Habitable Worlds of Learning

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I watched the Paralympics held in Rio last summer and I was both amazed and inspired by the drive, resilience, passion, and accomplishment of people we label as disabled but who, in many cases, can athletically outperform the average person who has all body parts intact. Disabled athletes use accessibility tools that create pathways allowing them participate in events that years ago no one would have considered possible. These athletes swim, run, jump, fence, ride, throw, lift, row, sail and so much more. The Paralympics celebrates Universal Design, Inclusion, Can Do beliefs, equity, and openness to possibilities. Not only do disabled athletes demonstrate self agency and advocacy but they are surrounded by people — family, friends, coaches — who champion their assets and capabilities and support removing philosophical and physical barriers to opportunities rather than sustaining them.

The Paralympics story reminds me of the barriers to learning we may still erect in front of young people, both in PK-12 and higher education. Rather than promoting equity of access by actively advocating and acting to take down philosophical barriers, we sometimes maintain those barriers because of beliefs and values that limit potential. Access to a full, rich curricula is one example.

writing9I remember talking a few years ago to a teacher who was concerned about a middle school student who was upset because he’d been excluded from reading a book he wanted to read in a book group because of his learning disability. The teacher commented that he just couldn’t read the text and so he had been placed in a less sophisticated book. I was just on the front end of processing background on universal design for learning and asked her if he could listen to the text since he would have no problem handling the cognitive challenge of the content. She replied, “but listening is not real reading.” Quite frankly, I didn’t know what to say. I myself had begun to listen to audio books in the car and felt when I finished a book I had indeed “read” it (for the record I’m a lifelong voracious text consumer which seems to  be worth less and less as we move into the Machine Age.) I walked away thinking we have to challenge our definition of what it means to be a reader – and what it means to be labeled as learning disabled.

Today, the district where I work has adopted Universal Design for Learning as one of seven pathways to transforming learning. We are not “there” yet with 25 schools in terms of full ownership of this philosophical shift but we load every student device with an image that includes a suite of accessibility tools so every student can use a multitude of apps that open the door to equity of curricular access. After all, if medical school students listen to podcasts at triple speed rather than going to lectures and use text to speech to turn assigned text into audio to maximize access why would we continue to deny children with learning disabilities access to complex text they can’t read but they can comprehend?

Why would we not choose to create habitable worlds of schooling for all learners?

I just ran into the work of Professor Rosemary Garland-Thomsen of Emory University who researches, teaches, and writes about expansion of assistive supports to create more habitable worlds for disabled people. The phrase ‘habitable world’ caught my attention because I believe that each learning space, community, and the full curricula of our schools should be accessible to everyone — in essence, schools as habitable worlds of learning.

In her work, Professor Garland-Thomsen speaks to two different narratives that drive people’s decisions about equity of access within a community: either a eugenics philosophy or an inclusion philosophy.

The term eugenics should not be used or taken lightly given its origins and its impact. The worst of American history has been rooted in the Eugenics Movement, a legacy of Sir Francis Galton, cousin of Sir Francis Darwin. Social Darwinism, a cultural perspective on why class systems exist, made child labor and inhumane adult labor conditions acceptable long after slavery was abolished in the US. In the early 1920s, the Eugenics Movement gave birth to the infamous sterilization laws of states across the nation. In Virginia thousands of citizens were sterilized, including under-aged teens and mostly adult women. The tragic case of young Cary Buck, of Charlottesville, Virginia, traveled all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court soon after Virginia enacted its eugenics law. Virginia’s laws were upheld and, in the decision, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes commented “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Beginning with the sterilization of Cary Buck, the SCOTUS ruling led to decades of sterilization across the nation and citation of Virginia law in the Nuremburg trials in defense of the actions of Nazi Germany.

As the Eugenics Movement faded, the Civil Rights Movement emerged as a progressive force leading to integration of public schools and full community access to public spaces for all citizens through the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Then Public law law 94–142 or IDEA as it’s known today was enacted in 1975 to support disabled children to attend and receive needed educational services in public schools, regardless of disability. Coupled with IDEA, the 1990 enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act protected disabled people from discrimination, adding a layer to a progressive philosophy of inclusionary procedures and practices.

