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Guest Post: Living and Teaching With ADHD

12 Jul

In response to yesterday’s post about ADHD medication I was contacted by Ryan Barrett. Ryan is an elementary Core French teacher with the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board and has been since September 2008. Ryan shared his extraordinary and inspiring story of growing up, living and teaching with ADHD. I asked if I could share that story on this blog and he agreed. The following are his words, unedited by me.

I am 32 years old and teach grades 3/4/5 and have been undergoing medical treatment for combined type ADHD (both inattentive and hyperactive-impulsive types) for just over a year now. The ‘just’ is the important modifier here as I have spent my years from pre-school to university, and every year thereafter in classrooms, trying to find my footing in the simplest of routines we teach our students Day One.  I kept re-living that first day of school, struggling with unmanaged ADHD for 28 years, until last winter when I just couldn’t make it out of the house anymore.

My personal struggle in the classroom was never of the sort that distracted others or demanded additional support from the teacher. I was identified gifted, and at IPRC meetings (this was pre-IEP, but post-Bill 82) they said I was bored and that I needed to challenge myself. Eventually, they thought, I would learn to meet deadlines. I would learn that ‘practice makes perfect’, and the restlessness and indecision would eventually fade and I would find my one true calling. I would learn to use a binder, a highlighter, and keep a calendar — and follow it! I would be satisfied and confident enough to complete a piece of work without starting over, and over, and over…

While my proficiencies were lauded, supported medically, and formalized, my weaknesses were dismissed as the tiniest of challenges that maturity would overcome.

Today I still find it difficult to go seek help when I can’t concentrate, when I can’t focus, or can’t stay organized. I don’t tell enough people when I am frustrated, overwhelmed, or worried about deadlines looming or missed. I certainly don’t seek medical attention often enough, and especially not when I am unable — when my brain, and body are unable – to accomplish a task that is, at this stage in my life, vital to my survival. I can’t stress that enough. I can’t live like this without treating the root of the problem and not just the symptoms.  Last winter I didn’t think there was any hope at all.

Without the right medication, the dosage of which is still being adjusted since I am just at the start of this journey, I just haven’t enough strategies to do all of the  things most other grown-ups do in a day. Time and time again, I wake up in the morning and wonder what to do next.

Do I shower first? Where is my towel? I always end up leaving wet footprints on the carpet in the hallway. Keys: I need those to drive. I lost the checklist I made last night. It is probably with the one I made the night before last. If anything goes wrong, I’ll be late. I have just enough time to reinvent the wheel before the bell goes.

Still, I remain bound to the classroom, where I practice what I never learned. But this September, I’ll be a step closer, and all because I know now that my body lacks what it needs to propel me through the next day, and the next. And because it’s not a secret anymore…

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The Use of ADHD Drugs in Schools

11 Jul

An article in the Wall Street Journal has re-started public discussion on why so many students are taking medication to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It’s a thorny issue with implications for the kind of schools we have, the kind of schools we want and how we view students and their learning.

New research, conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research and published in June, studied how taking Ritalin, a medication commonly prescribed for ADHD, affected students in Quebec. According to the study, taking Ritalin caused “…increases in emotional problems among girls, and reductions in educational attainment among boys…”. This is disturbing news for students, parents and educators.

There has been an explosion in the use of medication to treat ADHD in children in recent years. In March, 2013 the Center for Disease Control reported “…a 16 percent increase since 2007 and a 41 percent rise in the past decade…” in the number of US children diagnosed with ADHD. Currently nearly one in five high school boys and 11% of all school age children are diagnosed with ADHD. In the wake of these revelations some critics are suggesting that prescribing ADHD medication (and the resultant side effects) to children, without gains in learning constitutes “malpractice”.

I can’t find Canadian stats, but my own classroom experience suggests a similar pattern of use. My class last year, which was typical, had 16% of students taking ADHD medication. All of these students were boys. In fact, the majority of students diagnosed with ADHD are boys. Boys are five to nine times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD, leading some to suggest that this is evidence of a ‘war on boys’ in our schools.

