Special Needs, exceptionalities, and more: Just say no to disability Euphemisms

Euphemisms, or a more palatable word or expression substituted for one considered to be too harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing (Kirwan Institute, 2015), are pervasive in disability discourse. Since the words we use matter, I’m going to attempt to provide a framework for being anti-ableist in our language with resources and citations for you to learn more.

Special Needs

We all have needs, right? What makes some of those needs special and who decides if they’re special or not? As with all identity and language, people get to self identify. Do disabled people use the term “special needs”? Here is a piece explaining why “special needs” is not it. It’s a very common term used by people who do not identify as having a disability so a good rule is to read work written by disabled people! CoorDown, Italy’s national organization for people with Down syndrome, launched a #notspecialneeds campaign to get the word out that the needs of people with disabilities are not special, they are human needs. Parents, particularly those with limited or no prior experience with disability, often use the term “special needs” for their own children. It makes sense, right? The needs of their child feel special since they may be different than other children. Here’s a parent perspective on why shifting away from “special needs” is important.

Exceptionalities

This popular term is even in the name of the lead education and advocacy organization for students with disabilities, The Council for Exceptional Children (CEC). CEC’s research journal is titled Exceptional Children and the practitioner journal is Teaching Exceptional Children. If the professional organization uses the word exceptional and exceptionalities in everything, why shouldn’t we? First, check out disabled people on social media, blog posts, books, TED Talks. Do any of them identify as “exceptional” or view their needs as exceptionalities? That is the first sign of a euphemism. Next, let’s interrogate that word. What does “exceptionality” mean? It’s used in education to mean both “being physically or especially mentally disabled to an extent that special schooling is required” and to mean intellectually gifted (e.g. twice exceptional). Outside of education, exceptional means rare, unique, extraordinary. So, when we use this word, what are we really communicating? If approximately 14% of students receive services and supports under IDEA and about 6% are identified as gifted, is that really rare? Disability is a natural part of the human condition – what’s exceptional about it?

Special Education

Special education is services and supports provided for qualifying students to access the general education curriculum under federal law. It’s not a separate education system, it’s not a separate curriculum, it’s not a room or a place. Students are not in special education or in general education. The vast majority of students receiving services and supports under IDEA are in general education classrooms, accessing the curriculum and assessments with supports. When we say “special education” students or “they’re in special ed” or (even worse) “sped kids,” we’re communicating otherness, separate, special. What is special about special education are the procedural safeguards provided under the law. Students receive the accommodations (speech therapy, individualized reading instruction, calculators, visual schedules, guided notes, etc) they need and the modifications to curriculum and/or environment so that they can be successful. (Additionally, students are not ON IEPs – they have them to document their learning and access needs and provide accountability for districts to provide the agreed upon accommodations/modifications).

Dis/Ability

I came across this term recently in an academic article. It prompted me to do some digging. The intention here is to frame disability as a social construct but, this article helped me in considering how dis/ability is centering “ability.” One common theme in a lot of the euphemisms we hear (i.e. differently abled, handicapable) is the implication that people with disabilities do not have abilities. Disability is not the opposite of ability. The framing of ability and disability in this way perpetuates ableism by indicating some kind of partial ability or separateness between a person’s abilities and their disability.

High Functioning/Low Functioning

These terms are often used to describe where on the autism spectrum a person is. This is flawed for many reasons. This piece sheds some insight into functioning labels from the perspective of an autistic person. The key point is that these labels refer to the way others are affected by a person’s autism rather than how an autistic person experiences autism. Essentially, these are labels neurotypical people use to describe an autistic person’s proximity to neurotypicality. Here’s another read from the parent perspective about how these labels are inappropriate and misleading.

The same can be applied to “mild to moderate” and “moderate to intensive” disabilities. While these labels were maybe intended to describe the level of support a disabled person needs in school or life skills, it is ultimately communicating the ways in which others are impacted by a person’s disability and needs. Who says if someone’s disability affects them mildly or severely? Rather, we should use language referring to the prevalence of the disability. High incidence disabilities are those that occur most often such as learning disabilities, emotional/behavioral disorders, speech language disorders, and other health impairments such as ADHD. Low incidence disabilities are those that occur less frequently such as deaf blindness.

