Principal, A.E. Bowers Elementary School – Why would we ever believe that anything less than providing for individual needs, interests, abilities, gifts, and talents would ever be good enough for all of our children?
Throughout my career, I have been committed to children and their learning with particular focus on the inclusion of students with special needs. I didn’t enter the profession intending that inclusion would be a focus in my career – I was blissfully unaware of exclusion. That was the kind of family I was raised in.
My father was the second youngest in a very large family, and we often went to visit my Baba. His younger sister, Aunty Vicki, lived with my Baba. My Aunty Vicki was a great aunt. (That’s her – center stage above.)
She had the very best doll collection, and she would let my sister and I look at her dolls while she was doing her work. Her work consisted of walking to the post office in the little town where she lived and then coming home to help make lunch – it was usually perogies and borscht because that was the lunch that my dad always wanted. When she was finished, she would colour one of the new colouring books that we had brought for her. We knew that she would eventually add it to the 300 or so perfectly coloured books that lined the front porch closet.
It didn’t dawn on me that there was anything different about my aunt or the living arrangement that she had with my Baba. I learned, in my teens, about something called Down Syndrome. I learned it was a genetic syndrome and that there were other people that also had Down Syndrome. I was very surprised to learn that most of the people with the diagnosis shared ‘the look’ – they looked like my Aunty Vicki.
Because I asked questions, I learned that it hadn’t been easy to have a family member with special needs in the 1940s and 1950s in rural Saskatchewan. My father shared with me that he had been asked to take his younger sister to school. He was six years old and she had Down Syndrome. The event was clearly traumatic for him. He says he has blocked out the memory of school after that. There was a great deal of taunting, and she wasn’t allowed to stay.
I didn’t understand how it was that she would be seen as unable to learn. Clearly, she had a lot to contribute. She was able to take a role in the family attached to responsibility. She could cook and clean and help to run a household. I couldn’t help but think that all of the energy that it took to colour all of those colouring books could have been channeled into opportunity – for her and for others.
In my teens, I was perplexed that the school wasn’t a place that allowed someone that I admired and loved to be part of learning. That just didn’t make sense. Clearly, she was an integral part of the community, just not the school community.
Still, special education wasn’t the focus for me. I just wanted to work with kids – whatever they were doing, whatever they were learning. Perhaps because I focused on the learning, I strayed into the arena of special education – got ‘sucked into the vortex’, actually. If a child couldn’t learn – why? If we could understand the why, then we could figure out the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ that would make the learning a possibility. There is so much joy in learning.
I am a school administrator now. I am looking back on a career that included different kinds of programming… regular curriculum, inclusive, integrated, and congregated. I have worked with incredible people, and I have seen students with different abilities learn and grow – and grow, and grow!
The best educational programming for students happens when educators work together – with students, with parents, and with each other – and take advantage of the skills and knowledge of professionals from different disciplines. But it can only happen when the ‘child’ comes before the ‘label’ – when there is a focus on the personal and individual learning… where there is celebration of that progress… and a plan to move forward over time… always over time.
It’s just the same for the child with Down Syndrome, and the child learning to read, and the child struggling to engage her peers appropriately at recess time, and the gifted child, and the child who is learning to live with one parent instead of two, and the child who is just loving school and everything that goes with that…
Why would we ever believe that anything less than providing for individual needs, interests, abilities, gifts, and talents would ever be good enough for all of our children?
And so I am celebrating this change in education. I am celebrating the focus of educators on meeting the diverse needs of learners – ‘any time, any place, any pace’ in what is a new century.
I am celebrating that school isn’t what it used to be… for children and for families. I am celebrating movement in a positive direction in the province of Alberta.
Director of Learning Supports – Have you ever read a book that cast a reflection on a part of your life? When I opened One Without the Other, I was introduced to the teaching world of Shelley Moore. It resonated. The students, conversations and meetings described in the book felt familiar. More importantly, the clarity in the work created by Shelley and her students provided a good model on which to reflect upon where we are in RVS on the journey to inclusion. (Please read the book to find out where that is!)
It’s only been about 10 years since large-scale laptop use in schools was implemented. Since that time, the proliferation of digital tools in schools has changed the educational landscape. Only a few short years ago, it was a source of frustration for families and school staff to have to search through binders of visual symbols for students who had no other means of good communication. Today, we are able to condense massive volumes, visuals and text to speech onto the tiniest portable devices. The landscape in schools has moved beyond digital device use as well. However, as dramatically as we have changed, we are stuck in many ways too.
In a way, One Without the Other describes the first competency in an inclusive education system. How do we make inclusion real and authentic for each of us? This is the nature of the work in the Learning Department. The things we are doing and the ways in which we do them is showing promising practice in Rocky View Schools. We are in the beginnings of a new iteration in curriculum design that has the potential to improve how we educate our children in inclusive settings. When I think of the intersects between the work of our design, literacy, learning and diversity specialists, I am brought to the place where the real and authentic becomes apparent once the learning is made purposeful for each of our students. When we work with synergy in our schools and with our parents, then we see inclusive learning in action.
