Friday, May 12, 2017

#Beyond Awareness: Mother's Day 2017

This weekend marks Mother's Day and a time to reflect on our own journeys through Motherhood and also those who inspire, connect and support us. I have used my good friend Andrea Haefele's posts about her daughter Bella in the past, with the efforts to bring to light the struggles and successes of raising a child with Special Needs. This has been particularly impactful for me as I reflect on my own family's challenges and the strength and resilience my own mother has shown. This year on Mother's Day Andrea strives to leave a different footprint in the community beyond raising awareness of Bella's special needs. A strong and powerful advocate in the Special Education community (although a mainstream Phys. Ed teacher by trade), this year she challenges you to move #BeyondAwareness. Watch the video, read her ideas below and share your thoughts with the hashtag!

I am a 37-year-old mom that is approaching her mid-life crisis, when in reality I feel I am living in a world that is in crisis. For the last 7 years, I have made it my mission to promote awareness – awareness of autism and sensitivity for families living with disabilities. However, I have reached a point in my journey where awareness is no longer enough. I often feel like we reside in a society that simply tolerates my daughter and her complex needs.
My full time job as an educator is my vacation. I equate my journey to school every morning to heading to the beach, a place where I can embrace the sun on my skin and sink my toes into the sand. At work I have full reign of my passion as a teacher. I am in an environment where I can be creative, take risks and participate in cutting edge professional development.

When the school bell rings at the end of the day, my “vacation” ends. Real life begins, and I switch gears into mom-mode, and like any other mom, I pick up my kids from their respective schools. Then, I make dinner, pack lunches, and go through the bedtime routines, typical tantrums and messes.
Once the sun has set, my life veers again in a different direction and my third shift begins. I now transform into an experienced administrator and manager of a child who has disabilities. I research the Internet to find resources to fund the endless costs of the intensive behaviour intervention therapy program that Bella requires. I juggle the endless therapy sessions, doctors and specialist appointments in our calendar to ensure that her physical health is looked after.  I look to social media to connect with other families who live my life as my professional learning network. As I press ‘send’, I repress the urge to scream through my emails in order to advocate for a system that can provide Bella, and other children like Bella, with the education that they deserve.
By the time bedtime rolls around, my fears take over as I think of Bella’s future. What happens when she graduates from high school? What are our options?
I’m scared of what the future holds for our family. Although my life seems challenging these days, these obstacles pale in comparison to what our lives will be like when I can no longer continue to advocate for Bella. The reality is that families like ours are often cut adrift when our children with special needs reach adulthood. We are left to fend for ourselves in the face of dwindling social services, and even less than the meagre level of accommodations available to adults with disabilities. It is daunting knowing that it is all up to me to ensure she is taken care of. Some days are happy days, but most days are difficult and feel almost impossible.
A month of awareness, wearing a ribbon of hope and donating money to a charity is simply not enough to improve the lives of people with disabilities. As I write this blog post, I ask myself this question: What could be done to make the world a more comfortable, respectful, and nurturing place for the millions of people who live with disabilities? The answer to this crisis begins with each one of us.

Accept us. Bella’s list of disabilities are more than a doctor’s credentials. Severe Autism Spectrum Disorder, Pitt Hopkins Syndrome, Global Developmental Delay and Cortical Vision Impairment are just a few of Bella’s diagnoses. Acceptance starts by understanding that these labels do not make us defective or diseased. When Bella is spinning, banging and licking every toy you give to her, understand that this is how she plays. Accepting us does not mean ignoring or denying our disabilities; it means accepting us for who we are, as we are.

Respect us. We are people, fellow human beings. We deserve to be treated with the same respect afforded to our peers who are typical developing. Respect starts by understanding that we are full, with an individual personality, life experience, goals, and preferences. We deserve an education, access to communication and a place in society to belong as we become an adult. We deserve to live without fear of being abused, manipulated or hurt. We are not less than.

