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.

Ken Robinson: A Demonstration of Ecological Literacy

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Four of the five educators of the Maples Met School at Big Bang 2016 in Orlando. (Will, Michelle, Sara, & Matt. Sopear was holding down the fort in Winnipeg.)

In recent months, I have been tasked, along with four highly skilled educators, to open a second Big Picture Learning school within the Seven Oaks School Division. The Maples Met School housed within Maples Collegiate and has been heavily supported by colleagues at both Maples Collegiate and the original 7Oaks Met School.

Given the newness of our school, we were invited to travel to Orlando and participate in the annual Big Picture Learning conference commonly referred to as Big Bang. The conference offers critical sessions on the components which make Big Picture schools unique, namely sessions related to exhibitions, advisories, internships and the education of one student at a time. All these sessions occur within the foundation of the Big Picture: Relationships, relevance, and rigour.

Not only did Big Bang afford us with outstanding opportunities to make sense of our roles within the life of a student, but it also allowed our small staff to bond and connect with itself. Similarly, we were also able to make powerful connections with the other Met School just down the street. We had tremendous discussions in between sessions, at meals, and in long layovers at dreary airports about experience design, assessment, and how to ensure that our learning environment was both rigorous and vigorous. many of us are also heavily invested in sustainability and ecological literacy, and began discussing how our school might champion these notions.

As part of Big Bang 2016, we were also treated to a talk from Sir Ken Robinson. As most educators are aware, Robinson is famous for a couple of brilliant TED talks and equally compelling books related to learning, schools, and creativity. His most recent book might be one on all of our reading lists. I had seen Robinson a few years ago in Winnipeg and so I was really excited to hear what he had to say.

Robinson was clearly a fan of of Big Picture Learning schools as they focus on the passion of the learner and allow time and space for learners to take control of their own learning. Robinson received the annual Disruptor award from the founders of Big Picture, Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor, with grace and humour.

What was most interesting regarding Sir Ken’s remarks was his focus on the state of the planet and how high the stakes are for our learners. He spoke of the carrying capacity of Earth, how critical soil is in agriculture and how we have essentially destroyed much of it, and he paid special attention to the fact that we need to properly equip young people for the current and impending ecological crisis. Robinson spoke in systems and clearly understood how nature sustains all life on Earth.

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Ken Robinson’s aims for education.

I had never heard Ken Robinson speak this way. Granted, he was his usually charming and hilarious self, but there was a more serious and forceful tone to his message. In most contexts, the audience can be turned off by those who speak truth to power when it comes to our role in the destruction of our planet, but while Robinson didn’t seem to care, he also was sensitive enough to not alienate those who might be annoyed of offended by the truth.

Matt Henderson

This is my criteria of experience for an ecological literacy. It might help us create learning experiences which lead to sustainable communities.

For me, Ken Robinson spoke to our role as educators in terms of equipping our learners with the knowledge and learning experiences that will help them to gain an ecological literacy. It is incumbent on us to help them understand the world around them, to think in systems, to anticipate the consequences of human activity, and to take meaningful action in order to create sustainable communities. I believe this is our role as individual educators, and also as schools.

As we creep towards the beginning of a new academic year, how might we cultivate this ecological literacy within our learners? How can we design learning experiences which help give our learners a fighting chance?