Friday, April 08, 2005

Meeting the Needs of Exceptional Learners

The death of Karol Wojtyla seemed to pass without comment this week, despite the fact that D'Youville is a college founded and run by a Catholic order. Flags were at half-mast, but I really did not sense any change on campus. There were no assemblies, let alone conversations, marking his death. Despite my disappointment—how many times will I ever be attending a Catholic college when a Pope dies?—it is comforting that the school promotes secularism to the point where only the statues, building names, and nuns gives you any indication of the school's religious leanings. I imagine I would not have enjoyed this semester as much as I have if I'd been immersed in a highly charged Christian environment.

One of the other really nice things about D'Youville is the fact that one of my required courses is Meeting the Needs of Exceptional Learners. This course has consisted of a week by week survey of all of the conditions, ailments, and exceptional situations I can expect to meet in an education system which embraces inclusion (the notable exception is gifted students). The semester started with an overview of IDEA legislation, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and Canadian Special Education Regulations, as well as the IEP (Individualized Education Program) process. These laws and processes are all geared toward the inclusion of students with special needs into mainstream classrooms.

The conceptual framework behind inclusion and the ensuing controversy in the early 1990s was fascinating. It was a battle that I lived through and simply never noticed. The belief that all students, regardless of their ability level, must be educated in a "least restrictive environment" caused a firestorm of protest from parents and teachers of non-disabled students at the time. The concerns that including students with disabilities in mainstream classrooms would harm everyone in the process turned out to be unfounded and this seems to be largely thanks to an intelligent approach which addresses each case on its own merits.

From this early introduction to the world of special education I have been learning about everything from Mental Retardation to Epilepsy to Learning Disabilities to ADHD. Every week we spend half the class learning about the specifics of the condition or disability and the other half is spent learning teaching techniques to best address the needs of students living with the disability. As if this wasn't enough, there are some other qualities of this course that make it one of the best I've had the pleasure to take at D'Youville.

First and foremost, Professor April Rockwood is the strongest prof I have. She has a PhD and is a certified Occupational Therapist (OTR)—which translates into a course which has a conspicuously applied bent to it. She is clearly very knowledgeable on every subject she covers and is totally honest about the limits of her know-how. When asked a question that stumps her, she follows up the next week with an answer. We have spent at least 25% of our classroom time out of our seats, reinforcing the importance of all aspects of learning. She takes psychomotoric learning very seriously and has designed the course in a way that allows for the greatest amount of freedom in instructional techniques. The core information is given to us in a handout which she goes over in detail, fielding any and all questions. After that, it is pure application. We have also had a series of student presentations on teaching techniques for a number of different disabilities. In fact, next week I will be part of a group leading the class in teaching students with Autism and Asperger Syndrome.

Prof. Rockwood's ego is well hidden, as I have found to be the case with many people who are involved in the field of special education and disabilities in general. With mainstream students a teacher can be rigid, self-centred, and unresponsive, and most students will still find a way to learn (as horrible as that sounds). When teaching students with special needs, laziness and disengagement are simply impossible; having to always be aware of the effectiveness of techniques, constantly adjusting, reflecting, and abandoning approaches in favour of other possible options is the starting point for any special ed teacher. It seems to me that these teachers need to be the most patient, empathetic, organized, and reflective of all educators and I've benefited in incalculable ways from my exposure to the field.

From what I understand, most teacher's education programmes do not include the teaching of exceptional learners, and beyond the benefits I've outlined above, I feel that I will have a competitive advantage when it comes to looking for work. If I have to come up with one criticism of this course, it is that it has caused me to experience a serious bout of Medical Student's Syndrome by proxy for any future child I might have—but that probably says more about me than it does the course.