Image of rainbow.

Rainbow Connection

Educators often wonder how well they can provide appropriate educational services to all students. Can it be that sometimes students’ needs are too intensive and it becomes an undue burden for schools to provide reasonable accommodations? There’s always a lot of fear. Albeit challenging, it is possible when a creative parent and a passionate student connect with a willing teacher to work toward inclusion.

Allow me to introduce you to Magger Chen, a talented young lady from Taiwan. Magger has Nemaline Rod Myopathy, which is a type of rare disorder that leads to rod-like structured muscle cell. Like many individuals with rod myopathy, Magger experiences muscle weakness, hypotonia, and difficulties in speech and swallowing. She does require extensive supports—power chair, medical ventilator, other assistive technology devices, and a personal assistant to help with transfer and position so she can fully participate in daily living activities. Sometimes it takes her seven hours a day just to consume food.

Is school an option for her?

Despite the fact that Magger was passionate about learning and interacting with friends, her health condition made her vulnerable to infection, especially when she was younger. In middle school, Magger was homeschooled with an arrangement to attend Science class at a local middle school. Magger’s mom, Evelyn, often spent two hours just to help her get ready to attend one 40-minute session. The extensive care giving demand eventually took a toll on both Evelyn and Magger. Moreover, the limited time in class prevented Magger from having meaningful interaction with her peers. Evelyn and Magger requested live streamed session for the Science class so Magger could watch and learn from home. However, the teacher agreed to only a set-angle, one-way broadcast. The limited access to curriculum and peer interaction was still not what Magger was looking for.

Fortunately, a Science teacher from another school district heard about their experiences through a common friend and reached out to Evelyn. The teacher said even if she had no idea how to setup for tele-education, she would love to have Magger to be part of her class.

The first class was somehow chaotic. Because the teacher was not familiar with iPad, she really had difficulties finding an optimal setup for the camera. Nevertheless, she was determined to include Magger as part of the class. That resolution rippled out to influence the students, who ended up seeing Magger as part of their class, taking Magger on a virtual tour in the lab, even setting up prism and iPad in the hallway so Magger could be part of the experiment on refraction.

That rainbow she and her peers made was—and still is—according to Magger, the most beautiful experiment she’s ever done.

This magical journey continued. Magger made a surprise appearance in class the last session. Her friends even helped her to her designated seat (where they usually set up the iPad). This was a few years ago. Magger now attends Taipei Tech School, majoring in Interaction Design. The school uses multiple devices to broadcast multi-camera live video on her phone so she still can learn from any suitable position. With her AAC device and phone, she also gives guest lectures on a regular basis.

Because of one science teacher who was willing to try, we all know how much potential she has now. Her mom attributed her successful college life to their creative problem-solving skills (from transition between classrooms to utilizing assistive technology) to this experience. Nowadays, I would introduce Magger like this: Magger Chen is an active Facebook user, empathetic animal lover, fearless fashion designer, and she keeps track of all the trendy topics (including mobile games). With pen tablet and stylus, she draws all kinds of professional and beautiful illustrations.

I just can’t wait to see how she would paint her future with rainbow color.

Cover of FIA

Where do you even begin? Begin with SWIFT-FIA

Recently, I was having a conversation with a local school district representative about the SWIFT Education Center and the services we provide to support equity-based inclusive education. As usual, I got a little caught up in my impassioned plea about why all students should participate in and make progress in the general education curriculum. I started rambling on about the research to support inclusive educational practices and the inherent inequity of segregation for students with disabilities. Suddenly, the representative stopped me and said, I understand “why”, but I don’t know “where” to start. She asked me, “what do you do to support districts who believe in inclusive education, but aren’t there yet? Where do you even begin?”

This conversation reminded me that just believing inclusive education is the right thing to do is not enough to make it happen. State, district, and school leaders may want to, and even believe they should, implement inclusive practices but knowing where to start can seem daunting.

Implementing equity-based inclusive education is not as easy as just moving students from one placement to another. Moving students from a segregated classroom to a general education setting does not ensure students are meaningfully participating in and making progress in the general education curriculum with their peers. Too often I see students with disabilities moved from a segregated classroom just to be segregated again within a general education classroom. When a student is sitting in the back corner of a classroom with a paraeducator working on something totally unrelated to the work his or her peers are doing, then the student is not really experiencing the full benefits of inclusion. But, if moving students out of segregated settings isn’t enough, then how do school leaders know what supports need to be in place to ensure true equity-based inclusion is achieved?