What Should I Say?

I’m so glad you asked! Say “disability” if that’s what you mean. Say “receiving services” or “they have extra time on tests” if that’s what you mean. Ableism, the belief that disabled people are inferior, is detrimental to students in our schools. Our language communicates our beliefs and our implicit biases. We are going to tackle our ableism by making sure our language is strengths based and intentional.

Many of us were taught person-first language. In some cases, that’s completely appropriate! Some people prefer identity-first language, though. There is no one way or right way, there is always variability within communities! Listen. Listen to how people self identify, how they introduce themselves. Aim to use strengths based, identity affirming language. Inclusion begins with our language.

Is School a National Priority?

I, along with everyone else, am navigating the twists and turns of fall planning. I have concerns, I have frustrations, I feel all the things we’re all feeling collectively. And, as restaurants, bars, gatherings open and people get out and about again, I find myself wondering, “what value do we place on school?”

Now, I know that question has many obvious answers. We underfund schools regularly, we have never fulfilled our funding promise to support and teach kids with disabilities in our schools. We pay testing companies but choose not to buy pencils. We have outdated textbooks and curriculum forcing teaching to create anew with their own resources – all while working a second job because living on a teacher’s salary is unjust. I could go on. For the purposes here, though, I’m wondering about the value we place on school in a pandemic.

There are many reasons we need to be able to go back to school in the fall safely. Families are returning to work and need consistency in their child’s care schedules. Kids need access to their education, to their services and supports, their breakfast and lunch. Kids need social interactions, friend time, social experiences. There are limitations to what technology can do. Additionally, expecting teachers to master digital pedagogy over an unpaid summer is also unjust. Some of the options being floated are unbelievably burdensome on both teachers and families to navigate hybrid in person and online schedules with days/weeks of rotating delivery menus. We all want to go back to our school days of yore.

My question, though, is what are we willing to give up in order to have that?

I don’t see how we can have it all. We are breaking records daily for the highest confirmed cases with no end in sight. Wearing masks is now a political statement rather than a public health initiative. Given the challenges we are facing, I’m suggesting that we flip the narrative and start with prioritizing schools over restaurants and bars and gyms and large public gatherings. What if we continued to distance, to limit groups to fewer than ten, to carry out/eat at home, all so that our kids and teachers and staff could go to school more safely? Are we willing to continue in a state of inconvenience in order for education to resume?

Would it be enough? I truly don’t know but I do not see any other way.

Discomfort as Pedagogy

White supremacy is baked in to the very fabric of educational spaces. I’ve been reading a lot of the literature about anti-racist teacher education and I found an article I really love/wanted to share.⠀

Here is the PDF so you can access it easily if you’re interested.

The author asks two questions – (1) How might employing discomfort as pedagogy puncture the dominance of White supremacy in teacher education? (2) What are the affordances of this pedagogy as a radical approach to the social justice-oriented education of White preservice teachers?⠀

So good, right? I’ve read and reread this.⠀

The author walks us through discomfort as a pedagogy, about the unease of her students, of the pervasive politeness in their group discourse. This is how whiteness works. The students were able to say that it was uncomfortable, they were fearful, there was anxiety about the process, the safety of the room, fear of slipping up, making a mistake. These are also indicators of whiteness at work.⠀

We white folx need critical friends and thought partners in this work. I am so fortunate to have several – some I’ve developed here! I’m happy and honored to be that for you if you need it. Just remember that the tugging and tearing the seams of white supremacy is the work of each and every one of us.⠀

How did you tug and tear at the seams today?⠀

Awards, Inclusion, Trauma Informed: Can We Have It All?

Awards celebrations have long been a part of the school year and school culture. Honor Roll and Attendance Awards are so ubiquitous people have bumper stickers touting these accomplishments! In the last decade, though, as we have worked to become more inclusive and more responsive to our students’ unique needs and experiences, these routines are being questioned. In response to the awards I was seeing on teachergram and that a friend of Teaching Is Intellectual shared with us, I posted about skipping awards ceremonies, with Alfie Kohn’s work as a basis for why they’re problematic.

