Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education

In the winter of 2018 at the Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) conference in Orlando, Florida, I attended a breakout session presented by Thomas O’Shaughnessy and Conor Hartigan, two nearly lifelong friends that are also colleagues in the assistive technology department at the University of Limerick in Ireland. Together they presented, “Assistive Technology in Education: An Irish Perspective.”

Their session opened my eyes to the universal struggles that we face as advocates for equitable access to the curriculum in all levels of education, especially when it comes to the implementation of assistive technology and Universal Design for Learning.

In the time since ATIA, I’ve remained in touch with Thomas and feel lucky to call him my friend. It’s within this friendship that he so graciously agreed to share some of his higher ed experiences and perspectives from across the pond.

- Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education - written by Thomas O'Shaughnessy

Ireland haThomas O'Shaughnessys changed significantly in the last 25 years. It is now seen as a leader in terms of technology, science and medical advancements and is well on its way to becoming a global technology hub. With a heavy emphasis on education, our universities have developed reputations for developing highly skilled graduates in every area of employment from business, technology and engineering to science, the arts and education. These higher education bodies have developed programmes to accommodate a range of learners from different backgrounds including socio-economic disadvantaged, asylum seekers, mature students and students with disabilities.

While initiatives like the Disability Access Route to Education (DARE) in Ireland promotes inclusion for students with disabilities at higher level in terms of an access route, are these students appropriately accommodated in Higher Education?

The National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education for 2015-2019 in Ireland was designed to ensure that the student body entering, participating in and completing higher education at all levels reflects the diversity and social mix of Ireland’s population. It discusses the mainstreaming of many supports that currently support this social mix including students with disabilities.

This argues that the current systems are changing and as they further develop we may no longer have a need for specialised supports to accommodate this social mix. Realistically speaking, this is currently still far away from the truth. However, one support that could help alleviate a lot of these issues involved in supporting this social mix is an educational framework based on research in the learning sciences, including cognitive neuroscience, that guides the development of flexible learning environments that can accommodate individual learning differences. It is called Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

However, when it comes to UDL in higher education in Ireland, we seem to fall well short of our American counterparts. I’ve been to my fair share of UDL themed conferences (AHEAD (Irish Organisation), ATIA, etc.) to know that the implementation of UDL in a classroom stateside is one thing, the implementation of UDL in higher education in Ireland is entirely another. Principals and school administrators have far more influence at school level than their counterparts in higher education. Teachers can also take control of their set curriculum much easier than academics in higher education.

Unfortunately, we are now in an era where business models drive many universities and other higher-level institutions where research income and reputation (ranking) take precedence over teaching and learning. We see senior academics buying their way out of teaching to further focus on research. Academics that are needed to help drive UDL change, replaced with younger less experienced educators too inexperienced to initiate any change like UDL.

This business shift is coming from the top down, exactly where the adoption of UDL should originate from. However, since UDL often comes with a cost (time, resources, etc.) are higher education institutions interested in driving UDL forward? Are academics for that matter?

When we do see academics engage it is usually when the push comes from the top down or when priorities arise related to statistics on student engagement or student progression. We could begin to discuss incentivising the UDL approach, but should we have to? Are financial and other rewards the only way we can get buy-in?

UDL requires lecturers to allow students multiple means of representation in order to give learners various ways of acquiring information and knowledge, multiple means of expression to provide learners alternatives for demonstrating what they know and multiple means of engagement supporting how learners differ markedly in how they can be engaged or motivated to learn.

While I’m sure in theory we all recommend this framework, do academics have the resources to support this framework and do they have the multiple rubrics needed to implement it? Would they have the support to inform their department or faculty? A colleague of mine said recently “UDL is great if you have unlimited resources and buy-in from everyone” and for me, this struck a chord.

The biggest problem incorporating UDL in Higher Education is the lack of buy-in from the top. UDL will only ever work in Higher Education by employing a top-down approach where the president/senior academics buy-in from the start and where UDL is mandated into every new academic contract.

Unfortunately, interdepartmental politics, accountability (lack thereof) and attitudes make some initiatives hard to employ at higher level. In my experience most academics still don’t even know what UDL is and unfortunately there are many who simply don’t care – they don’t currently see it as a priority or their responsibility. How do you convince a lecturer to spend three times the time (approximate guess) developing class material to support UDL when nobody is requiring them to? They will almost always argue ‘time and resources’ – I know, I’ve seen and heard it.

I love reading books like Dive into UDL, attending talks by UDL experts like Kate Novak and seeing images like (Em)Powered by UDL. My excitement however quickly dampens when I realise how difficult it is to organise UDL at third level and even, at times, in schools. Who will train the staff, who will pay for this, would the staff attend? (even if it is mandatory) Who will drive it?