The high rates of ADHD, and the resultant medication use, says a lot about the culture in schools. Students who don’t progress are pathologized, and schools only accept or allow for deviation if it’s supported by a label. There used to be an understanding that schools can’t meet every student’s needs, but no longer. We devote extensive resources to finding out why a student isn’t learning and ensuring they have every chance to be successful. This process, along with the need for labels, leads to higher rates of diagnosis.

Learning is a complex process and it’s difficult to determine whether it occurred.  Standardized tests are unreliable indicators of the many ways learning happens. Further, just because a student can sit still and pay attention doesn’t mean they have the skills to learn. Students struggle with ADHD for years causing a skills deficit and layers of coping strategies that interfere with learning. Prescribing and using medication is merely the first of several steps in helping a student with ADHD to learn.

The presence of a student with ADHD often impacts on the learning of the whole class. Students with ADHD can be disruptive, making learning more difficult for other students. Teachers devote time to managing and supporting students with ADHD, meaning less time and support is available for other students. It’s likely that the learning of the class improves when a student with ADHD is successfully treated with medication, even though their individual learning may not.

The value of ADHD medication is not exclusively in improving academic learning. Students with ADHD  struggle daily to meet basic expectations leading to lower self-esteem. Medication helps students with ADHD to improve their quality of life, with more friendships and a more positive attitude about school and life. That may, in the long run, be more important than a gain in academic learning.

I prefer using methods other than medication to support students with ADHD whenever possible. A classroom environment where students work in collaborative small groups and have the freedom to move around if needed can be helpful. A well constructed and implemented IEP (Individual Education Plan) with useful accommodations and strategies is also recommended.

The decision of whether or not to use medication to treat ADHD is a difficult one for parents. There are multiple factors to consider and every case is different. It is especially complicated for parents without the resources to provide the extensive support a child with ADHD may need. Constantly taking time off work to deal with problems at school isn’t a viable option for most parents. Sometimes it isn’t a matter of choosing the best solution, but rather finding the right option given the many constraints. And sometimes, that’s medication.

Never Let Them See You Teach

3 Jul

There’s an intersection between the role of stand-up comedian and teacher.

Both stand alone before groups of people and try to engage their audience or class and move them to action (laugh/learn/both). Like stand-up comedians the best teachers write their own material (to rely on someone else’s lessons or text books is pretty hack) and are always ready to improvise when the needs of the class require it. And as most experienced teachers know, a little humour in the classroom can improve the learning. Because of this I’ve had a passing interest in what stand-up comedians have to say about what they do and how it helps me as a teacher.

I’ve been a fan of stand-up comedy in general and Bill Cosby specifically since I was young. I listened to his stand-up on vinyl and saw him perform in the early 80’s. It ranks up there with one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. Recently, Cosby’s gone back to stand-up (did he ever leave?) and the stories of his shows are legendary. At his last performance at the Just For Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal he did a two-hour show where he walked onto the stage, sat down, told TWO STORIES, killed and left.

Last week I was listening to an interview with Bill Crystal (not a fan) and he told a story about Cosby. When Crystal was coming up as a comedian he was also a big fan of Cosby’s. He was doing a set at a comedy club and looked up to see that Cosby was watching him at the back of the room. After the show and later they talked about comedy and Crystal related Cosby’s wisdom on what makes good stand-up comedy.

The secret he said is “Never let them see you work”. Good performances should come across as natural and unrehearsed. Be relaxed in the delivery and casually throw out things so that people think “wow, he’s naturally funny”. If people think it’s forced they put up resistance. The secret is to relax and get them to drop their defences.

I think the same is true of good teaching. Inexperienced teachers try to control everything and pre-plan learning so that nothing  can “go wrong”. As teachers get more experienced they develop more confidence and believe that, whatever happens, they can handle it. They relax more into the role and, in doing so, get students to relax, which increases engagement. Students think this is something you’re doing with them rather than to them.