I anticipated that the post would get limited attention, like the majority of things I post there. However, it didn’t take long before the stories flooded our Instagram about negative experiences people had with awards growing up, about teachers unease with doing awards but also feeling compelled to do them, and with teachers who love awards. It seems like something we should unpack further in order to follow the evidence rather than our anecdotes to make intentional decisions that do the least harm for our students.

Can Awards Be Trauma Informed?

Honor Roll and Perfect Attendance seem obviously to violate tenants of trauma informed practices. If we are modeling and teaching self care and boundaries, we have to allow kids to take sick days and mental health days as needed. I know that’s a controversial position to take but it is okay for kids to take breaks. But what about superlatives and the cute end of the year awards, as long as everyone gets one and they are all positive, what’s the harm?

In reading Alex Venet’s post Four Core Priorities for Trauma-Informed Distance Learning, I keep coming back to connection and empowerment. There is an inherent hierarchy in awards, there are awards that may hold some prestige or value like “Remarkable Reader” or “Math Wizard” and then there are other awards like “Sense of Humor Award” or “Chatterbox Award” that communicate something else. We strive to teach kids to see the strengths within them, the fortitude they posses to learn and grow, even when it’s challenging. Yet, we end the year with reducing kids to one characteristic or strength despite the reality that multiple/all kids have made personal gains in reading, math, and laughing.

Awards are a way of labeling kids, or sorting them, slotting them, telling them who they are. And labeling kids changes the way they see themselves as well as the way they are treated by teachers, parents, and their peers. Labels also put limits on kids. If we are told our entire elementary career that we are a mathlete, it may limit our willingness to take risks in writing that graphic novel we’ve been dreaming of. Finding your teacher sees your math prowess can be empowering, right? Maybe, although it is likely the student already knows the teacher sees that as a strength. That award may feel further reducing of the student’s whole being into just a math wiz.

Eschewing Awards for Community

Rather, we could engage in compliment (virtual) circles. Many adults struggle with receiving compliments! Have you ever said to someone, “I love those shoes!” And they respond, “oh I got these forever ago.” We tend to self deprecate and deflect rather than to say, “Thank you!” without the qualifying of how old it is or how little you paid for it. Compliment circles are an awesome way to celebrate each student’s unique contributions to the class and to practice giving and receiving compliments. Compliments allow for the diverse experiences and contributions of each student to be recognized as students have different lenses through which they value their peers.

A former student, now rockstar educator, said this:

We did a compliment circle to close out our last day of school the last two years! We also did an end of the year reflection question each day during morning meeting with questions like “what was something that was hard for you at the beginning of the year but is easier now? or “what is a moment when you were proud of yourself this year?” The kids got really creative and actually started inadvertently giving each other positive feedback on each other’s accomplishments! Then we watched a slideshow of videos and pictures from our classroom this year. We laughed, cried, and just all around had a good time.

Change is hard and letting go of traditional practices can be uncomfortable. So, I ask, who are end of the year class awards for? What are they communicating to and about our students? Is school and learning a competition? How does that jive with a trauma informed approach, a growth mindset, and an asset based framing?

The (broken) promises of Higher Education

Growing up, I didn’t know a lot of people who had degrees, certainly not advanced degrees. College professors were fancy, brilliant, suede-elbowed folx whose world would never intersect with mine. I’m not a first generation college student but in many ways, I felt like one. Arriving on campus at a large state institution my freshman year made it clear that I was way out of my league in every way – academically, socially, culturally. And I’ve been playing catch up ever since.

As an undergraduate student, the few courses taught by professors were intimidating, unapproachable, and boring. I had some awesome grad student instructors so I assumed something flipped when you took a full time position as a tenure track faculty member. Did they give you transparencies and a pack of wet erase markers and say, “Go forth and be as dull as possible”? This assessment held true in my master’s program as well. Professors were just not regular people. The first time someone asked me if I ever thought about getting a PhD, I thought what I assume everyone thinks: I could never write a dissertation and why would I?

A few years later when the opportunity for doctoral studies presented itself, someone close to me said, “there’s no way you could be a professor.” And despite having the job title for ten years, I know with certainty that she was right.

