where the font size of the slide was such that it was illegible. If we cannot read it why put it there? If we can get away with only reading it, why do you need the presenter? Slides must be error free. I remember a presentation a student put on for the school board. It lasted about 5 minutes. There was a there-their error. I immediately thought less of the student. All the animation that the student had spent lots of time on became meaningless in light of the error in grammar that every senior in high school should be aware of checking for. Fewer words per slide may mean you need to know your material better, but it does allow less opportunity for errors. Use slides to build emotional connection with the audience, identify key terms, bring pertinent quotes to life, and showcase powerful data not list what you are saying.

A fourth point was that there should three things prepared- the power point slide deck, the notes for the presenter, and a takeaway packet meant to be read by the audience with links to where more information can be found. When I first was introduced to this idea I thought- what about my students who cannot get the information from the lecture? Where will they be if they cannot fall back on reading the information. Research says that reading the slide takes away from the cognitive capacity to listen to the speaker. Yes, my students need a takeaway but overloading with information in a lecture is not the way to do it. Smartboards detract from achievement if they are not used to increase opportunities to respond and reinforce learning. If we are only using power point to restate what I said, we are wasting the Smartboard's potential. The takeaway is where my students get what they missed. A good classroom presentation has lots of opportunity to interact with the presentation through activities like think-pair-share, journal an idea, live polling and checking for understanding questions and activities.

Another takeaway was on building a presentation- especially a group presentation. Reynolds suggests having ideas written on post-it notes. Rearrange the notes to identify the key theme, organize the ideas and remove the extraneous ones. A presentation cannot include every good idea. It needs to be streamlined. Writing on paper, moving around the notes and adding comments to clarify and fill in holes is a great organizational tool to use BEFORE getting to the computer.

This book is artfully crafted. It weaves stories, slide examples, quotes and information together in an easy to read format. It provides guidance on designing powerful slides- something we as teachers need to take to heart, especially if we are asking students to give presentations. We want to prepare them for the real world. We must, therefore, prepare them to create presentations that do not bore us senseless or render their presence meaningless. We must teach them how to talk and how to present information. The first step is in not asking ourselves to be movie producers or list builders, but to be high quality presenters ourselves. We need to change our status quo and move on to something more effective and meaningful.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Presentationzen- what makes messages stick

A couple of years ago I attended a workshop on presentations. One of the books that was cited was Garr Reynolds' Presentationzen: Simple Ideas on Presentaiton Design and Delivery. I have finally obtained a copy of this book and it has found the way to the top of the reading pile. This book is full of thought provoking ideas. One that I find particularly appropriate for teachers is his summary of the concepts included in Chip and Dan Heath's book, Made to Stick.

Six principles are identified that help information stick. As teachers, one of our primary concerns is getting information to stick in the minds of our students, so it is important to consider them. The principles are:

  • Simplicity
  • Unexpectedness
  • Concreteness
  • Credibility
  • Emotions
  • Stories
Simplicity- Often in teaching, we surround information with lots of talk and/or text. We do not tell our students what the critical points are. Novice learners are unable to determine the main elements. (All K-12 learners should be considered novice learners of the material, the purpose of teaching what we teach is to provide adequate background to approach the world and learn about it. NOT to delve deep into a subject area and achieve expert knowledge, regardless of the rhetoric of the Common Core creators statements.) If we deal with presenting the material in a simple way, we provide clarity in terms of what our expectations are. From there we can provide enrichment for those that get it quickly, but the basics should be basically imparted to our youth.

Unexpectedness- Judy Willis has written and spoken extensively about the power of the unexpected. One of her favorite examples is to walk backwards in class on the day you introduce negative numbers. Visuals, music, unusual classroom set ups, and objects can all be used to present an unexpected twist that will stimulate the student's brain to say, "What's up today?" In presentation terminology the surprise gets the attention of the audience- it's the hook. From there your job as presenter is to take the learner on a journey of discovery of the information.

Concreteness- Real examples. How many of us have used or heard a teacher answer a question about when are we going to use this with one of the following responses
  • on the state tests/ end of the year tests.
  • when you take other classes in this subject (a favorite of math teachers).
If you haven't heard it, you probably haven't been paying attention. Students are looking for why is this real. We give them a blow off answer that does not satisfy them. We need to dig deep and identify real reasons the students will need this information. Stories about how we use the skill or information work. Fake word problems that set up situations that no one in their right mind would contemplate do not. You are better off just telling them you are teaching them to exercise their brains which pays off in not being brain dead. Real reasons, especially ones that are pertinent to their young minds are important- they are concrete.