The SWIFT framework helps answer this question with ten research-based features that compose the building blocks of inclusive education. SWIFT provides technical assistance and resources to guide implementation of each of the features—but even the most efficient school teams would be hard pressed to tackle all of the features at once. Therefore, schools need guidance on which components of each feature to prioritize during the transformation process.  Luckily, SWIFT has a tool for that.

The SWIFT Fidelity Integrity Assessment (SWIFT-FIA) is a self-assessment used by school leadership teams to examine their implementation of SWIFT framework features. SWIFT-FIA helps school-based teams engage in conversations about what components of each feature they currently have in place. These conversations help teams pinpoint where they are in the stages of implementation for each item. SWIFT-FIA is scored on a 0-3 scale representing these stages: 0 = laying the foundation, 1 = installing, 2 = implementing, and 3 = sustaining schoolwide implementation. To score a SWIFT-FIA, a school leadership team reviews the components of each item and reaches consensus about which elements of the item are currently in place. If the school has not started installing any components of the item, they can begin laying the foundation by discussing the degree to which the item meets the needs of their school and exploring options for implementation. If the school has action plans in place and is implementing some components of the item, they are in the installing stage of actively putting the item in place. Installing may include action items such as identifying key personnel responsible for carrying out the task. If a school has all of the item components in place and is actively working to refine and improve them, the school is in the implementing stage. When a school has all of the item components in place and is actively monitoring implementation to continuously improve practices, they are in the stage of sustaining schoolwide implementation.

By self-assessing stage of implementation across SWIFT features, school leadership teams gather valuable data to guide implementation of inclusive practices. SWIFT-FIA provides a roadmap to teams that feel overwhelmed with where to begin. The results of SWIFT-FIA can be used to identify and prioritize practices for transformation or continuous improvement, develop action plans needed to install and implement practices, and to reflect on the effects of action plans on practices. Teams may choose to use the data to identify strengths in items they are currently installing. They can then leverage their strengths to refine and improve their current practices. On the other hand, teams may choose to use the data to identify the next steps needed to install items that are priorities but not yet in place. SWIFT-FIA gives teams the information they need to guide these implementation decisions.

Even though school transformation can be complicated, my answer to the question of “where you even begin?” is simple: You begin with SWIFT-FIA.

SWIFT-FIA is available at swiftschools.org/shelf. A SWIFT-FIA tracking tool may be used to capture results and graph changes over time and is also available at swiftschools.org/shelf.

If you are interested in learning more about how SWIFT-FIA can be used by your school or district to guide implementation of equity-based MTSS, contact SWIFT at swift@ku.edu.

Photo of blog author.Allyson Satter currently works as a Project Coordinator for SWIFT. Previously, she worked as a special educator, which is where she first learned the value of equity-based inclusion.

How a SWIFT-FIT assessment benefits your school

Hi, I am Dan Pollitt and I work at SWIFT Education Center. I’d like to introduce you to a tool that can help your school and district leadership teams make well informed decisions about how they implement equity-based Multi-Tiered System of Support, or MTSS, for inclusive education.

SWIFT-FIT—which is short for SWIFT Fidelity Implementation Tool—is an assessment organized by SWIFT domains and features and composed of 58 items that are each scored as 0-1-2-3. To date, more than 100 trained assessors have conducted more than 350 of these assessments to help teams measure the degree to which they implement practices that promote equity and excellence for all students.

I am excited to announce that we are launching SWIFT-FIT Version 2.0, updated to reflect the most current research and practices in the field and applicable to PK-12 settings.

A SWIFT-FIT assessment is conducted by a trained, external assessor who visits your school during typical school hours. Throughout the day, this assessor interviews administrators, classroom teachers, school staff, district leaders, students, and family and community members. The assessor asks a range of questions about such topics as how you use Universal Design for Learning (UDL), ways teams collect and use student data, how students are included with peers, and whether family and community members are involved in school governance decisions. To award a high score on each the assessor looks for evidence of the practice implemented across the whole system, without “siloes” that limit access to general education curriculum and activities for any student subgroup.

