Classroom Learning Environment Pt. 3

Wow! I have no idea where the time went, but here I am a week away from my 3rd year of teaching. Over the last couple of years I have been working towards creating a positive, safe, and inclusive classroom learning environment. Here is what the room looks like this year:

I have divided my room into 5 zones: a) the guided reading zone; b) the instruction zone; c) the self-regulation zone; d) the student reading zone; and e) my teacher zone.

The guided reading zone is quite similar to how it was last year with a word wall featuring the Fountas and Pinnell words from the 25 and 50 lists, a moving whiteboard, a horseshoe table and large chairs so student have the option to sit or stand, and my “don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover” comfy green chair. This space is great for small group guided reading lessons, Fountas and Pinnell reading intervention, and playing the many beloved phonics and phonological awareness games.

The student reading zone has been updated with whiteboards for word work and writing practice. I added mats with Velcro (a bit heavier than cupboard liners) to make the reading cubbies an even better place to be! This area is a classroom favorite. It is the perfect place for learners to read-to-self while I am working with a small group in the guided reading zone (from this spot I can see what all of the kids are up to!). Students also enjoy Flashlight Fridays in these spaces and are often found cuddled up with a pillow, book in hand.

The instruction zone features the Letterland alphabet train, a letter carpet, plants, and book shelves that divide the guided reading, instruction, and self-regulation zones. This year I have add a curtain to one of the shelves to keep the contents out of sight and out of mind. I also reorganized my books into classroom collections and student resources; I am hoping that I have made it student-friendly enough that students can select books at their level and return them to the right bin… only time will tell. This space is where the whole-class instruction occurs and where we learn about rules and procedures, such as Whole Body Listening. One of my main focuses this year has been alternative seating. In this area, I now have a blue rocking chair, a blue swivel egg chair from Ikea, and 3 sit disc cushions. I have also used bed risers to turn one of my hexagon tables into a standing table. I painted all of the tables with Rustoleum Dry-Erase Whiteboard paint. I am excited to see the look on the kids’ faces when I tell them they can draw on the tables!

The self-regulation zone still has the black comfy couch, some pillows, Telemiracle teddies, and weighted dogs. This year I have added a weighted blanket and replaced my colorful tent (which is now in another calm-down area in the school) with a tipi that I won from One Tribe (check them out on Facebook to grab your own custom-made tipi)! I’m quite excited about this space and think it goes well with the Circle of Courage poster and teachings already in place. This space is a calm-down space for students and a space where students can work one-on-one with an educational assistant on task bags, reading, etc. The space is private due to the bookshelf and the pocket chart (with the daily schedule on one side and good/poor choices on the other side). From my spot in the instruction, guided reading, or teacher zones I can still see the students in the area without there being an entire audience. The students are given the chance and the tools – such as fidgets, timers, and Zones of Regulation and Inside Out visuals – to work out their emotions in a safe place.

Finally, there is the teacher zone. Nothing has changed (except for all of the knowledge learned). The stop sign remains on the desk but what student would want to be in that space anyways? Textbooks or a tipi? Reading rubrics or a reading cubbie? The choice is pretty simple!

I am looking forward to another year in the classroom and cannot wait to see how the kids respond to the environment, grow and learn, and build relationships with their peers. As George Evans notes, “every student can learn, just not on the same day, or in the same way” and this is the space just for that!

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Breaking News! Your Phone Isn’t Just for Cat Pictures: Take Action!

Today I would like to reflect on how technology can be used to promote social action. Ben Rattray discusses how social media can be used to create grassroots movements through sharing digital stories and starting campaigns and petitions that lead to nation-wide movements. Maybe most influential is the idea that our technology is just beginning, therefore, our social action is just beginning. Ben notes that “we face big problems… but the democratization of technology [means] people will be able to start more campaigns than we can possibly imagine… because together with the right tools, we can change the world.” This video gives me hope that “there is no issue that will be left untouched.”

But how do we get students to engage in these issues that matter? I do think great change will happen but the technology is just the tool. In other words, the tools don’t use themselves. We must use the tools properly to make the change. It is the people behind the screen that matter.

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Photo Credit: andres musta via Compfight cc

So how do we promote social action for our students?

1. Knowledge/Exposure – kids cannot fix things if they do not know they are broken. We have the information at our hands. It is very important that we do not let single stories dominate our teaching. It is important that we show the voices of all: strengths, weaknesses, issues, successes, etc. If we expose children to knowledge in the right ways, this creates a culture of empathy in our classrooms/societies.