I am a learner. Everything I know about the world, about literature, about mathematics, about art, about people, about inclusion, about disability, about psychology, about behavior, everything I know, I learned in college. I didn’t read any “classics” in high school – not Gatsby, not The Outsiders. I only knew families that were constructed mostly just like mine and people who looked like me. College was my Miracle-Gro, the food that fueled my mega bloom.

My time as a professional in higher education has been consistently challenging. A lot of what I believed to be true about higher ed simply isn’t true. I thought higher ed was a place of intellectual innovation – it’s just as compliance and assimilation based as K12 learning environments. But without those who have taught me in my 10 years as a college student, I would not have learned about the whitewashing of history, about politics, about the history of education, about special education law and policy. I kept going back because there is always so much more to learn, so much to unlearn. There have always been financial hardships in higher education and the pandemic is bringing that to light. The solutions we thought we could count on are entirely impossible in an environment where the very model of our environment puts everyone at risk. Yet, I cannot wrap my head around the damage of cutting programs like sociology, psychology, women and gender studies, creative writing, African American Studies. I teach teachers but how can we prepare teachers without a broad liberal arts base?

There are a number of reasons why we’re in this position – financial mismanagement, state and federal underfunding, primarily – but the answer cannot be to cut programs that provide fundamental and foundational learning for a democratic citizenry. The humanities are critical.

Becoming inclusive educators requires an understanding of why people do what they do, how people interact in groups and in social contexts, how to be antiracist, antiableist, antimysoginist, inclusive of identities and experiences other than your own. We have to unlearn gender roles and white supremacy in order to dismantle them in our classrooms, schools, communities. We need the humanities.

It’s not enough to prepare people for a profession. We cannot prepare teachers in isolation without robust knowledge of writing, critical thinking, human development, systems, politics, literature.

I have never fit in in higher education. I’m a terrible writer and a mediocre scholar. I’m a work in progress as a teacher educator, constantly challenging norms and pushing back on traditional practices. You may want to call it imposter syndrome, but I know it’s really that I am an imposter. When I was that naive freshman from rural Kansas, I only saw the beauty and the creativity and the opportunity in higher ed and I wanted to soak up every little piece of knowledge I could. So many smart, cosmopolitan people! I can’t imagine my life today without all those who have taught me along the way, who teach me still.

While much of the shine of higher education has worn off by now, I remain deeply committed to the power of a liberal arts education. It’s time we all get in this fight, the fight to ensure our universities are offering diverse and inclusive course content with many voices amplified. Now is the time for MORE Women and Gender Studies courses, MORE African American Studies courses, MORE sociology courses, MORE creative writing courses. It’s going to take all of us to ensure that the humanities are not yet another casualty of the pandemic.

trust

In January 2016, Mira and I were fortunate to present at the Visible Learning Conference in London. It was a very different conference experience than we’d had before but that’s a whole other conversation. Today, I want to talk a little about Kristin Anderson (@kristiande), a researcher I heard while at that conference. Kristen talked about trust and the research strongly indicating that trust is an essential component of teaching and learning.

There is a Twitter thread going around where a professor in Ukraine shares stories of her students navigating the Covid-19 closure in combination with the family and life stressors that college students (and all of us) experience. It is a powerful, viral thread, shared with me and by people I respect and admire with the intent to communicate the need for empathy and grace in this moment. A concept most people know I champion.

Yet, all I see is a breach of trust. A significant and unforgivable breach of trust. I have been an educator for 20 years and in that time have shared many amazing and many devastating experiences with, by, and in support of my students. But I won’t tell you about them.

Students communicate with us in confidence. It’s an honor and a privilege to hold their truths with them. Their stories are not mine to tell, they’ve been shared with me because we have built trust, they believe me to be safe, and, for that and for them, I will be.

Since we started this experiment of trying to communicate our work more publicly, I have so often referred back to what I learned from Kristin that day. She says: A lot of people see trust as a soft skill. But the reality is that we all need to be on a journey to becoming a little bit more trustworthy every single day, no matter how much we perceive ourselves to be trustworthy. Trust is a multi-dimensional disposition or value that requires deliberate practice and deliberate planning in order to ensure that it is thriving. (From her interview with Jim Knight found here).