Because SWIFT-FIT is a system-levelassessment, it measures the degree to which practices are structured, formalized, and in place throughout the school system, rather than haphazard, unstructured, or ad-hoc. Let’s use an example: Take the practice of using universal screeners to collect student data. What is a universal screener? Even if you are not an educator, you are probably familiar with universal screeners! For instance, when you visit the eye doctor, you are asked to read a chart to briefly test for poor eye sight or areas of need. Schools use universal screeners in a very similar fashion: All students are asked to complete them multiple times per year, they are relatively short and unobtrusive, and teams use academic and behavioral screening data to make more-informed instructional decisions. When conducting a SWIFT-FIT assessment, the assessor is looking for evidence that the school has the system-level practice of using universal screeners to collect student data and make decisions about which students may need additional or intensified support. Thanks to this system-level approach, the tool is not measuring one individual classroom teacher or one individual administrator, but instead measuring the whole system.

How can assessments help your school and district leadership teams? A baseline assessment can provide a sense of your “current reality” from an independent perspective. This perspective can be used in important conversations about what steps your school and district might take be more equitable and support all students. As your teams make decisions about the advances they plan to make, subsequent assessments are helpful for tracking progress at an item-by-item level. This objective measure can be used in communicating with school boards or other governance bodies, family and community members, and with school educators and staff.

If your team is considering adopting the SWIFT framework for equitable and excellent teaching and learning for all students, I recommend you consider scheduling a SWIFT-FIT assessment with one of our trained assessors as a way to measure your school’s current reality and progress toward your goal for equity and excellence for all your students. Contact us at swift@ku.edu.

 

Photo of blog author.Dan Pollitt is a research project manager at the SWIFT Education Center and oversees the training and implementation of SWIFT-FIT and SWIFT-FIA fidelity tools. He is a former elementary and middle school classroom teacher and as an adjunct graduate faculty in the Department of Special Education at the University of Kansas, teaches undergraduate and graduate students. He can be reached @danpollittphd on Twitter.

SWIFT Family and Community Engagement in the Pendleton (OR) School District

About the same time SWIFT began its partnership with the Pendleton School District in eastern Oregon, the district passed a large bond that allowed them to build two new elementary schools and an early learning center designed to welcome and support all students. Washington Elementary School, in particular, shifted geographical boundaries yet remained a neighborhood school for much of the area’s Native American population, which makes up 13% of students in the district and 36% of Washington Elementary’s total student population. Additionally, many of Washington’s students live at or below the poverty level.

Guided by the SWIFT framework’s emphasis on family and community engagement, the district set two important goals: (1) improve attendance of Native American students at Washington Elementary and the Pendleton Early Learning Center; and (2) reduce disruptive behaviors through implementing Conscious Discipline’s Trauma-Informed Practices. The district hired a Native American Family Advocate, who works on improving attendance among the Native American population. In order to create a welcoming sense of community, through this collaborative effort, signs in the building were printed in English as well as two of the tribes’ languages, Umatilla and Weyilletpuu.

The school shifted their response to absences to align with Conscious Discipline routines. Instead of sending a letter warning parents that they were in violation of attendance statutes, the district now sends a postcard “Wishing them well” and then a care basket to the student’s home when they are absent multiple days. Rather than assuming the parents want to keep their child out of school, this approach recognizes the family may be experiencing stressors that make it difficult for the student to get to school. The district also recognizes cultural practices as “off campus learning activities” instead of unexcused absences.

Recognizing the traumatic effects of marginalization and poverty, the school district adopted trauma-informed practices of Conscious Discipline for all K-5 staff, including teachers, paraprofessionals, school counselors, principals, and even bus drivers.

The district works closely with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, and facilitated a connection to a Conscious Discipline trainer. Tribal HeadStart and YellowHawk Health Center now use this trainer. At the first trainings, parents in these programs recognized the practices their school age children had been learning at school and using at home. This increased the school to home connection for our families from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

As a result of these intentional efforts, the school experienced significant reduction in Office Discipline Referrals (ODRs) – the lowest in seven years. From the 2014–2015 school year to the 2016–2017 school year, Out-of-School Suspensions (OSS) dropped from 72.5 total days to 11.5 days, and the total number of incidents that resulted in OSS dropped from 64 to 10. During the same timeframe, the number of incidents that resulted in In-School Suspensions (ISS) dropped from 41 to 5.

