In this week’s episode of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast, Steve is joined by Florida Inclusion Network Facilitator, Tim Waite to discuss the Power of Peers program and explore the effects of students supporting fellow students with disabilities.
Get in touch with Tim: Tim.Waite@sdhc.k12.fl.us
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Steve [Intro]: 00:23 Hello and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. For over three decades, I’ve had the opportunity to learn with educators at all levels, both nationally and internationally. I invite you to listen as I explore my thoughts and learning on a variety of topics connected to teaching, learning and leading with some of the best and brightest educators from around the globe. Thanks for listening in.
Steve: 00:50 The Power of Peers: Students Supporting Students. I was recently in Tampa, Florida taking part in a special education training for special ed resource leaders. And while there, I had the opportunity to hear a presentation by Tim Waite on a program that exists in Hillsborough County, Florida and across the state of Florida called “The Power of Peers.” And I was impressed and immediately contacted Tim and invited him to join us here on the podcast and he’s agreed. So, welcome Tim.
Tim: 01:40 Thank you.
Steve: 01:41 Tim, would you take a moment and give the listeners a brief introduction to your role as the Florida inclusion networks district facilitator to Hillsborough County. And after you’ve told us a little bit about your role then, why don’t you just move into giving us a thumbnail sketch of what the Power of Peers program is.
Tim: 02:05 Sure. I’ve actually been teaching for 25 years now, the entire time in special education, in a variety of roles from a classroom teacher, for students with emotional disabilities, to supporting students in general ed classrooms, to being a specialist in elementary schools. But currently, for about the past year and a half, I’ve been the facilitator and district resource teacher with the Florida Inclusion Network. And our network functions across the entire state of Florida to support and provide services to ensure that all the students across the state, including students with disabilities, have equal access and have the same educational, social and future opportunities as their peers. And part of our focus is supporting peer groups across the state in the school system. And we started doing it about 14 years ago. We had a program called the power of peers and it was designed with a focus on high schools and students in high schools supporting students with disabilities in their classroom environments.
Tim: 03:25 And historically, programs such as that across our state at least, have been more social based where the students get together on a social type of platform occasionally and engage with each other and then sort of go their separate ways. But when we started the Power of Peers, our focus was more to support students with disabilities in classrooms as academic support for them and with an offshoot of course being social supports as well and a building of social engagement with them as well. About a year ago, the Florida inclusion network redesigned the curriculum and made it a more rigorous peer curriculum for the peers that can roll in the course and we renamed it the Peers as Partners in Learning Program. And it’s basically that Peers and Partners in Learning is a class that students sign up for and they learn this curriculum that they’re exposed to assists them in understanding disabilities, understanding social justice And it makes them, um, a stronger advocates for students with disabilities.
Tim: 04:52 And then they, through this curriculum and through this program, go out into the classrooms and work with students in the classrooms to support them academically. And that’s across the entire state of Florida. And now the Florida Inclusion Network is moving on towards middle schools in the coming year to look at developing a curriculum for middle schools. But in Hillsborough County, about two years ago, we decided to take it a step further and a work group was formed by a district resource teacher here in Hillsborough, Angela Weary-Crooks and she led the group to implement peer programs, not just in high schools or in secondary, but across all aspects of the schools in Hillsborough County from elementary through high school. And we have a five year goal within that work group of implementing these programs across all those levels and across every school in the district.
Steve: 05:54 So Tim, I think I’d like to take a kind of a quick look with you at what this looks like at the high school and then the middle and the elementary. But before we do that, I’ve always understood that inclusion of special needs learners benefited the whole student population as much — and I’m thinking sometimes more than it actually benefited the special needs student. And as I look through your materials, I saw a strong piece of understanding what both the special needs learner and the peer support learner gain from this. And I’m wondering if you could just talk a moment on that.
Tim: 06:46 Definitely. We see that as well across everything that we’re doing. That just the basic including students with disabilities in the general education settings, you know, people often think that it’s just for the purpose of supporting the students with disabilities. But what ends up happening is it also improves the academics for all the students in the classroom. And the same thing is occurring with this peer program. We’re finding in particular that the benefits to the students without disabilities is huge and it’s definitely having an impact on their lives. We recently, in the district, about a month ago, had our first two open houses. We called them peer open houses, where we went to two high schools and we invited leadership from across the district to come and learn about the peer programs going on at those high schools. And I have to say, I was most impressed with listening to the peers themselves, get up and talk about what they were getting out of the program and how it had changed them.
