Thursday, November 19, 2015

How Do I Prepare Myself to Teach in an Inclusion Classroom?

Best practice would be the first thing that comes to mind, but what exactly does that entail?  As an educator, it is our job to teach students how to learn, even though we are labeled as math, reading, or science teachers.  If we as educators teach a child how to solve a system of equations, we say that we have had success, but if we can say that we taught that child how to be a lifelong learner that child will have success.  So is best practice different with inclusion?  The answer is no.  As an educator, it is my job to get to know my students and teach from where they are, which is exactly what a special education teacher does.  With general education students, I have to assess their starting point and attempt to get them to a higher academic level, with special education students the objective is the same.  There is a lot of research on differentiation and what it looks like in a typical classroom, so when the idea of inclusion came to our school all it did was stretch the level of academic levels in the class.

So back to the original prompt, how do I prepare myself to teach in an inclusion classroom?  The answer is that I use best practices for all of my students and differentiate my instruction according to where each student is academically.  There are many methods to assess where students are, but with special education students there is extra support.  The school psychologist provides a detailed profile on the student that helps to adjust my instruction accordingly.  By knowing the disability of my students I can repeat, tier material, adjust scales, and use any other type of written accommodation that fits the needs of the student.  Also, by knowing their academic levels I can search the current standards and see the progression of skills so that I can teach at their level.  There are language acquisition strategies that I use for all my students that are beneficial to all abilities.  These strategies are sometimes very hands on, but also very visual with cues that allow for students to encode the information.  There are many accommodations that are used for special education students such as extended time, being read to, shortened assignments, and other strategies to help them, but in reality they benefit all students.  The fact that these students have it written down somewhere tends to give them a bit more priority and rightfully so, but I hope that my instruction hits every student at their level.  

One of recent successes I’ve had with the inclusion model stemmed from using a strategy from G.L.A.D. (Guided Language Acquisition Design).  As a society one of the biggest fears is speaking in public; in classrooms the fear exponentially increases.  As educators, we rely on formative assessment to gauge our instruction and the learning of our students.  With numbered heads, students are randomly asked to participate, but they are prepared by their group members with a discussion before they are called on to respond.  One of my non special education students was called on and was struggling to use the right terminology.  After a few seconds of struggle, the student had the deer in headlights look. It was one of the special education students that not only assisted him, but helped to assess and correct his thinking.  The student used examples the group talked about and you could see that he was very confident in his assistance.  I feel that these little moments are worth the efforts of having inclusion in our classrooms.  

In conclusion, I feel that best practice will always be the way to go for mainstream and special education.  As we understand more about the mind and the human spirit, that practice will evolve for the better.  As educators we need the will and the skill to help all of our students, so our practice must evolve along with what research learns. Inclusion is much more than an opportunity for our special education students to learn academics; it is a way to get to know a complete world, so we must do our best to give them the best experience.  

Bulmaro Ruiz
6th Grade Math Teacher
Toppenish Middle School
Toppenish School District.

Carie Ruiz
6th Grade Reading Teacher
Toppenish Middle School
Toppenish School District.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Why is it Important to Teach Native History and Culture?

In May 2015, Washington Senator John McCoy (Tulalip) successfully sponsored a bill requiring that tribal history and culture be taught in Washington’s common schools. Washington Senate Bill 5433 was seen as a refinement of a 10-year-old Washington State House Bill (HB 1495) sponsored by then Representative McCoy encouraging such teaching. In support of HB 1495 and SB 5433, Washington State’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) has published curriculum developed in collaboration with Washington’s tribes—free and available at  This curriculum entitled, Since Time Immemorial is endorsed by all 29 federally recognized tribes in Washington and can be adapted to incorporate unique regional differences through collaboration between school districts and the local tribe(s). 

What might seem to some like a mere adjustment in social studies curriculum can also be framed—by Native peoples—as an important step in healing education systems after decades of tumultuous history. For generations the role of education systems in Washington State and beyond was to enforce federal policy calling for the eradication of Native languages and cultures and the assimilation of Native people into mainstream “American” ways of being. This forced assimilation caused incredible trauma for Native communities and their children forced to attend Indian boarding schools; for many, the trauma can still be felt in tribal families today.  Many contend that this trauma is a considerable factor in the ongoing struggle for Native students in today’s schools. This ongoing struggle is call to action for educators seeking success for all students. 