Credibility- First, students must see you as an authoritarian source of information. Your degree or the fact that you stand in front of them will not cut it for many students. You need to establish that you like them. You need to develop rapport with them. You need to do what you say and say what you do. You need to be seen as fair. Your answers need to be correct. If you make a mistake, own up to it and move on. Be everything you want of them- return papers in a timely fashion, be respectful and honest, be hard working, love learning new things. Hold students to appropriate behavioral standards and exhibit them yourself. The behaviors, not the words, create your credibility.

Emotion- Let your information be full of emotion. Paint pictures where they feel the importance of the information. Let it strike a chord. This is part and parcel of the unexpectedness and stories. Build an emotional bond with your students personally and build emotional bonds with them intellectually. If you want them to learn about life in the Soviet State, have them close their eyes and imagine a life where they have been told what their jobs will be, what they will earn and where they will live. What is their reaction? Then teach it. If you want to teach a bout Mendelian genetics, ask them to think about not being born because their genes did not match what a parent wished for. If you want to teach about time, give them the power to tell you when to go to lunch or recess. Middle schoolers might get off on thinking about creating a fence to encircle district 13 as it did in Hunger Games and needing to know how much fencing is required (perimeter). These intros create an emotional bond.

Stories- Stories bring our ideas to life. History is so much richer told through stories. A factual rendition of the lead up to the Revolutionary War is far less compelling and memorable than learning about how a broken egg prevented John Hancock from being arrested years before the Declaration of Independence was signed. Learning about wash stations in a chemistry lab seems far more important when it is told around the chemical burn I received in my eye while working in the dining hall in college which nearly cost me my sight or the Spanish Inquisition technique of throwing lye into people's faces. Solving for percent of numbers is more compelling when students are given the opportunity to buy things on sale. Romeo and Juliet is more interesting when seen through the eyes of teenagers being told to do something they do not want to do. Stories enable concreteness and emotion to inhabit the minds of students. Paul Smith's book, Lead With a Story, centers around this idea of using stories to captivate, convince and inspire. If you can inspire, your ideas will stick with a student.

Reynolds' book centers on presentations not teachers, but the keystone of much instruction is presentations. Creating memorable presentations is critical in teaching. Keeping these ideas of SUCCESs in the forefront of our planning will help our teaching memorable in the minds of our students.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Fluency Lessons for the Overhead

Alyse Sweeny's short book, Fluency Lessons for the Overhead: Grades 4-6, is a delightful collection of short lessons that can be used to teach fluency. In today's techno happy world it seems odd to talk about using an overhead, but good materials are good materials. You could indeed transcribe these lessons and use your Smartboard, IF you have one.

There are 15 passages excerpted from popular authors including Jack Prelutsky ad J.K. Rowling. These passages are ideal for fluency practice because they are short and self-contained. Ms. Sweeny offers a script for each passage that begins with comprehension and goes on to fluency and writing. As many others have pointed out, practicing reading merely to increase speed will result in faster reading, but will not carry with it the benefits of increased comprehension that fluency practice should provide.

The lesson scripts provide think aloud and instructional information that teachers will find useful in explaining how punctuation impacts prosody. Although many teachers naturally do read with prosody, they sometimes have difficulty explicitly explaining why they do what they do. (ex. How is a dash different from parenthesis in reading?)

The appendix of the book demonstrates phrased text lessons. While this approach has mixed results, it is valuable to try with students who struggle with learning how to phrase a passage while reading. This approach does not have evidence to support its use in whole class activities.

If you can find a copy of this ten year old book, it is a useful resource for reading instruction with students beyond the decoding stage of reading.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Partner Poems for Fluency

Timothy V. Rasinski, David L. Harrison and Gay Fawcett published Partner Poems for Building Reading Fluency: Grades 4-6, a collection of 40 multi-voice poems and comprehension activities. Rasinski, a well known fluency researcher, has frequently written about the benefits of using poetry to develop fluency. Some of my blogs about his writings are available here, here and here. He developed the Fast Start Reading program which incorporates home practice of poetry in order to develop fluency for early readers. (Some information about this is available in my blog here.) This book provides practice exercises in collaborative reading exercises. In order to reduce the possibility that reading will become merely about speed, the comprehension exercises are important.

