Big Picture Learning and the Autism Spectrum

2542582474_7d6d27790c_oA group of educators, including myself, was invited last year to help create the second BPL school in Canada. There are two Met Schools now in Canada and they happen to be in Winnipeg in the Seven Oaks School Division. Our new school, the Maples Met School, began in September 2016 and it has been a brilliant experience.

One of the fascinating trends we have noticed as a faculty is that learners on the Autism Spectrum have gravitated to our model. Our neighbouring school (and our heroes for mentoring us this year!), the Seven Oaks Met School, has also noticed this trend. While this has been really exciting, I was underprepared and we needed to do some action-research on the fly.

I have taught Canadian History for the past number of years at an independent school, so coming into a brand new Met School with such diversity has been incredibly rewarding and challenging. That’s not to say that many of us have not encountered learners on the Autism Spectrum in our career, but within BPL schools and the Seven Oaks School Division, inclusivity is a central tenet.

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Karen Hiscott, Principal of Constable Finney School

Having said this, we had a tremendous amount to learn. By January, we were feeling pretty overwhelmed and we were equally frustrated at our collective inability to properly serve these incredible students. By chance, as things generally go, I attended a regularly scheduled monthly administration meeting.  At this meeting, a colleague of mine, Karen Hiscott, who was then the principal of Governor Semple School (She has moved on to be the Principal at Constable Finney School) was speaking to her research she had/has undertaken for her Master’s Degree thesis.

Karen spoke about how she had some profound experiences working with students on the Spectrum and this led to her line of inquiry and passion for working with learners with Autism. I immediately clung to Karen’s passion and wisdom and asked her to meet with our faculty to present some of her findings. Because she is awesome, she immediately offered her time and expertise.
She pointed us to several resources, but one of the most profound might be Barry Prizant’s book Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism. Karen’s research and Dr. Prizant’s book gave me a completely different understanding of Autism, where our learners might be at, and how our school might better nurture the amazing gifts and enthusiasms that our learners possess.
Through Karen’s research and dedication and Dr. Pizant’s years of experience, the Maples Met began and has begun to create an environment and educative experiences which seek to honour all our learners and also to nurture and respect those students on the Autism Spectrum.

We have failed many times and have had a few victories here and there, but one thing is for certain: Big Picture Schools are indeed ideally designed for learners on the Autism Spectrum.

At this year’s Big Bang (The Big Picture Learning network annual conference), I invite you to join our school in a conversation about how we create learning communities that are inclusive to all students. We will be sharing the voices of some of our students and their families about what has worked at our BPL school and what has not.

If you do decide to join us on July 26th at 1:30 pm (You can register using Guidebook), here are some resources that might prove valuable in preparation (Thanks to Karen Hiscott, Jennifer McGowan, and Dr. Tomy):

Prizant, B.M. (2015). Uniquely human: A different way of seeing autism. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Quek et al. (2012). Co-occurring anger in young people with Asperger’s Syndrome. Journal of Clinical Psychology, Vol 68(10), pp 1142-1148.

Simone, R. (2010). Aspergirls: Empowering females with Asperger Syndrome. Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Assessing Ecological Literacy: Dispelling the Hunch

June is often a stressful time at public schools throughout the world. Educators can be seen scrambling to finish their assessment of student growth, development, and transformation following ten months of intense and rigorous study. Coupled with this, learners are often placed in highly stressful situations whereby they are asked to empty their brains onto a piece of foolscap paper, sitting in cold gymnasiums.

More often now, learners are madly trying to finish up project work, hurriedly putting the final touches on public exhibitions, and/or wrapping up their intense internship experiences.

However a particular school is designed, June can be intense and chaotic. And all of this frantic activity has one goal in mind: to summatively assess the growth and development of learners in a meaningful and authentic way.

What is often not assessed, however, is the one skill that may be most important skill of our time — the ecological literacy of our learners.

While we place heavy emphasis on numeracy, language literacy, we seem unable to assess one’s ecological literacy — that is one’s ability to see the Earth as the very thing which sustains life combined with one’s desire and ability to take meaningful action. (See attached infographic.)

Matt Henderson

Assessing for an ecological literacy is a perplexingly difficult endeavour, and it’s one that I have struggled with for my entire career. But it is also an opportunity as a community of educators to think deeply about the skills and attitudes required to compete against  those who are hell-bent on destroying the planet.

Given our our seemingly insurmountable task of overcoming these destructive forces and to some degree a general societal malaise, how do we teach and assess for an ecological literacy? What are these skills and values we are attempting to impart, and when do we know when someone has indeed become ecologically literate?

For educators, whether teachers, parents, older siblings, homeschoolers, etc., these are exciting times!

David Orr, the American academic who coined the term Ecological Literacy, suggests that someone who is indeed ecologically literate needs to have an understanding of basic concepts such as the laws of thermodynamics, energetics, carrying capacities, environmental ethics, etc.

At a content level, we are able to assess whether someone has developed at least some sense of an ecological literacy. For instance, we can determine to what extent a student is aware that energy/matter cannot be created or destroyed. This has huge implications, as those who are aware of the first law of thermodynamics understand why burning fossil fuels has its limit and they begin to understand the notion of externalities. We can assess as to one’s understanding of carrying capacity and systems thinking. We can assess as to whether one can determine what is right and wrong when making decisions about our environment.

The change in behaviour comes with creating educative experiences which cause disequilibrium within the learner. The more learners are able to question their role within the universe, the greater questions can be elicited about human existence on this planet. This is a different type of assessment – one which involves a dialectic and democratic conversation between educator and learner and one that is authentic. We don’t have to look into a crystal ball to see if a learner has been impacted by a deep educative experience and a meaningful relationship within a learning community if the design is sound.

