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

It All Matters

Analytical Creativity in Progress

Creative Analytics in Progress


Inspiration Matters.

 

 

Every time I discover inspired learners in a school both the vibrancy of their projects and interest in their work reflect congruence with their educators’ value for passion-driven learning. No two spaces are quite the same and the learners’ work doesn’t follow formula.

For a couple of weeks, I’ve been reflecting upon the inversely proportional relationship between passion for learning and standardization in schools. It’s pretty simple to observe as passion increases standardization decreases and vice versa.  We live in a time in which outcome metrics, fidelity to replication, and scalability of “evidence-based programs” are supposed to lead to growth in achievement as measured with precision by batteries of “objective” tests. This approach defines the education game of the day in almost every public school in this country – but not everywhere.

And Engaged in Serious Play

A Gathering of Educators Hard at Work

 

Teachers matter.

 

 

Despite standardization pressures, creativity and passion still grow and thrive in some learning spaces. Some of these creative educators, one-offs in their schools, live in an underground, often virtual, network where they draw upon each other to sustain each other’s vital signs as teachers. But, what a loss to our profession when these creative educators must live as independent contractors in their schools, never fully realizing the power of learning when an entire staff of educators is on a passion-driven mission.

Educator-Centered Principal Leadership
Learner-centered Principal Leadership

 

 

Leadership matters.

 

 

Others are fortunate members of communities where principals support and facilitate the work of teachers and learners as creators, designers, builders, developers, and inventors. Here, teachers become master artists at work in schools that are more like studios than factories. Their learners engage in learning how to learn through deep, engaging, interesting work rather than the drudgery of one too many worksheets or multiple-choice tests. Such models are few in number but they do exist in both poor and affluent communities. And, that tells me we all have the potential to realize rather than deny our dreams for contemporary learning spaces where every child can find their interest and passion niche as a learner.

foster intensity at any age

The interests of engaged learners


The work matters.

 

 

 

Educators in some learning spaces are choosing to transition toward less standardization. They reflect creative work in progress. I’ve observed a school transform from mostly blank walls to one that’s full of life, light, and color. The change reminds me of a day spent watching a painter at work along the Seine. She began with a perfect, white canvas that was altered with daubs of colour into a rich landscape teeming with life.  She stayed with this project for hours, refining each stroke of the brush to catch the light, the shadow, a child kicking a ball, lovers reclined on the river’s bank. I marveled at the passion and commitment it took to sustain such attention to her work, despite distractions all around her.

The Window as Learning Wall

The Foyer as Library


Learning Spaces Matter.

 

exercise ball as seat
lying and standing work spaces

 

Seating under table, in chairs, on floor

Recently, I walked a once-perfectly tidy school that’s in transition. I noticed signs of change in children’s drawings and writing on glass windows in the library a study in mirror writing. Another day, I returned to find children sprawled on a classroom floor working away on a project to redesign their room – a study in concentration. In another school, the librarian painted a still life with plants, benches, and tables onto the once-blank foyer outside her library. A few weeks later, the still life was landscaped with children, 2nd and 4th graders, reading together under the tables, on benches, and gathered together on the floor a study in multi-age learning.

the messiness of design think described by principals

Teachers in a third school “walk” their classes together discussing the dual importance of a safe and comfortable space as prerequisite to challenging learners to engage in rigorous, creative, and critical thinking/doing work. To shift toward multi-dimensional learning work, educators have to work hard to effect changes in practice. It demands a concomitant shift from the dominant use of the frontal teaching wall to systemic use of multi-dimensional spaces inside and out of the classroom. Design changes. Teaching changes. Work changes.

Team work as life skill

Collaborative experiences matter

Community of multi-age reading buddies

 

 

 

 

The distance between the painter at work on the banks of the Seine and educators at work adding color and life to their world isn’t so far really. Artists seek out each other routinely in formal and informal ways to share their work, “steal” ideas from each other, reflect on changes in technique, ask questions, and push the boundaries of their art.  Creative teachers connect for many of the same reasons.

the science of passion

 

the art of passion


Passion matters.

I want to learn.. passion

When teachers create, adopt, and adapt their work, they function similarly to artists. They share and learn from each other. Like artists, they fuel themselves with their own passion and, in doing so, create a contagion of creativity (borrowed from @irasocol) that fuels learning passion among the young people they serve. They’re not cookie-cutter teachers and they look for every opportunity to design away from cookie cutter learning work.  It’s routine for their children to ask questions, pursue interests, wonder and search, make meaning, create original responses, and amplify knowledge into deep understanding and growth as a learner. Together, educators and young people alike dream learning that’s writ large through passion, not writ small through standardization.

Principals in the Learning Trenches

Principals who Embrace Passion for Learning

 

Permission matters.

 

 

 

If I could gift every school with the opportunity to dream big, I would start with restoration of passion. From recent conversations with teachers collectively engaged in design thinking, I’ve found one common theme emerging. Educators need support of leaders who’re not afraid when teachers take necessary risks in pursuit of learning as they change the spaces, change the learning, and change the tools. Each step of the way, they diverge along different pathways just as artists also do.

In giving up the safety of mass standardization, they simultaneously sustain an in-common vision that young people can accomplish learning beyond our wildest dreams when they’re inspired, passionate, and interested in the work they do.

It works for educators. It works for those they serve.

Images: Albemarle County Public Schools