-Julie Smith and Laura Miltenberger

Photo of blog post author.Julie Smith’s educational career spans 18 years. Ms. Smith worked as an instructional assistant in special education after obtaining her Bachelor’s Degree in Music Performance. This sparked a lifelong passion for serving students with disabilities in public education. After becoming a licensed special education teacher with a focus on behavioral intervention, Ms. Smith taught in the Beaverton and then Pendleton school districts for nine years. She completed her Master’s of Science in Special Education at Portland State University in 2004 and obtained her National Board for Professional Teaching Certificate in 2007. Ms. Smith worked as a Teacher on Special Assignment, instructional coaching, before starting her career as Special Programs Director at the district office in 2012. Through her career, she has focused on partnering with general educators and administrators to develop an inclusive comprehensive support system for all students. She recently completed her Doctoral Degree in Educational Leadership through Lewis & Clark College.

Three party hats sit on a white background.

Reclaiming the Spirit of the IEP

The brilliant idea that a student’s gifts, abilities, and needs should be regularly understood, identified, and supported is simply common sense—and best practice. I believe that this was the original intent behind IEPs. “Let’s get to know this student and discover what she/he can do and what reliable supports are needed.” The intent was that simple and that profound!

And yet IEP meetings can be clouded by worry, lack of trust, too many forms, and way too much jargon.

How do we reclaim the profound purpose of IEPs? How do we restore a sense that IEP meetings can be an opportunity for creativity, compassion, and conversation—or as one educator said, “How can we make IEP meetings feel like a ‘party with a purpose’?”

Our family has years of thinking about these issues. Our 32-year-old adult son, Micah Fialka Feldman, who has an intellectual disability, was the first student to be fully included in his elementary and secondary schools, and later in his college. The stacks of saved IEPs easily fill three drawers of the old metal file cabinet in our basement. Our daughter, Emma Fialka Feldman, is a second-grade full inclusion teacher in the Boston Public Schools and has been a team member of numerous IEP meetings. Together, we offer two ideas to reclaim the intended spirit of IEPs.

First Suggestion: Use our IEP One-Pager Planning Tool.

We developed a one-page planning tool (click here) that is fairly jargon-free and visually interesting with three or four photos of the student in action. The photos of the student can be placed at the top of the page or scattered about. The five categories listed on the page are:

2-3 things (student) can do independently

2-3 things she/he is beginning to do

2-3 things she/he can do with supports

2-3 key accommodations used

2-3 areas of focus

The goal is to succinctly write specific examples under each category. These categories guide the teacher as he or she prepares for the meeting and reviews the student’s work and experiences. A blank copy of the IEP One-Pager can be shared with families and students prior to the meeting with encouragement to think about their responses.

During IEP meetings, the IEP One-Pager can guide conversations with attention paid to each category and reference to the photos. As students and their families share responses, the tone of the meetings will shift from report language to rapport language, which focuses more on conversation and sharing and less on tackling the form.

The emphasis of the meetings shifts from fixing and curing to “what is the growth?” and how to continue supporting that growth. Later on, when the legal and many-paged IEP form is used, the One-Pager is an easy reference guide, especially when clarity and conciseness is needed.

The feedback from families and educators who are using the IEP One-Pager is very positive. One family indicated they enjoyed posting the completed IEP-One Pager on their refrigerator, as a guide and celebration!

No form alone can result in better communication. Listening, without rushing to solutions, is a key ingredient to strengthening communication and trust, but the right tool can help build a sturdier partnership among educators, students, and families.

Second Suggestion: Involve the student with the disability and their peers at the IEP and pre-planning meetings.

With the full permission and comfort of the student with the disability, peers can be a wonderful support to prepare and participate in the IEP meeting.

Beginning in sixth grade and with the support of his teacher, Micah invited a couple of his friends to help him think about what he had accomplished during the year, what he liked learning, what helped him learn, and what skills he wanted to strengthen. Together, they discussed these areas and then created a simple PowerPoint presentation with photos for the IEP meetings. The youth brought renewed energy, honesty, and enthusiasm to meetings, along with innovative and unique ideas.

