Because we all need supports

We all need supports. I can’t live without the “Reminders” application on my phone which I use to remind me that I need to grab milk after school or that there’s a great Twitter chat coming up. I use the “Calendar” application as well, so I don’t forget to pick up my kid from soccer or know when my husband has a volunteer fire department meeting. Using these supports doesn’t mean I can’t function as an adult. In fact, using these applications reduces the pressure I might put on myself to try to remember the milk, the meeting, or even the kid, and lets me put more energy into other important jobs like teaching, conducting workshops, and working with teachers. They help me achieve my daily goals. There shouldn’t be a stigma to supports. We all use them.

two blue beach chairs near body of water

Consider this goal. I can go to the beach.  What supports do you need to successfully go to the beach? For one, most people need water to stay hydrated and sunscreen, so they don’t burn.  Let’s call that a tier 1 support because most people need them.  For others, they’ll need sunglasses, a hat, and even an umbrella to sit under. Let’s call this a tier 2 support because some, but not most people need them. And for a few, they’ll need a life jacket so they can go swimming.  That’s a tier 3 support; just a few people need them. Then, there are those who don’t need tier 1, 2 or 3 supports, but actually need a challenge to successfully go to the beach. These folks will need a snorkel and some flippers so they can go snorkeling and searching for seashells and other water life. With all of these supports available to individuals, every beachgoer will all be able to go to the beach and be successful going to the beach.

When all these supports are available for people at the beach, they will be successful at going to the beach.  Even if someone shows up to the beach and doesn’t know what supports they might need, the supports are there so they can be successful. The person who needed the challenge of using a snorkel and flippers, might get into the water and head out a little too far, and think, you know, I should go get a life jacket. With that life jacket, I know I will be able to swim out past my head.  For those who only brought sunglasses and sunscreen and the temperature hits the high 20s, they can access an umbrella.  Supports for all.

As the person running the beach, I’m going to make sure that all the beachgoers know exactly how to use all the supports, so if they need them, they can access them and know how to use them. They will get trained on proper sunscreen application and how to secure a life jacket. The supports will be available and accessible by all.

white all neon sign

And do you notice something? There are no people as supports. That’s not to suggest that some beachgoers might not need a person to support them. There might be someone at the beach who needs a personal, one on one assistant to help them enjoy the beach. Supports aren’t always people. They can be people, but they can also be strategies so everyone can be successful at the beach.

The tier 1, 2, 3 supports help make the beach inclusive. Never, have I gone to the beach and thought, what are those people doing here? They are wearing sunglasses. This beach is only for those who don’t need sunglasses. And a life jacket? What the heck? This part of the water is only for those who can swim! And wait, is that a snorkeler? Shouldn’t they be over at the other beach with all the other snorkelers? It’s ridiculous isn’t it? But does it sound familiar?

Equity is providing opportunities for every person at the beach to be successful. It’s about concentrating on the goal and providing supports so that everyone can achieve that goal.

I need supports from my colleagues a lot. I’m not an unsuccessful teacher because I borrow a lesson idea from a colleague or ask for help about how to assist a student. In order to be a successful teacher, I need support. I find comfort in knowing that I’m not alone and that I can count on my colleagues, administration, custodians, and educational assistants to help me do my job. I’m not less of a teacher because I need support; I’m a richer teacher because with these supports, I know I will be successful at my job.

Our classrooms should be no different. Every student in our classroom can achieve the same goals without needing to be segregated from their peers. Some students may need replacement goals, but students who don’t need replacement goals can achieve the same goals alongside their peers. They just might need supports.

When we have students with complex needs or an intellectual disability, we may receive an educational assistant for support. The function of the EA is not to get to the beach and when the person running the beach announces, “Everyone into the water!” they’re left to figure out how to support their student. In this situation, EA’s scramble to figure out how to get their student into the water because the person running the beach believes that in order to go to the beach, everyone must be in the water.

The person running the beach may become frustrated when students can’t go into the water. But here’s the kicker, the goal isn’t actually to go into the water. It might have always been done that way, and going into the water has been synonymous with going to the beach, but the fact is, the goal is not to go into the water, it’s to go to the beach – and now that the goal is clarified, can’t everyone all go to the beach in their own way? Yes, yes they can.