2. Create a Positive Digital Citizenship – kids need to create a positive online self. They need to actively be creating this positive imagine and we must assist them along the way (ie. get them to create a blog, discuss the risks/provide examples of inappropriate technology use that led to issues for people like this UCLA Student, discuss cyberbullying through examples like Amanda Todd, etc.).

3. Passion – with exposure to the knowledge and the know-how and platform to have a positive voice, students will find things that matter to them. It is up to us to help them pursue these things. Committees like We Day or SRC can help students work towards their goals. I was proud to be part of both of these groups during my internship and amazed at the action the students took; for instance, selling rafikis to empower women/families in Kenya. Here are some more examples of what has been done or what could be done:

Note that with all positives, come negatives, too. For instance, the ASL bucket challenge was a huge waste of water and highlights privilege (many people do not have clean drinking water so dumping good water on ones head would seem a bit insane to some). There is also the socio-economic divide causing a lack of access to technology. And we can’t forget the trolls of the internet.

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Photo Credit: uomoplanetario.org via Compfight cc

But in my opinion the pros outweigh the cons. If we expose students to different causes in an environment that encourages a positive sense of self; if we are proactive about bullying; if we help students find their passions; if we provide additional tools so that everyone has access to learning (even if it isn’t through technology); if we make technology a top budget priority in our schools; there really will be no issue that will go untouched. The internet, like our world, can be a more equitable place for all if we work from within. 

The Beauty of Sign Language and Inclusion

This is beautiful. The amount of work for the community to come together is immense but it would definitely be worth it! This video also highlights the possibilities created when technology (cameras, Samsung services, Youtube, etc.) is coupled with traditional learning (sign language courses taken by community members). The possibilities of learning are endless. Better yet, the possibilities of creating an inclusive society are at an all time high thanks to technology! 🙂

History of Sign Language Basics

References: Deaf Websites; and Talking with Your Hands, Listening with Your Eyes by Gabriel Grayson

Names mentioned (and accidently butchered): Charles Michel De L’Eppe “Father of Sign Language,” Samuel Heinicke (oralism), and Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet (started ASL in 1800s).

Feedback is welcome! Leave a comment, critique, or an idea of what I should focus on! 🙂

Grade 7/8 Art First Nations’ Social Issues Unit

Teaching Acceptance

One of my favorite things about being a Student Support Teacher is bringing awareness to all students about those with varying abilities. I truly believe that presenting kids with facts and personal stories about my work at Camp Easter Seal, Astonished, Best Buddies, or Campus for All is the first step to a more inclusive society. Simply put: kids (and adults, too) cannot be inclusive if they are not accepting. They cannot be accepting if they are not tolerant. They cannot be tolerant if they do not understand. They cannot understand if they are not aware! And I couldn’t be more happy that it is part of my role to bring awareness to students so that one day they can also share an inclusive mindset!  Attached are some resources I have used to help bring awareness to students in Grades 3 to 12 about varying abilities. I urge you to use these inclusive resources (or others) and share your stories with your students!

The first link I adapted into a presentation with personal pictures of my experiences in the world for high school students. I found that many students were using the r-word in a non-malicious way. They had never really been told why it is a terrible word to use and I think this is a truth for many people, including adults. You cannot really blame people unless they are made aware; that was my mission! For the most part, it has worked. I still may hear the r-word from time to time but it is often followed by an “I’m sorry” or “I should have used the word ‘stupid.'” I know that even the more challenging kids were touched by my presentation; you could have heard a pin drop and their mouths were on the floor! To me that is a start and I will continue to work on it, one day at a time. I believe that people cannot “un-know” something; they may be able to ignore it but it will always be in the back of their minds. I urge you to fill your students’ minds with positive thoughts, too!

The second link connects you to the book Ian’s Walk: A Story About Autism that I read to the Grades 3/4 class. I found it helpful for students to complete a multiple intelligences survey about themselves first. That way we could discuss how everyone is a bit different and smart in their own way. We also talked about how we are all unique or a bit weird at times. Students were very responsive to this piece and it was nice to bring awareness at such a young age!

In summary, just go out and do it! It may seem like the road to inclusion is a long hike but take it one step at a time and eventually positive change will occur!

Direction of Saskatchewan Education

Tim Caleval, from the Ministry of Education, presented to our class on February 27th, 2014. Tim has a great wealth of knowledge about assessment practices. Based on the “Saskatchewan Plan for Growth: Vision 2020 and Beyond” by the Government of Saskatchewan, the Ministry of Education has a priority: increasing education success for our First Nations learners. The document outlines the current grad rate disparity:

“In 2010-11, over 72 per cent of Saskatchewan students graduated “on-time” (within three years of entering grade 10) compared to 32.7 per cent of self-declared Aboriginal students. The Saskatchewan Ministry of Education also tracks “extended time graduation,” recognizing that some students require more time to complete Grade 12. The extended time graduation (five years after entering Grade 10) rates are 81.1 per cent for all students and 48.1 per cent for self-identified Aboriginal students. The consequences of the education difference in financial terms are significant” (p. 20).

