Sunday, July 17, 2016

End of an Era - Life Skills Reflections (Part 3 - Out of the Building Learning)

As I continue to pack up my former Life Skills classroom, I am amazed at the artifacts that were collecting in the six years since the new Ryerson reopened and moving into Room 20.  With every pile I sort and photograph I find, I am reminded of the very unique learning opportunities that occurred in this program over the past 8 years.  With every class photo I look at, I am brought back to a really cool project we worked on or interesting trip we took.  You see, having a class of 6-9 students each year allowed for some pretty cool and unusual experiences that you just can't do with a regular class of 18-30 students. With educational assistants willing to use personal vehicles, we avoided huge transportation costs and used those funds to seek out experiences that were new or exciting to the students currently in the program.

One of the trips that I always struggled with each year was Horseback Riding.  This practice occurred prior to me coming into this role and it was a highlight that was requested to continue.  My first year, I was shocked at the expense and had difficulty justifying using over half of the year's budget on an hour lesson repeated over eight weeks.  To me it didn't seem practical.  The adults basically watched and cheered on the students, and I wondered if this was a good use of 3 educators' time. What this time actually became was an opportunity for us as a team to do some informal planning and debriefing of recent activities. As a team, we never had planning time together.  All of our communication occurred while students are present.  These weekly trips that I scheduled in the Fall, gave us an opportunity to have some professional discussions to support students during the upcoming days.  Each and every year, with each group of students, I learned something new about the students and each one showed some progression of skill achievement during our time at the stables.  Let me tell you, you learn so much about students when you're driving in the car.  They don't feel like they're in school and the conversations often take a humorous turn.  It also allowed for some informal coaching and debriefing on the drive to and from the stables.  Most of the students that I worked with over the eight years, with a few exceptions of course, did not have many experiences outside of their home.  An opportunity to do something like horseback riding is something that many of my students would never experience otherwise.  Every year, even though it's the farthest trip from memory the students always say that horseback riding was the best trip of the year.  That REALLY matters with special education students because they typically recall the last trip/activity as the best.  Was horseback riding the best use of those funds? I'm still not sure, but I justified it each year due to the excitement and development I observed in the kids. Some were terrified to get on the horse the first day but were thrilled to return on day 2 and loved each and every lesson thereafter.  Some students that struggled with anxiety and anger management showed calm and controlled bodies around the horses 100% of the time.  Really.  Just think about that for a moment.  Students with balance or  physical issues worked on fitness goals, and for one student, it was the only time he was able to focus on this posture and keep his back straight.  Maybe this learning experience is more valuable than the price tag the program costs.  I was sad to inform the stables that we would not be returning next Fall.

Made with Prisma
Being a Life Skills program, it was always a fun challenge to find meaningful local trips that relate to daily living.  Our regular grocery shopping trips provided great talk time and in the moment math when students evaluate the value of items based on sale prices, quantities, and brand comparisons.  At least once each year we would visit a restaurant to discuss dining etiquette, ordering procedures, and calculating tips.  We were also fortunate enough to partner with some local food establishments for occasional cooking classes in the industrial kitchen.  These trips were always a hit and a great way to prepare students for future vocational work in this industry. Students wore gloves, hair nets, and had to follow the safety rules of the kitchen.  A trip to the local mall would provide opportunities to read maps and follow directions.  A trip to a mall in neighboring cities would introduce students to the public bus system; using tickets, following the route, and attending for the desired stopping point.  These all seem like pretty common outings for families, but you would be surprised at how many students were experiencing these things for the first time.

Occasionally we would find a reason to drive around Cambridge and make many stops to check out local attractions. Sometimes it was the quest to find the perfect place to take a photograph worthy of submitting to the Imagine A Show photo contest.  Sometimes it was to find a scenic place to do some art, studying perspective, landscapes, and practice sketching.  My favourite tour of Cambridge took place the year we were working on creating a "tourism Cambridge" app.  Students recorded GPS locations and took pictures of local attractions and businesses to include with each write up.  These tours were so beneficial for so many reasons.  It was a great opportunity for orienteering, directional language, estimation of time and distance, and exposure to areas of the city outside of the student's home community.  Again, it often amazed me at how little the students knew about their home town.  For this reason alone, I felt these trips were extremely valuable for this population of learners.

Made with Layout and Prisma
One year there was a student that was obsessed with ships so a trip to the Museum for the Titanic exhibit was perfect for this group.  Another year Medieval times was a huge interest for my class so we not only went to Medieval week activities at the Museum, we also went to Toronto for the Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament.  For most students in my class that year it was also their first trip to Toronto.  Another year my class pulled in a huge profit on our hot dog lunch fundraiser.  This enabled us to take a bus to Stratford, take a tour of the costume warehouse as well as try on some cool costumes, picnic in the park, and then take in a show at the Theatre.  Again, live theatre (of this quality) a first for every student in my class. So many "firsts" over the last eight years.  I feel like our team provided many memorable experiences for these students and showed them a little slice of what life has to offer.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

End of an Era - Life Skills Reflections (Part 2 - A Terrific Team)

When I first heard the news a couple months ago that our Junior Life Skills class was to close, my immediate thoughts went to my team.  By closing our class, our team was being broken apart.  This devastated me.  For weeks, I was teary every time I thought about my EAs and what this meant for them.  This was my work family.  We've been together for eight years and it worked.  It worked really well.  I was very fortunate to have three very efficient, empathetic, and eager women who backed me up EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.