These three federal acts increased the potential of accessibility to a habitable world (defined broadly as a planet supporting life or more narrowly as schools supporting all learners, Pk-12 to higher education, with the tools, resources, and strategies they need to succeed) for people in communities across the nation.

How do create schools that are not boxes that wall learners in?

In schools today, we talk the talk that learners’ voices matters, their learning agency is valued, and their influence is of merit. When it comes to walking the walk, however, our work breaks down without a relentless commitment from professionals who will challenge assumptions and practices that represent the vestiges of a eugenics philosophy and promote the inclusionary practices to which progressive educators aspire.

If we are to realize our inclusionary aspirations, how do we attend, act, and advocate to confront the soft ‘eugenics’ still inherent in educational settings? How do we change practices that create school cultures where it’s acceptable to:

  • Sort and select children by perceived differences that limit access to and equity of learning opportunities
  • Turn a blind eye to ostracizing, bullying, name-calling, and shunning that can represent both adults’ and/or children’s behaviors in learning communities
  • Negatively label children based on value judgements about gender, color, economic background, class, sexual orientation, native language, parental behaviors, disability/ability and so on
  • Avoid development of pedagogical skills essential to teach children through a culturally responsive, trauma sensitive, equity of access lens
  • Ignore differences among children’s assets, resources, and home support outside of school
  • Refuse to provide access to the tools children need so that print isn’t a barrier to information sources and text entry isn’t a hurdle to showing their knowledge or sharing their creativity
  • Set up rules, situations and schedules that isolate children from access to their full community whether during recess, play-time, lunch, extracurricular activities, or academic groups and teams?

When contemporary educators endorse and use these practices, we create an uninhabitable world of learning reflective of schooling traditions of the twentieth century. We limit opportunity, potential, and possibilities and never even know what has been missed because we filter the capabilities of young people through beliefs long outdated by the tools available in today’s world.

The Good News ….

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We can and are doing better in many schools today. Some teachers make different choices, challenging the normative factory model that is still relatively intact in some schools despite deep, well-researched knowledge about learning.

Social media make us aware of the voices of progressive teachers who practice a philosophy of open-ended learning rather than instruction limited by rigid standards or performance measured mostly by four-choice, one-answer tests. Today’s progressive educators provide children with opportunities to pursue their learning interests, passions, and curiosities as they learn with peers of diverse backgrounds, experiences, and capabilities. Such teachers recognize the learning power when children work together to find solutions, create, make, design, build, and produce learning.

Teachers who create a habitable learning world for all children value them as explorers, pioneers, settlers, and even resisters of learning. They don’t see a singular path as the only one navigable to learning. They don’t see one destination as an end point for a child’s year. They remain open to and notice the semiotics that help them make meaning of the learning community. They study what each child needs to access full participation in the habitat of the classroom. They listen to children to learn about their culture, stressors, assets, values, interests, and capabilities. Such teachers tune into and confront their own and others’ deficit thinking. When faced with their own biases and the biases of others, they don’t back away from tough conversations and reflection. They own their own learning and value working with a heterogeneous community of learners and peers.

Progressive educators are changing education in their classrooms and influencing others so that all children enter a habitable world of learning, one that has for too long been off-limits for some. They seek to re-norm educational practices through an inclusionary philosophy that embraces all learners.

As a mentor said to me years ago, “it takes a long time to turn an aircraft carrier around — and to change an educational practice. Both can be done. It just takes the will and the skill to do it.”

Attend. Advocate. Act. It’s how we will accomplish just that.

3 Ornaments

Sometimes it’s the simple things that remind me of why I continue to do what I do.   It seems as if some new uphill challenge always looms on the horizon and moving up that hill can feel overwhelming. I have come to believe it’s what we do with our challenges, not what we allow our challenges to do to us, that defines who we ultimately become as we face each day of our life.

