Sunday, September 4, 2011

Rethinking my school's purpose

I'm starting a new school year here at the Red Deer Regional Hospital.

The program I teach in utilizes an interdisciplinary team to provide comprehensive diagnostic evaluation to children under the age of 18 who present with a wide range of complex psychiatric symptoms. Unit 39 at the Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre is an 8-bed facility with 2 beds for crisis stabilization and 6 beds for elective admissions. Staff work together closely to provide a structured, therapeutic environment that incorporates developmentally appropriate assessment approaches and activities.

The purpose of the school portion of this program has typically acted as an extension of the children's regular classroom. Students are required to bring a collection of work from their regular teacher and spend the school day completing this work.

Can you imagine the kind of school work a teacher might send for a student that is in the hospital for 3-4 weeks?

I'll be brutally honest, the kind of work the kids show up with tends to be worksheet, busy work. Not all the time, but this is the case a lot of the time. I'll be honest again, if this busy work is actually the kind of learning these kids would experience had they not been admitted to the hospital, then they aren't missing much.

Asking me to replicate each child's regular classroom experiences at the hospital seems to me to be an exercise in futility. Even if it were possible (and it's not) to clone their regular classroom and transplant it at the hospital, in the context of these children's lives, this would still be developmentally inappropriate. I guess what I'm really trying to say is this: You don't go to the hospital to get caught up on your homework.

If staying caught up with academics was the primary problem plaguing these children, they wouldn't need to be admitted to the hospital.

All this has led me to significantly rethink the purpose of the school portion of this program. Here is a description I wrote up as a part of the pre-admission package to introduce parents to the purpose of the school portion of this program:
Patients attend school on the unit with a teacher as a part of their assessment. During school, patients will engage in a balance between continuing their regular academics and activities that will help them to effectively change and improve their thinking, feelings and behavior. While patients may spend time working on traditional academics, a priority will be placed on providing support and resources to help them make positive changes and/or informed choices in their lives.
I am posting this here as a first draft so that I can get feedback from you. What do you think about all this? Based on the context of my teaching assignment, am I right to refocus this school's purpose to see academics play a secondary role to the well-being of the students? Am I missing something?

I'm looking forward to your feedback via comments.


  1. During my experiences in a hospital-school setting, the school aspect of the day was seen as the most normal part of the day. That was the time when the children weren't patients, they weren't being poked or prodded (in fact, medical personnel didn't come in the room during that time unless there was a medical emergency or crisis - school was scheduled around medical routines as much as possible). That desire for normalcy came from both the students and their parents. So there's a part of me that wishes we could honor that desire for normalcy. Yes, your students are in crisis with significant mental health needs. But I have to imagine they see themselves as children who want to be doing the things that children do. And a major part of childhood is school. Granted, my students primarily had physical issues, rather than mental, so their frameworks might be different but I have to imagine that the need for normalcy is a constant for any child in a hospital setting. I'm wondering a couple of things:

    * Instead of "patient" in the school section, what consequences might exist for describing your students as "students" or the more general "children"?

    * Rather than talking about "focusing on traditional academics" as if you're apologizing for not "doing homework" I'm wondering about shifting the language and telling parents "academic topics will be embedded within instruction that includes support and resources to empower the students to make positive choices" or something similar. To let them know you're not ignoring school or academics, rather you'll be using it as a means to an end.

    If you haven't had a chance, I highly recommend checking out - as an organization, they have wrestled with many of the same issues it sounds like you're wrestling with and could provide a network for you to connect to with teachers in similar roles.

  2. I love the description, Joe. It's brilliant.

  3. I'm away to an internship seminar for three days this week. My young partner asked me how I was going to fill these three days so early in the school year. I could easily fill the time with worksheets and textbook pages. The truth is, I probably will resort to some of that. I'll have had only six days to have establish any sort of work flow with these fourth graders. I have had no time to introduce them to inquiry-based work flows. I don't know the person coming into the classroom. I suppose this sort of reflects the thinking of the teachers who send work for your students.

    I think your philosophy, your direction, makes sense. You have an opportunity to give them some personal attention at a moment of stress in their lives. Work sheets might be stress free, but I would think it could be better.