When we post pictures of kids doing work in our classrooms, of stories (particularly personal or embarrassing ones) about our students in public forums, of things shared in confidence (regardless of whether we feel they are important), we betray the trust of our students and we undermine the relationships we are building as well as diminishing the agency of our students.

In this era of teaching for the ‘gram, let’s never lose sight of our role. That day in London, I wrote Kristin’s words on a sticky note. “You are trusted to the degree that people believe in your ability, your consistency, your integrity, and your commitment to deliver. Do people believe in you?”

Student Teaching Cut Short

I am guilty of the occasional jump for joy when an unexpected snow day occurs, but never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine the closing of schools around America for an indefinite period of time because of a global pandemic. This is a unique situation that I could not have thought up at the beginning of my student teaching, but on Friday, March 13, 2020 at approximately 9:45 am it became a reality. Two days earlier I found out that March Madness was cancelled in the midst of teaching a whole group math lesson about comparing numbers. I remember thinking in that moment “wow this is history, I will never forget this moment.” My cooperating teacher and I even giggled one of those “what is happening” laughs when she shared the news to me. But I think the moment that I found out that our school was actually closing was a moment that will shape me as an educator forever. It was like a wave of information that I had been expecting but was not prepared for. The rest of the day, I could feel myself teaching in a haze of uncertainty and panic. In our classroom we kept our cool because you sure know that 5-year-olds will pick up on your stress and then just tell you how it is.

All I can describe the day as was different. You never wish to have different days, especially in the field of early childhood education where structure and routine are so incredibly important, but Friday, March 13, 2020 was different. Our routine that day did become a bit construed by the madness of trying to prepare our kids with weeks’ worth of at home learning experiences. I could tell that some of our kids were beginning to pick up on this, but truthfully I think it was forgotten when they got to paint with watercolors after finishing their writing for the day (special occasion that was planned weeks before COVID-19 panic aka the one thing that seemed to work out on our very different day). I still found myself reflecting throughout the day and feeling incredibly guilty that some kids were picking up on this panic because school should always serve as a safe and secure environment. I became so cognizant of this throughout the day that I forced myself to take deep breaths when I became overwhelmed so that I could be the best for my kids that I could be in this chaotic scramble.

Eventually, the end of the day came. Again, this was a different feeling. We all love the end to a day filled with chaos, but I did not want this day to end. I did not want to say goodbye to my kids knowing the impact that no school would have on the development that they have worked so hard for. I know that these precautions are appropriate, and I am so grateful that they are being taken for the safety of everyone; however, there is something really tough about saying an indefinite goodbye to your kids in conditions of uncertainty that they cannot wrap their 5 year-old brains around. I am grateful that I was given the opportunity to individually tell each of my kids “I love you,” as they headed out the door.

I have only felt my heart break a few times in my 22 years of life. March 13, 2020 was one of those times. So many people in the world do not understand that a school is more than just academics. It is safety, it is social-emotional development, it is a support-system, it is a meal when you need one, it is by no means just academic. I think that is why my heart broke that day and why my hear breaks for every unexpected day that we are not in school because there are so many things that kids depend on within school other than just the academics. A principal that I have worked for back at home the past two summers always describes her school as the land of sunshine and rainbows; however, on the Monday following school shutdowns she posted a picture of an empty building and said a gloomy cloud had cast over the land of sunshine and rainbows. This added a lot more to my heartbreak, but it also provided me with some hope and relief that others had the same love for public education and their kids.

I will reiterate that I am extremely grateful that health and safety precautions are being taken during this situation. I think that from this, I have learned how incredibly grateful I am for public education and the benefits and resources that it provides. I have always been grateful, but my gratefulness has skyrocketed in the past couple of weeks. I hope that I will get the opportunity to teach my kids again, but if not, I cannot wait to do everything that I can to support this time of learning at home. I am so blessed to have an amazing cooperating teacher who is ready to advocate for our kids during this time. I am so blessed to have multiple means of communication with families. I am so blessed to work in a profession that cares and will do anything for their kids during this time.