This doesn’t mean that things aren’t prepared and planned, rather that when content or instructions are being delivered it doesn’t seem that way. It’s almost as if you’re deciding what to do there and then and you’re just as delighted and surprised by what’s happening. This leaves space for moments where something unexpected happens and suddenly learning is happening in a completely new, unplanned direction.

Most lesson plans and unit plans really miss the boat on this. Teachers need to have a general idea of where things are going but the route should be negotiable. After all, aren’t those the most interesting journeys?

Five Summer Reads For Teachers

1 Jul

Classes may have ended three days ago but to my “fantasy mind” summer vacation still hasn’t started. The first “official” day of summer vacation is tomorrow when, after a long weekend, THE REST OF THE WORLD resumes regular life and I don’t.

This is the most precious moment of the summer vacation, when it’s all about to happen, full of potential. In my first couple of summers as a teacher I learned that July and August can disappear faster than a kiddie cone at the beach. At the start of summer vacation I pause and appreciate the ten weeks stretching out before me and ask “What will I do? How will I use this gift?”

I’m also aware of how quickly the lessons of the previous year fade. In the blink of an eye I’ll be thinking and planning for next year, not considering what did and didn’t work last year. That’s why, in early July, I also try to think about what I need to know more about to make learning in my classroom better. How can I improve my knowledge and understanding of teaching and learning?

This year I’ve compiled a list of five books I’d like to read to help make the 2013-14 school year as good as possible. Here they are:

  1. Finding Your Element: How to Discover Your Talents and Passions and Transform Your Life by Ken Robinson & Lou Aronica. This is the follow-up book to Sir Ken Robinson’s book The Element about the importance of finding your passion. Finding Your Element contains strategies to help people find their passion. I’m hoping I can use some of those strategies with students so that when we discuss topics they’d like to learn about I’m met with fewer blank stares and more enthusiastically raised hands.
  2. Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined by Scott Barry Kaufman. Kaufman, a cognitive psychologist who was “relegated to special education as a child” uses the latest research to question our traditional notions of intelligence and suggests that what we consider exceptionalities or learning difficulties are really different forms of intelligence. I’d like to learn more about this. I think our current ideas about what makes someone ‘smart’ are much too narrow.
  3. Teaching with Poverty in Mind by Eric Jensen. The subtitle of this book “What Being Poor Does to Kids’ Brains and What Schools Can Do About It” is intriguing. Society and schools greatly underestimate the effect of poverty on children’s learning. Comparing student achievement without taking these effects into consideration is both unfair and damaging to student learning. I’m especially interested in what I can do as a teacher to offset the impact poverty has on my students.
  4. Visible Learners by Ben Mardell, Mara Krechevsky, Melissa Rivard, and Daniel Wilson. I’ve long been a fan of the Reggio Emilia approach to teaching and learning but am unsure how to apply those principles in a “mainstream” classroom. This book provides “…practical ways to enhance learning by increasing collaboration and critical thinking across grade levels and subject matter”. There are also strategies to improve educators’ ability to observe learning effectively with minimal impact on the learning, something I want to improve at.
  5. Teaching: It’s Harder Than It Looks by Gerry Dee. Dee is a stand-up comedian and star of the CBC comedy Mr. D about Gerry Duncan: an under-qualified high school social studies teacher. Before becoming an entertainer Dee was a physical education teacher and hockey coach at De La Salle College (Toronto)“Oaklands”, a private co-ed high school in Toronto. This book is a collection of his funniest anecdotes about teaching and, according to a couple of colleagues who’ve read it, it’s pretty funny. I hope so. Summer shouldn’t just be about serious learning for teachers or students. It should also be a time to recharge and reenergize  Reading this will, hopefully, put a spring back in my teaching step so that, come September, I’m excited to again jump ‘once more into the breach’ with a smile on my face.