In a study from the early 1990s, the Indian Nations at Risk Task Force, (United States Department of Education, 1991) a committee assembled by the United States Secretary of Education to determine solutions to the ongoing struggle for American Indian students in meeting their fullest potential, culture is implicated in many important ways. Citing federal assimilationist policy from the 1880s, the task force highlighted the importance of strategically and intentionally incorporating traditional tribal cultures into schooling to both reverse the impact of such assimilation policies and strengthen tribal communities through student success in contemporary times. Task force members make the following suggestions:

·         Educators must incorporate culture and language into regular instruction.
·         The community must be highly participatory and collaborative in efforts toeducate children.
·         The pedagogy of the school must genuinely incorporate students’ backgroundsand experiences into the school program.

More recently, and locally, Washington State’s OSPI published Proposed Standards for Culturally-Responsive School (2000). This set of standards begins to become somewhat more specific about what educators will actually do in schools in which tribal culture is recognized and leveraged. OSPI’s Office of Native Education suggests the following standards: Educators who have been properly trained are responsive to and incorporate local Native ways of knowing, learning and teaching in their work. Educators who meet these standards:

1.    Use the local environment and community resources on a regular basis to link what they are teaching to the everyday lives of the students.
2.    Participate in community events and activities in an appropriate and supportive way.
3.    Work closely with parents to achieve a high level of complementary educational expectations between home and school.
4.    Recognize the full educational potential of each student and provide the challenges necessary for them to achieve that potential.
5.    Adapt instruction to the culturally contextual learning & cognitive styles, and needs of their American Indian students.

As school districts and teachers work to meet the requirements of SB 5433, suggested
standards, strategies, and solutions from the past several decades can be realized.  The use of Since Time Immemorial allows for authentic and accurate inclusion of Native history and culture in today’s classrooms. This inclusion is a major step in improving educational outcomes for Native students. Where once policies actively sought the elimination of Native history and culture, we can now create learning environments where rich stories can be told from the perspective of this land’s Indigenous people.  So, why is it important to teach Native history and culture?  We teach Native history and culture because now is the time to make schools places that truly serve all students in ways that help create healthy, knowledgeable members of society. Now is the time to take steps to right the wrongs of history in any way we can.  Using culturally based curriculum acknowledges history and allows students to achieve their potential as future tribal leaders; no longer are Native communities invisible or disregarded in the school system.

In today’s diverse classrooms, though, the answer to this critical question (Why is it important to teach Native history and culture?) is complex. The same classrooms serving our students of tribal descent serve students from many rich, diverse cultures. Why might the teaching of Native history and culture be important for all students?  Because Washington’s 29 federally recognized tribes are unique in our history and contemporary society, it is important that an accurate account is shared with our non-Native neighbors.  Since Time Immemorial offers history and culture free of common stereotypes (pilgrims and Indians, and other pre-1900 ideas of Native people from other regions, for example). Using curriculum written with local tribes allows for the development of cross-cultural relationships that are built upon a foundation of understanding of true tribal history and culture.  This foundation will lead to a more productive and just society.  


Proposed Standards for Culturally-Responsive Schools: Indian Education Plan for Washington State. (2000). Olympia: Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Since Time Immemorial.
United States. (1991). Indian nations at risk: An educational strategy for action : final report of the Indian Nations at Risk Task Force. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Education.

Anthony B. Craig (Yakama), Ed.D.
Marysville School District
Director, Cultural Competency & School Support

Chelsea Craig (Tulalip)
Marysville School District
Teacher/Cultural Specialist

Chrissy Dulik-Dalos (Makah)
Marysville School District
Manager, Indian Education Department

Monday, September 21, 2015

What is the True Meaning of Discipline?

A teacher in a middle school classroom hands out an assignment. As she walks around she notices a student is not doing the work. She gives the student a friendly reminder but three minutes later notices that he is still not doing anything. When she approaches the student again, he replies that he “can’t do it,” dropping an expletive in the process. What does the teacher do?  

Many people would say this child needs discipline, and I would agree. However, my interpretation of discipline may be different from others.  Discipline is about supporting and teaching the child. During our work at Jemtegaard, we have developed a culture of discipline which aims to teach students to self-regulate and learn from the situation. The three critical questions we use are:

1) What is the behavior?
2) Is the behavior a symptom of something else?
3) How do we support the child to learn from this situation?

