Sunday, January 15, 2006

Things that make you go hmm?

I went back through my uni readings on disability and inclusive ed and was surprised that a) it was very useful and b) I couldn't remember reading it, nor writing a reflective 1000 word essay on the topic. That worries me. I know I wasn't particularly interested in doing the subject as I didn't feel it was teaching me anything I couldn't do already. Ed Contexts was basic sociology of education. Having done sociology before, and finding that the issues in health and education are very very similar (access, appropriateness, funding, discrimination, propagation of social inequities, blah, blah, etc. etc.), I really wanted to learn how to teach, not spend time on something I felt I could already do. Doing things part time over two years apparently has interesting effects on my memory...

When I read the essay now, it makes an interesting contrast – or even a point making a continuum - with my second teaching round, in a school in a very high socio-economic with heaps of money and very few of the underlying problems, and where I am about to teach, at the far end of the disability scale.

According to the computer I finished this on September 24th , 2004. Looks like it was just in time to catch the last mail... It's not a great piece of academic writing and as expected, got the mark it deserved. I don't like referencing when I'm writing reflectively. I would write it differently now, having at least learnt that I need to go back and insert comments from relevant readings after the main body is written. Academics like references, it shows you have been paying attention..........

Reflection on an issue in teaching

Disability and education.

During my teaching round many of the issues covered were topical at one time or another, however, one issue had an effect in every class: disability. A large number of students at this school were considered ‘integration’ students and provided with extra assistance. The way this issue was handled varied and consequently the educational impact on the ‘integration’ students, teachers, aides and other students varied also.

Most of the classes I was involved with on my teaching rounds had at least 2, up to 4 integration students. There were frequently aides present in classes to assist these students. Initially when observing classes I had trouble distinguishing which were the ‘integration’ students, as many students seemed to have behavioural or learning difficulties. Students came to the school with many factors impinging on their ability to learn such as low socioeconomic status, English as a second language, cultural differences, low literacy and numeracy standards and a lack of support at home where little value was placed on education.

Chatting with the aides I found out that all students were tested on entering the school but some borderline cases did not make the ‘magic mark’ that would allow extra funding for aides. This situation was recognised within the school and aides would often help not only ‘their’ students, but also others in the class who were struggling as well. As the aides were not attached to any one student this seemed to decrease the stigma attached to being an ‘integration’ student. Unfortunately the number of aides and the students requiring help did not quite match and often aides could only stay for half the class so they could move between a couple of classes depending on the needs of that class. During observations on rounds I was frequently asked if I could keep an eye on/assist the integration students so the aide could help in another class.

This was a great opportunity to interact closely with these students and see the many and varied barriers they faced in an ordinary class. Behavioural issues often meant that students lacked the skills at interaction needed to seek help when they didn’t understand, especially at the beginning of a task. Those with learning difficulties required a lot of support to attempt tasks even when an inclusive environment was provided. However, like all students there were good days behaviourally and tasks that suited their interests and abilities better than others.

Inclusive teaching was recognized by the aides as being a complex task for teachers, but one that made a big difference to ‘their’ students. My supervisor was of the opinion that if primary school teachers were routinely expected to teach different stages and abilities there was no reason secondary teachers shouldn’t be expected to do the same. To create an inclusive class environment the presentation of material was varied, not just talk and chalk to introduce topics. With language, literacy and motivation being big issues in this school he took as many opportunities as possible to give the students a range of choices in what tasks they had to complete. Sometimes this was done with a few, often 4 activities put up on the board and the students told they must complete at least 2 before the end of class. The activities were usually a mix of questions, practical work, creative, research or diagram/drawings. For an entire topic these may have been written into a grid with topics on one axis and types of activities on the other. There were restrictions – there must be one or two from each topic and/or learning style and marks were weighted according to difficulty or importance. Students could then choose to do many easy, small tasks for the same amount of marks as a few larger or harder activities or concentrate in the learning styles they felt most comfortable with. This gave all students achievable goals while allowing brighter students to extend their scope.

In the literature there was discussion of the disadvantages of running pull out programs when trying to create an inclusive environment. At this school, pull out programs were common across the school for not only integration, but also literacy, numeracy, ESL, sport, and while I was there also the school play and a reward trip for the students with no demerit points. Whilst this created a fair bit of disruption, it meant most students were doing something outside class at some stage so there was no stigma in being taken out of class for a bit.

Handling behavioural disabilities is easier with an aide present but having the same expectations for all your students and enforcing fair and consistent rules outweighed other factors. Behavioural problems in teenage years are common even in so called ‘normal’ students. It still has an effect on learning and class function when you have a girl in tears because her boyfriend dumped her at lunchtime and her friends are trying to comfort her or grumpy, confrontational boys with problems at home or in the play ground.

Evaluation was something I found to be a difficultly when teaching students with learning difficulties. There were many opinions amongst staff as to the best way of assessing their content knowledge and understanding. Formal testing can give an indication of how they are doing in comparison to other students but may not be a true reflection of their understanding. The chance to have an aide explain or reword the questions and the student to talk aloud their answers in a separate room made quite a difference in results for an end of topic test I gave the students. Talking to the aides about what was working for the students and how they were getting on with the subject matter made informal assessment far easier than for other students.

After being at this school I can’t see the value of the integration over an inclusion model. Sure it may be more work for the teacher but all students seem to respond to an increase in variety, choice and opportunity to use different learning methods. A positive and inclusive learning environment may have a positive impact on the educational outcomes of all students in the class.

P.S. 15 more sleeps! ...or 14 with the prediction of nervous insomnia the night before I start!

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