Support us. Because we are disabled in varying degrees and in multiple ways, we need support, services and accommodations to successfully navigate a world that is not made for us. Bella needs intense therapy to help her learn basic life skills. She needs her chewy tube to help her sit and regulate her inability to stay still. Bella requires her service dog to support her physical and emotional well being. Your societal norms are foreign to us. Supporting us starts by understanding that we are connected to a family that can best define what types of services we need, both in education and at home. Only with appropriate supports can we have equal access and opportunity.

Include us. We deserve equal access and opportunity throughout the community and throughout our lifespan. Inclusion is more than letting us be in a room with peers our age. Inclusion starts by understanding that we are part of the community and deserve to be in an environment that is created so that we can meaningfully contribute and participate. Being tolerant of my daughter’s presence is not inclusion. Give us the appropriate accommodations and modifications we require to fully participate. We need to and want to belong.
Listen to us. Bella’s augmentative communication device is her voice. You can say more than a simple hello. She is more than a cute little girl who has a big smile. She has favourite toys, activities and preferences. If she wants to protest or be heard, she knows the power of her ‘finished’ button. If you are unsure of how to interact with her, just ask. Many conversations about the issues that affect Bella’s life take place without her and our family being present. Listening starts by recognizing that these children have a family who have valid, legitimate and important things to say. We must be included in any conversation about our child, because decisions made by policymakers, school administrators, and grant reviewers impact our daily lives and our future outlook.  

As I approach my mid-life, I realize that I want to carry myself with grace and find joy in every day, despite the challenges that our family has been given. I strive to surround myself with people who can build a community of love, empathy and acceptance. I have faith that when I am having a tough day, you will be around the corner doing your part to build a society where everyone has a voice and a place.
Every year my family fundraises for a charity that can have an impact on children like Bella. This year, I am asking you to share your ideas on going  #BeyondAwareness. Through your social media of choice, how will you take the initiative to make your community an accepting, inclusive space for ALL families who live with disabilities?
  • If you are a family who will be affected by the upcoming new Ontario autism program coming in June 2017, how can you share your journey to advocate #BeyondAwareness for the education and services our children deserve?
  • If you are an educator, what does going #BeyondAwareness look like in your classroom or school community?
  • If you know a friend or family member who is navigating the world while living with a disability, how can you do your part to ensure that community organizations go #BeyondAwareness to support our vulnerable citizens?
  • Share an organization you know that goes #BeyondAwareness for people with disabilities and help families get in touch with them.

Please support our communities by moving #BeyondAwareness.

Friday, February 24, 2017

The Inclusive FDK Classroom [Aviva Dunsiger]

Discovering a passion for Special Education early in my career, I never gained experience in nor desired to have a "mainstream" class of my own - not yet anyway. In my current position I focus on behaviour needs and have the opportunity to visit many different classrooms outside of Special Education settings - many being Kindergarten classes. I find myself wondering how my ASD students would fair in an FDK setting, and, whether or not it is possible to teach [some] students with Special Education Needs in an inquiry, play-based environment?
Does an FDK classroom have the capacity to teach Self-Regulation, independent work and play skills to exceptional students?  How is inclusion fostered within the play-based curriculum?
When I joined the edu-twitterverse 3 years ago, I connected with a group of educators who inspired me in many ways and whose work I continue to follow closely. Aviva Dunsiger, a seasoned FDK educator in the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, was one of the first educators who inspired me to take an interest in the Kindergarten model and how some of my students might benefit from it. Find out more about Avivia below!