We have seen some small shift; University College Dublin is making strides to incorporate UDL in their everyday practices although I’ve yet to see how this is being handled and deployed. In October 2018, The Universal Design and Higher Education in Transformation Congress (UDHEIT2018) will be held at Dublin Castle, it will be an exciting conference that will give a proper insight into the current situation. There will be a focus on the creation of the state’s first technological university - based on the merger of Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT), IT Tallaght and IT Blanchardstown.

Apparently all three (yes, I said three) presidents of this new technological university are advocates of UDL and they have put UDL as a cornerstone of this merger. I await this conference with equal scepticism and anticipation. Too often have I attended UDL conferences where the theory didn’t meet the practice, where “UDL practices” were not real UDL practices. Too often have I left more disappointed than when I arrived. I want practical solutions on how it is implemented, not theory on how it could or should work. For me, for UDL to be successful the answer lies with teachers and teacher educators.

Too often these days I hear “give it to the teachers”, however UDL is one area where I generally think teachers can make a real difference. We need to train (our already overburdened) student teachers about UDL and its importance. Let them incorporate its principles in their class through lesson plans and let them show every student that there are multiple ways in which tasks can be represented, engaged with and completed. Let them see the teacher using it and let it become the norm where when their students graduate they will be able to incorporate multiple approaches to everyday issues. Let them use readily available (what will hopefully become standardised) resources to achieve this. Then and only then will we see a change in attitudes and practices needed to fully utilise the UDL framework.


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When Life Overlaps (With More Life)


two teen girls jumping on a trampoline at the Sharritt's farm
Have you ever felt stretched in more directions than you ever felt possible? This summer was a season of challenging and unexpected beginnings for me, which is kinda funny because in my last PATINS blog, I used the phrase “bring on the possibilities!” (shakes head at 3-months-ago self). Here’s the summary of summer for specialist, flower-farmer, foster mom, and new-grandma Bev:


A challenging beginning for my full time job at PATINS was to create meaningful trainings for ALL educators for the summer of eLearning conferences, given that my specialty area is with blindness and low vision technology. Most of my participants may have one student in their whole career with this disability. I came up with “Close Your Eyes and Imagine UDL” and “Electronic Books for Elementary Students”. Check these out as fall webinars by searching the PATINS training calendar.

More and more, the boundaries of special education and regular education are dissolving into “this classroom works for everyone.” I met many educators who are doing this creative work. They enriched my specialized views with their ideas for taking accommodations traditionally available to students with blindness and low vision and considering how they could help any student.


My part-time summer job as flower farmer became both harder and easier when my Mad Farmer husband Roger, planted 20 new perennial varieties. I loved having a larger variety of textures and palettes when making bouquets, but it also increased the number of times my back had to bend to cut those beauties. We are already negotiating on limits for next year, but I’ve seen some new dirt flying in the perennial field when Roger thinks I’m not watching.

close up of black-eyed Susan flower; black center with gold narrow petals
In late June, we suddenly welcomed two foster daughters ages 11 and 12 into our house. This led to having more than one kind of cereal in our cupboard, and other oddities like an unexpected evening of putting together a trampoline as a thunderstorm approached. The trampoline
does block my view of the perennial field. The volume of life has increased for the Sharritts with this addition of both loud laments/bickering and high-pitched joy/hilarity to our lives.


With great anticipation, I awaited the title of grandma this summer with a due date for Margaret Rosemarie on August 3rd. Then in June, the news that her dad would be a working in Indianapolis, rather than Michigan, threw new possibilities and logistical challenges into the mix. My son-in-law moved in with us to start his job and look for housing (buy more cereal). We worked on squeezing in visits to our daughter while she finished her job, and waited to deliver in Lansing. Then we all waited 9 extra days for the girl while she took her sweet time to make her entrance.

September and structure are my new favorites. I’ve never been more excited for school to start. I’ll be a little sad when the frost comes and kills the zinnias--but only a little. I’d even concede that I’m looking forward to socks again. We’ve all landed softly (or continue to bounce on that trampoline!) after a chaotic summer. The heaviness of the stress when many roles overlapped, eventually found a balance with something lighter. Or I yelled for help, and someone stepped in. Or I just yelled. 

I witness educators being pulled in many directions as well. If it is a season of extremes for you, I wish for you a good team, and a willingness to look for growth in the stretching.



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Never Too Old

I have a neighbor that lives 2 doors down from me. Nancy is 90+. I respect not asking her real age, because I know several people at 29 and holding. She is sharp as a tack. She was a U.S. Ambassador for Suriname during her career and has traveled the world. Her stories and memories about our neighborhood are exciting to hear.

