Monday, February 8, 2010

Personal Learning Stories

flickr CC image via Enokson

As a former special education teacher, I have had numerous opportunities to develop individual education plans (IEP) for students. Like many things special education teachers do for their students, I was left wondering why writing IEP's wouldn't be a good idea for every student. The process of developing a learner profile that addresses learning strengths and challenges, and then the setting of goals to address both seems quite logical, doesn't it? I believe that every student has a story, and I think of that story as containing three main components: the student's past; the student's present and the student's future. In a more specific context for me as the teacher, these components translate into the story I need to learn about (past), the story I need to help write (present) and the story with the happy ending (future).

As I continued to write, and re-write IEP's every year, I realized that an effective plan wasn't just one to guide learning. For me, IEP's took on a life of their own, and I began to think of them as organic and fluid; it was necessary for the IEP's to change and evolve as the students they were written for changed and evolved. I realized that the IEP was really just a story about where the student came from, where the student is 'right now' and lastly, where the student wants to be someday as a result of the learning effort he/she makes.

To effectively support students, I believe that in the context of this personalized learning approach, we have to begin at kindergarten and, pedagogically speaking, consider education as a 13 year learning story. Every student's story would begin with the IEP renamed as the 'Personal Learning Story' in Kindergarten, and this document would be passed on with the student all the way to graduation detailing challenges, goals and most importantly, successes achieved along the way. Consider the assessment possibilities that could be aligned with this form of tangible documentation... a world of possibilities providing much more insight into the individual student than a 13 year compilation of letter grades or percentile rankings.

Above all in education, the student must feel a sense of empowerment and control over his/her learning. We all write the best stories about ourselves; our experiences, thoughts, feeling, actions and words. Let's consider allowing kids to be the authors of their own learning- let's give them the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to the process. The result will be a tangibly increased sense of authenticity in our classrooms, and a renewed sense of responsibility for learning on behalf of students.

5 comments:

  1. The first time I ever sat down to write IEPs for my students I felt completely and totally overwhelmed ... fortunately I have a wonderful mentor who guided me through the process. Now ... I actually love creating them ... They are fascinating really ...
    like you I feel that they are organic, always changing and growing with the individual ...
    I also feel that as teachers, whether we are aware of it or not, every child in our class has an IEP of sorts ... these unwritten IEPs guide us in every lesson we plan and are a part of every assessment process ... this awareness of who our students are guides us, helps us to guide them ... they are part of every report card, of every parent teacher interview ... of every student conference ... I love the idea of formalizing that which is already in place ... IEPs for all!!!!

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  2. Love the feedback, and I am COMPLETELY with you! Indivudlaizing the education system doesn't have to mean loads of extra work; it should mean improving and systematizing the work that great teachers already do.

    Thanks so much!

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  3. Sean, between your post and Ally's comment - I'm smiling ear to ear!

    A small disclaimer before I go on - I'm about to embark on a off-the-top-of-my-head, multi-topic rant (but in a good, productive way) so please forgive any typos, spelling mistakes and/or un-clarity as my fingers will be flying to get it all out. If something comes out so jumbled you can't make sense of it, please ask me to clarify. Hang on to your hats, here we go! . . .

    In the previous district we lived in, the policy was to do just what your post talks about. Starting in kindergarten, the teachers made a binder for each student (ALL of them, not just special ed. students) where their individual learning stories began. Those binders followed the students all the way through 12th grade. How well kept the binders were and whether every teacher actually looked at them is a whole other story, but at least the idea of learning students as individuals was developed and being implemented. Gotta start somewhere :)

    Then if a student was classified down the line, there was a story to go along with the IEP, which is a good thing since NY state (I don't know about the rest of the US on this) uses a program (I think developed by the State Ed. Dept.) to generate boilerplate IEPs that have sections for personalizing.

    The school district I currently live does not have learning story binders, they do however, starting in 5th or 6th grade administer a learning style test to each student to generate a picture of each student's preferred style of learning that follows the students throughout the rest of their school years. Since this is a relatively new thing, I can, sadly, say that most of the teachers are not making use of this information that is available to them.