One meeting explored the issue of Micah disrupting the class. One of his friends explained that Micah was not alone in sometimes feeling bored in the class. The friend surmised that the real issue was that Micah did not know how to “fake paying attention” the way most of the other students did. The team chuckled, maybe a bit nervously! The solution, easily identified by Micah’s peers, was right on target. “We are going to help Micah learn how to fake paying attention.” Turning to him, they instructed, “Micah, when you feel bored, you gotta make eye contact with the teacher and periodically nod your head.” And indeed, Micah learned this strategy—one that most of us use daily! (Other issues of instructional methods were discussed, but now in the context of real-world ways of handling “boring” moments.)

At another meeting, one of Micah’s friends shared that he thought the paraprofessional was doing too much of the work for Micah and that his friends could be more involved in supporting him or nudging him to complete the work. Although Micah liked the paraprofessional, he really liked the idea of having his friends more involved.

Youth often have the most authentic understanding of what is happening in and outside of the classroom. We miss an opportunity to learn from them when we do not involve them, and we strengthen their sense of camaraderie and community when we invite them to participate.

Summary

You may not wear party hats to your next IEP meeting, but you can find creative ways to rekindle the authentic spirit of IEPs and their meetings. Our family offers these two suggestions based on years of experience. Ask your IEP team to try our IEP One-Pager Planning Tool and invite your student with disabilities and a few peers to plan and participate in the meeting. And if wearing a party hat seems too silly, there is nothing wrong with bringing a party treat to the meeting. In our home, after so many meetings and treats, we have actually renamed brownies. They are now and forever only referred to as IEP-brownies! Humor helps too!

– Janice Fialka

Image of blog author.Sometime poet, always learning. Social Worker, author, activist, mother, feminist, wife, Working in community to create a world where everyone’s gifts are respected and folks get their needs met. National speaker on issues related to disability, inclusion, and relationship building between families and professionals.

White woman holding her hand up to her ear.

Just Listen.

A few weeks ago, I was catching up on the phone with my sister, a middle-school science teacher who has been in the classroom for over 15 years. A frequent topic of conversation is about the challenges she faces in her classroom—hyper students, burned out teachers, limited resources, and of course, behavioral issues. The other week, she made a comment that took me by surprise: “Some of these kids just need to be placed in an alternative setting. We don’t have the right resources to support them and they’re getting in the way of other students’ learning.” My mouth dropped and all I could say was, “Do you even know what my job is?” What I really wanted to say was, “Haven’t you heard of the School-to-Prison pipeline? How my work is centered around keeping students in their neighborhood schools with the rest of their peers?”

After taking a few breaths, we began to have a dialogue. I remembered one of the recent training topics that we, as facilitators, conducted around coaching. In that training, we asked participants to name the essential qualities and skills of a coach or facilitator. One quality that came up regularly was “listening.” Since then, I have coincidentally come across the theme of listening in other books, articles, and podcasts. Mark Nepo, a poet and philosopher, states: “To listen is to lean in, softly, with a willingness to be changed by what we hear.” So, I tried to do just that: listen.

When my sister asserted that some students needed to be placed in alternative settings, perhaps what she was really saying was, “I want these students to be included, but I need help figuring out how to do that.” One of the features in the SWIFT framework is a strong educator support system. How can we support teachers who need adequate resources and skills to teach all students, even those with extensive needs? Are we also strengthening the relationship between schools and districts so that teachers’ voices are listened to and considered when making policy decisions?

We start by listening. To be listened to is one of the most essential human needs. It is an opportunity for an individual to be heard, seen, and valued. But often, it is easy to listen with our own agenda, opinions, and judgements where we want to be in control of the conversation and steer the direction our way. As I began to let go of my own agenda with my sister, I saw a dedicated, hard-working teacher who wants to feel valued and supported for all the energy she puts forth every day.

By the end of our conversation, I think we both felt a little changed by what we heard. Perhaps listening is the first step to opening our own minds and seeing the work we have before us.