Unfortunately, she is far less mobile and her sight is failing. She struggles with seeing anything in a print format, for it is too small, and uses a pair of binoculars to watch TV.

I walk our Golden Retriever, Cooper, by her house and stop when she is sitting inside her screened-in porch. She enjoys petting Cooper, and he shows her a lot of attention and affection. It also gives her the opportunity to “pick my brain” about technology.

I have spent time with Nancy making sure that her technology was accessible with minimal effort and knowledge on her part. She is very interested in current verbiage she hears from her radio or television.

Last week it was, “What is streaming about?” I explained it was a way of getting content, video and audio over the Internet. Some of it is free and some has to be purchased through subscriptions like HULU, Netflix, Sling and others.

I was asked to explain those as well, because she has an endless curiosity of how technology has evolved from just a radio or a television with a pair of rabbit ears*.

Just this week she greeted Cooper and me with much excitement. “Let me show you my new best friend,” she said. She pulled out a handheld digital magnifier. She was so thrilled.

We had talked about devices in the past, but she was reluctant. At a recent eye doctor’s appointment, it was suggested she visit a specialty store on the southside of Indianapolis. Nancy decided to give it a try and visited a vendor that has been serving PATINS Stakeholders for years.

Long story short, she can now read the newspaper and her mail and does crosswords puzzles. She’s like a kid at Christmas.

*Rabbit ears were an adjustable television antenna that could be re-positioned to get the best picture reception. Sometimes placing aluminum foil on them would “amplify” the reception.

TV with Rabbit Ears on top in the shape of a V

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Tea anyone?

teapot with cup and milk
I’m a tea drinker. I appreciate tea. Tea making has been called many things: a celebration, an ancient rite, refreshment for the stress of life. 


My late grandmother taught me some tea-making secrets, such as knowing that the preparation of the tea affects the taste. Traditionally, the milk was poured into the cup first, then the tea. The taste is much different when you pour the tea first and follow it with the milk.

I always enjoy watching as the tea is immersed in the water. Every inch of exposed tea is saturated. Almost magically, the water begins to change color. First, there are light amber ribbons of tea color. Soon they become larger and deeper. The water is infused with the rich brown flavor. Slowly, the water becomes something new to be savored and enjoyed.

The miracle of a cup of tea reminds me of the way the process of learning can change a life. Like the tea… knowledge, experiences, conquered tasks, access to content, enhanced senses are all part of that process that permeates the very heart of each learner. Slowly at first, growing stronger as we apply what we learn, our lives begin to change…infused with something new…something better.

This week we kicked off our 18-19 AEMing for Achievement Grant recipients, eight new Indiana school districts, as they strive to bring their respective districts into compliance and improve student performance with the assistance of PATINS.

Enjoy a cup of tea this week with me.... cheers!

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Labels, Learning Styles and Stars

"Labels, Learning Styles and Stars" on a starry background
How would you label yourself as a learner? Take a moment to think about some words you’d use.

Did you use your astrology sign? No?

When I was in high school my career counselor helped me pick a major. I took some tests which yielded lists of potential careers. Every week I studied them and shrugged.

During our last session, he sighed and said, “let’s check your horoscope.”

We pulled up a list of suggested careers for Geminis and laid my career assessment list next to it. One career showed up on both lists: speech-language pathologist. I never knew that was a thing, but I said I’d try it and I haven’t changed my mind since.

However, I do not recommend the Jessica Conrad Horoscope Method for choosing careers or to better understand your student’s possibilities. There is zero science or rationale behind it. I could have just as easily been an antique dealer. I hate The Antique Roadshow.

Also worth noting: it turns out I’m not a Gemini. This whole time, I’ve been a Taurus.

When the news broke at NASA that the astrological charts were out of whack for various reasons, I was shocked. Go ahead and look at the new suggested dates. If your sign changed, do you feel a pang of denial or disbelief, even if you use it for entertainment? I did. It’s hard to let go of that label.

Humans like labels. We are programmed to like knowing who are “our people” and who isn’t, what we are and what we aren’t. It helps us feel safe, helps us feel like we understand things, whether it’s true or not.

Go back to my first question, how you would label yourself as a learner. Did you use any of these terms:

Visual learner
Auditory learner
Kinesthetic learner

Or something like that? Several years after I picked my career from an astrology website, I was sitting in a class where the lecturer announced in passing “there’s no such thing as a learning style.”