Most people are sad that the end of college is being taken from them, but I am sad that many of my kids’ first experiences with education and school is being taken from them. In a sense my kindergartners and I are in a similar situation. Both of us have crucial aspects of our lives being disrupted by something unexpected. I know that together we will find a way to accomplish what we set out for. For now, I am ready to advocate for my kids and their education.

Amplify the Inequities

One of the startling (she says, naively) things about this moment is just how comfortable we are with saying, “yes, not all kids are going to be able to access their learning but we have to teach the ones who can.” Kids with disabilities have largely been an afterthought in the pivot online as well. This is not about access to the internet or devices with which students’ can work. Those are tools. This is about the ways in which the inequities that are so embedded in our educational system are amplified in this crisis.

Access to the internet does not equal a learning opportunity. Sending families loads of links and asking students to Zoom for three hour class sessions is likely not conducive to student learning. Worksheet packets of review work or new content without instruction is unlikely to result in meaningful learning. What are we really doing?

States have been slow to issue guidance and support to teachers of kids with disabilities. The federal government has not offered a lot of reassurance. This is all new and all unsettling for so many reasons – unemployment rates are soaring, C19 is directly affecting more and more people every day, the isolation orders keep getting extended, and school years are either hanging in uncertainty or already cancelled. It’s a lot.

But, that does not stop us from reaching out. Do you have a child you serve who has disabilities, specific learning needs, educational challenges that you do not know how to serve in this context? Reach out to the family! Ask them how you can be of support. What would be helpful in this moment? Do they need resources, social stories, visual schedules, task analyses for new parts of the daily routine? Yes, all of our services cannot be delivered with the shelter in place orders but are we doing all we can do in this context? Are we supporting families in the ways they need? Are we staying in communication and offering our problem solving, our listening, our validation?

We choose, as a society, to keep people oppressed. An example of this is all the states who have found money to provide school age children with hot spots and Chromebooks in just a couple of weeks time. Those resources have been there. It took a crisis to get them into the hands of kids. If we believed every child is worthy of equal access, those devices would be issued at Back To School Night.

If we believed kids with disabilities have a right to access a free and appropriate public education alongside their peers, we would design distance learning with them in the forefront, rather than as an afterthought.

Amplify the inequities. Call them out. Let’s let this experience drive educational change. The kids who are readily accessing their distance learning opportunities would have been okay without it – let’s focus on the kids and families who cannot shift this fast. All kids are in the same situation right now, yes, but they are receiving wildly inequitable access. Who will feel the loss of instruction the most?

Humanize Pandemic Pedagogy

Week 3. We are beginning to feel the impact of both the sustained isolation and the spread of the virus. As more and more people are either becoming sick, caring for sick loved ones, or worrying about those who are sick but at a distance, how are we adjusting our pandemic pedagogy?

As schools were closing, the focus was on getting devices and hotspots out to homes and distributing meals and worksheet packets. That makes sense – we’re educators, we get to work solving problems. As we enter the third week, though, we have to start wrestling with the more nebulous questions of this moment. How do we meet the needs of kids who cannot access their learning online? How do we meet the needs of kids who benefit from multiple therapeutic interventions and supports, intensive behavioral supports, life skills curricula? Technically IEPs should be amended to acknowledge the change in placement and to revise the goals and service delivery plans. I haven’t heard of any districts doing that and I understand why. But what are families to do?

Humanizing Pandemic Pedagogy Looks Like

  • Asking kids and families how they are – first, and often.
  • Communicating regularly. Contact 3-5 families each day to check in individually, assess how the workload, the communication, the dynamics are working for them. Adjust accordingly.
  • Expressing flexibility. Let them know you understand they may be working from home, too, they may have several kids who have deadlines and devices limitations, they may be struggling with stress, job loss, illness. Be flexible.
  • Keeping it simple. Send one To Do list per week for kids/families with explicit directions, approximate time commitments, and troubleshooting support. Include the “why” of the task.
  • Building in differentiation with universal designs for learning. You wouldn’t do it all one way in the classroom, so let’s keep our accessible pedagogy going in our pandemic pedagogy.
  • Acknowledging there are very different limitations and barriers in pandemic pedagogy. Ask families what barriers they’re experiencing and brainstorm how to reduce those barriers.
  • Not grading work.
  • Prioritizing social emotional learning above all else. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around what’s happening right now so I know kids are also experiencing all the feels. Let’s plan for it. Plan for those days where it all feels too heavy and like you’re moving through molasses, plan for those days when we need to feel some sense of “normal” so maybe Prodigy is it, plan for those days when we’re feeling lonely and class wide or teacher/student calls/video conferencing can help. Let’s center the kids and prioritize the emotional experiences of this moment.