The idea of multi-voice poems and passages is not new. The You Read to Me, I'll Read to You series has nine volumes available at Amazon. Paul Fleischman has written a couple of poetry volumes as well. These poems encourage students to read with one another and practice fluency. This volume adds to the available selection for students to read and perform. While the recommended grade range of the book is upper elementary, combing the collection reveals poems that younger students would enjoy as well as ones that older ones could revel in.

The introduction has one part written by each author. Their viewpoints on fluency and reading poems is presented. Then there is a section entitled Strategies for Using Partner Poems to Enhance Reading Fluency. This section discusses general strategies for fluency practice including repeated reading and modeling. Modeling multi-voice poetry can be tricky with only one teacher in the room. Teachers may need to enlist partners from other grades or record examples when more adults are available. Students in classrooms with more than one adult have it lucky in this regard. Adults can demonstrate how to read the particular poem- listening while reading is a fluency strategy- then discuss why voices were used in the way they were. A discussion of how prosody impacts meaning for the listener can lead to or come from discussions about authors' craft. Why do they choose the words and punctuation in the piece? How does reading it with expression demonstrate meaning and facilitate interest? Later discussions can include rhetoric, figurative language and poetic devices. This is a jumping point, not an ending station.

A fun easy reference for the classroom, not really a read alone. Certainly a read with the class.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Reding Without Nonsense

Frank Smith's Reading Without Nonsense: Fourth Edition is filled with whole language dogma galore. Unfortunately this hides some of his more pertinent and interesting points. His major thesis is that phonics is a misguided and useless attempt to teach children to read- children need only read, be read to, write, and be guided by supportive assistants in order to read. While I concur that an isolated phonics program is not going to teach fluent reading and that students need to be exposed to the rich, interesting and diverse world of print, sacrificing one for the other is not the answer.

He proposes that reading is the combination of visual and nonvisual information; the vast majority of it being nonvisual. The inner workings of the brain as it interprets print is what constitutes reading. The diagram below summarizes this thought.

We know that without a brain, eyes by themselves do not read. They requires the brain to relate the text to what it knows in order to frame meaning around the print. After he postulates that reading requires the brain to organize and make sense of text, he goes on to deny dyslexia could possibly have anything to do with how the brain interprets the visual message. The brain must interpret it as organized. A conflicting viewpoint to be sure. He goes on to state that there is no difference in the brains between successful and struggling readers, a point that fMRI studies have clearly demonstrated as faulty. Proficient readers and dyslexic readers utilize different neuronal pathways when reading. Researchers have even shown that some specialized instruction can modify existing pathways to resemble those of more successful readers and the reading ability of the individual improves.

One interesting point he makes is that proficient readers use strategies of skip, guess then sound out to figure out unknown words. The problem with struggling learners is that they do not comprehend the text adequately to guess accurately and when they skip, it is often on meaning bearing words. Struggling learners demonstrate their inability to comprehend by failing to utilize comprehension monitoring. Some will ask for help, but when it is necessary to constantly ask for help understanding the text, the reader will be slowed down past the point of comprehension. This has not happened because children have been denied access to text, but because they have trouble interpreting it in the brain.

He does point out that
"Children won't advance in the subject area if they can't read the text, and they won't improve in their reading if the subject matter is opaque to them. the only solution for the teacher is to try and ensure that both reading and the subject matter are made as easy as possible, which means keeping them separate fro the child having difficulty with both" (p. 156).

This is certainly an area where I have run into issue with high schoolers. They are struggling readers- reading sometimes 8 grade levels below their current grade. They clearly cannot read and understand the text to learn the material, but teachers and schools protest that they cannot receive low reading level books because it "dumbs down" the curriculum. We are told by the Common Core advocates that they must be given challenging reading to advance their skills, but their understanding of the underlying content is so limited that there is no chance they will get it without serous scaffolding and instruction IF it is read to them. Somehow we need to balance reading skill with content understanding.

Although the author is a professor and journalist, he is not a teacher. His writing clearly indicates a lack of understanding of current learning theory regarding reading and teaching in general. To think that merely reading with kids will get them to read is simplistic. To deny that reading difficulties have organic as well as environmental sources is damaging to parents of children who struggle to learn to read, the teachers who work with them and the students caught in the cross fire. To insist that identifying reading problems early is a waste of time minimizes the success of struggling readers. He may be a well-educated and bright man, but his understanding of the complexities of reading is limited.