-Jessica Dulay

Photo of blog author.Jessica Dulay is a Regional Facilitator Director with the University of Kansas, SWIFT Education Center, currently working with the California Scale-Up MTSS Statewide Initiative. Prior to this position, Jessica worked in Washington, DC at the district and state level, providing professional development and technical assistance to schools around Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports and Response to Intervention. She also helped launch the Restorative DC initiative—a collaborative project to increase awareness and use of Restorative Practices across the education sector in order to shift from exclusionary discipline approaches.

State Spotlight Vermont

The Leadership Team and Administration at Oak Grove Elementary School in Windham Southeast Supervisory Union in Brattleboro, Vermont uses SWIFT tools and processes to identify priority areas and evidence-based practices to meet the needs of all students in their building, helping each child reach his or her potential.

The Leadership Team collected and reviewed data about their students, school, district, and community to identify current strengths and prioritize areas where they wanted to focus their continuous improvement work. The team identified an abundance of strengths: an effective Universal Behavior Management System, a strong relationship with their LEA, strong ties with families and the community, an effective Instructional Coaching system, and a team and colleagues they call “collaborative and working to support all students with integrity.” They will be successful when they apply these strengths to the evidence-based practice they chose to prioritize as their next area for improvement: implementation of UDL in their school and classrooms!

After the team finished Data Snapshots, they moved on to using the Priority & Practice Planning tools. The Leadership Team learned about and employed stage- and driver-based action planning with enthusiasm and integrity.  They asked good questions and included all team members in planning for improving the implementation drivers of best practice: competency, organization, and leadership.  Using such embedded strengths as their Instructional Coaching supports and close work with their LEA, they will implement UDL with professional development, coaching, and effective internal and external communication practices. These strengths will support faculty and staff as they embrace all children in the general education curriculum and ensure that families and community members are informed and supported in their relationships with the school.

Oak Grove Elementary School exemplifies a community working smartly and diligently to serve all children—a true learning collaborative that embraces continuous improvement with integrity and honor!

-Maura Hart

Photo of author blog.I began working in Education as a middle and high school English teacher, during which time I earned my Master’s of Education Degree with Antioch University New England and began adjunct teaching for them. While I LOVED teaching in the public schools and working with my students, my life path took me on a different course. During the time when I had two babies and stayed home with them, I went to UMass to get my Ph.D. (it seemed like a good idea at the time…) This work brought me to consulting with schools and districts as a team facilitator and teacher trainer and coach. My experience with a district in Vermont introduced me to the SWIFT Center where I now work with amazingly talented and passionate educators who are committed to including all children in all classrooms.

Presuming Competence: A Thank You Note to Tina

Much of my work over the last 30 years has been a long-winded apology to Tina. I met her in 1987, when I was a 23-year-old student teacher at the International School of Brussels. My assignment was in a third grade classroom. One day I was asked to fill in at the high school for a teaching aide who was home sick. Art class was the only general education class Tina attended, so the Head of School didn’t want her to miss it. I was told that Tina had cerebral palsy, but this didn’t worry me as I was majoring in both elementary education and special education.

When we entered the room, the art teacher was instructing the class to tear a full-page ad out of a magazine. Students tore out pictures of Molson Golden beer bottles, Calvin Klein models, and the Marlboro cigarette man on his horse. The assignment was to tear the ad vertically, paste half of it on a piece of white 8.5 x 11 paper, and use colored pencils to draw in the missing half.

That day, unfortunately, my instructional decision making was fed by my special education training. I substituted extra-thick crayons and oversized chart paper for the skinny pencils and tiny paper, and then watched Tina do what I expected her to do. With great effort, she coordinated her movements and made random marks on the page. Cerebral palsy is the result of an injury to the brain, so mind-body coordination was sometimes challenging for Tina. I wanted to be encouraging, so I said, “Look at those pretty colors. Maybe you could make a rainbow.” (That suggestion—I hope—is the lowest “high expectation” I will ever hold for anyone.) The only thing I did right that day was to “aid and fade,” i.e., to give Tina some space to draw her picture without me glued to her side.

When I returned to her table after wandering, I noticed that Tina’s picture had changed. She had drawn large shaky colored lines in the shape of a rainbow across the top of her paper; but on the bottom, she had written a sentence with those same shaky lines: I am bored. I am embarrassed to admit now, but (irony aside) I was speechless. I didn’t know Tina could write, read, spell, or underline the most important word in the sentence. In fact, I had not even imagined that she could think. When I saw what she wrote, I sat down next to her, made a sincere apology; then I asked if I could have her drawing so that I could tell this story to teach other people how not to make this same mistake.