Where/what do you teach? How long have you been teaching? What are your passions outside of your 9-5 job?
This is my 15th year teaching for the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, and it’s my first year teaching at my seventh school. I do love change! :) I have taught every grade from JK to Grade 6 in some capacity, but this is my tenth year teaching Kindergarten, and my second year teaching Full-Day Kindergarten. I’m incredibly passionate about education, and I feel very fortunate to get to do what I love every single day of the year! When I’m not teaching, you will often find me reading (mystery and suspense novels are my favourite), blogging, and spending time with family and friends. All of these activities are best enjoyed with a good coffee in hand. :)
What have been your experiences and opportunities that have attributed to the teacher you are today?
When I was in Grade 2, I was identified with a non-verbal learning disability. At the time, the psychologist told me and my family that there was such a huge gap between my verbal and non-verbal skills that I would never make it to university. I always wanted to be a teacher! There is a house somewhere in Thornhill with my “Process Writing” outline covered up by multiple layers of paint. :) Thankfully neither my parents nor I used this identification as a way to squash my dreams (no matter how extreme that may sound), but instead, as a way to teach me strategies to meet with success. I worked harder than I ever did before! My mom (a retired Speech Language Pathologist) and my step-dad (a teacher with a background in Special Education), spent hours working with me each night. They helped me figure out ways to use my strengths to compensate for my weaknesses, and when I finished high school, I was accepted into Nipissing University with a Presidential Scholarship. My childhood experiences were a great reminder for me that ALL students can learn, and we just have to figure out ways to best support each of them. As a teacher today, I’m incredibly passionate about the importance of differentiated instruction and finding ways to help each student succeed.
What makes your classroom program unique?
Here are some things that I am most proud of about our program:
1. My teaching partner and I have an incredible working relationship. We constantly ask questions, offer different perspectives, engage in “kid talk,” look at struggling students, and reconsider programming options to better meet the needs of our kids. It’s not about who’s the teacher and who’s the ECE, but instead, using our collective strengths to better benefit kids.
2. We run a truly play-based, inquiry-based program. We spend very little time as a full class, and instead, work largely with individuals and small groups to support reading, writing, and math skills through play.
3. We make outdoor learning a priority! We have an amazing outdoor classroom, which we use every day (rain or shine), in conjunction with a forest that is right on our school property. Climbing trees, sliding down hills, and exploring mud are all part of the learning experience.
Describe your greatest accomplishment within your career.
My greatest accomplishment so far in my career is that I was one of the 2013 recipients of the Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence. I am so grateful for my principal at the time, Paul Clemens, who nominated me for this award. Going to Ottawa, meeting the Prime Minister, and engaging with other educators there was truly amazing.
As an educator who inspires youth, who inspires you?
My parents have definitely inspired me the most! My mom is a retired Speech Pathologist and my step-dad is is a teacher. I grew up in “education,” and I’ve seen what’s possible when we support students and find ways to help all of them succeed. In the last 7 ½ years of my career, my social media connections have also helped inspire me. I’ve connected with a ton of amazing educators through Twitter, blogs, and now Instagram, and they’ve given me new ideas and made me re-think some old ones. I also have to thank my incredible teaching partner, Paula, who inspires me daily. Her connections with kids are incredible, and she shows me the importance of developing strong relationships with children.
Tell us about a job you had as a youth or young adult that influenced your career choices today.
Growing up, I worked for my parents. They run a private school for children with language and learning needs. They have always run a summer camp, and I have held numerous positions through this camp: from a counsellor to a teacher. Having the opportunity to work with these amazing children and see what’s possible when we program for EACH individual child, made me know that I definitely wanted to be a teacher.
How has the FDK model enhanced your teaching practice? What are its advantages and disadvantages?
The FDK model has helped me in so many ways:
  • It’s helped me watch and listen to children more, and use my observations to make links to program expectations.
  • It’s helped me start with “the child” (his/her strengths and needs and his/her interests) instead of the program expectations. It’s helped me really get to know the children.
  • It’s helped me view children differently. I love so much about the Kindergarten Program Document, but maybe my favourite line, is that we view children as “competent and capable of complex thought.” Our view of the child matters, and seeing children through this lens often changes our perception.
  • It’s helped me see the benefits of outdoor learning. I love that we spend at least an hour a day outside (sometimes more), and how, what happens outside so often makes its way into the classroom.