How about you? Any summer books for teachers you’d like to recommend? Suggestions in the comments please.

What Students Can Gain From Losing

14 May

“You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard ya hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.” Rocky Balboa

Teachers understand the importance of learning skills and character in supporting academic success. It’s  integrated into our daily activities and we’ve delivered “Virtues” programs for years. The connection between character and academic success is now being recognized outside the teaching profession.

In 2010 the Ontario government announced that all students would to be instructed and formally evaluated in six key learning skills:

          • Responsibility
          • Organization
          • Independent Work
          • Collaboration
          • Initiative
          • Self-Regulation

The front page of the Ontario Report Card is reserved for communicating Learning Skills progress. The message to parents and students is that learning skills must be developed before sustained academic progress is possible.

In September of 2012 Paul Tough published “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character” to widespread acclaim. People magazines said “Drop the flashcards—grit, character, and curiosity matter even more than cognitive skills”. Educators continued to discuss how to effectively teach grit and character skills.

Perseverance or “grit”as Tough calls it is the most important of these character skills. Grit is “perseverance in pursuit of a passion” as defined by Angela Duckworth, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. Grit is what kicks in (or doesn’t) when students face an obstacle in learning or in life. When they don’t understand something do students  quit or do they keep going?

I point out to my students that everyone, no matter how intelligent, reaches a point where they don’t understand. Some reach this point sooner, others later, but it comes to us all. What determines our success is what we do when we reach that point. Students without grit give up.

But all students have grit, it just depends on the situation. Students who quit on math spend hours persevering on “Call of Duty”. The student who doesn’t “get it” will take thousands of failed shots in the gym in order to perfect their jump shot. Grit is dependent on engagement, passion. If students are engaged, if they care passionately, they’re more likely to show grit. Our task as educators is to make learning engaging while showing them how to apply the grit they already have to their academic learning.

Since May 1st the most engaging topic for many students in Southern Ontario has been The Toronto Maple Leafs return to the NHL playoffs. Each game is dissected in class with other students and teachers and of course it’s all over the media.

The Leafs game 7 overtime loss was  the major topic of conversation in class the morning after the night before, so we talked about it. In the discussion I said, to disbelieving Leaf fans, that the game 7 overtime loss was probably the best thing that could happen to The Leafs. After the boo-ing died down they asked me to explain.

Massive painful failure can be a tremendous gift. The Leafs showed, throughout the first round, that they persevere. They were underdogs in the series and battled back twice to tie the series. Even in game seven in Boston they were losing and fought back. There’s no quit in this team. They showed grit.

In the end they lost in the most painful way. Holding a 4-1 lead with 15 minutes to go the game was all but won. But they lost the game, and the series, in overtime. Crushing. None of the Leaf players will ever forget that feeling. I know, because I’ve had my own overtime losses. We all have.

After the pain subsides the memories of the loss can turn into a fire in your belly. As the players train for next season they’ll think about what happened, how much it hurt and it will drive them forward past their limits. They’ll vow to never let it happen again.

I encouraged my students to think like The Leafs. Failure is not the end, but a learning opportunity. It’s not a period, it’s a comma, waiting for you to finish the sentence. When my students aren’t being successful, just like the Leafs weren’t, they should also show grit and keep plugging away (I can hear Kessel saying “You just got to keep giving 110% out there”).

There’s a golden opportunity for The Toronto Maple Leafs, a move that will affect the lives of millions of students. The Maple Leafs should become “The Team That Never Quits”. They should reach out to schools and students using social media (YouTube, Skype) and make school visits. Players could share how it felt to fail and how important it is to persevere, to show grit and how they did it. There could be a blue and white poster in every classroom with the Leafs logo and the motto “Never, never,never, ever quit”. (I bet Fred Galang is already working on this :))

Helping students see the bridge between persevering in other areas of their lives and academically would be transformative. The way students are engaged with the club is a powerful tool. They’d also be reaching out to generations of new fans who’d proudly wear the blue & white because of it’s deeper meaning. Sounds like a win-win.