Are you confused about my beach analogy? Let me paint a classroom example for you then.

Let’s say an English 11 teacher wants students to complete a thematic essay for Lord of the Flies. The goal is for students to show that they understand the complexity of theme and can write a multi-paragraph essay. So, there is a written and a comprehension goal. Ideally, that teacher would want all students to complete a four-paragraph essay, because that is the typical expectation, but the reality is, there are students in the class who need supports to show that they understand the complexity of theme and can complete the written component.

Upon examining the students in the class, the teacher determines the following tiered supports. A tier 1 support is a 4-paragraph outline structure that has all of the essay information organized and includes labels so students can plan their essay accordingly (Hook, thesis statement, summary of novel in paragraph one; topic sentence, detail, example, explanation in paragraph two; etc). This is a universal support and good for all students. A tier 2 support might be simpler 3-paragraph outline structure that has the same labels as the 4-paragraph structure but includes fewer details like using indirect versus direct quotes. It still falls in line with the required multi-paragraph essay requirement but is targeted for those students who require more time to find and express details (I’m thinking this might be good for English Language Learners (ELL), for example and they will appreciate the brevity). A tier 3 support could be speech to text software on a phone, tablet, or laptop. This is targeted to a few students who have problems with processing & written output.

Some students might need a combination of supports, but anyone can access them. Tiered supports are for all; this is important because not every student who needs supports has a case manager or an IEP. Supports allow us to recognize the need for supports. Now, for those students who do not require tier 1, 2, or 3 supports and, in fact, need a challenge, portable laptops will be available so they can move straight into the writing of the essay and they may need the further challenge of a fifth paragraph (a third reason for the theme for example). Also, there is also a student in the class with an intellectual disability, so that student has a replacement goal. Their EA has read Lord of the Flies to them, and that student will complete a visual essay on the computer using pictures to represent the theme of weakness and strength, themes the student understands and can explore. This student requires a replacement goal that is similar to the whole class goal, but has been modified to meet their needs.

All students are focusing on theme and there is a written component. They all have goals and with these supports (tier 1-3 for all, replacement goal for the student with a complex disability, challenge for those who need stretches) they can be successful.

The shift in thinking occurs when the classroom teacher realizes that they can make these small moves in advance of introducing the expectations so all students can achieve the goal. But before that can happen the teacher needs to have another look at what the goal is. It isn’t for all students to complete the four-paragraph thematic essay. The supports listed above isn’t being lenient or lowering expectations because as I’ve already stated, we all need supports. What’s the worse thing that can happen if we provide these supports? Learning! Holy smokes! What an awesome problem to have! (Sorry Shelley, I totally stole your line…had to be done 😉)

But often we see overarching, one-size fits all expectations, like writing the four-paragraph essay or getting into the water at the beach. When some students cannot live up to those expectations, teachers claim they either need a physical person as a support or those students don’t belong in the class. An educational assistant could very well be the support needed in a class and we love the hard work these educational assistants do to support our learners, but they could also play a more beneficial role when other supports have been put in place as well. Instead of trying to unpack the “fully loaded baked potato of an essay” requirement, they now support the student who has supports in place. This is more effective use of their time.

man sits in front of laptop

To put supports in place, a classroom teacher needs to do is consider the needs of everyone in the class. Have a conversation with their former teachers, look at the report card comments, and discuss supports with students. By having a conversation about supports, we reduce the stigma that is often attached to supports. It also helps build classroom community and with a functional classroom community, the students can support each other. The classroom community can become the supports too!

When we focus on the goals, we give opportunity for students to be successful. Supports = personal success. Let’s go back to the Lord of the Flies essay assignment for a second. What if I was the English 11 teacher and one of my students missed the three weeks the class was reading and studying the novel? They arrive after being away for whatever reason (skipping, illness, family matter, etc.), and the knee jerk reaction might be to say, You need to read the novel and complete the essay. But wait, what was the goal again? Oh yeah, the goal is to show that students understand the complexity of theme and can write a multi-paragraph essay. So, why would I make them read the novel? Won’t they fall behind? Or is the expectation to read the novel because everyone else had to read the novel? Hmm.