  4. Did you tell us the ages of your students?

    When parents ask for work when students are out of the class, teachers are often at a loss. What do you send that can be done without the teacher and the teaching? I work at the elementary level and find myself frustrated when such requests come through. Never know what to send (many times these requests come because the families are going on vacation rather than the hospital). I know many teachers who send worksheets for lack of a better idea.

    I like that you are trying to address the students' s situation and environment in your purpose statement. I am wondering if that purpose might put off parents of younger children? Could it be that you will address academics at their given level with opportunities for them to express, learn about, and make sense of their health issues? A younger child might not be ready to take on the responsibility of choices regarding their care. No? (Thinking out loud here).

  5. Jennifer: I never address my students as patients when talking about them or with them, so I'm not sure why I used patients in my written description other than the original school description did. I think I am going to use 'children'

    I really like your comment about "embedding" traditional work with addressing their well being. In part, this is some of what I do anyways. I think your description would better describe what I am doing.

    I will check out

    Thank you for the comments. I have found these to be very helpful. Thanks again!!


  6. Alan: We are all human and thus we all have a limited amount of time and effort to provide kids with awesome learning environments. I have no problem with a teacher who occasionally, out of self-preservation, resorts to worksheets or textbook work. It's when this busy work becomes the default that I have numerous objections.

    As always, thanks for reading and commenting.


  7. Bonita: Yes, I mentioned that the ages of my students are under 18. Kids only stay for about 4 weeks, so I get a lot of turn over inside a school year. I've had all ranges of ages including a grade 1 and grade 12 student at the same time.

    I understand what you mean when you say teachers struggle to send homework for time students miss. When I was in the "regular" classroom, even when I was asked for homework for kids to do on vacation, I would ask the parents if I could just get the kid caught up when they returned. I never had a parent or student reject this opportunity.

    Thanks for the comment


  8. Would it be appropriate to include parents(guardians) as part of the support team /collaborators/community partner?

  9. When I read about the setting you are teaching in, I immediately thought, you will be seeing many gifted, highly intelligent learners. And I'm sure many of them have never heard this from their traditional school settings.

    During my time in the classroom, I had one student who was placed in such a facility twice. I went to visit her both times and kept touch with her until the phone was disconnected a few years later. She touched my heart. Her home life was horrific but her intelligence was off the charts.

    I think about Dr. Nassir Ghaemi's recent book about bipolar disorder being a strength in leaders. I saw him on The Colbert Report and I remember him saying that people with this diagnosis make connections much more rapidly than those without, leading to much more creative thinking, ingenuity, etc. (And being the lover of Vygostky that I am, I clung on to this idea.)

    Empowering kids to see strengths in themselves would be very powerful in this setting.

  10. I guess I'm getting at empowering student to see his/her worth, abilities as a student and a member of society...

  11. Given that it seems your frustration is with the "busy work" that is provided with the classroom teacher, I think it is prudent to consider how you are communicating with the "regular teacher" when you gain a new student in your learning environment.

    I would like to suggest that in your introductory letter to the teacher you will be communicating with, the parents of the child admitted as well as the child him/herself, you focus on learning outcomes rather that "activities" per se. With that said, I like some of the stuff that Jennifer brought up. You need to ask: what is the purpose of the school experience at the hospital and how can you best meet the needs (social, emotional and academic) of the students you have.

    I would make my write up less jargon loaded and more parent friendly. I would put, in the forefront, something that suggests what a typical patient might experience in the school portion of their assessment, but that you are committed to meeting the needs of each individual (personalizing the learning) and will strive to challenge their child as well as offer the support necessary to experience success in learning.

    For teachers, I think you need to be clear on your philosophy and encourage them to provide outcomes that they aim to see achieved and empower yourself to help your patients meet those outcomes in a way that best suits their learning style and needs.

    All of this speaks to ownership of learning and the roles we play in ensuring all students have opportunities to learn.... not simply completing a "collection of work from their regular teacher and spend the school day completing this work". How is this rewarding for anyone?

  12. You are doing an awesome job Joe. I've seen your effort and passion. I agree with all the advices posted here. It's well said, Special students needs special teacher.Just continue to learn the individual needs of your students and motivate them with love and control.


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