Getting to know Jacob taught me that every child deserves education designed with their needs in mind.
“Alright, everyone. Remember, tomorrow is Crazy Hair Day. Bring in your loonies and rock the craziest hair-do you can think of! I’ll see you all tomorrow, class dismissed!”
“Miss Coleman, Miss Coleman!” Jacob calls after me as I walk down the hall. “Are you going to have crazy hair tomorrow too, Miss Coleman?”
“I think so, Jacob,” I reply. “How about you?”
“It’s a surprise! You’ll have to wait and see!” Knowing nine-year-old Jacob as I do, I can’t wait to see what he will come up with.
The next morning Jacob arrives with a Ninja Turtle lunch bag in one hand, a toonie in the other, and a huge grin from ear to ear. I break into an equally wide smile, for he has truly outdone my wildest expectations.
“Miss Coleman, Miss Coleman! Look!” Jacob’s bright blond hair is expertly gelled into numerous spikes. But that’s not all. Attached to those spikes are tiny clothespins, each bearing a colour image of a different MineCraft character – Jacob’s absolute favourite thing in the world.
“I’ve got Steve, and Alex, and the Pig, and, and, and..!” He starts pointing out all the different characters, very excited at his mini show and tell. I’m barely able to contain the absolute joy I’m feeling in seeing him express his passion in this way.
I was at a Teacher Education placement in a Grade 4 classroom, during the second year of my program. I’d been offered a chance to work very closely with Jacob, who was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Through my program, I had gained a basic but theoretical understanding of Autism. I jumped at the chance to learn more through practical experience.
I spent the first few weeks as any new teacher would: developing routines, fine tuning schedules, and most importantly, getting to know the students in the class. As I spent time with Jacob, I worked to build a positive, supportive relationship with him. I got to know him as a person, not just as a student who has Autism. Jacob could tell you literally anything you wanted to know about cars, light switches and especially Minecraft. He had a marvellous imagination, often creating elaborate stories about airports or train stations, and his attention to detail was impeccable. He was incredibly kind and a wonderful friend.
Jacob faced daily challenges in the classroom, too. His motor skills were still developing, so he had difficulty with tasks such writing and drawing, or participating in physical activity for an extended period. He would often request breaks if he was feeling overstimulated from the noise level in the room, which meant he sometimes did not accomplish very much during class time. Furthermore, Jacob required a highly structured program. When routines were disrupted, he could easily become distressed, flapping his arms or rocking back and forth in his chair. Knowing this, I wanted to do everything I could to ensure Jacob’s success while I was working with him, whether one on one, in a small group, or during whole class instruction.
It was through planning for Jacob that I realized how important differentiated instruction (DI) and assistive technologies can be – for students with ASD specifically, but also for all students. Because I had already built a relationship with Jacob, I knew he would have greater success if he was given input into which activities he participated in and how he could demonstrate his understanding. For each learning experience I planned, I incorporated ways in which I could differentiate, not only for Jacob but for everyone. I created opportunities for Jacob to move around the classroom or find a quieter space if needed. I researched a variety of online applications that would allow him to write assignments, create multi-modal presentations and draw artistic posters on his iPad that he was proud of. The classroom’s iPad camera was also incredibly useful for documenting his understanding and collecting assessment data. These assistive technologies were key in helping me differentiate my teaching to create inclusive and exciting learning experiences for everyone. Working with Jacob was essential in helping me understand this.
As I reflect upon my time with Jacob, I begin to see how this experience will impact on my future practice as a teacher. Planning with every student in mind is not easy, but it is essential. I believe the fundamental goal of teaching is to do all that we can to help each student we come across be the best they can be.
Students like Jacob should not be defined by their diagnosis and it is our responsibility as educators to ensure that they are not. Jacob taught me that.
Illustration: Dave Donald
First published in Education Canada, September 2018