Learning Made Accessible = Life As Opportunity

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The Journey

I have to admit that five years ago, I didn’t, in general, use the terms access, accessible, or accessibility as a frame for beliefs about learning. Of course, as with most educators, I’ve been quick to embed phrases such as learning for all, eliminating achievement gaps, and opening the door for all learners into my language.Today, I’m shifting how I think about what accessible learning for all actually looks like as my district adopts practices of Universal Design for Learning as applicable to all learners.

For example, at a recent start-up edu weekend (#cvilleedu) co-sponsored by my school district, a physically handicapped teen showed up with an idea to create a virtual math keyboard to make inputting math problem responses into devices easier than using a standard keyboard – a solution not just for physically handicapped learners but also the able-bodied. She worked all weekend with a team to build her idea into a working prototype. From young people like her and adults who are helping to integrate UDL as a learning pathway, I’ve come to realize that every time we create a new accessibility pathway to learning, we all have the potential to benefit.

I began to define the concept of access over twenty years ago through the lenses of a close colleague. She was a Jedi Knight for creation of an inclusionary community in the elementary school where we worked together in the early ‘90s. I was the principal. She was the teacher. A summary of what I learned from her? See special education children as – children. Back then, access was a term typically used to talk about special education kids being allowed to participate through adaptive PE or use communicative devices that seemed to function almost like Ouija boards to those of us on the outside looking in at special educators at work.

Soon after I was appointed principal, the entire staff gathered together during a series of school days – every teacher, every teaching assistant, the librarian, the custodian, cafeteria workers, the office staff, and me – to dig deep into what we valued for children in our learning community.  This wasn’t easy to do since we had to cover classes with substitutes and school volunteers. Today, given fiscal restraints and volunteer “rules”, this kind of work likely wouldn’t happen during the school day. I also had to get past that some people in the room questioned why certain “others” were there. It had felt important to me that any one whose work brought them in contact with children be present, so everyone had been asked to participate – every last one of us in the school. If inclusion was something we needed to explore for our children then we needed to begin as seeing every one of us adults as fully included in the discussion.

The Reflective Friend

The special education teacher (a woman whom I came to think of as a close reflective friend) and I had tangled a bit philosophically in a prior year over the “new” concept of neighborhood school placements of high needs special education students. She’d been a teacher of moderately and severely handicapped children in another school. Her class was being disbanded and kids were being placed in neighborhood schools. That didn’t make sense to me. I respected her expertise as a teacher, but worried she didn’t understand the impact of moving high needs students into schools where they would be “one of a kind.”  I think, in hindsight, a lot of us were just scared of children whose needs we didn’t believe we could meet.

After she came to work with me, I came to understand that she was a teacher not just of children, but also the adults with whom she worked. Over the years under her tutelage, I came to realize that each child is “one of a kind” and it’s the labels we assign that filter our capability to see children as individuals.

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Work can happen by orienting differently in space – How do we provide choice and comfort?

I will never forget one of those pivotal, epiphany moments in one of our more heated “vision” sessions that began to shape the concept of access differently for me. We were sitting in the crowded library of the rural elementary school where we worked, trying to incorporate something about the importance of community into our belief statements. This special education teacher stood up and with grace drew a simple circle on a flip chart sheet. She then drew a series of “X’s” inside the circle and then put one “X” outside the circle like this:

the inclusive community

Then, she asked us a question, “ Is Erin* inside our community circle or outside it?” Erin (pseudonym) was “moderately handicapped” according to all the state special education formulas. She was the first child with that label to attend our school and we reluctantly had placed her in a regular early childhood classroom because we couldn’t bear to isolate her from peers. Her voice was garbled, her processing limited, and she lacked all kinds of small and large muscle coordination. Parents of “regular ed” children questioned her presence in “our” school. We were all, I think, a bit afraid of, and for, her. The children seemed to be the only ones who saw her as just another kid in the classroom and, they ultimately became the best teachers of teachers about the value of an inclusionary community as a space in which to learn relationship skills for a lifetime.

But, that question, “ Is Erin inside our community circle or outside it?” stopped us all in our tracks. No one seemed to know what to say. The special education teacher stood there and the wait time stretched out. She was good with wait time. I knew that from watching her at work with kids.  Someone was going to have to fill the void of silence in the library and, I realized,  it would be up to me.

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Children build community naturally when adults believe in them and support that occurring.

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Relationships Matter.

I remember the next few moments as if it happened yesterday, even though it’s now been over twenty years ago. I first acknowledged how hard it was for adults, including me,  to make sense of this new neighborhood model for delivering special education services. Next, I spoke of the challenges of inclusion which we all felt had become another “buzz” word in the educational lexicon. Then, I looked at our soft-spoken custodian, a man of great compassion and wisdom. I saw him kneeling in the hall at the beginning of a school day beside a child, the  one whose “X” was outside the circle, helping her tie her shoe. When he looked the child in the eye, there seemed to be some sort of kinship there.

I thought about the fact that some in the room had questioned the custodian’s presence in our work and imagined he knew that as well. He represented, in some ways, another “X” outside the community circle. I had a mentor who believed that in our work we just have to stand up sometimes and say what we think is right even if we know others might not agree or question the rightness of it. The special education teacher had done so. I took a deep breath. It was my turn.