Doug Reeves says when harmonious passion, a belief we make a difference and we can see the results of our work, exists in people we remain optimistic, despite challenges. Ira Socol speaks to the importance of courageous creativity within those pathfinders who willingly take risks to try something new to solve problems rather than continuing to sustain the schooling traditions of our past.  Stephen Ambrose describes Lewis and Clark as pushing forward on an uncharted journey into the unknown; indeed a voyage of life and death challenges. These two embodied what Ambrose labels as “undaunted courage.” And, then there’s Charley who articulates his perspective upon Willy’s life in the Requiem at the end of Death of a Salesman, speaking to the dreams that sustain us even when we feel unfulfilled and a bit lost in our careers.

“ He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine . . . A salesman is got to dream, boy.” – Charley

Adding children’s handmade ornaments to the Christmas tree each year became at some point my own annual retrospective on the challenges of life and the importance of sustaining passion, creativity, courage, and dreams in meeting and moving past challenges. The ornaments became my metaphor for why I do what I do.

When I first heard of “Joanie”, she was described as a challenged young girl who had never attended school. She was wheelchair bound with both physical and mental disabilities, including the need to be catherized daily. At age 12, not too long after the newly minted federal legislation for IDEA, her parents enrolled her in school for the first time. We teachers were all scared of what it would mean to be responsible for this child. As a second year teacher, she ended up with me.

I learned from “Joanie” what undaunted courage looks like in a child, She’d never been out of the home, experienced other children her age, or trusted adults other than her parents to take care of her. Yet, she rolled in to the school foyer without looking back at her parents standing at the door. Over months she became a part of my class, learning to care about and trust us as we also learned to care about and trust her. I will never forget the day, a friend rolled her to our newly constructed goldfish pond and she was selected by classmates to carefully place our goldfish in their new home. And, I will always remember when she came by my room with her mother and handed me this ornament, saying “thank you for letting me be in your class.” I learned from her that a child should never have to feel grateful for being included in a classroom community.

He was a scrawny little boy, “Jack.” Some days, I had to force myself to go to him to check on his work because the smell was overpowering.  No one wanted to sit near him. It was woodsmoke, clothes too long unwashed, and that feel he was always looking at other children’s food as if he was ready to fight them for it. Yet, it seemed somehow right that I would let this country kid bring his pet squirrel to school to share with the class (this occurred long before such a thing would be totally verboten in our schools.) He never said thank you, but I shouldn’t have expected his gratitude anyway for simply being able to contribute something of himself to the class.

I’m not sure where he got the glitter or the toothpicks to make an ornament for a teacher, but I do know that he probably had to build up more than a little courage to sneak the stuff home from school. Right before the winter holidays, he handed the ornament he’d created wrapped up in some toilet paper. He taught me the importance of “teacher” that year and  while every child is worthy of attention, some children need us more than others to survive life’s slaps of fate.

I loved this kid. “Bobby” couldn’t read, but since he loved science we got along well. After all, our passion for science wasn’t shared universally in our class. His enthusiasm had no boundaries  – a constant stream of questions and comments about all things science. I could always count on him to hang around after class to ask if he could help clean up or set up lab activities. However, I did have a conundrum about what to do when he failed every written test that first marking period. Somewhere inside me, I began to learn from his results what children know and understand inside their minds does not always match what they put on the paper we call tests.  Perhaps it wasn’t fair to the others that I started reading him the tests at lunch and letting him answer questions orally. No one told me to stop. And, I didn’t ask for permission.  Every time I place his ornament on the tree- made from burnt matches and an old card- I remember that everything worth measuring can’t be measured in the same way for every child.

After all my years in education, I now have a collection of children’s ornaments to place on the family tree. Each one recalls a child and reminds me that the dreams I had as a young teacher are just as important now as they were at any point in my career. I also know I’ve learned as much from children as I have helped them learn. In many ways, they have been my best teachers.

These simple gifts remind me why I keep pushing up the hill.