Thursday, April 10, 2014

I: I is for Snowflakes

In every classroom in which I have taught, the academic breakdown of the class, generally, went as follows:   a quarter of the class did very well on everything I gave them to do. They were hard working and took pride in completely their tasks to the best of their abilities.  They normally got marks in the "A"-"B+" range.  Another quarter of the class struggled mightily with every task they were given. They had difficulty completing tasks on time and working independently. Their finished work was often disorganized and scant on details.  These students usually received marks in the "C- to D" range.  The rest of the class, half or, sometimes even more, were the kids in the middle.  This average, "normal" bunch had good moments, as well as, academically-forgettable moments, too. They worked hard, at times and produced good work but, they, also, could be prone to social distraction and careless errors in their work.  These students in the middle normally received marks in the "B- to C-" range.  Think about your own school experiences.  Weren't there always keeners who boo-hooed when they got 98% on a test, bemoaning that one error that cost them a chance to have a perfect score?  Weren't there always kids who seemed like they were never prepared, never really listened and struggled all the time with everything?   Where did you fit in;  at the top of your class, the bottom of the class or the large space occupied by the middle?

When it comes to the current educational mania of standardized testing, especially in North America, much of it is aimed at the kids in the middle.  The top kids will do just fine, nine times out of ten.  The bottom kids will struggle, ninety-nine times out of a hundred. So, that leaves millions upon millions of dollars being directed toward moving the low average students into the high average category.  Our whole model of educational delivery is being stilted toward this goal.  Is the cost worth the price?

Much time and resources have been dedicated in the effort to move one-quarter of the students in the class to the next academic level.  Whole industries have risen up solely around maintaining the testing apparatus in place across North America.  Textbooks, testing practise booklets, mandatory teacher professional development, assistive computer technology, as well as, "expert" consultants brought in from all over the world...........all with one aim in mind, the maintenance of the standardized testing industry.  All of this costs money....lots of money!  Lots of money that is going into the pockets of "experts" and corporations who, of course, want this practise to continue on as long as possible. Not surprisingly, when the test scores are released, the results are never truly good enough which sparks cries of an educational system in crisis. The remedy, of course, is more testing, more testing resources manufactured and ordered, more "experts" brought in to train teachers who, obviously, can't be trusted to properly teach children in a modern society.  It has become an endless cycle of profiteering, at the expense of all those students for whom standardized testing tells us nothing.  These kids are shoe-horned into the same acadmic dark tunnel as the low middle of the pack.  Common sense dictates that the fit isn't always healthy for kids whose academic journey requires a different route.

One of the greatest consequences of the testing-mania that has gripped North America is that the money needed to "feed the beast" is not extra money coming from the government or private philanthropists, it is money being steered away from other areas of school budgets.  One of the most common areas of our school budgets that have faced cuts in recent times is the area of programming for students with Special Needs.  I don't want to say that our educational leaders are so lacking in humanity that they have turned their backs on students who struggle to find academic, social or emotional success but, under the business-model type of thinking that is now so predominant, students with special needs do not give much "bang for the buck."  They require more help and, from a standardized testing mindset, accomplish so little. For people whose main worries are test scores, students with special needs are a drain on precious resources; a mis-allocation of funding that could be "better" used for more testing prep. resources, the hiring of more "expert" consultants to run mandatory teacher training and so on.

But, every child has a right to an education.  It says so right in the United Nations Charter of Rights for Children. So, if every child, even special needs children, have a right to be in school and yet, administrators are eyeing the very funds that they require, how does that all work?  In very simple terms, what has happened is that support for students with special needs, in the form of classroom assistants, physio-theraphists, counsellors, behavioural psychitratrists, etc., have all been severely cut back or, in many cases, eliminated altogether.  As well, the criteria in place to have a student identified as having a special need has been made so complex and extensive that a student with obvious learning needs can languish in a regular classroom setting, without any support beyond what the teacher can provide, for years while data is collected, tests are administered, analyzed and reviewed, meetings are held at a series of administrative levels, outside doctors and specialists are consulted (at large financial cost to the parents who can afford it) and so on.    Meanwhile, little Mary or Pedro come to school each day, as is his or her right, and sit unsupported in a classroom that can, at times, being socially overwhelming and produce sensory overload from the noise of the students or the displays on bulletin boards or the hum of overhead lights. They can be in a classroom full of fluent readers when they, themselves, don't even recognize the letters of the alphabet.  They can have anxiety like a hive full of bees in full swarm-mode and yet, they are left, on their own, in a classroom of 20 or more other children who, also, need the teacher's time and attention. 

Therefore, it is not surprising at all that so many students such as this display behaviours that many would consider to be "disruptive".  These students will shout out and scream, they will throw objects such as desks or chairs, they may become aggressive toward the other adults or children in the classroom, they may seek to run out of the classroom, they may harm themselves by cutting or gouging themselves or, they may hide, quietly under a table or desk, they may shout profanity and utter threats.  It is not a healthy situation for that student nor, for the teacher or the rest of the students in the class.  Yet, because of budget cuts and because of the re-direction of funding toward standardized testing, this scenario is becoming more commonplace all of the time.