As a Life Skills teacher, I often planned and worked in isolation, never having a collaborative teaching partner.  Having this team of educational assistants made up for that.  They were there to share those glances when you're glad another adult heard what just came out of the mouths of babes.  They were there to debrief after behaviour outbursts.  They were there with suggestions and ideas to improve the learning for our kids.  They were there to share to joys and successes when illiterate students learned to read and write independently.  No matter what, they were there. 

Not only did these women show up and dig in every day, these women supported me with every after hours event that I ever ran or hosted, including Family Math Night, EdCamp Waterloo Region,  Family Technology Night, Cheryl Kewley's "ReTurtlement" Party,  and all staff social events. Today, while packing up the Life Skills room, one of my wonderful ladies arrived to help me move some furniture over to the new classroom. Another has texted me every day to see how I've been recovering. Even after school is out and the program closed, I still feel connected to and cared for by these women. They also supported me personally when ever there was a family emergency, health crisis, or personal loss.  Like I said, they were my work family.  I will miss them immensely.

Yesterday I grieved for the loss of the classroom kitchen.  Today, I am reminded of the loss of my work-family-unit. These relationships matter! This has been the toughest part of saying goodbye to Life Skills.  Initially this particular loss was gut-wrenching.  With time, I've come to accept that change is inevitable and I know that each of our team members will excel at our new positions next year.  I am richer for having had this work family. With sincerest gratitude, thanks for the memories!

Thursday, July 7, 2016

End of an Era - Life Skills Reflections (Part 1 - The Kitchen Community)

Eight years ago I applied to Ryerson's Junior Life Skills program.  It was a means to an end.  Ryerson was getting a rebuild and I so desperately wanted to be involved in opening a new school.  I had no idea what the program involved, it was my ticket in the door.  What I very quickly discovered is that I loved this job.  This job was meant for me. Flexible curriculum, increased budget, assistance from amazing Educational Assistants, and the autonomy to go where the learning led us.  I became very passionate about using technology to support our neediest learners and, over the course of eight years, was able to do some really amazing things with kids.

The Special Education department recently decided to close my program (and three others) for a variety of reasons around enrollment, funding, and a change in philosophy that leans towards integration instead of congregated programs at the junior level.  While I 100% disagree with this direction, I must move forward on to something new.  For me, it looks like the next stop is grade three in September.  Normally, I would be spending my last week of school reflecting on the year, and in this case, the last eight years that I've been in this role.  But that was not to be as I missed the last week of school due to a terrible illness.  Now that I'm slowly returning back to the land of the living, I have to pack up my room and get ready for the big move.

My mind is racing with memories and emotions as I move around the room and box up the journey that was Life Skills.  I thought I'd start with an easy part...the classroom kitchen.  Seemed straightforward enough, right?  It was, until I started sorting the items I brought in for Lil Chefs Cooking Club, or the left over aprons from our amazing cooking shows we produced a few years back, or the specialty fish dishes that were gifts to "Gill-Ville".  I spent more than two hours going through four cupboards!  I was so deeply affected by the realization that I'm losing my classroom kitchen and, more importantly, the kitchen community that it created.  I left school that day, unable to focus to accomplish anything else.  Instead, I went home to create this sketchnote in attempts to share my feelings about my classroom kitchen.

This kitchen provided curriculum connections to healthy living and math expectations, in addition to providing nourishment for hungry, disadvantaged bellies. I'm sure you think back to a time when you were little and helped a parent or grandparent make a meal, or cookies, or a special recipe.  If you thought about it, you would recall the smells, the tastes, and the conversations that took place (often not related to academia).  These kitchen activities made us a little more connected, more human.  We shared stories, recipes, memories, and in those moments, completely forgot we were special education learners.  The classroom kitchen really was the envy of all the other classrooms.  The smell of our baking would fill the halls and attract visitors in hopes of being in the right place at the right time.  Our kitchen made us special, but this time in a good way.  We liked to extend our kitchen community and invite others in.  Over the years we did lessons with buddies, hosted staff luncheons and school wide hot dog lunch days, and created personalized gifts for family members. The kitchen not only brought the members of our class together, it also brought us closer to the staff and students in the school.  

And while I thought starting with the classroom kitchen would be the easiest part of packing up Life Skills, I was dead wrong.  This is the part of Life Skills that I think I will miss the most....or until tomorrow when I pack up a different part of the classroom!