    The teachers are relying solely on the IEP to get a feel for the students. And in my daughter's case that is woefully inadequate. There is so little detail included in the IEP that it's a joke and doesn't go an inch beyond satisfying the letter of IDEA. Not only that, if I ask for some common sense type modification, like shorting my daughter's math homework assignments, I'm met with the brick wall of "That's not on her IEP" which means they won't even entertain the idea. (Luckily, there have been 1 or 2 special ed. teachers who agreed with me and did just that)
    (con't in next comment)

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  4. (con't from previous post) Here's an example straight off my daughter's IEP for this school year (her weakest area is math, so it's what I always use as an example): Under the section titled "Recommended Special Education Programs and Services" the CSE wrote: "Reteaching of Materials Start: 9/3/2008 [wrong dates quoted exactly] End: 6/25/2009 Duration: As required Notation: Especially in math." The following portions of info. are under the section "Present Levels of Academic Achievement, Functional Performance And Individual Needs" - "How the Student's Disability Affects Involvement and Progress in the General Education Curriculum: [Renegade Jr.] has poor organization and ability in math concepts which inhibits progress in the general education curriculum. [That's all nothing else] Levels/Abilities: [stating of verbal reasoning, perceptual reasoning, etc. scoring]...Until recently, she has been inconsistent in completing all her HW assignments. This has improved and she is not feeling the positive impact in her grades which will hopefully encourage her to continue this trend. Math is a struggle for [Jr.] and she learns best when the information is broken down for her. Needs: ... When she applies herself in class and seeks out assistance when needed, [Jr.} performs well and can understand and retain concepts, especially in math. ..." Under "Management Needs: The student requires the additional support of special education services to be successful in the regular education classroom. She needs help with organization and prioritization of assignments. In addition, she needs checks for understanding as she is reticent to ask for assistance. She needs math retaught, especially new concepts." The last two pages state the IEP goals.
    So I ask you - if my daughter came to your class would this smattering info. give you any help in knowing how to help her? When I was in HS in the 80's we had a girl come from Sweden, maybe it was Norway, where the students had the same teacher from kindergarten through graduation. I remember thinking that was kind of cool. Since the US isn't going to do that - I would love it if, at the very least, the special ed. teacher stayed with their students from the time they are classified through graduation. Of course this presents other types of issues, but talk about the continuity of the student's learning story!! (cont' in next comment)

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  5. (con't) I've been thinking about your Teacher as a Profession post since last night. And I'm starting to see how a governing board could really make a difference in the continuity of information disseminated and the classroom training to all teachers. I would love for it to be mandatory for all teachers here to read Mel Levine's "The Myth of Laziness" and the viewing of Rick Lavoie's F.A.T. City video "How Difficulty Could This Be?" and if I could only pick one - it would be the video. Are you familiar with either the book or video? I found the information of what a lost student looks like to be priceless and vital. It also should be mandatory reading and viewing for all parents as well. When I first watched the video, I cried and sobbed like a big baby because I was seeing what it was like for my daughter in the classroom, and what made me feel even worse was the realization that I was doing some of the very same things to her myself. I have to say Oprah is dead on when she says "When we know better we do better" Even if a teacher (or parent) doesn't carry out every thing that is talked about in these two mediums, just learning what those seemingly "bad, lazy" behaviors actually signify in both special ed. and regular ed. students is not only huge, but is a great place to start reform. Just understand where a student is coming from can help put an end towards the destruction of students who are being misunderstood and vilified.

    *Wipe the sweat off my brow and take a deep breath* lol OK, my rant has wound down :) And probably if I was speaking all that would have been said in one or two breaths.

    It kills me that there is so much helpful information out there for little to no cost that could make such a difference in both the classroom and at home. I rented the Lavoie video from my local library. I don't solely blame teachers and the schools or even the laws for the feelings of inadequacy and the pressure to preform in students, I blame parents just as much, if not more, for buying into the system so completely that they are not willing to give their children the benefit of the doubt. I watch parents destroy their relationships with their children because of school all the time in my own circle of friends and family. So many times my daughter talks to her cousin and finds out he's grounded for not doing his homework, and my brother is perplexed because nothing they take away gets my poor nephew to do his homework. They set up a school recommended homework time of an hour and my brother doesn't understand why sometimes my nephew just doodles or stares into space instead of doing the homework since he has to sit there for the allotted time anyway. I'm just staring at my brother with my jaw hanging during this conversation. Finally, I was like, "Brother, Dude, it's clear that he's having difficulty with some of the work." "No. He's just lazy. He'll only do it with his tutor." I did want to hit my bro. upside the head, but instead, I recommended some resources including the video, but here it is a year later and my bro. and sister-in-law have done nothing I suggested because they are convinced that I'm anti-education in my views of school.

    I also love and recommend parenting expert Anthony Wolf who says that the only realistic school expectation parents can have is for their kids to pass, academic excellence is up to the kid. I'm paraphrasing, but the idea makes such sense to me instead of parents demanding their children be who they want them to be instead of just wanting them to be who they are.

    OK, now I'm done . . . for now anyway :)
    Hope I didn't confuse you!
    Namaste

    ReplyDelete

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