I felt my foundation of identity rock a little when I heard that. Learning styles aren’t real? “Say’s who?” I wondered because I knew that I was a visual learner. I took a little learning quiz once and my teachers reaffirmed it and I felt it deep in my bones. Give me a book over a lecture any day. I was great at understanding graphs. Didn’t that mean anything?

A little digging revealed decades of research reaffirming the truth: our brains are amazing and complex and cannot be categorized with the decades-old hypothesis that I am wired to learn one way and others another. We still have a lot to discover about brains and learning, but the learning styles myth doesn’t hold any water or make any difference in instruction. You can read this analysis for post-college learning, and this meta-analysis summary from Indiana Wesleyan University and the research article published this year from Indiana University. You can also listen to Tesia Marshik’s Ted Talk on learning styles and the importance of critical self-reflection.

It’s hard to adopt that new information in the face of what we feel is correct. Our brains are wired to identify it as a threat, seeing information that opposes our strongly held belief no different than a lion trying to eat us. It’s hard but important! Why bother writing this and debunking the myth? Besides promoting evidence-based practice, bad information hurts kids.

For example, a young me who saw the list of careers like “engineer” and “concert vocalist” under different learning styles and thought they were out of reach. My high school student refusing to give geometry another try because “I’m just not a visual learner.” The guidance counselor who advised my friend to not pursue nursing because there was so much reading and not enough kinesthetic learning for her.

There’s a lot of other labels and titles we throw around:

Stubborn. Sensitive. Flighty. Rude. High-functioning. Low-functioning. Special. Gifted. Delayed. Aggressive. Picky. Not Diploma Track Ready.

All labels we’ve seen passed around a conference table helping us make very big decisions about what that student’s future of learning might be.

I challenge you to pause and wonder, what if the label isn't true?

So all of this begs the question: if not learning styles, then what? How do we ensure we are reaching all students? PATINS Project highly recommends Universal Design for Learning and the research behind it. We’ve got great resources and specialists who can assist you in designing for all learners in mind.
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Transition Times

Transitional times, like back to school can bring pleasant opportunities for reflection and change.

yellow Nasturtium flowers in bloom

At my house, the Nasturtiums are in bloom. Nasturtiums are beautiful as a garnish and completely edible with both leaves and flowers giving a peppery flavor.

There are two transitional times of the year for me; the end of the school year and the beginning of the school year. Approaching the end of the school year, I always say, “ I have run out of year.” I mentally begin moving on to the next year. I reflect how the current year prepared me for the upcoming school year.

"Finish each day and be done with it. You ahve done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

I keep in mind this quote and set my sights on to the next year and a centralized focus. I have my goals, my hopes, and, dreams in place. If I can establish a routine, all the better. If I can schedule ahead, great. My goal is to create usable forms and personal procedures. When I do this, I can be flexible and responsive. I am a happy camper!

coffee mug with the words Happy Camper

If I start the next year all up in the air without a centralized focus, all I will have to guide me is luck and frustration.   I don’t want to live that way.

The word chaos repeated and scattered around a white background

I can only imagine that I am not unique in this. Everyone would appreciate a system that is flexible and responsive to change.


My tips on how to do this:
  • Follow a schedule to keep track of what needs doing and when. What can step aside for an immediate need but not forgotten later?
  • Annual and/or Quarterly planning
  • Monthly chunking
  • Weekly reflection
  • Daily updating
  • Pick a system that is easy to use, intuitive and fits with all the apps and software you use.
  • Use a system that will sync with all the devices you use.
  • Use a system that will provide the accommodations needed.
  • Speech to Text
  • Text to Speech
  • Searchable Handwriting Recognition
  • Handwriting Recognition to Text
  • Use of a stylus
  • Word prediction
  • Alternative keyboards
  • Sometimes free is best. MS Office (Office 365) and Google, have calendar/planner/tasks options. Look for add-ons or extensions to make them more flexible.
PATINS is a great place to find out more. The PATINS Lending Library has organizational tools available that may help. PATINS Specialists can assist with finding your focus. We can help create plans that are flexible and specific. Address your unique details related to organization and executive function. Even set up tracking systems to measure progress.

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How PATINS Project Saves My Roman Holiday

Two females and one male posing for a picture in a cobblestone piazza in Rome, Italy. In the background, a white marble obelisk with two statues of males in traditional Roman attire.

“Come si dice…?” (How do you say…?”) My most used Italian phrase, right after “No, non grazie” because a local is offering me a third serving of salty prosciutto and I can feel my arteries clogging just by looking at it.


