An IEP for Everyone
Bill Long 7/20/06
What Persons With Disabilities Teach Us
As I have been studying literature on autism, both from a scientific and personal perspective, I have gradually been thinking that autistic individuals might be the unintended catalyst for reorganizing our approach to learning. In his chapters in the book Children with Starving Brains written with his wife, Dr. Jessica McCandless, Jack Zimmerman reflects on how the autism of their granddaughter Chelsey has affected them. Jack has directed the Center for Council Training (now a part of the Ojai Foundation) for two decades, and he is committed to the Native American "Council" values of deep listening, integrity in speaking, honest communication and a safe environment for intimate sharing. Jack spends about 40 pages telling how Chelsey's autism could be catalytic for the medical community (to learn that healing is a bilaterial process--in which both physician and patient are healed) as well as for our relationship to the environment. He speaks, too, about how Chelsey's experience would lead him to develop a different educational system incorporating values of inclusiveness, undirected and relational learning, and silence and contemplation (215-220).
Jack's helpful ruminations stimulated my further thinking about education. Rather than having several good insights, as he does, I have one observation, taken from the field of special education, which has been on my mind for several months. It is simply this: the public schools in America will not reach their full potential until they realize that everyone, not just the special education students, needs an Individualized Education Plan ("IEP") for him/herself.
An IEP is a creature mandated by federal law (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, first passed in 1975 and frequently amended). It describes the educational program designed to meet the unique needs of a particular student. Each child who receives special education must have such an IEP. It is designed to create the occasion for teachers, administrators, parents, students and others to work together to improve educational results for children with disabilities. In fact, as this web site says, "The IEP is the cornerstone of a quality education for each child with a disability."
Under current law, however, one only gets an IEP if two conditions are present: (1) the child has one or more of 13 disabilities defined by federal and state law and (2) the child has shown him/herself unable to progress effectively in regular education as a result of the disability. Thus, the IEP is the means by which a student can flourish academically in the midst of disabilities which hinder learning. My thesis here is that in fact we will all learn best if we all have our own IEP's. Careful attention to drafting these documents for all students, combined with the wonderful resources available on the Internet, would not only excite students in their learning process but increase the amount learned. Here is my proposal, using the example of the Oregon History Project to make my case.
Studying Oregon History, for Example
I am using the example of Oregon history only as an illustration; the examples can be multiplied indefinitely. In short, my method is that when a student takes a course (such as biology, state history, US history, literature, etc.), that the student be given a basic, skeletal text in the field (about 200-250 pages) and then that the student be required to pick an area or two of personal interest to study in as much depth as they can attain in the semester/quarter. The method would both preserve the "integrity" of the "coverage" model (i.e., that a certain amount of material ought to be covered in a course on the subject) and would allow the student maximum opportunity to delve as deeply as possible into an area of interest.
The basic overview text would consist of three things: (1) relevant factual material that is the basis of the field; (2) significant individuals or groups of people who have contributed to the field; and (3) theories in the fireld that have risen and fallen, with supporting arguments for them. In other words, the book would be a sort of "handbook" of the field, providing a vade mecum (look it up!) for first timers. This corresponds to the historical overivew by Professor William Robbins of Oregon's history in the outstanding online resource produced by the Oregon History Project. Though I do have difficulty with some of Robbins' treatment (more on that in some of my essays on this page) of Oregon history, I love the idea of using a book like his as a framework document.
Then, students should be able to plunge into one of literally hundreds of topics which could legitimately be covered in the class. For example, in Oregon history, the student might want to explore the Lewis & Clark Expedition; the culture of one or more of the Native peoples in Oregon; the Oregon trail narratives/diaries; the nature of early Oregon law; the coming of the railroads; the Oregon Donation Land Claim Act and making a claim under the act; the nature of the Oregon Constitutional Convention; the exclusion both of slavery and free blacks from earliest Oregon; etc. These were just a few of the topics coming from the earliest days of Oregon's history which could take someone's entire time. In addition, someone might want to study the early settlement of a particular part of Oregon, a town, or even a family's history. There are so many other things that might be studied, and one might do well to leave it to the imagination of each student, because often a topic which is initiated by a student will "hook" them much more powerfully than a project assigned them.
Then, with the mini-essays on the Oregon History Project web page as guides, students might be able to probe subjects in more depth. This would not only teach them to appreciate primary sources (which students, in general, never touch--even when there is a book of "readings"), but would get them imaginatively involved in creating their own way of looking at history. I am convinced that all fields require a sort of constant overhaul in order to be useful to the next generation of thinkers and investigators.
The model can be infinitely expanded to other fields. Get the basics of anatomy down, but then let a student explore the hand in detail or another part of the skeletal system. Make sure students know some of the "great" works of a period in literature, but then let them be free to explore comics in the 18th century, or something like that. We will find a most salubrious change in our educational system and climate as a result. And, the special educaton students will have shown us the way.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long