SENIA Attendee Vanessa Weber Shares Her Conference Reflections


This article is reposted from Vanessa’s own blog.

You can never be overdressed or overeducated. – Oscar Wilde

April 2, 2018

I am so eager to reflect on my first EARCOS/SENIA conference that instead of laying by the pool, I’m blogging on my last day of Spring Break. That says something. If it wasn’t obvious before, I am a self-proclaimed education nerd. I just spent half of my Spring Break at a teachers conference (but it was in Bangkok, Thailand!), waking up early, taking rapid notes most of my day, and networking with other educators. I also had an opportunity to share my own passions at a workshop I led entitled: Promoting Self-Advocacy for Students with Learning Differences. Overall the conference was phenomenal, so I’m going to do my best to share the highlights by gleaning my top 4 best take aways.

1) A Takeaway in 5 minutes flat…. A return to “Nothing about us without us”

Within the first minutes of the conference, several “best practices” I learned in graduate school were questioned. Norman Kunc and Emma Van der Klift, the first key-note speakers were captivating. Norman has cerebral palsy and Emma is autistic. That’s right – not a person with autism, but she’s autistic. She reminded us that this is a disability that she can not simply check at the door, but a huge part of who she is, therefore she prefers Identity-First language to Person-First language (lost with this language? read more here). The idea of Person-First language has been drilled into my speech and practice as an educator, but it occurred to me that I had never asked a person with a disability their opinion on the topic. Norm and Emma kept me questioning my current practices in this same way all weekend. We must stop walking on eggshells around the disabled while we write policies, design educational programs, and even curriculum without them and instead engage in conversation to hear their ideas and expertise. “Nothing about us without us.” I’ve always loved this mantra, but now I’m ready to practice it with even more intention.

You must read more about Norman Kunc and Emma Van der Klift’s work! Visit their website.

2) The Sneaky Takeaway… All teachers should let students choose where they sit.

Day 2 I find myself in Bangkok, Thailand listening to a keynote speaker from Wisconsin…my home state…sneaky move EARCOS. Pernille Ripp is not actually from Wisconsin, but that’s where she moved when she was 18 and has stayed every since. Her life story is incredibly interesting, but I’m going to reflect on what some teachers may have considered her least realistic advice. Pernille has spent the past 8 years surveying her 7th graders with the question, “If you could give a room (or ballroom) full of teachers advice, what would it be?”  We tried to guess what they would say… “Make it fun?”, “Don’t give homework?”, “Listen?”. All wrong. Her students said, “All teachers should let students choose where they sit.” I imagine more than half of the ballroom rolling their eyes thinking, yeah right. But Pernille practices what she preaches, and she is a firm believer in student voice and choice. She let’s her students sit wherever they want. I realized that this was now graduate school lesson number 2 to be challenged. What about flexible grouping or preferential seating??? Of course, there is value in these research-based practices, but Pernille convinced me that what is most powerful is listening to students and then providing guidance where necessary. Monday, the seating chart is getting thrown away.

Check out more about this brave educator, Pernille Ripp.

3) My Own Take Away?…What I learned while I was in presenter mode.

Day one. 9:45 sharp. Fifty-three educators, fellow experts, sat blinking at me, waiting for their first workshop of the conference to begin. A quick gulp of water and I’m off ready to show how amazing I am. Then… Slide 4: I talk up Kristen Peltier of Next Frontier Inclusion. Slide 7: I share the words of Paola Pereria, Elementary Principal. Slide 9: Share the expertise of Jerome Lingo, my Life-Skills co-teacher. Slide 10: A video of my incredible student- Nico. Slide 12: Bragging about the support of Dan Kerr, Middle School Principal. Slide 15: More bragging about my most-inspiring student – Paula. WAIT… I thought this was about me?  The truth is every educators journey is just that – a journey. And like most, they are best shared. While presenting, I took pride in talking not about the books I had read, but instead the personal gurus in my life. And that’s why we attend teaching conferences…to meet more gurus. So from the second I arrived, until the last session, I made the most of it. Some attendees may have played hooky by the pool, but I left taking pride in nerding out and meeting more passionate educators. It was the best conference that I’ve ever attended and it was truly an honor to present.

4) My Number 1 Take Away… Educators can be Lifeguards or Swim Instructors

I could not get enough of Emma and Norm, so I attended two more of their workshops. Both Norm and Emma shared stories about growing up with a disability. Norm comically described his speech therapy class that took place in a small closet of a classroom without any of his peers.  He wondered why he was being taught how to properly speak far away from all the peers he regularly spoke with. He made us laugh by saying that we would never teach a child to swim in the parking lot of a swimming pool. Sadly, his punchline is a reality. How often do we still remove students with disabilities from least restrictive environment. Norm and Emma’s experiences served as a reminder that everyone wants to be included and as Emma put it “Segregation is the gift that keeps on giving.” The more we segregate children, the more likely they are to be segregated as adults.

Emma continued with this swimming analogy and pointed out that teachers can either be lifeguards or swim instructors. Educators often want to keep on teaching (oh the seizable teaching moment, how we love those!!). In reality, students with disabilities can have really, really bad days, moments, even breakdowns in which they need rescuing. Educators need to know when to be the swim instructor and when to step in and become a lifeguard. We must “never give swimming lessons when someone is drowning.” Instead, throw out the lifesaver, take pause, and later (even much later) talk about learning from that tough time. As a high school teacher, I know that teenagers are particularly sensitive to this. I don’t want to be remembered as the teacher that just kept trying to provide solutions, but the teacher who listened and heard what my students had to say. The more we do this, the more opportunities students can hear themselves talk and maybe even find their own solutions.

These are just 4 of my takeaways from the SENIA/EARCOS conference. Stay tuned for more reflection as I implement what I’ve learned in my classroom.