Twenty-five librarians and almost a hundred Special Education teachers from Christian schools across the province gathered at the Cambridge Hotel and Conference Centre last week to participate in one of two engaging events hosted there—the OACS Library Conference and the OACS Special Education Conference. Both events presented opportunities for attendees to learn, share, and build connections with others in the same area of expertise.
Even before their workshops began, those who attended the Library Conference were quickly engaged in lively discussions on topics such as favorite reads for students and library bulletin boards. Workshops on copyright issues and how to properly cite sources provided updated information and assurance to librarians as they help to provide leadership to students in those areas. Attendees also participated in virtual tours of libraries in four different Christian schools in Ontario, giving them fresh ideas about learning spaces in their own schools. In addition, they were given the opportunity to choose from break out sessions that offered practical and useful suggestions for them in areas such as social media, using specific library software, and creating interactive and engaging bulletin boards and displays.
This year’s Special Education Conference sought to answer the question, “How have we all been created as relational creatures by a relational Creator, and how does our relationality form the foundation for our learning?” Presenters and workshop leaders such as Kimberly Maich, Carmen Hall, Steve Sider, and the Shalem Mental Health Network attempted to draw connections between the newest insights into the neurobiology of relationships and effective educational interventions to support all students within our schools. Rather than having just one main speaker for the entire day, breakout sessions were included to give attendees different options of workshops to attend throughout the afternoon. “The breakout sessions really gave participants the opportunity to get more intimate with their topics and presenters,” shared OACS Conference Coordinator Samantha Bevaart. “The smaller groups seemed to foster and encourage participants to be more engaged in workshop questions and conversations.”
“At the end of the day, I did get a sense that participants were glad they attended, ” continued Bevaart. “Mental health is one of the subjects that is hard to touch on, especially in the school setting. The resources that are now available to our member schools through Shalem were definitely highlighted, and hopefully these will help better equip resource specialists with the tools that they need to better assist their students when the need arises.”
Here are some additional reflections and takeaways that various conference attendees shared with us about their experiences at last week’s conferences:
This past September, I once again struggled to write IEP goals and develop programs for students with social skill challenges. Attending Carmen Hall’s session on “Teaching Social Skills: Assessments and Peer-Mediated Strategies” provided me with many answers to my questions and several very practical resources and suggestions that I immediately began implementing at my school. Carmen gave us excellent social skills assessments and links to free curriculum resources which have already helped me clarify IEP learning expectations. I will also be able to use these tools to help measure and report on growth throughout the year. When thinking about how to teach social skills to our students, Carmen challenged us to move to a peer-mediated instructional approach where the adults discreetly prompt peers to use strategies to promote social skill development. My staff has now started dialoguing about how we as adults can become effective peer coaches that fade into the background. I am excited about how this approach has the capacity to improve the skills of our students with social challenges and also positively impact the dynamics, culture, and social skills of an entire school. Carmen’s presentation left me energized, inspired, and empowered to better support my students!
Once again I was amazed at the dedication of unpaid library volunteers who pour many hours into providing quality reading materials for students. Attendees were able to network and encourage each other. This is very important since school librarians may feel isolated within their schools. Hearing about the work being done was inspirational and encouraging, energizing me for my work. I am encouraged by signs of the growing awareness in some schools that school libraries are an essential part of fostering 21st Century Learning Skills. It is my hope that this will continue to grow and that schools will invest financial resources into providing good quality reading materials and teaching research skills as they prepare students for lifelong learning.
It was exhilarating to be in a room of people who were interested in discussing the topics of favourite reads for grades 7 & 8 students, library bulletin boards, copyright matters and the importance of citing sources. Our first session, led by Alti McFie on the topic was Copyright Matters: Using Print and Digital Resources Legally in Schools was a sobering session. We gained fresh, updated information regarding copyright law, and gained a confidence in our ability to provide leadership in our schools in giving credit to authors and artists for their work in our daily research. In our next session led by Ingrid Scott, we were led on a historical journey focused on the topic of Citations: When and How to Cite Sources. We were reminded that we have a responsibility to teach our students to be responsible when citing sources. The MLA handbook has undergone a complete revision with the 8th edition, published in 2016, which will impact how we teach citation to our students this year.
After lunch we were treated to a virtual tour through 4 libraries. What a wonderful opportunity to take a peek into what libraries look like in some of the Christian Schools in Ontario. This session provided everyone with a lot of ideas for how to set up learning spaces in our libraries. Finally, there were 4 break-out sessions. I attended the session Using Social Media in the Library (Twitter, Blogging, Facebook), led by Adrianne Sprogis, Communications Specialist at Hamilton District Christian High. In this break-out session, we were given some very practical, useful suggestions for how to use social media to build the profile of the library in our schools.
I love what the day brought to our professional training. No matter what capacity we work in, we’re being called to go deeper in our relationships with students - to take the view that all behavior is communication, and that real learning happens within a safe, social context. Armed with that knowledge, it shouldn’t be a stretch to reframe behavior more accurately and compassionately. I am especially pleased to receive a comprehensive package of Support Services that we can offer to schools. Fantastic!
A wonderful part of the special education conference was connecting with colleagues from other OACS schools. I so appreciate the hard work that so many teachers put in to effectively meeting the needs of all their learners. The love for children was so evident in many of the conversations I was a part of. I valued the whole group session where attachment and the developing brain was discussed. God has created each of us as such complex creatures and yet knowing and understanding the brain and feelings is so beneficial as we strive to meet all the needs of students (emotional, behavioural, academic, spiritual, and physical). The specific, concrete strategies that were shared by the session leaders that I heard was much appreciated and expanded my understanding of students’ behavioural needs.
My biggest takeaways from the conference were from two workshops. The first one, by Alta MacFie, about Copyright was really informative. I learned what my responsibility is as librarian and what our school needs to do to avoid breaking copyright laws. Knowing that watching videos for educational purposes is fine, but that watching movies at recess or for entertainment requires a licence was very helpful! The other workshop that was really informative was by Ingrid Scott about Citation. I find this a tricky area for me as a grade seven and eight teacher. I want my students to care about the responsibility of citing their resources and not get intimidated by the intricate formatting required, especially into high school and beyond. Ingrid provided a lot of helpful advice and some great resources for teachers/ librarians of all grades. The information from both workshops was so relevant and practical. I have already began implementing some of the things I learned into my classroom and library. The biggest highlight for me is always getting together with other librarians. It is so nice not to feel like I am in my own little bubble! Sharing common concerns as well as tips and advice is always so helpful!
As I listened to the workshop leaders and plenary speakers discuss topics such as the attachment theory, brain development, social skills, and anxiety at this year’s Special Education conference, I felt challenged and empowered. I began to think about and make connections to specific students I work closely with in my special education program. Yet more than that, my eyes were also opened to students who had been struggling silently but for which I could now see needed social support and emotional safety. I have always believed that my role as a Special Education teacher extends beyond withdrawal and interventions. This conference reaffirmed for me how critical it is that we do not look at students only through the lens of academic achievements and behaviours; we sometimes must look passed what is right before us on paper, and notice the heart.
It would have been easy to leave this conference feeling overwhelmed and allow oneself to be overcome by a sense of inadequacy. Upon speaking with many other attendees, I realized that I was not the only one to feel this way. That being said, I chose instead to leave the conference with a renewed passion for what I do for my students and confidence in what I know and what I can offer. I was once again reminded that Special Education is more than classroom accommodations, curricular modifications, IEP’s, and assessments. These are of course critical to students’ success; however, we must not minimize students’ social and emotional well being. Education is teaching the whole student – supporting them for academic success, facilitating their social growth, providing them with emotional safety, and guiding them in their faith journey. A daunting task? Perhaps. Yet this conference reminded me that amid the reports and programming, there are so many students that need someone to see their struggles, meet them where they are, and stand alongside them as they navigate life. As Betty Brouwer and Mark Vander Vennen spoke of, teaching is relational – at times it can be as simple as offering our students playfulness, acceptance, curiosity, and empathy. And that seems like something I can do!