Richard Lavoie: Changing the Way we Look at Learning Disabilities

“It’s okay, I know how you feel.” To most of us, this statement seems innocently empathetic and well-meaning. However, to author and educator Richard Lavoie, uttering this phrase is one of the biggest mistakes that a Special Education teacher can make, and after realizing this, he was inspired to take action to change the way that teachers view and treat children with learning disabilities.

In “How difficult can this be?”, Lavoie hosts an intense, interactive workshop (called “The F.A.T. City Workshop–one of his most well-known seminars) in order to provide individuals with insight into the frustration, anxiety and tension that is encountered by students with learning disabilities each and every school day. Through a series of activities and group discussions, Richard Lavoie offers a wide variety of powerful messages regarding learning disabilities and the Special Education system, many of which are still relevant today.

The first time that I watched this video, I was in the second year of my undergraduate degree. My education course for that year had started a lecture series on students with special needs, and used this workshop as an introductory tool. I remember just how much Lavoie’s presentation resonated with me, and how shocked I was to realize that many of the problems he points out are still being experienced by many students with learning disabilities. I had the opportunity to watch “How difficult can this be?” recently during my alternative practicum, and I was still as much in awe as I was three years ago. I also took time to watch Lavoie’s follow-up video called “Beyond F.A.T. City,” and found myself incredibly inspired by what  he had to say.

The message in this video is simple, yet crucial for anyone who works with students with learning disabilities: 1) A learning disability isn’t a problem— it is simply a difference in the way one learns, and 2) Learning disabilities are something that children can have, not what they are. In other words, we need to remember that a learning disability is not the defining feature of any kid’s identity. It is merely one component in an incredibly unique and multifaceted child, who is capable of greatness and will thrive when provided with support from compassionate adults and effective instruction. I would recommend both of these videos to just about anyone, and I will certainly be taking Lavoie’s advice with me into my own classroom, in order to minimize anxiety and maximize self-efficacy in my students with special needs.

Here is the link to the original F.A.T. City Workshop, which is available on YouTube:

 

My Alt. Prac. Experience So Far

Now that I’m into the second week of my alternative practicum, I thought it would be a good idea to make a quick post detailing what I’ve been up to so far. I am currently completing my alternative practicum with my local Learning Disabilities Association branch, working in their assistive technology program. Assistive technology (according to an article on understood.org) refers to any form of technology that can help a student with a learning disabilities work with or around his or her challenges in order to succeed at school. This includes a wide variety of tools, devices, apps, and special software programs, however, not all forms of assistive technology require complex technological systems.

So far in my placement, I have spent a great deal of time learning about the various types of learning disabilities that children can experience, and I have also been getting acquainted with some of the assistive technology options that are offered by the Learning Disabilities Association. I have written how-to guides and product descriptions for two kinds of Smartpen devices by Livescribe (including the Echo model and the new Livescribe 3 pen, which I will discuss in another post), and this week, I am focusing my attention on some of the built-in tools and apps on both Windows and Mac computers that learners can take advantage of. As a whole, the past two weeks have been incredibly informative for me. Not only am I learning a great deal about supports for students with special needs, but I am also able to make a difference in a very small organization who, in my opinion, is doing fantastic work. Knowing that the documents I’m currently producing may be helping students, teachers, and/or parents who are looking for tools that will increase feelings of accomplishment and decrease their feelings of frustration is incredibly rewarding, and I am excited to see what the second half of my alternative practicum block has in store.

How this Placement has Changed my Life

As my final strictly reflective post, I have decided to write a brief overview about what I have taken away from my most recent practicum block. Compared to my other experiences, I personally feel as though this placement provided me with the greatest amount of self-knowledge and overall development as a new teacher. That is not to say that my other placements have not been wonderful, rich learning experiences. I have taken a variety of resources and experiences away from each and every one of my host classrooms over my five years in this Con-Ed program, and words cannot express how grateful I am for this. However, this past placement was different, mainly for one important reason.

Before entering my Associate Teachers’ classroom in February, “nervous” was not a sufficient word to describe how I was feeling. Prior to this, I never had any intention of teaching at a Grade 6/7 level, and I was unsure of how these older children would respond to me. Will they think my kindness is over-the-top? What if I try to make a joke and they groan? What if I get verbally attacked in the middle of a lesson?! I was very apprehensive, but also entered the room with as much positivity and optimism as I could muster up.