My hope is that we can take our pandemic pedagogy back into our classrooms next year. We can frame this as an opportunity to make the changes we have long struggled with bringing into reality. We can prioritize kids with disabilities and their families in this moment, we can truly build partnerships, we can see each other and dismantle the “both sides” approach to supporting kids with disabilities in public schools. It does not have to be adversarial, it does not have to be combative, it does not have to be rooted in distrust. This moment calls on us to work together, communicate with each other, and listen. How are you humanizing your pandemic pedagogy?

This is Really Not Going Well

The opportunity to collaborate with and learn with teachers in most states, in rural, suburban, and urban districts, in public, private, and charter schools has truly been eye opening in this pandemic. It’s astonishing how variable states, districts, schools, and individual teachers themselves have responded to this challenge. It feels chaotic, unreasonable, and, frankly, harmful to perpetuate already inequitable educational spaces in the face of a global pandemic.

Some teachers are teaching on Zoom for 3-6 hours a day, some are posting assignments and links to web videos, with Quizstar on Google Classroom and Canvas and Blackboard. Some districts and schools are pausing formal education for all while completing needs assessments of their school community in terms of internet access and devices. Some are requiring synchronous meetings, firm due dates for grades, new material. Some are all asynchronous, all review work, optional participation. Some schools are delivering packets weekly, some are doing online read alouds, some have added reading logs with the intent of encouraging reading at home.

Our educational system is deeply inequitable, always has been. It is designed to exclude kids with disabilities, Black and Brown kids, kids living in poverty, kids with two working parents, kids who need more support to learn, and on and on. Maybe I should say who it is designed for . . . White middle/upper class neurotypical people. And they will likely continue to do well in pandemic school.

I’ve said consistently in the three weeks we’ve been in this transition to focus on keeping it simple, ensuring social emotional connections and wellness first, and remembering that families are coping with job loss, illness, insecurity, increased stressors, child care demands, and more. Homes are not schools. This is not homeschooling. This is maybe some version of hack schooling coupled with a lot of unschooling but mostly it’s just survival. And kids are in the center of all of this mess. They’re powerless, they’re confused about what is expected of them, how long it will last, when they’ll see their friends again. The expectations of schools on kids and families vary so widely from those who have had zero communication (me) and those whose schools are expecting families to replicate the traditional school day with zoom, assignment due dates for grades, and required attendance. The inequity in all of this is staggering.⠀

We don’t have national educational leadership. We don’t have anyone providing teachers of kids with disabilities guidance and support on how to provide services and supports to kids who cannot access their learning online, or how to navigate distance learning for students with disabilities who need more or different supports. We have districts and states taking wildly different approaches with not enough communication. Even within districts and schools, families are navigating multiple messages, competing priorities, and unreasonable expectations.

This is really not going well at all.

As the numbers of confirmed cases and C19 deaths increase, now may be the right time for us to consider what’s reasonable and ethical in a pandemic. We could end the school year now. We can focus on care, meal delivery, social emotional support, movement and wellness, connection. We can assess learning when it’s safe to be together again and determine then what interventions, reteaching needs to happen. We can ask our reps to suspend standardized high-stakes testing for the next two academic years (then forever after that) to allow schools time to guide kids and teachers through this shared trauma.

We could use this as a chance to reset, reevaluate, reassess. Give teachers paid opportunities to engage in meaningful professional development like shared book readings, inclusive planning, and essential dialogue about the inequities in each of our spaces and how we’re going to come back from this with a focus on anti-racist, inclusive pedagogy. We could use this as an opportunity to design something better. We can partner with our families in this work. We can ask them directly how we can support them, what they need, what would be helpful and alleviate stress in this moment. We could design a system that values each of its members.

We’re all in this together.

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