I am a huge advocate of the FDK model, and I absolutely love the new Program Document. My only concerns are …
  • Class size - This year, we have 32 children in our class. Yes, there are two educators in the room, but our classroom is small, and there is not a full wall between our room and the room next door. This means that there are 66 Kindergarten children in a small space. The noise is a huge stressor, and it’s one that’s difficult to reduce in this environment. Our time outside definitely helps with this! The other thing to consider with these numbers is that there are almost two hours a day when there is only one educator in the room with 32 children. My teaching partner is alone for both nutrition breaks (80 minutes), and I’m alone when she has her lunch (30 minutes). I know that class size isn’t everything, but these large numbers would be one of my bigger concerns.
  • What happens beyond Kindergarten - I also think that the learning model that happens in Kindergarten needs to extend beyond Kindergarten. Connections between K and 1 teachers are so important - we have to look at what play-based and inquiry-based learning might look like beyond Kindergarten. If not, will any of the advantages of this program continue to exist in the long run?

Describe an inquiry unit that you felt was the most successful with your students?
This year, we have had a couple of very successful inquiries. Our current one revolves around The Arts (primarily Visual Arts). At the beginning of the year, we brought in some sunflowers, and talked to the students about Vincent Van Gogh’s work. The children loved his work, and began to learn a lot of the terms to describe his painting techniques. From there, we started to look at Picasso and Kandinsky’s work. The children were even more excited about what they saw, and they began to look at art in everything that we do. Students even started to explore their own artists through our current VIP activity, and they are teaching each other about different artists. They’re even making links between artists. Currently, we’re planning an Art Gallery with the students, as a way for children to share their artwork and knowledge of art with others. Art has truly been a way for our students to communicate their thoughts and feelings!

What is your experience teaching students with special education needs and how do you promote inclusion in your classroom?
I’ve taught a number of students with special education, ELL, and behaviour needs over the years. Here are different things that I’ve done to promote inclusion.
  • The use of a visual schedule. Even with long blocks of play in a Kindergarten program, we still use a schedule to help children see the progression of the day.
  • A first/then schedule. This is used more with individual students, and helps them when planning the time during the day.
  • Visuals around the room to help show some activity options and vocabulary words. We try to keep activities open-ended, so that all children have an entry point.
  • An independent workstation. This has benefited a few students that needed a bucket system at certain times of the day. This independent work time was then followed by time interacting and playing with peers.
  • Individual sensory bins. For children that struggle with sharing, having multiple individual bins help.
  • The use of Google Translate. Last year, I taught a number of students that were Syrian refugees. Google Translate allowed me to interact with them in Arabic. I also learned some Arabic words that we taught to other students in the class, so that we could all communicate together.
  • Stuart Shanker’s work on self-regulation helped us a lot when it came to behaviour needs. We started to view behaviour differently. Students set-up obstacle courses in the classroom (using stools and tires) that helped some of them with Self-Reg. We also had therabands on the doors for some to pull (this helped a few students calm down). Bouncing slightly on tires also helped with Self-Reg for some students. An exercise ball, hula hoops, and bean bag chairs helped other students self-regulate.

How do you teach self-regulation to your students, and why is this so important?
Stuart Shanker’s work has been a big influence for us. Last year, I started working for The MEHRIT Centre as the moderator for Portal Plus. I also submit a monthly blog post on My teaching partner and I spend a lot of time looking at stressors in the Five Domains, and what we can do to help reduce these stressors. We talk to students about being “up-regulated” or “down-regulated,” and options that might work well for them. At the beginning of the year, many students needed our help to self-regulate, but now, they are better at knowing what they need. They even bring out melting beads and playdough in the afternoon because they know that these choices help them self-regulate. We also use components of the MindUp Program with our class. Students have learned about different parts of the brain, and they often speak about “their amygdala being triggered.” We have a Brain Break in the afternoon, usually after phys-ed, as a way to calm down and help have a more successful afternoon. Students have really responded well to this. Getting outside also seems to help children self-regulate, and our outdoor learning time has been wonderful for this. We talk to students about how great they feel outside and about how calm the environment is for them. When students can self-regulate, they are ready and able to learn. It’s incredible to see the growth that our children have made in this area this year!
What advice would you give a first-year FDK teacher?
The advice that I would give to a first-year FDK teacher is REALLY connect with your ECE partner. You will learn so much from him/her. We all come with different skill sets, and watching your partner in action is a great way to learn more about the development of kids and how to cultivate strong relationships with kids. I know that this has been true in my case for the past couple of years!

Connect with Aviva: