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

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.