Balanced Literacy at Adelaide West – a short summary.

I recently received an email asking about our balanced literacy program at Adelaide West. This is the text of my reply which gives a pretty good summary:

For me, as a school principal and educator, communication is an essential human right and we have a moral imperative to teach this to all of our students. It is therefore at the heart of much of what we teach here at Adelaide West Special Education Centre. Our student cohort are mainly living with severe and multiple disabilities; 3/4 of them use wheelchairs for transport, 1/4 receive their nutrition via gastrostomy and approx 1/3 have epilepsy.  All of our students have complex communication needs, only about 10% of them have any verbal skills at all and the others use either Pragmatic Organised Dynamic Display communication books or iPads with Proloquo2go as their communication systems. Communication, is of course, a fundamental part of literacy and is taught across the entire school curriculum. For us, literacy skills are the most important functional skills we can teach our students and having basic literacy is the most important factor in them having positive post school options.

Introducing balanced literacy based on Erickson & Koppenhaver’s (2007) Four Blocks to Literacy has been based on the idea that ‘No-one is too anything to learn’ Using Carol Dweck’s (2008) growth mindset and Donnellan’s (1984) least dangerous assumption means that we offer all our students learning experiences from the Australian Curriculum. We do not expect age appropriate outcomes but do give age appropriate experiences, including literacy texts and expect them to respond.
The main benefits to the school community of using the four blocks to literacy model as a whole school  initiative have been two-fold:
– For the students it has made it clear to  them that there are reasons to communicate at school that are not simply related to bodily functions such as eating or personal hygiene.
– for the staff it has provided an explicit structure for teaching specific literacy skills to students. This structure has helped to make the teaching programs in all classes predictable and consistent, resulting in great outcomes for the students.
Prior to introducing the four blocks across the school, literacy teaching was unstructured and mainly based around reading to the students, rather than being interactive and requiring their involvement. There were people who felt that our students would not benefit from specific literacy teaching at the beginning, but with the support of Jane Farrall, who acted as mentor, coach and critical friend, everyone found a way to use the four blocks in a way that supported all of our students. Using Caroline Musselwhite’s videos helped to make it clear that even if students did not become highly literate, providing good literacy education would make their future life more enjoyable. This was a good tool for those who were operating in the ‘care’ frame of mind rather than the ‘education’ frame of mind.
The four blocks model has also provided a great way of ensuring accountability. Assessments have always been hard to find for our students and much previous assessment relied solely on teacher judgement, which could not be objectively moderated. The assessments that we have used as part of the four blocks have enabled us to present real data to demonstrate that over 80% of our students made improvements in their literacy learning last year.
We are still on the journey of improving our literacy teaching so I would love to hear from anyone else who is using a great balanced literacy program and how they have implemented for their students.
Donnellan, A, M (1984) The Criterion of the Least Dangerous Assumption. Behavioral Disorders, v9 n2 p141-50 Feb 1984
Dweck, C (2008) Mindset. Random House USA: New York
Erickson, K & Koppenhaver, D. (2007) Children with Disabilities: Reading and Writing  the Four-Blocks Way. Carson-Dellosa. North Carolina
Musselwhite, C Literacy for All: engaging in conversation with Dr Caroline Musselwhite Accessed 10th May 2016

Why I teach and how do I improve? A think piece following the Inclusive Learning Technologies conference 2014

Having just spent three days on the Gold Coast at the Inclusive Learning Technologies conference 2014 I woke up this morning with a few reflections.

Kevin Honeycutt, who was the opening keynote speaker for the conference was, for me an inspiring reminder of what I think is the foundation of good teachers belief systems – that teachers can change the lives of their students. This core belief is something that is fundamental to great teaching but soemtimes, in the ‘busyness’ of classroom and school life we lose track of it. Kevin also talked about how many teachers are ‘secret geniuses’ – doing great work in their own classrooms but not sharing that with others. He asked that we do this for the sake of students everywehre. My question here is really about how we persuade teachers to talk about their practice as widely as possible?

One of the reasons I was at the conference was to present on our school’s journey with the Australian Curriculum and I was proud to do so, Adelaide West Special Educaiton Centre has great educators doing great work with our students.But I didn’t present it as a finished piece of work – more as a snapshot of what we are doing.  Presenting at conferences is a great way to reflect on your own practice and to ‘moderate’ it against that of other people. Thank you to participants from other schools who approached me afterwards to share examples of their practice and to suggest collaboration in one form or another – Bring it on!

 Another great aspect of conferences is to discuss things like the Australian Curriculum, that aim to offer students and their families some assurance that the program in their child’s school offers learning experiences similar to that of students in another school. I was saddened to hear from a parent who said that her child is not offered opportunities to develop literacy skills in the way that we do at Adelaide West and doesn’t get the variety of learning experience that students at school need across a broad and balanced curriculum. How can we talk about effective inclusion if special school effectively exclude themselves by not taking part in a curriculum that aims to be for everyone? I know the Australian Curriculum is not perfect and it could have been done better but it’s what we’ve got for now. Our students face enormous challenges to their learning – surely its not fair to them to refuse to address the challenge of a curriculum document? We can’t wait until we feel they are ready for a particular experience  or can cope with more complex learning experiences – I am reminded of the story of a young man who had lost the use of his legs and had very limited use of his arms following an accident. His rehabilitation team had devised a plan, that would take several weeks to teach him how to tie his shoelaces. His response was that this was a waste of his time as,

“I dont have the time to learn to tie my shoelaces badly. If you teach me the skills I need to become a business leader I can pay someone to tie my shoelaces well. “

Our students don’t have time for us to wait until we think they’re ready to learn – they need to experience things about life and the world in as rich a way as we educators can make it for them – and that is where technology opens up endless opportunities.

Maybe one of the reasons that teachers don’t like sharing  their practice is because education is an imperfect science – we feel that there is always more we can be doing. Kevin Honeycutt talked about how ‘perfect is the enemy of done’ and another keynote speaker, Carole Zangari, considered that we do more harm by what we don’t do than by what we do. We can’t wait for the perfect communication system, the perfect startegy for teaching literacy – our students pay too high a price for our delay. We can’t wait unitl we consider we are doing ‘best practice’ – as Greg O’Connor said, call it ‘good practice’ as best practice implies nothing can get better.

 One of the themes that ran through many presentations was that of needing to have high expectations of our students. To me, this implies the need to have high expectations of ourselves. In order to improve our teaching, surely we need to expose ourselves by showing other educators what we do and inviting their input into our practice. Then we can begin to be sure that we are doing all we can to give our students the best lives they can have.

I would love to hear what other people have to say about the best ways to help all our teachers stop being ‘secret geniuses’ and get them sharing. Please comment