We had prepared for months to immerse ourselves in the Italian culture. We would be spending two weeks with my husband’s relatives in Rome and Abruzzo. Duolingo was mastered, podcasts were listened to, bowls of Barilla pasta and our sorry excuse for homemade sauce were eaten; but all this preparation was no match for the speed and nuances of the language. Since having graduate courses in accent reduction and language development, I knew this would be true to a certain degree. However, I wasn’t prepared for the native Italian speaker, or more accurately speakers, allowing you .3 seconds to listen, translate into English, translate back into Italian, and speak before they assumed "tu non capisci" (you don't understand). I found myself demonstrating all the behaviors I had witnessed in my students learning a second language.
  • I am the student who smiles and says “yes” anytime I am spoken to.
  • I am the student who avoids situations and modifies my actions. 
  • I am the student who is self conscious about my pronunciation and therefore speaks quietly.
  • I am the student who has poor eye contact because I'm scanning the environment for clues.
  • I am the student who hopes no one notices or speaks to me.
  • I am the student who zones out by the time it’s 7th bell (or in my case, by the time tiramisu hits the table).
One day, while my family chatted over porchetta sandwiches,I clung to a translated pamphlet about another intimidatingly beautiful building. You would have thought I was immersed in its history, but in reality, I was satisfying a craving for connection to anything in my native language. That’s when I began to reflect on my previous students who were also learning a second language. 
  • Was everyday this difficult for them?
  • How did they strategize around their challenges?
  • How could I have provided more supports in both languages? 
A lot of regret with that last thought. To overcome this feeling, I did what I call “re-lesson planning”. In my new sessions, I paired texts in different languages, introduced Google translate, encouraged Snap&Read, slowed down my speech, repeated information, and added visuals. Ah, perfect! Now, I could enjoy the rest of my vacation guilt free, right? Wrong. That feeling stayed with me, the one that said “What else can I do?”  

Fortunately, I would be returning to my new position as Data & Outreach Specialist at PATINS Project to work alongside a team of experts in access to the curriculum. Their year round trainings, no cost consultation, lending library, and ICAM resources can turn that defeated feeling of "What else can I do?" to "This student has what they need to achieve!"  

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We are all starfish!

Happy New Year           
Both as a teacher and as a student I have always thought of the days up to the first day of school as the real new year! The countdown is slower, but the ritual of making resolutions is the same.

New ChalkAs a teacher, I would be setting up my room and getting all of my lessons ready to go. I’d go to the office store and the teacher supply store. I would buy new things! New organizers! New pens! New decorations! This year I was going to try this. This year I was going to be ahead of that. Next came THE FIRST TEACHER DAY! It was the only day the entire corporation staff would be together! I would sit beside my best friend and listen to the instructions and pep talks from the superintendent and meet the new additions to the staff. Then back to the building and the principal where we would receive more encouragement and find out what was going to be different this year. It all boiled down to it’s a new year, take the best of the last and make resolutions to grow and improve this year. Think of the students and make this their best year ever.     

Colored Pencils

As a student, it was similar. Off to the store to get new folders, the newest binder/organizer etc. I was ready! THE FIRST STUDENT DAY! Every teacher was new. They all told us how to do well in their class. I was jazzed! I was going to try harder. I was going to pay better attention. I would turn in all of my assignments and I would read harder and read all of the material assigned. I was going to be the student everyone knew I could be! This year was going to be so much better than the last!

Flash forward 2 weeks…


As a teacher, all is going well. The pens are being used, the decorations look great and the organizer is either working or the parts that were have been added to last years model and are helping. I may be a bit behind on somethings, but I feel great and am excited about the year.

As a student, it was similar...to all the years before. I was trying harder, paying better attention, reading harder and organizing all of my material that was assigned, but I was starting to get lost. I know this path and if I can’t figure it out, I’ll get another D in math (just barely). I’ll squeak by in my other classes. I’ll get A’s when I am engaged in the content, I’ll get C’s when I’m not. I’d feel horrible about it, because I hated to let anyone down. I was fortunate. My family didn’t give up on me and neither did I. I would start over every year.

Happy New Year written on a sign behind a plane
As a teacher, I knew that student, just like me, was in my room. I structured my classes around this student. I taught with this student in mind. Soon I met other students, ones that were different than me, but had needs that I could structure into my daily plan that would help them do their best. Every year my methods became more diverse, more engaging, more student-centered. Every new year as a teacher, I tried to work harder, learn more, organize better, so that hopefully I could be the teacher everyone knew I could be.


