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Contradictions, Decisions, Accommodations: Teaching with ADHD

susan_bernstein
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Don’t take anything for granted. Perhaps this is the most important lesson I learned from teaching online for four and a half semesters. In other words, this post addresses my own experiences with basic technology and also with ADHD incompatible classrooms. No one should have to teach without basic technology--and no one should take basic technology for granted, either.

By basic technology, I mean a smart classroom equipped with a computer, a projector, speakers, a screen/smart board, and internet access. Nothing fancy. Or so I thought.

In contemplating in-person teaching, the possibility of returning to dysfunctional technology felt daunting and frustrating. The good thing about remote learning was that I could rely on my own technological setup on Zoom, Google Docs, and the course management system to keep the course organized. Returning to the under-funded public university where I would teach as an adjunct in spring 2023 meant precarious access to the basic classroom technology I took for granted when I taught in the southwest.

The public university system to which I am returning to in the northeast is touted for its low tuition, as having “more bang for your buck”—and it’s true that tuition is generally much lower than most other post-secondary institutions in our region.

But what if the bang is more like an explosion? What if a bang for your buck means classrooms without basic technology and buildings with 30-year-old ventilation systems that don’t work—before and during a global pandemic. I have spent a lot of time and a lot of free writing in the last several weeks trying to figure out if I really wanted to step back into this situation and what it would take to be able to do it.

There are a limited number of smart classrooms at the campus where I would teach, and those classrooms are generally poorly ventilated with little-to-no space for social distancing. The remaining classrooms offered limited promise of better ventilation, and also used portable technology incompatible with accessibility for teachers with ADHD. By portable, I mean classrooms that are not equipped with basic technology. The instructor must make reservations with IT so that technology can be brought into the classroom, and set up by IT and/or the instructor, all semester every day that the course meets.

This system is perhaps a relic of an era when technology was needed only occasionally, for example, if the instructor planned to show a film. For instructors who need basic technology every day of the semester, this arrangement is not serendipitous. Here’s a short list of classrooms with portable technology that must be set up by IT and/or the instructor that, in my experience, are NOT reasonable accommodations for ADHD:

  • Rooms where the key to a technology cabinet is provided and I must set up the technology myself and/or with IT support every day at the beginning of class.
  • Rooms that require me to bring my own laptop to campus as part of a 1-2 hour commute (each way) on public transit, only to find out that my laptop often did not work correctly with the available technology.
  • Rooms with no or broken window shades. In these rooms, sunlight interferes with projection and students cannot see the screen. This makes technology unusable.

Before the pandemic lockdown, I was sometimes able to switch from the incompatible classroom to a smart classroom. If a smart classroom wasn't available, I struggled with inaccessible portable technology for the entire semester. In the past, because of my disabilities, I spent multiple hours attempting to find workarounds to an untenable situation. In particular, I remember that broken window shade and the piercing sunlight that rendered the screen nearly invisible. When we switched classrooms, the students and I were stuck in a space in one of the buildings desperately in need of renovation. That classroom had basic technology, but the temperature was often as high as 85 degrees.

That was spring 2020, nearly three years ago. Lockdown moved all of us out of that classroom to remote learning, and the catastrophes that followed. By fall 2022, I learned, nothing had changed. That classroom was still overheated, and ventilation remained a seemingly insoluble problem across campus. Contemplating a return to a stultifying normal seemed out of the question.

Preparing to teach from my bedroom during lockdown in March 2020Preparing to teach from my bedroom during lockdown in March 2020

Photo by Susan Bernstein. March 16, 2020

Remote learning, with strong asynchronous components, greatly supports ADHD learning in sustainable ways. For instance, before the pandemic, I relied on the setup of the course management system to set up my class, supplemented by hard copies of assignments and supplements to support the assignment. When we moved online, I quickly learned that we would need workarounds for students who had difficulty accessing the course management system on mobile devices, including students with disabilities. The most significant workaround was the liquid syllabus, which operates outside the structure of the course management system and offers students a more comprehensive layout of the structure of the course (see this sample liquid syllabus for English 102 by Professor Jennifer Ortiz at West Los Angeles College).

The liquid syllabus, as its name suggests, is a living document that more readily follows the flow of the course without the constraint of the course management system. I could make better use of the students’ formative and summative feedback and my field notes to make needed and more visible changes that could be explained in synchronous time, and easily accessed in asynchronous time, amplified by email and group chat.

Additionally, because the liquid syllabus is more fluid that the linear structure of the course management system, I found that I struggled less with organization and time management, two issues that are often challenging for people with ADHD. If I had been wary of online courses before the pandemic, I now understand how the unlimited access to technology and asynchronous learning components are incredibly helpful for access to higher education for disabled students, and disabled teachers.

Yet, throughout my leave of absence this fall, I also began to understand the contradictions of not returning to campus. While I needed access to the basic technology that remote teaching provides, I miss face-to-face encounters with students, including the spontaneity that happens when, together in the same room, technologically equipped or not, we grapple with the challenges and satisfactions of writing and learning together, even as those memories were tinged with reminders of the consequences of the lack of basic technology and poor ventilation.

Even so, isolation was beginning to feel counterproductive. Teaching from my bedroom was steadily losing its novelty.

In the throes of these contradictions, I worked remotely with my colleagues to attempt to find a smart classroom. Since the poor ventilation could not be ameliorated, I would have to base my decision to return on receiving reasonable accommodations, the basic technology that I have come to rely on and that offers accessibility as per ADA law. Knowing that I will have these accommodations for those with ADHD eases the way back to the classroom, as does the privilege of being able to make the choice to return to a difficult and contradictory situation.

I have struggled to write what seems like a very personal post, as I struggle with the difficulties of returning to a situation with many unknown factors. What was the main point of the many drafts I attempted, then relegated to my info dump Google Doc file? In writing, breaking down the component parts of making a decision felt like a constant struggle, and the writing became as difficult as deciding whether or not to return to in-person teaching. In the end, however, I realized that writing about the struggle cannot be removed from struggling with the decision itself.

So this post arrives at many conclusions. Basic technology must be a reasonable accommodation for every worker in higher education–and must be readily available for every student and every classroom. Poor ventilation and inaccessible technology are not merely metaphors–they are material consequences of the ongoing defunding of public higher education. Writing helps and writing reminds me that teaching also helps, even as the struggle continues.

Reader, I am returning to an in-person classroom after nearly three years–and as fraught as it seems, also, in unexpected moments, the thought of returning fills me with joy.

About the Author
I am a writer and teacher living in Queens, New York. My book is "Teaching Developmental Writing" 4e. Other recent publications include “Theory in Practice: Halloween Write-In,” with Ian James, William F. Martin, and Meghan Kelsey in Basic Writing eJournal 16.1, “An Unconventional Education: Letter to Basic Writing Practicum Students in Journal of Basic Writing 37.1, “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” in Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity.