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The Windsor

by Thérèse McNamara

Yesterday, I began to teach my son how to tie a double Windsor knot. I say “began” because, as with many children who display special or alternate needs, learning even small tasks may occur only as the result of a step-by-step, lengthy process that extends over days, weeks or months.

As we tied one knot after another, I reflected on the many tasks that he is now able to accomplish at age 7.

At school, he requires support from an educational assistant, as he struggles with oral communication, language-related tasks and social activities. At home, he makes his bed, takes his shower, and brushes his teeth on his own.  He can fly a radio-controlled helicopter and whiz through his favourite websites, home movies, and DVDs  from his dad’s laptop computer. Although he appears not to be able to spell, he can type site names like “Sesame Street” and “Mightybeanz” into Google.  He has memorized enough sight-words to read at approximately one grade below level.  And, even when he only spoke a few words at age 4, he could point out the direction to Grandpa’s house, one street at a time.

As a school leader, special education resource teacher, and parent of a child with alternate strengths and needs, I must admit that the educational ‘buzz word’ that appeals most to me is “differentiation”.  Not because differentiated instructional methods are supported through research, though they are. Not because differentiated instruction and assessment are mandated through Ministry of Education curriculum and policy documents, though they are.  No, I am drawn to all things ‘differentiated’ because each day I see, hear and experience the many ways in which children (and most especially, my own) are smart in non-standard, out-of-the-ordinary, or not-yet-in-the-curriculum ways. As a conscientious educator, I accept that I need to do things differently to meet the diverse needs of unique individuals.

We teachers we have many resources available to us to assist with implementing differentiated methods. But based on my experiences, I know that their greatest assets are a keen eye and caring heart.

In a week or two, my son will be able to tie a double Windsor knot, and we’ll move on to shoelaces. Or perhaps, something else. But we will move on.  A little further each day.



Thérèse McNamara is a school administrator, special education resource teacher and mother. In her 30+ years as an educator, she has worked as a classroom teacher, computer/curriculum consultant, and education officer. She holds a Masters of Education degree with a focus on Literacy and has taught additional qualification courses for 3 universities. She has reviewed and written a number of professional learning resources and supports the application of evidence-based, best practices to support all students.



Image(s): FreeDigitalPhotos.net
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  • http://corriganeducation.ca Kathleen Corrigan

    Therese, you wrote “are smart in non-standard, out-of-the-ordinary, or not-yet-in-the-curriculum ways” I think most teachers need to post this somewhere in their (our) rooms so we keep it in mind all the time. We need to be vigilant about watching for access points and ways to meet the child, rather than dragging the child to us. I would also suggest that this smartness is not only found in children with “special” needs but also in children with different backgrounds from our own. I think, for example, of children living in deep poverty. They may not have been to the zoo or to the beach or to the library so they don’t show the learning primary teachers (esp K teachers) tend to reward. But they know a lot, they have learned to survive and even thrive in their worlds and environments, they can and do learn. We need to take off our education assumption blinders and walk with them on their journey to a future of choices and success.

    • Janet Lee

      “education assumption blinders” Yes! It is so easy to make assumptions about our students and their backgrounds. It is so difficult to make all the right choices all of the time but we can listen to children as they tell their stories in overt and not so overt ways. Being an adult with a strength for active listening will go a long way towards motivating all learners.

      How do you think this understanding might be fostered in pre-service teaching programs?

      • http://corriganeducation.ca Kathleen Corrigan

        An interesting question Janet Lee but I am going to sidestep it for a moment. I was caught more by your comment about active listening. I think teachers tend to be more active talkers than active (or even passive) listeners so we all need to be thinking about how to listen more and talk less (and interrogate less too). That could clearly be explored in preservice programs. Could you observe and listen to a child or group of children, without interjecting or judging for one minute? Five? Longer? What can you learn from listening? How often do you have a multi-turn dialogue with a child as opposed to monologue or question/answer fest? What do you know about this child without resorting to notes? (Still avoiding the question I know :-) . )

        • Janet Lee

          Now that you have listened and gathered information, how will that learning help you to reach this child on a unique level? How will you respond in a way that models respect and understanding? How can you record this learning and generate a plan for next steps? This would be a great exercise and discussion for pre-service teachers. Candidates could practice using conversation clips from different age groups. (That’s one answer to my own question…lol)

          Can you suggest strategies for getting to know students when you juggle a large class size?

          • http://corriganeducation.ca Kathleen Corrigan

            One of the real advantages of the full day early learning kindergarten in Ontario as well as the every day full day in BC, the Saskachewan philosophy, etc is the focus on play based learning. Significant portions of the day are dedicated to child centred play (not teacher required work disguised as play). During those large blocks of time the educator can engage in conversation, listen, participate, and challenge, in the process you have a chance to know the child on many levels.

            Both BC and Ontario have wonderful video clips that could be used for pre and in service professional conversations.