As a whole, I am pleased to say that these students and this placement exceeded my expectations, ten-fold. The first two weeks allowed me to establish individual bonds and a strong positive rapport with the children, and once I was able to teach in the most traditional front-of-the-classroom way, I was communicating the material with a kind of ease and confidence that I did not even know I possessed. I felt more and more comfortable with the Grade 6s and 7s as time went on, and I loved being able to dive into a great deal of meaningful content with them. Having the opportunity to teach children who understood my sarcasm and awful puns definitely didn’t hurt either! After reflecting upon everything that I experienced in this placement, I can honestly say that the Junior grades are a great fit for me as a teacher, and I would be thrilled to teach my own Grade 6 class some day. This statement alone is completely life-changing, because I would not have been able to say it even a year or two ago. For this reason, I am so incredibly thankful to have spent the past few weeks in a school and classroom environment that was so supportive, welcoming, and eye-opening. It is near impossible to accurately convey how excited I am to see what my future as a teacher holds.

My very last day as a student teacher

This past Friday, I woke up feeling as I have on any other typical practicum day. Hopeful, yet in desperate need of coffee, and excited for the plans in place for the day ahead of me. However, as the morning progressed and one instructional period blended into the next, it began to dawn on me that this was no ordinary placement day. I would have no lesson plans to create this weekend, no activity materials to organize, no anchor charts to make and no ideas to present to my Associates. This was it– this was my last day as a student teacher. What a surreal feeling!

That being said, I was able (for the most part) to place my emotions aside temporarily and enjoy my last moments with the students whom I had inevitably grown attached to over the past few weeks. I watched videos and played games with them during free time, marked their Math quizzes from the previous day, hosted my last circle session, and finally said goodbye to the class who provided me with more insight, confidence, and professional and personal growth in four weeks than I even knew was possible. They surprised me with a thank you card and nearly tackled me in a group hug, as I shared my hopes for a potential future visit with them. And then slowly but surely, I gathered my belongings, left the leftover treats on one of the back tables for the kids who were absent that day (I’m still not one hundred percent sure that the cashier at the grocery store truly believed me when I told her that I did not intend on eating 25 packages of Mini Eggs by myself, and that I was in fact giving these to my placement students), and said a final goodbye to the staff and school who provided me with two invaluable practicum experiences. I miss the kids already, and the lessons that they and my host teachers have taught me will stay with me as I prepare to finish my time at Teachers’ College and enter the profession as a new educator.

 

Our Most Successful Circle Session

Now that my practicum is finished, I am left with a plethora of memories, moments, and lessons, and five separate sets of observations from my Action Research Project (which explores the use of Circle Process in the classroom). In reviewing my notes, it is blatantly obvious which of the circle sessions was the most successful of the five, and this session occurred on the day that I relinquished some of my control as the Circle Keeper.

At this point in my project, I had completed a short sharing circle and two circles focused primarily on relaxation and meditative breathing. At the end of the third session, I asked the kids to tell me what they wanted to discuss in future circles, and while many of them did not think of ideas (or at least, didn’t share them), one child presented a potential topic that got a positive response from a few more of his classmates. He asked if one day, we could go around the circle and talk about our favourite and least favourite foods and drinks, and I wrote his idea down, thanking him for the suggestion. Little did I know at the time though, that this topic would spark the longest and most productive circle session of my entire practicum experience.

The first time around the circle went just as it normally did– I posed a question (this time, asking the kids to tell us about their favourite foods), and those who normally participated offered a statement, whereas my frequent passers passed the talking piece with a blank look on their face. However, much to my surprise, the more we went around the circle, the more the class began to open up. My Associate Teacher helped me to ensure that the Circle rules were being followed and slowly but surely, even most of the students who had originally passed were proudly sharing their ideas about their food preferences. By the end of the discussion, we had received stories about family traditions, frequently consumed beverages, descriptions about the students’ favourite foods, and reasons behind their dislikes. We also had a short debate about junk food consumption and the practice of eating all foods in moderation, and for the most part, I simply sat back in awe, quietly taking stock of the participation level and listening to the insights and opinions being shared around and across the circle. I felt slightly guilty as we wrapped up our talk and moved on to my poetry lesson, as it was clear that the class was engaged. I thanked each of them for their ideas, and told them that they were welcome to keep the discussion going throughout lunch, which a few of them ended up doing.