Effective school discipline begins with understanding the reasons behind the behavior. Much of our work at Jemtegaard has been informed by Ross Greene’s book, The Explosive Child (2010). Approaching student behavior with the idea that “kids do well if they can” (Greene 2010) allows us to start the process of truly helping students to regulate their behavior. No student comes to school wanting to be unsuccessful. They want to do well, but they often have lagging skills that are getting in the way. Greene identifies some of these lagging skills as flexibility, frustration tolerance, and problem solving. The student in the above scenario most likely does not know how to start the assignment and doesn’t have the problem solving skills to ask for help. As the situation escalates the response of the teacher is critical. Is she looking at the child or looking at the behavior? Focusing on the child allows us to teach and support our students.

Last year at Jemtegaard Middle School, as a part of our focus on the whole child, we decided to transform our discipline processes at both the classroom and school levels. We started with redesigning our library into what we call the “Learning Center.” Students can ask for a Yellow Card, which allows them to go to the Learning Center to refocus and return to class. Teachers can also give a student a Yellow Card for behavior. The goal is to provide a place that serves as an intervention to behavior before it escalates to an office referral. The Yellow Card acknowledges that students struggle and may need early intervention. Students can also go to the Learning Center if they need one-on-one academic support or a quiet place to make up an assignment.  What makes this different from more traditional discipline is that a Yellow Card is not punitive. Instead they are given an opportunity to refocus and return to class without being “in trouble” for what may have been a minor event. This has been especially helpful for our students who deal with anxiety, PTSD, and other mental health issues, as we often have our school social worker or counselor available to meet with students. Every student who comes into the Learning Center is logged into a data collection tool that is monitored to identify students who needed an increased level of intervention or are trying to avoid a certain class or teacher. This removes the concern that the Yellow Cards are letting kids “get away” with poor behavior or using a Yellow Card to avoid work in class.

Our Learning Center model also allows us to change the way we use in-school suspension for more serious offenses. Previously we had our ISS students in a small room in the office that was monitored by a staff member. The Learning Center allows us to have our ISS students monitored by two or more staff members in an environment that is supportive and focuses on academics. Students in ISS are given academic support and are also available for debriefing, restorative conferences, and counseling that is unavailable if they are sent home.

Students have responded well to our discipline culture. We have seen a dramatic decrease of 77% in level two offenses (classroom disruption, defiance, disrespect, etc.) from the previous year. We have also reduced out-of-school suspension by sixty-six days. In-school suspensions were 13% of our total suspension days in 2013-2014; we increased this number to 38% in 2014-2015.

The systemic change our Learning Center provides is key in our focus on the whole child. Being creative with existing resources and finding strategies to support students have made these changes possible. We now have a student discipline culture that allows continued access to the curriculum, while ensuring that students are supported in learning from their mistakes.

Brian Amundson
Dean of Students
Jemtegaard Middle School
Washougal School District

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

What Do We Mean by 'Whole Child'?

When talking with educators, it is clear that everyone believes in educating the ‘whole child.’ It is almost as if saying anything less would be a self-incriminating statement of “I teach to the test” and risk being shunned by the professional community. In this way, the whole child is interpreted as simply something more than just teaching content. This is unfortunate because the whole child is much more than that. Therefore, it is time we delve into the important question: What do we mean by the ‘whole child.’
In an effort to change the conversation about education from a focus on narrowly defined academic achievement to one that promotes the long term development and success of children, ASCD has been developing and implementing the Whole Child approach to education since 2007. The Whole Child approach aims to prepare students for the demands of the 21st century by addressing students' comprehensive needs through the shared responsibility of students, families, schools, and communities through the following five tenets:

Whole Child Tenets
    Each student enters school healthy and learns about and practices a healthy lifestyle.
    Each student learns in an environment that is physically and emotionally safe for students and adults.
    Each student is actively engaged in learning and is connected to the school and broader community.
    Each student has access to personalized learning and is supported by qualified, caring adults.
    Each student is challenged academically and prepared for success in college or further study and for employment and participation in a global environment.

The term ‘whole child’ is often over-simplified and misunderstood. It is not simply the antithesis of teaching to academic standards; it is teaching to those standards and addressing the other needs necessary for students’ long-term development and success.

To this end, this year Washington State ASCD’s monthly Critical Questions will cover a wide range of topics to foster a better understanding of one or more of these Whole Child tents. Please join the conversation with your comments, questions and experiences as we continue to work toward developing the whole child in Washington State and beyond.

Kevin Parr
Fourth Grade Teacher
Lincoln Elementary
Wenatchee School District

Saturday, July 4, 2015

What Does it Mean to 'Be a Learner'?

