Monday, 20 June 2016

Accommodations and Differentiation: Yes Please!

In my second year of teaching in an  impoverished rural community, I had a young man in my Grade 10 Language Arts class that was profoundly dyslexic. He was a great kid, personable and kind, but his reading level despite much remediation had plateaued, and, frankly, his writing wasn't much stronger. This was nearly 20 years ago. Assistive technologies like Dragon NaturallySpeaking and text-to-speech programs like  Read and Write for Google Chrome or speech- -to-text programs like Google Voice Typing, were pretty much still in the realm of science fiction or prohibitively expensive.  If you wanted to provide an audio copy of a book, it literally came as a case of 10 cassette tapes and you had to order it through the public library. Often, I would simply resort to reading everything out loud to his entire class.

There didn't seem to be much by way of accommodations back then, but, necessity is the mother of invention and I began to find ways to help out this young man. I began to record all of my lectures as this student couldn't read my lecture notes.  I recorded every text we read in class. And, whenever possible I would let him respond orally or I would scribe for him.  He still found ELA class difficult, but he passed ELA 10 and, with continued accommodations, went on to graduate.

The accommodations I provided him most definitely enabled this young man to reach his potential and learn, but there was a benefit I hadn't considered.

When this young man wasn't using the recorded books or my lecture tapes, my other students were. I no longer needed to "re-teach" a lesson to a student who was away.  I could just hand them that class' tape,  they could take it home, and they could listen and learn. Students also began to borrow the textbook tapes I'd made. They talked about how, if they could listen and follow along, they understood what they were reading better.
The accommodations I was making for that one student, were, in actuality, benefitting ALL of my students. Of course this is hardly rocket science, and now, in an era of personalization and differentiation, such accommodations of a child's individual learning needs seems almost archaic.

But, are they really?

Fast forward to today.  I now work in a school in which every student has a diagnosed learning disability, an Individualized Program Plan, and a number of mandated accommodations that they must have. Yet, I still have conversations every week it seems with some of my parents, and with many of my students, who see the use of accommodations as a crutch or as something to be ashamed of.

Seriously! No one questions the accommodation of eyeglasses one must wear in order to see. No one questions a paraplegics' need for a wheelchair.  And no one asks the athlete with a prosthetic leg to take it off during the 100 meter dash as it is a "crutch".

For a person with a learning disability, the necessity of an audio version of a unit exam, the need to use a word processor to write an essay, or the use of a standing desk so as to be able to better manage their hyperactivity, is not a luxury or a crutch.  It is simply an ethical and mindful response to the fact that some learners need a different way to learn. And, for some learners, that difference is as profoundly challenging as it would be for a myopic person to drive without glasses or physically disabled person to perform some physical tasks without help.

To this end, I have written a TED-Ed Lesson on accommodations, differentiation and the need for parents and educators to help students learn how to advocate for what they need in order to learn.  I hope that you find it useful.

"I Know What I Need: Accommodations, Differentiation, and Self-Advocacy

Together, let's remove the stigma that still exists surrounding learning disabilities and neurodivergence. Let's focus upon the LearnAbilities of ALL our students so that they can maximize their potential and enjoy the right to learn.