If a teacher views their practice through an equality lens then every student needs to do the same activities in the same way. If they view their practice through an equity lens, then they acknowledge that fair isn’t always equal. Having the student read the novel isn’t equitable because the learning goals are now out of reach. Reading the book becomes the barrier to learning. When students can’t show their learning, that may affect future learning, and so on and so forth. (Check out this image above from — to me this represents equity. Previously, I included the more popular version with 3 individuals at a fence. I have since learned that that graphic is flawed. I like the idea that equity means providing supports so all can get to the finish line. And while this graphic is admittedly not perfect, even said so by the creator, it is better.)

What if that student was given the notes on theme, asked to work with another student (perhaps one of the students who is working on the challenge) to be sure they understand theme? They could even read the essay that student is writing. Heck, let them read everyone’s essay! They haven’t read the novel, but they may pick up on the nuances that they missed while they were away. Then, what if they were asked to read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” instead of the novel and write a thematic essay on that? Let’s go back to the goal again…their goal is to show that they understand the complexity of theme and can write a multi-paragraph essay. Yup, that would do it. They could also get access to any of the three tiers of support to write the essay successfully and even the challenge! And…there’s a better chance that they will complete the essay on time and get back on track.

But Shannon, if you tell a student they don’t have to read the book, they’ve gonna think they can take three-week breaks and come and take the easy road all the time!

So, let me clear. There was learning that this student missed in the three weeks they were absent. There were other skills and content that they missed. By offering them the alternative essay assignment, what I’ve done is prioritize the most important learning so they can get back on track. The rest of the learning that was missed, I know we’ll come back to in the next short stories unit, so they will provide evidence of learning then. It’s not a free pass. I’m not excusing the three weeks of missed learning. Right now, there is an “incomplete” in my grade book for the learning that was missed. The reality is, if absences continue, those “incompletes” could effectually lead to failing the course, but I would rather view the current expectation and give this student the chance to breathe into a goal that they can achieve, communicating with them that their attendance is necessary to make up the lost learning later on. That is grace, but that is also teaching accountability.

Triangulated evidence

Teachers can also look at support through the lens of triangulation. Gathering triangulated evidence means that we accept evidence as products (like a poster, PowerPoint, essay, story, or project), observations (checklists, running records, video of collaborative group work, anecdotal records, picture taking), and conversations (student/teacher conferences, portfolios, guided conversations, exit slips, journaling, commenting on online documents, email). It also gives students the opportunity to show their learning in multiple ways.

A student who has written output problems, for example, should still write the answer to a question in the requested paragraph, but that evidence of learning can be supplemented with a conversation with the student or an observation of their collaboration with another student. The combined evidence paints a clearer picture of what the student can do and works for all students, but it also embeds supports that most students need on a daily basis.

In the past, one way of showing learning has been considered as more sophisticated or rigorous than another (writing, for example). When teachers examine the goals they want students to achieve, they will become more accepting of gathering triangulated evidence as reasonable instead of solely invest in product-driven assessments.

love to learn pencil signage on wall near walking man

And not only is triangulated evidence reasonable, it also improves accountability in assessment. I’ve sat down with a student who had the most impressive cause and effect chain for the Fall of Rome, only to discover that they couldn’t explain the chain in words or in a conversation. This led to a conversation with the student and I learned they actually didn’t understand the lesson and had copied the chain from their peer. I was able to use the triangulated evidence in a formative way, supporting the student to achieve their goal. When students know that they may have to back up their product with a conversation and that I am constantly observing them in action, they are less likely to cheat, more open to collaborating with their peers so they understand the material, and are less reluctant to seek out assistance from the teacher because they know that triangulated evidence is being to used so they can achieve their goals.