Students in today’s classrooms are bombarded with assessments, standards and expectations for growth, but I wonder if they are actually leaving the classroom as learners. Learners, who can access information, think critically about what they read and hear, question sources, wonder deeply, read for enjoyment and purpose, and pursue learning for its own sake. It often makes me ask: “Are they truly leaving my classroom as learners?”
This question led me on a different path at the start of the last school year. Traditionally, we begin with setting the stage for learning and interacting in our classroom: what it means to treat each other with respect, what things we are responsible for, when we share, how we access materials, what it means to be safe in the classroom, getting to know you. Last year, it occurred to me that all of these could be taught through the central goal of ‘Being a Learner.’ We treat each other with respect and concern for safety through our words and actions as learners, and in the process we were reminded of how we too would like to be treated.  We are responsible for our own materials and focus in our work because as learners we need to have our materials at the ready and respect ourselves by engaging with our work. We work smarter when we know who we are, so we used learning style inventories and multiple intelligence surveys to more deeply understand our strengths and limitations. ‘Be a Learner’ became a mantra as students readily engaged with creating the culture and community of our classroom, recognizing their own role and control in making it a reality. Students would often step in to help a classmate to stop talking during instruction or to question off-task behavior with a quiet reminder of ‘Be a Learner.’ The mantra became our springboard for looking at subjects that were new to us, and helped to define our work as scientists, mathematicians, historians, readers, researchers and reporters.

Common Core State Standards and non-cognitive skills also came into play as we began to focus on the Mathematical Practices, the Capacities of English Language Arts and the Habits of Mind. These practices, capacities and habits include concepts like perseverance, demonstrating independence, remaining open to continuous learning, constructing viable arguments, managing impulsivity and comprehending as well as critiquing. These became weekly topics of focus to drive our learning, where we would define the idea and process to understand it, connect with a quote and our personal experiences, provide examples and set Learner Goals, as well as create an art piece or a rubric to assess our work. We often looked for examples in our read aloud books, analyzed characters for these concepts, and did self-assessments of our individual and class progress towards meeting our Learner Goals.

Social-emotional skills came into focus as we incorporated empathy and relationship building. Students began to write weekly goals and affirmations to support their daily work, as well as reflect in writing and through sharing with others how their goals and affirmations were driving their learning. Connections were rich and words like metacognition, growth mindset and interdependence quickly became part of our lexicon. Did students struggle with these ideas? Of course! Sometimes you just want your teacher to tell you where to find the answer, rather than to ask you open ended questions to further your own independence. Did we face bumps in the road? Of course! Routinely coming back to ‘Be a Learner’ helped us to refocus and rededicate ourselves to our overarching goal.

During the last week of school, I had a student ask me a question in relation to a math prompt, “How many weeks in a month and year?” This led me to bring our whole class together for a conversation about ‘Being a Learner’ for the summer. We talked about the fact that I would no longer be at their side or available to guide them towards a resource, so how could they continue to be learners outside our classroom walls? Students initially shared their summer desires to play endless video games and watch TV. As I reminded them of all the work we had done this year and wondered aloud about how they could ‘Be a Learner,’ they began to share multiple creative ideas like researching how to create a video game, building a fort or achieving a milestone at the pool. It made me realize even more the importance of broadening our scope beyond the measureable of test scores and standards, to the essential goals of building capacity within our students to successfully “Be a Learner” in and out of the classroom.

Ann Ottmar
Former 4th grade teacher
P-5 Math TOSA
Cheney Public Schools

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Are Grades About What Students Earn or What Students Learn?

Conversations about grading practices can be difficult to approach.  Few schools or school districts have established common grading practices.  One district working to develop common practices came to the realization that, Grading is one of the most private experiences for students and teachers in the learning process.  (Erickson, J. 2010) 

No matter how uncomfortable the conversation may be, school leaders in systems without common grading practices should be having conversations with teachers about the impact of grading practices on student success.  Establishing grading practices that are equitable and support student learning requires teachers to challenge their beliefs and think about what grades represent.  Grading practices that promote equity focus on what students learn.  Grading practices that are equitable do not focus on behaviors such as organizational skills or the students access to support systems.

One of the first steps of implementing common grading practices in a school system is to develop a common purpose statement that is agreed upon by all staff.  Schools with firmly entrenched practices may want to take a scholarly approach to this issue by researching current best practices, engaging in book studies and providing opportunities for professional debate and dialogue such as socratic seminars or philosophical chairs.  It is important to acknowledging how difficult it is for teachers to let go of past practices and to provide a safe path to change.