I stood and said something like this, “We all say we value community. As long as I’m here with you, I”ll do everything I can to make sure that everyone is an X inside our community circle. If any of us ever allow any child or adult to be placed outside the circle by our actions, then we can’t call ourselves a community, we are simply a group of people who show up to work every day. If that happens, we need to acknowledge that what we say we believe isn’t what we believe at all.” While it was no great speech, it was a first step in defining access and accessibility differently in my own mind, and within our school community. Because of  that teacher, we took on inclusion as a way of being. It was hard work, but it was the right thing to do.

Today, I’ve come to understand another evolution emerging in my understanding of accessibility. Accessibility applies to everyone, not just the Erins in our lives. We need to stop thinking about the concept of access as isolated to those with federally determined labels – Special Ed, 504, LEP, Title I, gifted, talented. We need to reboot our beliefs about access. And, it’s as true for adults as well as children.

Preferring Collaborative Time

When I recently asked adults with whom I work if they wanted to read a book together on a specific topic, they told  me they wanted options of titles. Some of them wanted a paper book. Others preferred to download a copy to an e-reader. Others didn’t want a book in any form, they wanted to watch a video, participate in a webinar, or take a class. Some of them wanted to get together for face to face discussions, others struggled with doing that. Some wanted to meet in school spaces, others preferred a local watering spot. Adults want accessible learning for themselves. Our kids need that, too.

finding  private reading space in the elementary library

finding private reading space in the elementary library

We adults simply mirror what our kids want and need as learners. They also have different preferences for how they access information. They, too, prefer different tools and different modes of input. They find comfort in different kinds of spaces for learning and in different configurations of interaction. Just like adults they can all benefit from adapting and flexing some of the time to fit into different learning situations. It strengthens them, and us, as learners and community members to do so.

But, if we expect any of us to learn well – regardless of our age – by sitting in the same way, using the same tools, and interacting when and how our teachers choose, then we will get the same learning results we’ve always gotten.  Some will attain great success, some will get by, and some won’t learn much at all. Some will love school, some will tolerate school, and some mostly will hate the experience. We’ll just maintain the faux nature of the Bell curve.

Kids Preferring the Floor

Teachers Preferring the Floor

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However, changing our viewpoint on access to the learning tools, environments, and experiences learners need for learning could, if implemented well, change the game regarding discipline, management, and learning performance by any measure. It also could change the game regarding motivation, drive, curiosity, interest, and commitment. I believe if we were to change the game, think of our jobs as providing universal accessibility, we’d achieve results beyond our wildest dreams; indeed a j-curve of learners who attain great success and love their spaces for learning for a lifetime.

tower builders

* a pseudonym

habitats for learning? we must first abandon the lecture-room

When I Heard the Learn’d  Astronomer

“When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.”

….. Walt Whitman 1865

I have always loved the voice of Walt Whitman and the loft of his words. He defines for me the poetic storyteller, the reflective teacher, the fierce truth-sayer.

Whitman speaks in yesterday’s language about today’s learning challenges. So many young people in our world feel sentenced to school; a place of doing time until they too can wander out of our classrooms and into a world where sitting in lectures no longer sucks the life out of learning.

We’ve worked for years to change up pedagogy with little success. Mostly, we continue to teach as we have taught for years – in front of the teaching wall arranged along assembly line classrooms of our factory schools. Could it be that changing the lecture room must be our focus before we try to change the lecture? I’m pretty certain after a week of intensive observation and design discussion facilitated by @irasocol with teachers, librarians, and principals that learning communities can not form unless spaces are designed to become communities.

It  became apparent to me – one of those “ahas” of life- that creation of vibrant learning communities today is more than just teachers’ application of the right combination of  technology, content, and pedagogical knowledge. A teacher’s expertise in creating a contemporary community of learners for learning also depends upon an effective intersection of color, light, furniture use, available furniture, floor covering, space flow, space gradient, and multidimensional space. What makes this so complex, indeed, difficult to accomplish?

Each learning space represents a unique challenge and there is no one right design answer that can be applied universally. That’s the puzzle of the social architecture essential to crafting a built environment for each classroom community. It’s about figuring out just the right ingredients for each habitat for learners. It’s about selecting the tools we need to construct those spaces. And, it’s about the time to look in classrooms and find the design that sustains the uniqueness of the teacher while providing a zone of comfortable learning for each learner, all day long. This takes a sense of design aesthetic, a resonance with the community, an understanding of the full range of technologies needed in the space, and a feel for flow. These are not a set of skills used in isolation, but rather a set of skills used in collaboration.

Someone said once that if we continue to do what we’ve always done, we will continue to get what we’ve always gotten. Why would we ever expect either teaching or learning to change as long as children continue to enter classrooms where desks line up in rows, chairs stand at attention and a projector takes aim at the target of a stark white board?  Perhaps, we need to take out the desks, the chairs, the teaching wall, the single projector, and all the books lined neatly on shelves around the perimeter. I also wonder if we need to wander outside and look up at a starry night, then come back indoors and begin anew to create a habitat that sustains communities of learners.