Tim: 08:03 Not only changing them — I mean, they’re in high school, most of them are juniors and seniors. So they’re getting ready to exit and to move on. And they were saying how it had influenced what they were possibly going to do with their lives. But even more so than that, they talked about how it had increased their academic grades. A couple of them talked about how their actual grades were rising because of the program and how their attendance improved greatly. You find a huge improvement in attendance from this and that they had learned so much and been exposed to so many different things, that they realized that they had skills and abilities within themselves that they weren’t even aware of before the program. So I definitely feel that any type of inclusion, but in particular these peer programs not only impact and have a, you know, a huge impact on the students with disabilities, but also have an enormous impact on the students without disabilities as well.
Steve: 09:11 Tim, what’s striking me as I’m listening to you, there’s a focus in a lot of high schools today for building those life skills, social skills. I’m working with several schools now. Empathy – one of the critical skills they’re looking at students needing to develop. And it seems to me that your program creates a lot of opportunities for the students working as support peers to build those skills.
Tim: 09:44 Yes. When my agency, the Florida Inclusion Network redesigned this curriculum for the Peers as Partners in Learning, they made a much more intense academics on the peers themselves and the curriculum itself became much more rigorous and it has built into it, lessons for them on not only — I mean simple things like team building but also like inclusion awareness lessons and things addressing civil rights and presuming competence about individuals. Service versus helping, how language can impact people greatly and how the way that you speak to somebody and about somebody is impactful. It also goes into teaching them things about the universal design for learning, how to foster self determination in others, it looks at disability through literature throughout the ages and it ends eventually with them doing a multi-month project on what they’ve learned and the lessons that they take away from this program. So it has a huge impact in trying to promote greater understanding of individuals with disabilities and trying to push that out through people in the school system and for their future when they leave and go out into society.
Steve: 11:15 Wow. It’s very impressive. So if I was visiting a high school class where the peer was there providing support, can you give me just a picture of what I might see and hear?
Tim: 11:32 Yeah, I mean, and it can take a lot of different forms depending on the classroom and the situation you’re in. But some of the different examples of how we promote the peers to support the students with disabilities — you have simple things and not even, not just simple, but you have things such as note taking and assisting with either with taking notes for the students or showing the students how they themselves can take notes better. In Hillsborough, we’re actually trying to, in the coming year, push out — having the peers utilize more technology in the classroom with the students that they’re working with. And to push that out because honestly, most students know more about technology than their teachers do. And we think they’re a great force for trying to implement that in the classrooms. So they could utilize like a smart notebook, like a rocket notebook where they take notes in the notebook and then they can photograph the notes and send them someplace.
Tim: 12:39 Our peers also can work with the teacher in what lessons they’re presenting and help create tools to try and assist the students working within those lessons. They can utilize their phones to take pictures for the students to use later on after the class or to try and enhance what’s going on in the classroom. They can help them with — if they have assistive technology devices the students are using, they can help them with those. They can model good communication skills with the students and behavior. And we have peers who, most of the peers in our programs across our district, our students — the peers themselves actually have to interview to be in part of the class and they have to have references from other teachers. And so we’re looking at people who are leaders in the school, probably functioning as the peers. So they themselves are setting examples for behavior and for attendance and for engagement in the classrooms and they can assist with all those aspects in addition to helping the students understand the academics themselves better and to understand the concepts that are being presented by the teachers.
Steve: 14:11 I’m guessing that your peers serve as a pretty powerful model for the whole student population based on what they’re learning and what they’re doing.
Tim: 14:25 They do. And they’re held to a very high standard and —
Steve: 14:31 I hear that.
Tim: 14:32 Yeah. And again, they — I mean they can’t, you know, it’s not just a class that’s put out there as an offering at any school and they can just sign up for it and take it. It’s actually a process to get in — an application process, it’s an interview process and so we expect them to be, like you said, be examples for the school and to sort of shine across the school.
Steve: 15:00 Can you walk us through an example of what this might look like now when we visited a middle school and an elementary school?
Tim: 15:14 Our middle schools are actually in Hillsborough, our middle schools — so my agency redesigned the curriculum about a year ago. So they’re currently working on a middle school curriculum to go along with it. And it will come out sometime this year, this coming school year. But in the meantime, in Hillsborough, we wanted to roll this out to middle schools. So we took the old curriculum, the Power of Peers and we started utilizing that within the middle schools. And then also through this work group, trying to support them with additional lessons to try and focus more on a similar tone that the high school curriculum has. So at the middle school level, it actually looks incredibly similar to the high school level. And so it has a very similar look. It’s a course, actually a new course code was just developed in the state – a few weeks ago it was put out.
Tim: 16:16 And so they would do the exact same things as the high school. They sign up for a course and they’re interviewed for it and then once they’re in it, there is a curriculum that is delivered to them in more intensely in the beginning and then – for a few weeks and then they start going out and serving in the classrooms and then are brought back together on a monthly basis basically to sort of touch base with the teachers and to talk about what’s going well or what barriers they’re encountering. And in the middle school level, our focus has been for the seventh and eighth graders to be part of it. And our hope is to start tying the middle schools that are doing it to the high schools that are doing it so that the kids leaving middle school can go into the high school prepared to go into the course in high school and already have a solid background in the service and the memory of it.