The document outlines an ambitious goal of reducing “the Grade 12 graduation disparity between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students in the K-12 system by 50 per cent by 2020” (p. 40). In order to achieve this goal, we need to focus on a multi-cultural approach to learning and assess our students to monitor progress. Once we improve the education gap, there will be less of an employment gap for First Nations and Metis people in Saskatchewan. Much of the success of this goal comes from within the classroom and relies on teachers to create an inclusive and culturally responsive classroom.

Tim Caleval noted that “our future for boosting education success rates relies on First Nations students.” Therefore, the Ministry of Education will be focusing on this goal above all others. Tim noted that there are other goals and issues to address, such as a lack of consistency in grade reporting among the school divisions. He outlined some researched assessment practices that have been proven to be detrimental to students: not giving enough practice time, quizzes/tests to punish, late marks etc. However, he would not give his opinion on behavior counting in the overall grade since this is a divisive subject. I believe that if I were a parent I would want to know how my child was acting but I would not want them to be graded on it. Furthermore, as an inclusive educator I think we disadvantage our learners with various abilities by grading their behaviors. Grades need to reflect students’ knowledge of the outcomes. However, this does not mean we only focus on these things, as our Broad Areas of Learning and Cross Curricular Competencies largely focus on behavior.

Another goal that the Ministry of Education needs to address is increasing “the number of Grade 3 students reading at “grade level” by 20 per cent by 2015” (p. 61). As an English major, I know all too well that Grade 3 is the age where we stop learning to read and start reading to learn. Not reading at grade level can be detrimental to future achievement and therefore, graduation and employment. If students are not reading at grade level, we simply will not achieve the graduation rates we desire. In order to accomplish this goal we need improve the overall classroom experience: collaboration, curriculum, assessment, and instruction (p. 62). I also think we need to rely more on collaboration with Learning Resource Teachers and other specialized professionals. Tim noted that in the Sates they decide how many jail cells to open based on Grade 3 reading levels. I am proud to be part of a system that focuses on improvement and optimism. Instead of opening up jail cells, I truly believe educators and superiors are trying to adapt the system to meet the needs of all learners and bridge the achievement gap. We can see this in our schools from the First Nations and Metis Education Plan that focuses on literacy or our tiered instruction that is being implemented. The goals that our government has targeted are quite ambitious but I think with a little hard work and inclusion, they are manageable. We might as well set the bar high!

Campus For All

I have had the privilege to be part of the Campus for All program at the University of Regina for the last two years – my only regret is that I did not join earlier. Campus for All is an inclusive post-secondary education program for people with intellectual disabilities.  The program allows students to develop academic skills, participate in lifelong learning, explore their interests and interact with others. In my time with the program, I have been able to become a friend, a classmate and a peer. Campus for All has been one of the most valuable university experiences I have had to date.

I am very proud to be part of this inclusive program because it is a positive step towards a more inclusive society.  This experience has proven to be very beneficial, as I am studying to be an inclusive educator.  I feel that my own creativity and confidence towards differentiating assignments and presenting subject matter in unique ways has improved.  I learned how to teach the writing process, the reading process and be a guide on the side. My student has also shared her passion of history with me. Her various life experiences challenge my assumptions and perceptions on a daily basis. No matter how hectic my week is, she shows me the value of appreciating the small things in life and stopping to smell the roses. Furthermore, I leave every session with a smile on my face because of how much she has accomplished.

There are not too many things that are better than teaching someone to read and watching their eyes light up as they soar through the passages with ease, but building a relationship of upmost trust and understanding “takes the cake.” Over the last two years, my student and I have become very close. Sometimes I think we only work so hard so that we can celebrate over a spinach bowl at the Owl or a cup of coffee at “Timmies.” As I teach her how to write a research paper, she teaches me even more about working with individuals with varying needs and it is this support system and co-operation that makes being part of the Campus for All program a blessing.

I am proud to be a part of the Campus for All program, as I believe it will bridge the gap between our reality and the ideal. My student is gaining a positive self-image through the inclusive, caring atmosphere. After completing her first essay in 2012 she told me, “I never have written an essay before. I was never taught. But I’m pretty good!” and it is moments like this when I am proud of what I do and the opportunities that Campus for All provides all learners. There is an anonymous quote that says, “if you give people a chance, everyone has something amazing to offer;” Campus for All provides all learners a chance to be a friend, a classmate and a peer and most importantly, everyone involved is given the opportunity to shine. You too, will only regret that you did not join earlier!