Overall, I am thrilled that I decided to use a student-generated circle topic, and I attribute the success of this session to that very fact. By asking the class what they felt like discussing, I provided them with a sense of ownership and direct responsibility for their learning. No longer was I solely in charge of the direction of our class circles– I was simply a mediator in a student-led conversation, and I loved watching the atmosphere in the room change as the discussion continued. While I did not get to host as many circles as I had hoped over the course of my practicum, this Action Research project has restored my faith in the power and effectiveness of circles as an instructional strategy and a classroom management technique, and I will without a doubt be implementing them throughout the course of my teaching career.

 

My Most Challenging Day of Practicum and What I Learned from it

Almost two weeks ago, I was faced with the most challenging and emotionally charged day of practicum that I have personally ever experienced. Although it has been a little while since these events first occurred, I have been prolonging this post because I wanted to give myself some time to decompress from the day’s tension, and to reflect upon my learning.

March 3rd, 2016 started off in a relatively low-key way. With more than half of the class away at a half-day trampolining elective, the children’s Math/Science teacher and I had decided that rather than present any new material, I should focus on reviewing yesterday’s Math topic (which was the area of composite 2D shapes), and allow the students to work on a learning task for the rest of the period. This plan went over well as a whole, and after recess, I gave a quick recap of the poetry writing techniques we had been working on, and had the students work using the school’s laptops until lunch. This portion of the day was slightly more hectic and unstructured than the first instructional block, but I did the best that I knew how to do, and managed to get some poetry out of a few of the students.

However, after lunch was another story entirely. The class had returned from their trip with their Literacy teacher, and the room was buzzing with energy. In addition, we were sharing our classroom space with about six to eight of the Grade 7 and 8 students from next door, because their teacher had left with the rest of the class for their time slot at the same trampoline elective. My second Associate Teacher and I had planned an Arts work period for the class, with elements of free time built in as well– many of the students were watching a movie and socializing, and many were taking advantage of the open-ended afternoon and working on some Art activities that I had taught to them earlier in the week. I had printed activity pages for the class, and the period started off relatively well, and quite productively.

About half way through the instructional time, chaos broke out. This is because for some reason, one of the Grade 8 boys from the other classroom began to argue with one of our grade 6s. My Associate Teacher attempted to remedy the situation at first, but it seemed that her presence only caused the altercation to escalate more quickly. The fight soon turned physical and before I could even begin to grasp what was happening or why it started (I’m still not sure what sparked the argument, to be honest), the two boys were attacking each other, and sending furniture across the room. My Associate Teacher did exactly what I would have done in my own classroom, by sending two other students to get help from the school Principal, and eventually, the fight was broken up. In the meantime though, all I could do in that moment was move away from the violence and stare at my placement students in shock, watching with a horrified, doe-eyed look on my face as the smart, witty, inquisitive children I had been teaching for the past couple of weeks turned to volatile, angry, and impulsive young people, using language that I had rarely heard from 11-13 year olds before that day.

What was almost more upsetting for me was watching the aftermath of this fight unfold. My heart broke as I saw one of my placement students spiral into a panic attack, and as I watched the Grade 6 student who was directly involved leave the classroom with tears in his eyes. My whole body filled with the worst kind of fear-induced adrenaline as I witnessed several other students storm out, and I felt completely helpless and lost. I thought: “What am I supposed to do? I’m only a student teacher! I should have done more to help them. What happened? Why didn’t I do anything?” I helped to clean up the classroom, gathered my belongings at the end of the day, and cried as soon as I walked into my apartment. My Associate Teacher and I spoke that evening, and she told me that volatility was likely a factor today, but it was hard to tell exactly why the fight had broken out.

The next day was mainly focused on damage control and reflection. Our normal Math period was spent having a whole-group discussion of the previous day’s events, and I remember that their teacher kept telling me she was sorry that we were going to have to move my planned lesson materials to the following Monday. As much as I understood and appreciated this, I told her “please, do not apologize. I completely understand why we’re having this conversation with them, and it is far more important than the trapezoids I was planning on talking about today.” She smiled and thanked me for being understanding and flexible, and I recalled that in many cases, the curriculum should not be a teacher’s top priority. As shocking and emotional as March 3rd was for me, looking back, I can see that it provided me with a great deal of insight into teaching at-risk students. It reminded me that each of these children are incredibly complex individuals dealing with a variety of emotional difficulties, and that our role as teachers is ultimately to show them that we care, and to  provide them with a safe and supportive space every single time they enter the classroom.