A few years ago, my friends Pauline Gerrard and Dean McLeod and I had the idea of creating an educative experience for young people at the IISD’s Experimental Lakes Area. This intense whole ecosystem field course for High School students has most certainly impacted the learners who have engaged with the ecosystem, the world-class scientists, and the quiet conversations around campfires or in the middle of a lake.

But the experiences don’t have to be as intense, so long as we are equipping learners with the tools they will need in order ask deep and powerful existential questions and as long as the experiences are designed with purpose. This type of learning arguably occurs outside of the confines of a traditional classroom and leads to curiosity, inquiry, and praxis.

To assess this questioning and praxis, we then need to create learning environments which allow for a horizontal conversation about our role on this rock hurtling through space. This is the heart of assessment and a pathway towards an ecological literacy and a better future for all species and systems.

DoNow: Canada 150

Welcome to our friends from Cape Breton! This week, the Maples Met School hosts our new friends from Glace Bay, Nova Scotia and then in June, our Metsters will be head to the East Coast.

We have some really exciting activities planned for the upcoming week, including experiences at the Manitoba Museum, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Winnipeg Harvest, The Forks, the Winnipeg Art Gallery, Upper Fort Garry, the Royal Aviation Museum, and much more!

One event will situate us at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. On Thursday, March 16th, the Walrus, a Canadian magazine which looks at current affairs, literature, and general interest articles, is hosting a discussion series called We Desire a Better Country. The event is sold out, but we have managed to secure a few tickets!

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Image from the Walrus Magazine

This is a really profound proposition and this week we would like you to contemplate a couple of things. First, in light of Canada 150, what has been the impact of Confederation on both Nova Scotia and Manitoba? What have been the causes and consequences of Confederation in both provinces and how has it impacted people, the land, the ecology, and how each province governs itself?

Secondly, looking at the continuity and change of each province, how might we construct a better Canada? What do we mean by better and for whom?

In your groups of four, you need to respond in the following ways:

  1. On Monday, begin to create a skit, song, or performance of any kind which answers the two questions above. (We will provide you time throughout the week to work on this.)
  2. Elect a person from your group to attend the Walrus talk on Thursday.
  3. Each group needs to respond to the questions using FlipGrid. Each member can provide a response, or all four members can create one.

On Friday, March 17th, groups will be able to present their performances at our potluck dinner at the Maples Met. If you are using social media throughout the week, please use the following hashtag: #DoNowCanada150.

We will be posting photos, tweets, and FlipGrid responses throughout the week, so be precise, be courteous, and be thoughtful. As you venture from place to place, be sure to collect evidence for your responses. (Hint: Take pictures, write notes, post photos, Tweet links, etc.)

You can follow the Maples Met on Twitter and Instagram

 

 

Does Democracy Work?

img_1508This is a special edition eNewsletter designed to help learners think about the upcoming Glassen Essay (Does democracy work?), the recent US President’s inauguration, and about how we can carve out an argument effectively. This task is for all Grade 9 and 10 learners at the Met.

On Friday, as many of us watched at school, Donald Trump became the 45th president of the United States of America. The following day, Saturday, people across the world protested — including in Winnipeg as evidenced by the above photo.

Both events speak to the state of democracy in both the United States and throughout the world. Our friends at KQED, a National Public Radio station in California, have asked students around the world to participate in a larger conversation about democracy. The Met School is part of a special pilot this week to try a new form of technology. We will be joining about ten other schools in the US.

This week’s KQED DoNow asks students to respond to the following question:

can_protest_and_dissent_accompany_a_peaceful_transition____kqed_learning___kqed

We will be using FlipGrid as a means of responding to the question and to engage in a conversation with other students. This week’s FlipGrip Code is 71bfcc.Parents and guardians are encouraged to become involved in the conversation as well. Have fun, think hard, and be precise in your response.Sara’s advisory sent a bunch of questions related to democracy to Matt to see what he thought. Here is his response to those questions in podcast form:

DoNow: Does Democracy Work?

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All Grade 9 learners at the Maples Met are being asked to consider the following question: Does democracy work?

This question arises from current affairs, namely the recent US election and the rise of Russia’s global power and influence. It also arises from the annual Glassen Essay Contest facilitated by the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics.

Recently, Canada has gone through a federal election and we have witnessed a provincial election here in Manitoba. Both of these elections offered points of discussion related to electoral reform and concepts such as first-past-the-post.

These recent events beg the question as to whether or not democracy actually works in 2016. What do you think? Does Democracy work?

To begin, we need to conduct some research and answer some guiding questions (and perhaps Crash Course can help begin the discussion):

What is democracy? What is the difference between democracy and liberal democracy? Is democracy just voting, or more? Here is a great opinion piece from Al Jazeera which looks at the state of democracy and also touches on some key concepts.

When and why democracy? Democracy has not and is not the norm. What is the history of the evolution of democracy? Here is a great BBC timeline of the continuity and change of democracy. Similarly, the Nobel Prize has a great map  will help us ground our thinking in history.

Here is a great article for the New York Times which looks at the stability and longevity of democracies. Also here is a fantastic interview conducted by Michael Enright of CBC’s The Sunday Edition with renowned political philosopher Michael Sandel. In this interview, Sandel speaks to the state of democracy.

Your final product will of course be a submission to the Glassen Essay Contest. In the meantime please comment below or via Twitter (using #DoNowDemocracy) to further our discussion and/or share resources.

You can add resources to the Padlet located here.