Steve: 17:17 I was just processing that as I was listening to you — the power of a student having completed this program at the middle school level and then stepping into it at the high school level and probably notching up their learning a whole other step.
Tim: 17:35 At the elementary level, we’re actually — I was going to say, we’re trying to also tie together at the elementary to middle school level, the same type of thing. But we have some unique — situation in Hillsborough County. Our county started doing a number of K-8 schools, so schools that are kindergarten through eighth grade and our hope is to start moving the program into those schools so that they can start working on it at the 4th and 5th grade level, transition it right within their own school with the same students into the middle school level and then move it on into the high school level. Now at the elementary level, it of course looks very different than it does in the middle school and high school level. It’s not obviously a class that the students can sign up for and take. And we’re looking right now, we’re sort of just starting to explore more intently the elementary portion of it.
Tim: 18:38 But this work group that we have going on in the district, looking at it, has under the direction of Angela Weary-Crooks, been developing our own curriculum to implement in the elementary level with again, that focus on helping others and educating students at that level about what disabilities are and what they are not and the language and how to communicate and how to work with others. And we’re looking at instilling it within — our goal is to sort of put it within classrooms where a peer in a classroom is trained, whether it be before school, after school or during lunch, and they go through the same type of trainings and these same type of lessons and then they work with students within their own classroom.
Steve: 19:31 Yeah.
Tim: 19:31 Because we’re not able obviously to remove them from their classroom because they’re going to miss curriculum then. So our goal is to train them to work with students within their own classrooms.
Steve: 19:42 I can just picture in an elementary classroom, that that student who had the training and was actively stepping into that role, creating a model where other kids step into copying a lot of the same positive behaviors. I just can envision it a ton of payoff coming from that.
Tim: 20:13 Yeah. I always use — when I was at a, I was working in an elementary school here in Tampa and I use this one student as like the perfect example. And I was walking with a group of students who were in a self contained classroom and we passed by a, I think it was a 3rd grade class on their way going through the hallway. And one of the students in the 3rd grade class waved to one of the students that I was walking with. And I stopped because heard this child in front of them turn around and say, “you know, her?” And the little boy said, “yeah, she’s my sister.” And the boy in front said, “what’s wrong with her? What’s her problem?” And the student, the brother — it has to be the most articulate statement I’ve ever heard, gave this amazing description of what autism is and how you work with somebody with autism. And he was – it was better than any adult I’ve ever heard.
Steve: 21:21 I’ll bet. I’ll bet.
Tim: 21:22 And the student in front just turned and said, “I never knew that.” And I thought, wow. Like, he made such an impact on them. So in my mind, I always picture this program as trying to attain a level like that within the elementary schools.
Steve: 21:37 Yeah. That’s terrific. Is there anything about the program that you didn’t get a chance to put out here that you think’s important that I missed with my questions?
Tim: 21:49 No, just that I think it has huge benefits and the fact that, I think it’s definitely something that I wish you saw more in your travels across the school system.
Steve: 22:02 Yeah, me too.
Tim: 22:03 But I definitely think it has huge benefits for all the students involved in it, with and without disabilities and also for the teachers involved with it.
Steve: 22:15 Yeah.
Tim: 22:16 I think there are just enormous benefits through this program that school systems need to start taking advantage of.
Steve: 22:24 You know you did hit a question that I had in my mind that I forgot as we were closing out. I was wondering if the teachers needed any special PD to work effectively with the peers in their classrooms.
Tim: 22:45 Well that’s actually interesting, I was just working on that yesterday. We found that the overriding curriculum doesn’t really address educating the teachers that are going to have the peers in their rooms. And so our work group in the district is looking at and developing a, like a short training for the teachers that if nothing else, they can just watch it and understand this is what this person in your room is being taught. This is — these are examples of the different things they can do for you and for your classroom. And so we’re putting that out. And then, there’s also — because we found that that was a component that was missing and was necessary and we already had built in time that we ask that the teachers involved meet with somebody to talk with them and go over any barriers or any successes that they’re having and to try and work through it before it became an issue. So we’re hoping that like presenting this training to them will sort of get around a lot of any issues that might arise.
Steve: 24:02 Terrific. Terrific. Well Tim, I need to give you a great big thank you for joining us here. Appreciate it.
Tim: 24:12 Thank you very much. Have a great day.
Steve: 24:14 You Bet. Take care.
Steve [Outro]: 24:16 Thanks again for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud on iTunes and Podbean and please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.