I am often asked, how much time does it take to gather all this evidence? Gathering triangulated evidence doesn’t add time to my daily teaching. I’m always circulating anyways, so I just bring my clipboard along for the ride. It’s a new habit. Because I use proficiency sequences that guide students’ learning, my anecdotes often take the form of “Can do – check – O” meaning that the student can do “Can do” on the sequence successfully and I know that by an observation. “Could do – x – C” means that when they were asked to explain their “Could do” they weren’t successful.

But when students get to university, they won’t have the grit or the hustle or see the rigour…

First, when we refer to post-secondary education like universities, that means we’re talking about adult goals. High school students aren’t adults, yet, so let’s get rid of the “preparing kids for university” lingo and make goals realistic for high school students. Let’s be demanding, but let’s also remember we’re still teaching kids.

Second, universities offer supports too. Many professors ask students if they require accommodations and provide alternative settings to write exams. At my local university (University of Northern British Columbia) there is a Wellness Centre that informs students, staff, and faculty of practical skills to support their mental wellness. Supports are not just a grade k-12 school thing.

Third, universities expect students to be able to show their learning in multiple ways. We are actually doing students a real disservice if we only expect all goals in writing or via tests, and if we don’t allow students to show their learning in creative and collaborative ways. Teaching students to defend their stance, set goals, and achieve goals have a longer lasting positive impact on students. Students are expected to give presentations, participate in discussions, and collaborate with their peers to be successful. My husband went back to school after we had our first child, taking Engineering Design Technology courses to get his diploma. He had to give a presentation about a fire hall structure. During the process of rehearsing his presentation, he told me he wished high school had prepared him better for this. Students need to develop their oral language skills and practicing those skills through conversations is one step in that direction.

A word on assessment

Students who use supports should be assessed in the same way as other student. Assess the quality of the evidence submitted regardless of whether it is shorter or longer. To what extent did they explain the theme is Lord of the Flies? To what extent did they use proper essay writing technique?  When I put my glasses on (a support) before I began my road test, the evaluator didn’t say, “Ok, that -5 points for wearing glasses…”

But focusing on goals also means acknowledging standards-based grading as a more formidable assessment structure. When we use task-specific rubrics that have varying criteria from task to task, students lose sight of the process or content goal. Process and content goals (curricular competencies and content standards in BCed) should flow throughout a course. After a teacher creates a learning opportunity, that learning opportunity becomes evidence for the standard…this shows you are X on the proficiency scale. This allows for students to set goals to maintain X or set a new goal of Y. Rubrics don’t have the same flexibility unless the criteria is similar from task to task. Generating task-neutral criteria (via proficiency sequences, scales or rubrics) builds equity because all students have the same goals, but they get to highlight their best learning of the standard. A student’s personal best is the focus as opposed to a competition culture that is often bred amongst students when there is task-specific criteria.

green and white i love you printed textile

In closing

Supports allow goals to be achievable for all students. Supports aren’t giving students an easy way out from doing the hard work. It’s not about being lenient and it’s definitely not about giving out participation ribbons for showing up, attempting the work, and just doing their best. It’s about creating a finish line for all students. Supports provide opportunity for all students to learn and that builds equity in the classroom. But building in supports that meet the needs of all learners means taking a closer look at the learning goals and checking our implicit and explicit biases at the door. Just because we’ve always expected the four-paragraph essay or for everyone to go into the water doesn’t mean it’s equitable.



Since November, I have had the privilege of participating in Shelley Moore’s Inclusive and Competency Based IEPs sessions. In these sessions, Shelley didn’t just walk us through a more progressive approach to IEP building, she also taught us how and why we need to have inclusive classrooms. As a Drama teacher, I’ve seen the positive effect having a dynamic classroom can have on the entire class. Our world is diverse, why shouldn’t our classrooms be diverse? Thank you, Shelley, for inspiring this blog.

Please follow me @dramaqueenbrc and Shelley @tweetsomemoore on Twitter.

2 thoughts on “Because we all need supports

  1. Great post! I love the analogies used in here. I teach high school math to VERY diverse learners and I can see this as essential to getting my classroom to run the way I want it to. There’s work to be done, but now I can visualise what I want it to look like. Thanks!


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