My 5th grade son has ADHD. He struggles to sustain attention and focus on longer tasks, or any task that he not fascinated by, which is 99% of them unless they include Lego or Minecraft. Homework is a chore. Long assignments like essays and writing projects where he has a month to do them are put off and ignored until a frantic last-minute push. His mother and I get frustrated by his short-term focus and his avoidance. After all, in my classroom, my students are expected to take their learning seriously.
I am a teacher. I teach English and English Language Arts to a wide variety of learners. I am good at what I do.
My school district asked me to build a learner active, technology infused (LATI) classroom – that’s a classroom that uses a multitude of resources so that students of varying learning styles could access and consume content they needed to think through solving open-ended problems. I was good at that. I was so good it that my district asked me to be a Teacher Leader, and help other teachers in the district.
The LATI Classroom, a term coined by Dr. Nancy Sula, creator of Innovative Designs for Education (IDE Corporation), serves to allow all students and all learners find their means of understanding content and expressing their thinking. Like I said, I was good at that.
Kids had use of many Google apps and tools, like Google Classroom, and the Google tools suite. I used Screencastify to let students hear my voice in a video recording as I guided them through necessary concepts and made it available over and over again. The IDE term for this is to clone yourself. I cloned myself. Over and over.
Students in my classroom had access to tons of websites, links, and other tech-based or web-based tools to assist them in their pursuit of deeper thinking.
At home, my son had me and his mother. His mother is an old-school, write with good penmanship, proper spelling and punctuation; hand in neat work, nothing sloppy type. She would sit and drill him through his efforts. And she is good at that.
In my classroom, students were encouraged to use each other before they asked me for help. They were encouraged to view each other as experts in various parts of the learning process, each one a master in their own field, working together as a team. My classroom was a team.
At home, my son had me. Me and his Mom.
I was not able to see my son’s abilities due to the frustration of watching his obstacles take over. Alone, with only me to guide him, he would bounce from a bathroom break, to a water break, feeding the dog, asking off-topic questions – good questions, interesting questions – and insisting on pursuing those thoughts instead of returning to the task at hand.
Each time he swerved off-task, it was a labor for him to come back. The flow of the work pace would build and then die out. We’d build it again, and again, a distraction would kill it.
Do you know how exhausting it is to constantly be restarting something? It’s awful. It requires more mental effort to restart than to keep it running. Cars use more fuel when they start than if you left it running while parked.
My son never left himself running in park, with the heat on and the music playing. He’d turn it all off, start something else, then turn that off and restart the thing he did not want to do in the first place.
And yet, he wants to do well. He wants to be accomplished.
I shouted, I banged the table with my fists. He’d feel terrible and beaten down. By the end of what seemed like forever, we were both frustrated and tired. I went to bed questioning my abilities as a teacher. What’s worse, he, I’m certain, was in his bed questioning his ability to learn. A ten year old boy experiencing self-esteem bruises. It was awful.
Then I started working with Jenn Cronk on a book about Universal design for Learning (UDL). UDL is one of the cornerstone concepts behind Dr. Nancy Sulla’s LATI Classroom. In a universal design for learning, multiple means of representation of content is provided for students. Just like in my classroom, a kid should be able to access knowledge in a way that made sense and was easily absorbed by them. They had multiple ways available to them.
Jenn Cronk worked in my son’s 4th grade classroom as a tech consultant. She introduced him to voice recognition add-ons in Google Docs. Suddenly, the kid who didn’t like to write found an easier way to express his thinking. He only had to speak clearly into the microphone of a chrome book.
Why didn’t I think of that?
Voice recognition tools are an option in my classroom but I wasn’t fond of it. I wanted my students to be able to physically write. In my view, they weren’t going to get the opportunity in the workforce or college to speak their ideas into text when they needed to deliver their thinking to a colleague, professor or boss.
And if I wasn’t fond of it for my students, I certainly wasn’t a fan of my son using it. Until I discovered that it worked for him. However, the longer the writing assignment, the longer he had to work at it, the more likely he was to bail on it. Still, using voice recognition software made the act of ‘writing’ more engaging.
Fast forward about a year. Jenn Cronk invites me to co-author a book on - guess what? – UDL! So, while I had created the LATI classroom beautifully in my classroom, for my job, I did not understand the basic concepts, as written and expressed in words, of the UDL process. I read and I read and I read. And Jenn taught me plenty more about it.
The basic idea behind the need for UDL is that every kid is bright and capable in their own way; not every child learns the same way. We must allow them the opportunity to access knowledge and express their thinking their way.
Shortly after embarking on the book, I was again sitting with my son, helping him write an essay. While he worked, I began to see him as the unique learner that he is. And I began to see his abilities and his needs. I considered how I could help him find alternative means of expressing his thinking.
He didn’t want to rewrite the essay he had done. Most kids, especially those with disabilities, dislike having to redo anything. It’s a lot of work to complete the first draft, can’t that be enough?
After I acknowledged that most of what he had done was good he was willing to dig in and rewrite. He felt confident and engaged. His face was the picture of determination as he busily scrawled words onto the page. We discussed possible alternative words, synonyms for the appropriate 5th grade syntax he had chosen. His suggestions blew my mind. His vocabulary was far richer than his writing conveyed.
I had a sudden realization: My son is incredibly smart. When I stopped looking at him as my son, and as a unique student who learns differently, I saw the whole of his intelligence, not just what he was able to show. What a wake-up call as a parent.
My son’s disability – his distractibility and his ADHD – get in his own way. He and I talk candidly regarding how his brain works. We talk about how he thinks. We discuss means of helping him express his thinking. He has great ideas. He is beginning to know himself; he is beginning to become metacognitive. Being metacognitive is the ultimate goal of the UDL process. Teachers want kids to recognize what they need to learn and express their thinking best and to advocate for those needs. What parent wouldn’t want that for their own child?
It is no coincidence that Jenn Cronk of #transparently teaching asked me to join her in writing a book that she had been asked to scribe. Learning and writing about the universal design for learning for all students has opened my eyes; I am a classroom teacher and I am a father. I have the glorious obligation to be a great teacher to my son. A great teacher spends the school year helping students find their own voice and grow as learners.
A great parent does the same, but for a lifetime.
Hi. My name is Stephen Tesher. I am a novelist, screenwriter, educator, and father. I've authored three books, staged numerous plays and optioned screenplays, articles, and this blog.