I kept my promise to Tina.  Her story is a wonderful introductory tale in the university courses I teach about the importance of presuming competence in learners who receive special education services.

On my mind lately are children living in poverty. When a child living in poverty gets off the bus, we serve him a free hot breakfast; but when he enters his classroom—perhaps without enough sleep or a signed permission slip, or with unfinished homework—what do we offer? Sometimes we offer nothing more than the loss of recess. What might it take for a teacher to see that the child’s parents work the late shift and that he is responsible for putting his younger siblings to bed? To see that the whole family sleeps in one room so he can’t turn on the light? The school might have a “policy” regarding homework, but it sure smells like prejudice dressed up for the school handbook.

Unfortunately, this kind of thinking even happens in my college teaching. Last semester a student, who lives with her grandmother in a trailer with no running water, came to me concerned about our attendance policy because it requires written documentation for a class absence to be “excused.”  She shared that she doesn’t have enough money to go to the doctor, so she would never be able to bring in a doctor’s note. I don’t think as educators we are unkind, but I do think we are sometimes sloppy with our practice.

Over the years, I realized that this story about Tina, and children living in poverty—and all of the other children who are marginalized—is a tale of prejudice (in this case, mine) that finds its way into schools.  I have come to recognize prejudice as a character in the most relevant conversations occurring in our field, and/or maybe aging has made me a better listener. Sometimes it’s like an undertow we pretend not to notice and other times it seems disguised as formal educational policy. During professional discussions, I am developing the habit of asking myself: Who is invisible here? Learning is too often designed without thinking about everyone.

-Susan Shapiro

Photo of blog author.I am a teacher. I began as a self-contained special education teacher, who learned in one year that “mainstreaming” is a toxic model that teaches children that belonging is conditional, and something that must be earned. So I became a classroom teacher for first and second graders, and fully included students with disabilities in my class. I made huge errors (which will be described in future blogs) but I realized that at least kids with disabilities were in the right place—-the general education classroom with their peers. Then I became one of New Hampshire’s first Inclusion Facilitators, back in the late 1980’s. Later I worked at the Institute on Disability doing teacher training, technical assistance, professional writing and lots of thinking: How do we build schools so that all children are valued and have full access to all social and academic learning? I still think about this everyday. I don’t know the complete answer, but I think part of the answer is increasing the capacity of general education teachers to teach children with disabilities. So, now my job is coordinating a graduate-level elementary teacher preparation program at Plymouth State University. By design, our program has no courses in “special education”, but we have lots of courses about diversity, supports and accommodations, and differentiating instruction, assessment, and environment. I consult with school teams interested in learning designs that provide all children access to all learning. I can be reached at: sashapiro@plymouth.edu

Photo of a classroom where two teachers are visible working with students.

Co-Teaching with UDL in Mind

Let’s begin with the idea that all (yes, all!) teaching is done with intention. The question becomes: What intention is created? Let’s consider these two classrooms.

Classroom #1

The class of 25 students sits in rows facing the front of the class as one co-teacher gives a lecture as he flips through a visual PowerPoint. The other co-teacher monitors student performance by quietly walking around the room. This teacher is feeling the urge to chime in—to add to an idea, clarify a thought, or guide meaningful connections—but remains quiet because this teacher knows a lot of content must be covered, and the clock is ticking. The bell rings, and some students are given printed PowerPoint slides as notes.

Classroom #2

The class of 25 students sits in rows as class begins. One of the co-teachers begins with a short video to spark students’ attention. After the quick viewing, the other co-teacher asks students to take two minutes to share with a peer sitting near them about their connection with the video. Both teachers listen in on the student exchanges, providing an opportunity to formatively assess students’ understanding.  Each teacher jots down quotes or key ideas shared by students to document student performance. Teachers tell the class some ideas heard as they made their way around the room as a way to connect the students to the next phase of learning. Teachers work together to extend students’ content knowledge through a lecture style format, with one teacher sharing the knowledge through visual and auditory modes, and the other teacher chiming in with clarifying ideas and questions.  The first teacher models note-taking on the board.  The two teachers stop at strategic points to share their thinking and provide a few minutes for students to process the information. All students are offered access to notes by either allowing them to take a picture of the teacher-modeled notes on the board or by taking a note-taking organizer handout. Students have the choice to write, sketch, or highlight key ideas in their notes. All PowerPoint visuals are also available to students on the class website.

How UDL Strengthens Co-Teaching with Intention

Clearly, all teachers in these two classrooms set the necessary intention to guide students to extend their content knowledge. But notice how the process of learning in the second scenario lifted learning to another level. When UDL is part of the intention, teachers place learners at the center. Each co-teacher is an active participant within the instructional process. Each learner in the room has the opportunity to connect and express his or her understanding. The UDL principles move beyond having students passively listen or copy notes by rote manipulation. For educators, UDL moves beyond one co-teacher instructing and the other quietly walking around the room. Each learner in the room is seen, heard, and valued—including the teachers.

-Elizabeth Stein

Photo of blog author.Elizabeth Stein is a teaching veteran, with more than 20 years experience spanning grades K-8, specializing in universal design for learning and special education. She’s currently a special education/UDL instructional coach and new-teacher mentor in Long Island NY’s Smithtown Central School District. Elizabeth is National Board Certified in Literacy and a contributor to Education Week and other publications. Her first book Comprehension Lessons for RTI (Grades 3-5), is published by Scholastic (June 2013). She blogs at Two Teachers in the Room for MiddleWeb, LLC. Follow her on Twitter @elizabethlstein

Phone is the foreground with "Uber" on the screen; a car is in the background.

Uber Interesting – Making My Driver’s Story Obsolete

I took an Uber home from the airport recently after attending a meeting. Almost without exception, when I take an Uber, I have the opportunity to hone my elevator speech about the SWIFT mission and core purpose of our efforts. This particular ride and sharing was uber interesting.

My driver, a young man in maybe his early 30s, and I made small talk for awhile about his job, the weather, traffic, and so on. Then he politely inquired about what I do for work. I explained a bit about how we partner with teams of people in states, districts, schools to re-design teaching and learning to give all students—not just some—access to the supports they need to be successful in the school curriculum. Bottom line: instead of making the students fit the way schools are designed, we design schools to be responsive to students’ learning needs.

We chatted a bit more about this and then he went quiet for a few moments. When he spoke again, he said, “You know, I’ve got a learning disability. I have difficulty with auditory processing.” I said I had some familiarity with what he was talking about, and then he shared a story that was both sad and deeply meaningful about the importance of our work.

“I was in elementary school and I remember that each year the special education teacher would come to the door of my classroom, name me and some other kids, and then say we needed to go with her. The other kids didn’t know where we were going. But there was one year, it was in 6th grade, when the special education teacher came to the door, one of the kids whose name she called said, ‘Oh no, special education again!’ I was so embarrassed, I wanted to crawl under a rock. But what was worse than that was that I’d miss so much work in the classroom. I kept getting pulled out and get so far behind that it was impossible to catch up. I just kept getting further and further behind the rest of the kids in my class and the stuff they were learning. It continued like this all the way through high school —and then they handed me a diploma and congratulated me. I said, ‘Yeah, right.’ What were they talking about? I was lacking so much learning that it has affected my whole life. Still does now. I went to (community college) and they told me I wasn’t up to par to take the classes I wanted to enroll in. So I had to take a bunch more remediation classes, and I’m still not done. It’s like I’ll never catch up.”

I told my driver that I would share his story and use it to further fuel our work to help schools become places where the variability in the way students learn is not considered cause for limiting their access to the curriculum. Instead, schools will be places where we use our collective intelligence to ensure all students are insiders, and none are outsiders, making this man’s story obsolete.

-Linda Beitz

Photo of blog post author.Linda is on staff at the SWIFT Center as a member of the State Education Agency (SEA) Facilitator Team and the Capacity and Sustainability Team. Her passion is supporting educators’ in a positive relational approach to systems change, leadership effectiveness, and personal/team conflict competence. She’s the mother of two wonderful young adults and an avid (seasonal) bicyclist along Chicago’s lakefront.