I wish that at some conference or from some peer I had learned about Universal Design for Learning. The framework would have helped guide me to being that teacher. If you would like to take a try at Universally Designing your curriculum this year, I would suggest the PATINS UDL lesson planner. It is a way to take a long look at all of the thoughtful planning that goes into designing your classroom experience for every student. It shows what it takes to plan for that. Do one full plan and then start to incorporate pieces into your regular planning. Go back again when you are ready and do it for another lesson. Keep pulling pieces into your normal routine. Soon the UDL frame of mind will start to be incorporated into your daily planning. When you think you are doing good, go back for another lesson. Bit by bit, year by year, keep improving. Don’t give up on yourself and surround yourself with peers that won’t give up on you either. If you want more help, I’ll be here! I’ll bring my new bullet journal and erasable pens and we’ll hunker down and work through it together!

Sandi Smith standing on the beach with arms open like a Y and legs spread apartLady Bug on a leaf with the quote,
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Trust + Acceptance = The Moonwalk

I am so excited to introduce my friend, passionate educator and guest blogger, Beth Tharp...

Moonwalking is the most important asset I have as an educator. Scary to consider and not something I have built into my “Back to School” presentation or resume, although maybe I should consider it! As a seventh grade math teacher, moonwalking -- or being cool at all for that matter -- is a mighty stretch. It started as just a #RunningFantasy -- you know, about two minutes into your run when you consider putting your smartwatch on your dog to complete your steps for the day because who would really know? Come on, don’t pretend like you have never considered it. In those moments I turn to music, and Michael Jackson had the answer that day. Divine intervention? Perhaps! And the answer was, I was going to teach myself to moonwalk. So, after hours and hours (which, honestly, stretched into weeks and years) of practicing in my living room, I was a moonwalking fool looking for the right moment to unleash my impressive new skill.

My blaze of glory didn’t happen the way I planned. In fact, ten years had gone by and I had all but forgotten that I even had this hidden talent. The day was just like hundreds of days previous; first period started at 7:45 a.m., students were working on mathematical tasks in small groups, and I was there to facilitate instructional conversations. On this particular day, I had a student who desperately wanted to avoid anything and everything related to math. Task avoidance wasn’t at all out of the ordinary for him. His attendance was spotty at best, and when he did show up he seemed more interested in distracting and antagonizing others than in completing any content related task. When I would try connecting with him, I was met with a wall solidly built on insults and language that would make even the most seasoned sailor blush. He made sure to tell me, and anyone else who would listen, that he
disliked school but that he hated math above all else. I had all but given up on him (a fact I am not proud to admit). That day he was mouthing the words to a Michael Jackson song. If he knew the song, he surely knew the moonwalk. This. Was. My. Moment.

Michael Jackson doing Moonwalk dance

I picked up a pencil, moonwalked to his desk, and placed the pencil in his hand while simultaneously giving him the “shhhh” signal. I immediately regretted my choice, especially when he didn’t smile and instead scowled at me. I had made myself vulnerable and wanted to avoid any contact but couldn’t when the boy stayed after the bell to talk to me. I had already made up my mind he was approaching me to insult me; after all, I had been the target of many of his tirades in the past. I mentally prepared my armor and reminded myself that no matter what he said, it wasn’t personal. But instead of an insult, he said something I never considered would come out of his mouth. “Mrs. Tharp, I never would have thought you could moonwalk. I mean, you’re a math teacher and kind of older. How do you even know that song? Who knew you could do something so cool?” I. Was. Speechless.

I had to hide my cringe at the word “older” and the insinuation that people didn’t know how cool I was (like ice, that’s how cool, in case you were wondering), but in setting my (bruised) ego aside I was able to see he was giving me a compliment. Not only that, I knew he was able to understand how far outside my comfort zone I had traveled, and how weird I was feeling. He met me in that scary place with a compliment and assurance that would give me confidence. It was then realized I often asked him to travel to that scary place and I did not meet him with understanding and assurance. That realization made my soul hurt. I was sacrificing connection for content, and I realized that in order for him to absorb any content, he needed me to empathize with the fear of feeling vulnerable. I was dead wrong; this was and should be personal.

This is the part where I would love to tell you from that day forward this boy came to class every day with a positive attitude and ready to learn. I would love to tell you that he emerged as a leader and made great academic and social gains. I would love to tell you that this one moment was so profound it changed the course of his life forever. These are the moments we go into teaching hoping and dreaming to achieve. But I can’t tell you those wonderful things because that isn’t what happened. It wasn’t a profound moment where he suddenly loved math and all things school. Instead, it was a subtle shift in trust -- almost imperceptible to those outside his small circle. He still struggled in math and told everyone he hated it, but he now made sure to add that it wasn’t my fault, and that he knew I really understood him and I was there for him. He was now able to be vulnerable and would try new tasks without shutting down before even starting. He was able to feel understood, a feeling he had never before experienced at school.