To give but, one, quick example of the complexity of the situations each, individual special needs child may find themselves placed in, let me tell you about a student of mine that I shall call Isaiah.

Isaiah has been diagnosed with an extreme anxiety disorder.  This manifests itself in the form of an intense need for personal control of every facet of his daily experience.  This need for control is exhibited in ways such as screaming and shouting while the teacher attempts to teach (so that Isaiah can control his classroom experience by wresting control away from the teacher), becoming physically aggressive toward anyone who attempts to make him sit down, for instance, defacing or destroying any work that is given to him to do, as well as, fleeing the classroom at the very first opportunity (again, to control what is happening to him....I will not subject myself to your lesson, Teacher so, I will drown you out with my screams. I will not sit where you want me to sit so, I will kick you in the shins if you come to close.  I will not do your work so don't bother giving it to me. I will not stay in the classroom as directed because I will only go where I wish to go.)   Needless to say, Isaiah requires a tremendous amount of my time and attention; time and attention that I am not able to provide to the rest of my students as a result.

The situation was becoming untenable for Isaiah so, this is what the staff at my school managed to come up with, just to help Isaiah make it through his school day. We had no academic goals for Isaiah. We merely wanted to keep Isaiah in a school room of our choice (i.e., the classroom, the library, the gym, etc.) and have his behaviour not be disruptive.  We felt this way because in order for a student to learn, they must be in a condition where learning is possible.  To have Isaiah stay in a classroom, even for five or ten minutes without disrupting the class, was seen as progress. So, here is how his day goes and who is involved:

When Isaiah arrives at school, he is met by the Principal and/or the Special Education teacher. He is given breakfast (in case he hasn't eaten, which often happens in the chaos of getting him dressed and out the door to school.) He is given a chance to acclimatize himself to his surroundings by having a chat with the adult who met him.  He, then, goes into our Computer Lab with our Child and Youth Worker (CYW) and is asked to complete one simple task on the computer (such as listening to a story on-line or a song). Then he gets his choice of activity; either, a computer programme of his choice or a break to sweep the hallway with the custodian's broom (which he likes, in the same sense of a zen gardener raking the sand).  At recess time, he goes to the Gym with the CYW and burns off some energy bouncing balls or running.  After recess, Isaiah watches a series of videos aimed at introducing social skills to autistic children.  He eats while he watches the videos with the CYW.  The Special Education teacher takes Isaiah next and works one-to-one with him in her classroom.  She has arranged for their time together to be as safe as possible, with consistent, non-threatening routines, in an environment filled with comfortable objects that Isaiah likes.  They, sometime, manage to complete a small academic task.  About twenty minutes prior to lunch, Isiaah's dedicated Educational Assistant arrives at school.  *(She is only hired part-time).  She brings Isaiah to my classroom and they de-brief in a quiet corner of the clasroom, as a means of re-integrating him back into our classroom work space.  Then, the two of them go outside together for afternoon recess.  She will sit with Isaiah as he eats lunch in our classroom while the rest of the class watches a movie such as The Magic School Bus series.  For the afternoon, she will sit with Isaiah as I read aloud to the class and they have their own quiet reading time.  He often listens to stories on the classroom computer but, at least, he does so quietly and in the classroom.  We end the day with music or our whole class computer lab time. He enjoys music so he likes going to that class. In the Lab, he completes a small task and then, leaves to sweep the hallway before transitioning to home or to daycare at the end of the school day.

We are eight months into the school year as I write this blog.  Isaiah will now stay in the classroom while I read aloud and he doesn't often interrupt.  That is our progress.  Eight months, the consistent, dedicated time and effort of five adults (Principal, Spec. Ed teacher, the CYW, the Educational Assistant and me, the classroom teacher) just so that Isaiah will listen to a story in our classroom. This may not seem like much of an accomplishment to you but, to us, it is a giant leap forward. By the end of the school year, Isaiah may be able to stay in the classroom during active work time for small amounts of time.  That would be a tremendous break-through and hold much promise for the start of the next school term.

In a time when our societal desire for inclusivity clashes with our zeal toward standardization, we have children such as Isaiah screaming at the margins of it all.  The student-teacher relationship is one of individuality and, as such, having the support to help each student learn as is best for own unique circumstances is essential.  It takes a lot of effort to support students such as Isaiah but, in the end, he deserves nothing less that our very best effort because he is the best child his parents are sending to school that day. So, when Isaiah listens to me read and, occasionally, laughs at a joke in one of the stories, his laughter fills me up and makes my day.  What a measure of progress for that boy!   Not sure how to measure a chuckle for test score purposes, though.  :)

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