Labels are icons, a universal shorthand enabling complicated thoughts to be communicated quickly. When our assumptions change, so do our icons. The old ones become anachronisms... faded snapshots of simpler eras on pages from the Human Spectrum Family album. I don’t question the need to use labels. I do question the labels we need to use.
In my 26 years as a special educator, I rarely used Diagnostic labels. While they determine legal class size, they do not mandate student placement. I find they have limited value in day-to-day planning. At my school PS177Q, a separate, self-contained school for 550 special needs students, younger autistic students are contained in homogeneous 6:1:1 ratio classes. But older, more academic students are scattered in classrooms mixed with Mentally Retarded, Emotionally Disturbed, and Learning Disabled. Every school year, a teacher’s first order of business is to learn each of their students’ needs. Functional labels are preferable for planning differentiated instruction. Their use enables teachers to craft instruction for all students in an educationally mixed-bag classroom. Functional labels are intended to lead to measurable results as measured by performance standards Most special education students are exempt from taking standardized assessment. To judge their performance, we must rely on non-standardized tools such as: report cards, IEPs, Brigance Assessments, Functional Behavior Assessments, Behavior Modification Plans, ABA assessments and daily correspondence logs with parents.
Unfortuntely, each of these tools only measure discrete student metrics. Individually, none provide a broad picture of the student. Taken together, they offer us a clinical list of descriptors unsuitable for drawing conclusions. Their inherent subjectivity dilutes their significance. Instead of documenting achievement, they focus on student limitations. Valuable when identifying remedial goals, they contribute little to our understanding of a student’s attitude, learning rate or potential for growth. The absence of key metrics undermines the effectiveness of the work/study experience and performs a disservice to the caring businesspeople who volunteer jobs and expect the opportunities they provide will be used wisely.
Alternate Assessment was conceived as a means to consolidate and standardize testing as well as the process of collecting data on non-testable students. New York and other states require a portfolio of student work samples accompanied by multiple photographs documented the student as the author. Unfortunately, this process is mechanical, tedious, and demanding. In the past, it has been criticized as being more a measure of teacher performance following the assembly guidelines than of student achievement.
Student portfolios could be extremely effective if we redefine the types of data we wish to collect and revise our collection methods. In 2004, New York State teachers were offered the option of submitting video evidence in lieu of photos. I was the only teacher to do so. I was asked to present on my use of video documentation at a meeting of Special Education principals and to develop guidelines for instructing other teachers how to do the same. In order to avoid confusion with portfolios assembled on behalf of the student, I used the term “Video Resumes” which I believed implied that they only represented student performance.
Simply put, a Video Resume is a collection of brief recordings (60-90 seconds) of student performance under real life circumstances. Unlike photographs, which capture performance of a single task at a specific time, video provides a dynamic accounting of a student mustering and applying multiple skills under real-life conditions. Inadvertently, it also captures layers of valuable information not available by other means. Viewing places us in the classroom alongside the student enabling firsthand observation and reducing our need for detailed descriptions and numerical scoring results.
What can a trained observer glean from a video clip? We can observe intellectual functioning, social skills, rate and style of learning. This provides insight into how the student applies learned skills and academics to problem-solve. We learn how independent the student is. We see the impact of sensory issues. Because the settings are real, we can observe which distractions and stressors might be antecedents to negative behavior. A number of schools use video to identify behavioral antecedents. Its’ use is being studied by Ilene Schwartz at the Haring Center, University Of Washington. Video does not lie or conceal. The use of video helps to draws attention to information often overlooked during the writing or reading of dense reports.
What can we gain from viewing multiple video clips? A full resume helps to paint a fuller picture of the student as a person. It enables teachers to create more functional class groupings, to target appropriate texts and resources and to identify adaptations that enhance instruction. Because resumes are maintained over time, they document the type, degree and rate of progress a student makes. A resume provides related service providers with a fuller view of the student and does so in less time than written reports. Video information is invaluable for parent-teacher conferences and for developing IEP goals. Video resumes provides prospective employers with information that is meaningful and advises decision-making for post-graduation placement.
Video evidence is objective. It is available for review and validation. Once digitized, it is easily to update, store and share. It captures more meaningful information than pictures or work samples alone. Since it is makes review easier and quicker, video reduces professional work load and can enabling educational/remedial services to be initiated sooner.
Resumes also provides students with important feedback. Why would students want to participate in developing their own Video Resumes? Why would students want to self-review? Because being videotaped and seeing one’s self on the big screen is a strong motivation for nearly everyone especially students who are always being instructed what to do and how to act. This is a wonderful opportunity for them to “strut their stuff”. I believe that students are capable of identifying accomplishments, talents, abilities, weakness and issues of their own and their peers. Allowing students to decide what is included in their resume promotes self-reflection and engagement in the learning process. When student “on-demand” performance is lacking, we incorrectly assume that they have failed. Encouraging them to “be all that they can be”, may prove more surprising to educators than to the students themselves.
Labels aren’t perfect. Nor are they sacrosanct. When they no longer serve our purpose, we trade-up to new ones. I don’t question our need to use labels. I do question the labels we need to use.
And sometimes the best label is to use no label at all.