This student that taught me the greatest lesson I have ever learned as a teacher: content is important, but trust is vital. And sometimes you just have to take a chance and moonwalk.

As you begin this year, find whatever fills you with joy and makes you a little uncomfortable (be it the moonwalk or something else) and let that feeling drive making connections your priority. Fear not, awesome teacher, once you establish connections, content knowledge will surely follow.

Beth Tharp, her husband, and sonBeth's Bio:

Beth Tharp is a 7th grade math teacher at Avon South Middle School. She holds a Bachelor’s degree from Indiana University in Education, and a Master’s degree from Ball State University in Educational Leadership. She will begin her 9th year working with kiddos, focusing on Math 7 and Pre-Algebra. She loves trying to keep up with her son and husband on adventures, moonwalking, and completing Tough Mudders with Kelli Suding.
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Developing Professionally is a BIG Deal, Especially with PATINS: BETTER TOGETHER!

The PATINS staff have been BUSY this summer with professional development; providing, receiving, and planning for! The PATINS Specialists have been all over the state of Indiana presenting at and attending the Indiana Dept. of Education’s eLearning conferences all summer! Perhaps you saw our Specialists out there during this wonderful Indiana heat and if you did, I hope you felt welcomed to interact with them! We’ve also been working through a couple of book studies as a PATINS staff that include reflective case studies, Lending Library recommendations, preparation for strategic planning and a slight revamp of this PATINS Ponders Blog as well as our weekly Tuesday night Twitter Chat! Extensive preparation has also been underway for the 2018-19 AEMing for Achievement Grants and the 2018 Access to Education (#A2E) Conference!

SO MUCH to tell you about! While some of this work has certainly been done individually, NONE of it could be accomplished without ALL of us. We truly are far better together! 
photograph of a runny poached egg atop cooked whole asparagus with a fork and knife in the background.

Do you like eggs?” …a line from “Fish In A Tree,” by Lynda Mullaly Hunt. A main character, Ally, is brilliant in so many ways and struggles with some things as well. She’s frequently misunderstood and isn’t always able to show her brilliance and compassion in ways she intends.  One day, she asks her new seat-partner about eggs as a way to let her know that she’d like to be her friend and, again, isn’t able to convey her message the way she wanted to. This book is full of Ally’s stories and is a wonderful read! As a K-12 student myself, I could read pretty well. My language arts grades were usually A’s, and I didn’t have to work too terribly hard. However, reading for pleasure…truly enjoying reading for myself and not for a grade, didn’t prevail at all until much, much later in my life. Some person, a specific book, a specific interest being fed, some specific support or encouragement, some unconditional love, might be a big piece of what it takes to offer a student the reason to begin truly enjoying reading for themselves!

photo of 1 cat standing on photo of 2 cat laying on a table with flowers in the background with
Even my kitties are loving the book study! They get a little demanding at times and remind me when it’s time to read! This is one of the two books that the PATINS staff is reading this summer/fall. Part of this book study of ours includes creating education plans for characters in the book, determining potentially appropriate assistive technology for them from our Lending Library, and the creation of informational/persuasive letters with regard to the importance of accessible materials within the classrooms in the book! 

This process benefits our own professional development and practice, but it can also be beneficial to you as practitioners with these “book characters” in your schools every day! We would be so glad to share our collective knowledge, materials, and resources with you! Further, I’d like to encourage you to participate in book studies of your own. This could be with your colleagues, with your staff, or with your friends and families. I’d further like to offer to you book studies in conjunction with PATINS! We would love to assist, guide, moderate, or otherwise help with your own book study! I feel strongly that multiple modes of professional development are essential to the professionals we support, just as multiple modes are important to the students you support. 

As Indiana educators, I’d like for you to consider having PATINS guide a book study for you just as you would ask us to provide an in-person training for you and your team! Just reach out to us and toss out ideas or request suggestions from us! In the same vein, we’re also working on the production of a new and improved brief “menu” of a selection of GO-TO-PD that’s the hottest, latest, and best that we have to offer! Look for this in the early Fall! Of course, we’re also always happy to customize ANY professional development to your specific needs and in the meantime, check out our current offerings on our Training Calendar


I also want to welcome and introduce you to two new PATINS Staff this year! Following the retirement of Jim Lambert, who was dedicated to the PATINS Project for 19 years, I’m pleased to announce that Jena Fahlbush has been selected to fulfill that role! Jena has served us extremely well as our Data & Outreach Specialist previously, and I’m super excited to watch her grow within her new position! Taking over our Data & Outreach responsibilities will be a new person to the PATINS team! I’m also very proud to welcome and introduce Jennifer Conti! Jen comes to us with experience as an SLP and has already put in tons of creative and important work in just her first week on the job! 
PATINS Access To Education Conference Logo
Another part of our hard work over this summer to provide effective professional development includes our world renowned Access to Education Conference happening at the end of November! Having attended many, MANY, professional education conferences across the country over the past 12 years, I say with confidence that our line-up is world-class with a back yard cost and a family barbeque feel! For $100/day, we bring you the best of the best for 2 days of awesome professional development on November 28 and 29! 