Social Media Can’t Save Education

5 May

Has anyone seen my phone?

I love dogs. My most cherished childhood memories are of walking on the West Pennine Moors with my granddad and his dogs (and later mine) ranging around us. We rarely talked or saw others, but I learned a lot. There was a deep feeling of stillness and peace as we walked and connected with nature while eating Nuttall’s Mintoes. He’d tell me the common names of plants, share some local history or tell me a joke that made us giggle.

That deep connection with the countryside and dogs drew to me to Tweedhope in Scotland and Border Collie breeder and trainer Viv Billingham’s farm during a trip to the UK. Sheepdog trials are popular the world over, as trainers use their dogs to collect and move flocks of sheep around a field against the clock. Viv is a sheepdog trial “rock star”, was featured on TV and represented Scotland in international dog trails.

We arrived in Tweedhope on a sunny afternoon (yes, it gets sunny in Scotland) and found the farmhouse nestled in the glens and looking exactly as it should. Viv spoke about the breeding and training of border collies and put some of the dogs through their paces in an exhibition.

She explained that she doesn’t start training any dog until after it’s first year. It takes a year for the dog’s personality to emerge. Once she knows who the dog is she can know how best to work with it and for what roles it is best suited. This was my first encounter with differentiated, individualized learning and I still use those ideas when I work with students. I try to get to know students first and then  work with their personalities and strengths.

When the exhibition was over Viv invited us in for a cup of tea and some biscuits. Inside were a litter of Border Collie pups, about 3 or 4 weeks old, and I asked about their future. Viv explained that they were all destined to be working dogs.

I wondered about border collies as pets (my grandfather had owned one, the beloved ‘Floss’) and Viv vigorously shook her head. Border Collies need lots of vigorous exercise to stay healthy, not only physically but mentally healthy. They are bred for work and if they don’t work they become “unbalanced”. Sheepdogs that don’t herd sheep obsess about herding other things, like children, nipping at their heels to get them to move. They become fixated on an object, for example a ball or passing cars, as a proxy for the real stimulation they need. However they respond, it isn’t healthy, and the dogs become anxious and unmanageable.

When I see how we use social media in education I’m reminded of sheepdogs that aren’t herding. In the absence of real human connection we fixate on social media as a proxy, and become obsessive and neurotic.

Students show an unhealthy connection to electronic devices and connections. The epidemic of teens and distracted driving is just one illustration of how serious this fixation has become. If controlling a heavy machine full of flammable liquid at high speeds doesn’t make you put away your phone and pay attention, what will?

Educators also show an unhealthy preoccupation with social media and electronic devices. It’s a central topic at most education conferences and it’s common to hear advocates impatiently wondering why every teacher isn’t on Twitter and “what do we have to do to get them there?”. The suggestion is that by getting educators to use social media our education system will magically improve and the factors limiting student learning will disappear.

Social media is a useful tool for educators but it isn’t the panacea some suggest. It’s the old “correlation not causation” maxim. Excellent, motivated and thoughtful educators are on social media, but social media doesn’t make them that way. Those qualities lead them to social media and make it useful for them.

Disinterested and disengaged educators on social media won’t change things. The same inspiring educators that use social media work every day alongside disconnected and ineffective educators. If that doesn’t change them getting a tweet with a link won’t.

The success of any problem solving strategy is contingent on the conditions of the problem. We don’t use the same strategy to reach all students, so why would one tool (social media) be the right lever for all educators?

Social media can’t save education. It’s a useful proxy but we forget that the real relationships we have with students and colleagues every day are the ones that really matter. When we feel unsupported professionally and emotionally, social media is a terrific way to extend our reach and get more support. But social media will never overshadow the significance of real relationships. If the goal is to support other educators in moving forward our energies are better spent on real relationships, those powerful face to face connections we have with others.

After all, that’s what we’re bred for.