Settler Students Learning with Elders and Knowledge Keepers on Treaty 7 Territory
RVS Teacher, Heloise Lorimer School – Over the 2016-2017 school year, I collaboratively planned and facilitated learning opportunities centered on Indigenous-land based pedagogy. As a Settler, a non-Indigenous person, I have received guidance, knowledge and kindness from three Indigenous Knowledge Keepers. Together we facilitated sharing of Indigenous ways and offered land-based educational experiences to my students.
Heloise Lorimer School opened as a brand-new school for Rocky View Schools in the fall of 2016. The school is situated on traditional Niitsitapi, Nakoda, Tsuu T’ina and Métis territory, also known as Treaty 7 lands from 1877 and Métis Region 3. For thousands of years, the territory has shared knowledge, care and the ancestors of these nations; past, present and future. It is essential to relationships that the recognition of traditional lands and treaties takes place on an ongoing basis. As a new school, we have had our first year to connect with Nations and establish our relationship together.
Each Indigenous Knowledge Keeper had land sites that were important to their Nation and places for the students to develop relationships with. Each site provided a place for understanding and contextualizing knowledge that would be shared with them. These places were generously offered by Knowledge Keepers and became the centre of our planning for visits and sequencing of learning events.
Place-based learning incorporated ceremony, stories and sharing of knowledge. The places where this model of learning took place were:
- Our classroom
- Heloise Lorimer School Field
- Glacial Erratic, Airdrie
- Kings Heights Pond, Airdrie
- Nose Hill, Calgary
- Grotto Canyon, Exshaw
- Blackfoot Crossing, Siksika
Over 100 students were able to learn with Niitsitapi, Nakoda and Métis Knowledge Keepers. Multi-grade groupings for experiences took place, as well as interdisciplinary learning. The greatest outcome was the relationships that students created. Students found connections to one another amongst their experiences. Guided reflection empowered students to share and have pride in their ideas and knowledge. Furthermore, students gained success in understanding and meeting curriculum objectives related to Language Arts, Science, Mathematics, Physical Education, Art and Social Studies. My grade 3 class was significantly influenced by our collaborative learning opportunities with Indigenous ways of knowing and Indigenous Knowledge Keepers.
Please visit the following website to review our learning together in detail: http://schoolblogs.rockyview.ab.ca/indigenous-land-based-education/.
Psychologist – “This tells me that there’s a lot of brains in here right now that are wired for survival, and just might be a little on edge.” That was the sentiment expressed by Biology teacher, Erik Gordon, when responding to the information that in his class more than 13 students indicated that they have experienced significant trauma in their past.
The concepts of trauma-informed or trauma-sensitive approaches or practice seem to be popping up everywhere in the education system. Our ability to support students who have experienced adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) also is finding its way into many staff room conversations. So what exactly does it mean to be trauma-informed or trauma sensitive? Well, a quick Google search will bring up a number of articles, programs, and ideas around how schools can begin to work with students who have been traumatized. Some of these programs can be quite expensive, but behind any commercialized answer resides two key concepts that are at the heart of being a trauma-informed educator:
- Understanding that trauma impacts a child’s developing brain and can cause structural changes, which can impact a child’s behaviour, memory and learning.
- Belief that positive educator-student relationships, where the child feels safe, valued, and cared for can begin to tip a child’s resiliency scale towards the positive, even though it might be stacked with negative weight.
This shift in thinking can sometimes be difficult because sometimes ‘the kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving of ways.’ When Erik Gordon learned about the impact that ACEs had on a child’s brain architecture, he began to work with them differently. He started to try to find more ways to connect with them, such as jamming together over lunch hour. He also began to see their behaviour as something that they may not have full control over. In fact, at Erik’s school, all of the teachers learned about the impact of trauma on the brain. They started to have regular meetings where they would discuss what was going on for their students and identify strategies to have more positive and meaningful interactions with them. As a result, suspension rates went down and achievement went up. Erik’s school’s story has been captured in a film called ‘Paper Tigers’ that Rocky View Schools Learning Support has purchased a license for.
Interested in watching Paper Tigers? Register an account using your rockyview.ab.ca email at https://rvsls.tugg.com/ and watch the documentary in its entirety. Perhaps you could hold a screening at your school and have an open dialogue about the film and its connections to your school.
Director of Learning Supports – There is a rich history of digital tool use in Rocky View Schools. From being one of the early pioneers of online learning in the province, to belonging to an early provincial cohort group of school boards to adopt one-to-one learning environments, RVS continues to improve connections in the digital learning environment, as well as improve communication of student learning.
In keeping with the advancement of technology and its benefits to our learning system, this year RVS will be transitioning to a software platform entitled “Dossier” that supports the creation and digital documentation of individual program plans, known more aptly as IPPs. This transition is intended to assist teachers efficiently document the learning needs of our diverse students. It also aims to compile our students learning needs in one central digital workspace, allowing staff to readily access and share a child’s needs with other teachers and his/her parents. A final aim is to leverage all the information gathered regarding a child’s attendance, instructional modifications, social/emotional needs, and academic success so that we can improve how we support the needs of our students and families.
As we begin to build understanding in the use of this new technical platform, we will continue to follow our regular IPP planning process that calls for the documentation of key goals, strategies, and supports to meet the learning needs of students. We also will continue to share with parents on a regular basis the progress of their child. Parents and students are encouraged to contribute to the planning of identifying learning goals, as well as how teachers can best support students reaching their potential and realizing success in their learning experiences.