I’m proud to announce that our new State Director of Special Education, Dr. Nancy Holsapple (@NancyHolsapple) will be joining us, along with highly sought-after minds of brilliance and compassion like Joy Zabala (@joyzabala), Kelly Fonner (@KellyFonner), Mike Marotta (@mmatp), Beth Poss (@possbeth), Mystie Rail (@atlaak), Cynthia Curry (@clcurry), Luis Perez (@eyeonaxs), Mo Buti (@themobuti), Brian Goemer and many more!  Plus, to jazz us all up and build on our belief that ANYTHING is possible, Dr. Kelly J. Grillo (@kellygrillo) will join us to share her amazing story and it’s one you won’t want to miss!
Pie Chart showing attendees from past 4 years of PATINS Conference: 22% Admin, 21% Teachers, 14% Other, 11% AT Professionals, 32% Related Service

From Indiana’s AEM collaboration with CAST’s National AEM Center to our own AEMing for Achievement Grant districts, to presenting at the OSEP Director’s Conference next week (which I will be Tweeting from), to overcoming some major turns in my personal life, I’ve fully realized that working in passion in all that we do and closing the circle gets us further. I try hard to be an On-Purpose Person and within that philosophy, I ask you all to ask yourselves if you’re feeling energized by the power of others in your life or drained? Are you being pushed in our work to make a difference for families, teachers, and students? I am! Sometimes I’m only firing with one cylinder but, like my 2-stroke motorcycle, a finely tuned and maintained single cylinder 2-stroke can easily make more power than a bike with 2, 3, or 4 cylinders! However, it takes a partner and, often-times, teams to keep that single-cylinder 2-stroke running in a way that really performs. It takes a lot more frequent maintenance than a 4 stroke! I take pride in choosing the path that more is more powerful, and surround myself with the necessary people to keep it running! 
Photo of Daniel racing on a 2-stroke dirtbike

PATINS is pushing boundaries in seeking equity and access for ALL students, and we’re looking for partners in our work to co-create, guest blog with us, co-moderate our Twitter Chats and more, because one thing I know for certain in this work is that we’re better together! Please reach out to us if you are interested in co-blogging and/or co-tweeting with PATINS this year!

So, I ask you to ask yourself; have you pushed your own limits to impact our deeply important field? Have you chosen the 2-stroke motor that you know is going to take more maintenance to keep running and then surrounded yourself with a pit crew? I recently asked Dr. Kelly Grillo this same question. Here’s what this year’s PATINS Access to Education Conference day 1 keynote has done just this summer to sharpen her skills and impact our field:

“I was recently appointed to the CEC Leadership Development Committee, I spent two weeks at the University of Florida retooling my research skills in the hard sciences as a teaching fellow at CPET (@UFCPET), I’ve completely redesigned and built a graduate course at the University of Central Florida in secondary methods using Universal Design, I renewed my Google Educators certification, and completed two article submissions on practical ways to implement UDL in K-12 modern classrooms with high-stakes testing. Though modest in most things, I’m bold about student learning and my passion for investment into persons with disabilities is clear.”

We’re lucky to share a colleague like Dr. Grillo at this year’s conference, who is bold and dedicated to all children and to learning. She’s active on Twitter, which is actually where I came across her! Are you connected to a great something, someone, team, or network in this work of ours yet? Join us at this November’s Access to Education Conference and get connected to get pushed!  It’s a Big Deal!


Speaking of Twitter, the PATINS Tuesday night Twitter Chat starts up again September 4 at 8:30pm EST! Join us! AND…something new; the third Tuesday night of each month this year will be a chat dedicated to both the past and the current AEMing for Achievement grant teams! This will be a chat to discuss the general concepts essential to providing an accessible learning environment, but also to discuss the grant itself and to brainstorm with other district teams from around the state who have been through the process! So, Tuesday September 18 will be the first AEMing Grant chat! Mark your calendars! PLUS, if you haven’t been a past AEMing team and haven’t applied yet to be one of this year’s teams, you have 1 WEEK LEFT!  Application is OPEN and closes on July 27!

Professional development is a BIG DEAL and PATINS is here for you! WE are better together!
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