Accommodating everyone

| August 28, 2015 | 0 Comments

By Philippa Fabbri

The word ‘accommodate’ is an important one, too often sidelined in our classrooms.

Imagine deciding to go for a meal out. We are faced with many choices: to which restaurant should we go? Where should we sit? What should we select from the menu to eat? How should it be cooked: grilled, baked or fried? What should we have with our meal: chips, rice, baked potato or salad? The waitron, even though they are assigned to other tables in the restaurant, usually checks on us during our visit to make sure we have everything we need and are satisfied with the choices we have made. It is generally a pleasant experience, because we are accommodated.

Now think of our classrooms. The students are mostly told where to sit, what they need to do and by when, which book they need to work in and what materials they need to use. They are seldom given choices. The teacher is so busy trying to just get through the work before the bell rings, that they seldom give adequate attention to students. If we look at our students and how different they all are to each other, it is certainly not easy to be accommodating – but how much better would learning experiences be if every student’s needs were taken into account and they were accommodated, even just a little?

Who are we teaching?

In a TED talk entitled ‘Every Kid Needs a Champion’, the late renowned American educator Rita Piersen1 highlighted three very important issues for teachers:

  • Never give up on a student.
  • Make connections with them.
  • Insist on their best.

The apocryphal saying goes: “They might forget what you said, but they’ll not forget how you made them feel.” Piersen believed that no matter how challenging it might be to have a certain learner in your class and no matter how difficult it might be to like a particular child, we must still try. No matter how weak a child’s ability may seem, they still have potential – so insist on their best effort and reward that effort, not their result. It is better to refer to a child having a certain barrier to learning rather than having a learning disability, because you can overcome a barrier, whereas ‘disability’ implies that it is something they cannot do. We should rather look beyond the barrier and find the things that they can do.

As teachers, we must always take into account who we are teaching. We must discover things about the child, their likes/dislikes, anxieties, interests, favourite games, hobbies and sport. Who (and what) does the child go home to every day? What is the home environment and family dynamic like? Try to build a learning profile of strengths, weaknesses and learning styles that present in your classes. Are some learners more visual and others more hands-on?

How are we teaching?

Teachers should also ask themselves, “How effective is my teaching?” To improve our practice, we can look to the Universal Design for Learning (UDL)2 and its three main principles:

  1. How do children take in information? How do we present our lessons? ‘Chalk and talk’ should remain in the 20th century classroom and we should now use multiple representations such as video clips, worksheets, experiments, songs or picture books. This would obviously depend greatly on the resources that the teacher has at their disposal.
  2. How do children express what they know? How do we assess our students to find out what they know? Provide opportunities for them to draw, write, create, perform, record, demonstrate and present, to mention only a few options.
  3. How do children engage in learning? How do we spike their interest? We need to find ways to get them excited about learning new things, so we can use food (most kids like food), technology/screenology/ gaming sites, humour, drama and intriguing stories to keep them engaged.

We should ask additional questions, too. What are the goals of the lesson? What resources do I have at my disposal? What methods of teaching will I use? How will I assess my students?

The key to a successful learning experience is to find multiple ways to ‘reach’ every child and to accommodate diverse needs in the classroom. We must consider the seating arrangements, the child’s position in the classroom and the impact on a particular child of working alongside a partner, in a cooperative group, or away from distractions. Sometimes we also need to modify the curriculum by, for example, building words rather than writing them, and providing aids such as counters, number lines, pencil grips, feely boxes and earplugs. We need to give less homework and provide short breaks; we must allow snacks to replenish energy, and make use of a variety of environments.

How are we coping?

If we aim to find different ways for every child to access the curriculum, we will need a great deal of planning time, but it is still possible. It is important to meet regularly with colleagues to discuss the students who are not finding learning very easy. A summary of the discussion could be e-mailed to the parents. It might also be necessary to refer a child to a professional for further assessment. Collaboration and communication provide a wider network of areas of concern, possible solutions and specific goals.

Teachers may very well be struggling themselves. They may find the national curriculum too rigid, too boring and with too much content to be covered in a single academic year. Unfortunately, when a child is struggling to master the content, it is often blamed on the child – whereas it might just be the curriculum that is at fault. If we are able to level the playing field by finding ways and means to reduce the ‘barriers’ in the curriculum itself so that more students can succeed, we can create a more successful learning and teaching environment.

Teachers, you must love what you do. You must love working with children, and you must love yourself enough to reassess your position every now and then. You might just need to change classrooms, subjects or grade levels. If you have no passion to reach each and every single child in the room, you will pack no punch.

References:

1. Rita F. Pierson was a professional educator from 1972 onwards. She died in 2013. TED (technology, education and design) is a non-profit platform and global community headquartered in New York City, devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks (18 minutes or less). See: https://www.ted.com/talks/rita_pierson_every_kid_needs_a_champion and http://www.ted.com/about/our-organization.
2. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) provides a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials and assessments that work for everyone – not a single, one-size-fits-all solution, but rather flexible approaches that can be customised and adjusted for individual needs. See, for example: http://www.udlcenter.org/aboutudl/whatisudl and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pGLTJw0GSxk.

Category: Spring 2015

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