Sometimes we do things in life that in retrospect seem insightful. As we were heading into last summer and the construction on our school was about to begin, one of our teachers suggested that I buy t-shirts for our staff that say, “Embrace the chaos.” I did this and presented them to our staff when we first got together this fall. I will admit, there is no way to have anticipated the amount of chaos our learning community has embraced this year, but we were well practiced as we returned from Spring Break to COVID19 school rules.
As with everything this year, our staff recognized the situation, rolled up their sleeves, and together tried to figure out how to best meet the needs of our learners. The first week was especially difficult as we had many conversations with emotional parents and the uncertainty was disconcerting. But as the weeks rolled on, we continued to learn and to grow with our learners and some positive learning, connected to our work around inclusion, has occurred.
As teachers we have been able to find increased personalization for our learners. As every context is different, we have been forced to adjust to the needs of our students and their home. Prior to this, students arrived at our school, in our classes, and we worked to support their diverse needs in our molds and structures. With remote learning we have been freed up to take advantage of the rich learning opportunities outside our building. As one parent wrote:
We are blessed with Puntledge Creek running through the backyard as well, so we get lots of outside time and back yard time. Great activities sent to us from school as well to encourage outside learning that they may have not done before. The great thing is that they are all in different grades, (7, 4 & K) but have been enjoying doing some of each other’s work as well as their own. For example, our eldest was sent a really cool scavenger hunt and all the kids did their own 😉 We are trying to stay positive and creative at all times to get through or better put, make a new normal that we can all enjoy!
One of the strategies we employed this year in our work to increase inclusion was to apply the principles of Universal Design for Learning: increase engagement, find multiple ways for students to access learning, and find multiple ways for them to demonstrate there learning. The sudden shift to remote learning has given us this opportunity. Here is what one teacher had to say at the end of COVID19 – week 4:
We are also getting great images of students demonstrating their learning in a variety of ways: Student One making French toast; Student Two her first front flip on a trampoline and another video of her dancing with her mom; Student Three dancing with his sister for Health and doing reading assignment summaries; Student Four getting a lot of work done and reading summaries as well; Student Five and his painting; Student Six and his Science experiment; Student Seven sharing the pictures of a walk with her Mom; Student Eight who has had technical issues but is working through them getting his work done at a high level; Student Nine participating in our class meeting where he is waiting his turn and listening to others – a stretch goal for him; and Student Ten and his brother’s picture walking in the Lake Trail forest.
Learning can, and does, look different to different people and for different people; and, what we are finding is that those who are engaging with the guidance from our teachers are finding a lot of joy and autonomy in their learning and are stretching their learning. We are getting a crash course in the value of UDL, which we knew intellectually, and were able to apply in spots before; but, now we all have tangible examples of its potential to meet diverse needs and the unlimited nature of it.
Another unanticipated benefit we have found is the increased use of assistive technology. Many of our students who would have benefited from speech to type, captioning, adapted reading levels, and/or text options, refused to use such supports. However, now that they are working in the privacy of their homes, and possibly because of the insistence of parents, our students are more willing to use the supports. Without the support of their peers around them and without easy access to human “readers and scribes”, they are required to be more independent. Also, they are getting access to learning materials electronically and not on paper, so it is easier and quicker to use adaptive technology to support their learning. In addition to this, many of our teachers who knew about assistive technology are being introduced to applications in context – as needed, real world learning – and it is broadening their horizons and opportunities for student support.
Please do not read this thinking that all is good in the kingdom of school, it is not; however, there are some positives and learning that we can take from this challenge and it would be a shame to waste this opportunity. The Chinese word for ‘Crisis’ means ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity’. Our most vulnerable learners are in danger of falling further behind their peers and we are working hard to address this disparity: I do not want to diminish this, for it is serious. However, out of this chaos some good can and will come. Our teachers are continuing to embrace the chaos, find a myriad of ways to meet diverse student needs, and are learning valuable tools and approaches that will improve our inclusive practices for all.