Teacher judgement is a large factor in grading. Assisting teachers to develop belief systems and practices that help them make good judgements focused on student learning benefits the student and the teacher.  Grading systems wont change without thoughtful and deliberate conversations.  Grading practices are mired in belief systems that cause discomfort among teachers.  Teachers may struggle with change because to change you have to effectively admit that your previous practice was not effective and that is not a comfortable state for some.  Teachers are professionals who want to excel in their job and feel competent.   Admitting you are not sure can be scary. Teachers may not know what the new way of grading will look like and how to go about implementing the changes.  Guiding staff through difficult changes in a way that helps them safely challenge their own beliefs and integrate new ideas will yield positive results for students.

The book, Grading Smarter Not Harder by Myron Dueck (2014) is a great way to start a discussion with around grading practices.  This book inserts actual stories and humor to explain how Duecks grading practices have evolved over time.  It illustrates how strategies that work effectively are often found because you attempted a strategy that failed. This non-threatening approach makes it easier for teachers to be willing to take risks and try something new. 

School systems striving for equity must address the issue of grading.  Inconsistent grading practices make it difficult for students who struggle with navigating systems.  This can hinder students progress towards on-time graduation, students own beliefs about themselves and even college admission.   The college admission process is extremely competitive.  It is important that we know we are not keeping students out who have the ability to earn and do well even if they dont show the behaviors we desire.  Lets work together to make grading about what students learn.

Erickson, J. A. (2010, March). Grading practices: The third rail. Principal Leadership, 10(7), 2226.

Dueck, M. (2014). Grading Smarter, Not Harder: Assessment Strategies That Motivate Kids and Help Them Learn. ASCD.

Sally Lancaster Ed.D.,
Everett High School
Everett School District

Does using Technology in the Classroom Enhance Student Engagement?

Research on classrooms that have put constructivist teaching and learning models into practice indicates that technology can enhance student engagement and productivity.   More specifically, technology increases the complexity of the tasks that students can perform successfully, raises student motivation, and leads to changes in classroom roles and organization (Baker, Gearhart, & Herman, 1994; Dwyer, Ringstaff, & Sandholtz, 1990; Means & Olson, 1995). These role changes--with students moving toward more self-reliance and peer coaching, and teachers functioning more as facilitators than as lecturers--support educational reform goals for all students. 

Technology also can help students develop positive cooperative learning relationships, enabling them to work together while researching topics and creating presentations. In such relationships, students help each other learn. Students with special needs may require more coaching in computer-based activities, but they benefit from the experience of learning with and from other students.

The Toppenish School District believes this whole heartily and has implemented a K-12 STEM program using Project Lead the Way (PLTW).  Project Lead the Way offers a different approach to learning and teaching. Through activity-, project-, and problem-based curriculum, PLTW gives students in kindergarten through high school a chance to apply what they know, identify problems, find unique solutions, and lead their own learning.  This engaging, rigorous program provides tools to empower students and transforms the classroom into a collaboration space where content comes to life.  

Students at Garfield Elementary make
container to keep ice cream cold
Last year, Garfield Elementary School was one of 42 schools across the United States to be chosen to pilot the Project Lead the Way Launch elementary program.  This was especially exciting for the Toppenish School District to finally be able to extend the successful PLTW curriculum from the high school and middle school levels into the elementary.  PLTW Launch gave K-5 students a chance to love STEM at a younger age. Through PLTW Launch, students learn important, future-changing lessons, like it’s okay to take risks and make mistakes, and it’s great to employ critical thinking.  Garfield teachers incorporated GLAD strategies into the program to bring comprehensible input for comprehensible output for our large population of ELL students.  Second grade students created a container to keep their ice-cream frozen and third graders built airplanes that flew using mini I-pads to design their model.  The modules are aligned to Next Generation Science Standards, Common Core State Standards for Math and English Language Arts, and of course the content is highly engaging for students. 

Toppenish Middle School students
designed, built and program
robots for Robotic Tournament
Toppenish School District believes that technology in today’s classroom needs to promote learning activities in which students work in small groups rather than in isolation.  Technology need not be solely designed to teach basic skills, but rather real-world applications that support research, design, analysis, composition, and communication.  Traditionally, schools have not focused on technology as a means to support engaged learning.   When computers are present in schools serving at-risk students, they usually are used for drill-and-practice programs on basic skills rather than as tools to support students in designing their own projects (DeVillar & Faltis, 1991).

The Toppenish School District has invested in teaching our students rigorous and engaging content in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The goal of the STEM initiative is to give our students a wide variety of opportunities to engage in their education by challenging their thinking in math and science.

Anastasia Sanchez
Director, State & Federal Programs    
Toppenish School District