Read: Campus for All Fosters Inclusive Post-Secondary Education

“Whose English Counts? Indigenous English in Saskatchewan Schools”

After our class talking circle on February 3, 2014 I was sparked by what Night shared. To refresh all of your memories, she talked about her university professor calling out her accent in front of the entire class. My first thought was, what accent? My second thought was what kind of teaching practice is that? We should be celebrating differences and not ostracizing our students for them. Night mentioned that she still is bothered by that today and that shows the impact that teachers have on learners.

Andrea Sterzuk’s article “Whose English Counts? Indigenous English in Saskatchewan Schools” also highlights the impact teachers, speech pathologists and educational psychologists have on our most disadvantaged students. This article was written in 2008 and contains a lot of data from 2004 but it is still relevant because the education gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students is a current concern, which is addressed in the Continuous Achievement and Improvement Framework and the First Nations and Metis Education Plan. We cannot ignore these issues because “by 2016, First Nations and Metis children will make up 46.6% of the student population” (Sterzuk 9). If we do not find ways to include diverse learners and their diverse experiences “it is only a matter of several decades before half of the population of Saskatchewan will not have access to the necessary skills and education to gain access to employment” (Sterzuk 10), which is one of the main purposes of education. What will happen if the majority of our people are being suppressed like a minority?

I was very aware that education was used to assimilate First Nations individuals, for instance at Residential Schools. However, I never thought of the linguistically oppressive practices and procedures that have negative effects on Aboriginal students (Sterzuk 11). That is the thing about being a person from the majority: you are not forced to realize all the ways in which you are benefiting. Sterzuk expresses that “Indigenous English differs systematically from standard English on phonological, morphological, and lexical levels and in terms of pragmatics, syntax, and non-verbal language” (13). Not only does this mean some of our students will have an accent but they also learn differently. Indigenous English speakers learn more through storytelling and listening (Sterzuk 12). When these learning styles are ignored, Aboriginal students often fall below grade level and require additional support.

Since my future goal is to become an Educational Psychologist, I was very interested in the piece about biased assessment and misdiagnosis. In my inclusive education course about assessment we often discussed the bias found in standardized tests used to diagnose and label students. Some common tests that assess general intelligence levels are the WIAT – III and WISC – IV. Current tests that assess written and oral language are the TOWL – IV and TOLD-IV. Written spelling is assessed by the TWS. Throughout the course we got to deconstruct these tests and find their strengths and weaknesses. Although all of these tests are assessed numerous times to make sure they are unbiased, it is true that making an unbiased test is almost impossible to do. However, more than one test should be used to assess learners to help detect errors. Furthermore, the results are impacted a lot more by environment, the fairness and accuracy of the test giver and the current mood of the child on that day. If these factors are not considered then the child could be misdiagnosed. It is important to note that testing is never a first resort and it often takes up to six months for the testing process to start. Although there will always be misdiagnoses, the current team approach often combats these issues. It is the responsibility of the teacher and the LRT to keep data on a student and to apply tier 1 interventions (Response to Intervention) if they notice a problem. Testing only occurs when many strategies fail to work over a long period of time and the goal is never to label a student but to help them. I do believe that people are misdiagnosed but I would suggest that First Nations students are marginalized more by exclusive English teaching practices because very few learners go through the testing process, yet many of our First Nations students are struggling. Also, because of federal jurisdiction on aboriginal education, testing, which is provincially funded, is often very hard for First Nations learners to access (which is another problem entirely).

As teachers we need to make sure we are varying our teaching strategies. We need to consider how all of our students learn best and incorporate these techniques as much as possible. Sterzuk states that “students should not be penalized for their differences” (14) and I would expand that idea because differences should be celebrated and encouraged. Sterzuk calls for a document that “outlines the characteristics of Indigenous English” (16) but I have not seen such a document. Would it not make more sense to differentiate instruction and not penalize someone for their accent? I mean, characteristic sheet or not, I should be able to teach all my students effectively and a learner inventory will let me know how my students learn best. It is our job as educators to teach without bias and to find ways to help our students succeed. No student deserves to be called out because of their differences and everyone deserves to be in an inclusive learning environment that supports their learning style. Our class seems very passionate about including First Nations learners and I have no doubt in my mind that we will include First Nations resources, differentiate our teaching strategies and assignments and not judge our students based on how they talk.