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special education

I believe the children are our future

The world has felt scary and unsafe lately. While that used to be a “Jen-thing” for a good chunk of my life (i.e., let’s work on this in therapy, why does the world feel so scary for no reason?) it’s currently….not. I’m not even slightly alone in this feeling, and honestly, rather than that being comforting, I only wish it was a Jen-thing rather than our reality.

And one thing I tried to figure out back in January was, what the heck am I going to do/talk about/say to/work on with my students? We’re in a situation where we as educators and therapists can’t share our fears or beliefs with our students (which could be a whole post in and of itself ), but where our students are aware of what’s happening in the world, regardless of their own beliefs about it (which at many of their ages, are just their parents’ beliefs being parroted).

So after a lot of thinking and toying with different ideas, I decided to do a project around “World Issues”. It started about a month ago, with us talking about Martin Luther King Jr., and how we had a day off to celebrate him, and why we celebrate him and what issues he cared about. Then we brainstormed other issues that exist in the world or in our community. You guys – kids KNOW. They hear things and they are aware, and they care. They very quickly rattled off issues and examples that they’ve heard of or witnessed in our world and community. Here’s an example of one group’s brainstorm (excuse the horrible picture quality):

The dialogue that happened was powerful. For each group it meant different things – sometimes simpler and sometimes more in depth, but the point was, they all had reactions and feelings about these topics. I could write for days about each group and the conversations we had, but I’ll just share this one: One student said “war? But that doesn’t happen anymore. There hasn’t really been a war wince World War 2.” And then another student said, “War happens all the time still, like in Syria,” and the first student responded, “That can’t be right. If a war was going on, the United States would do something about it and make it end and not just ignore it.” I know. Powerful.

Politics came up here and there – how could they not? But we kept things factual (“yes, that did happen, yes, that order was signed, yes, some people are upset about it, yes, some people are happy about it”) and moved on.

Then they each chose an issue that they cared a lot about. With two different graphic organizers, they brainstormed and organized information on their issue. The project culminated in them writing a paragraph about the issue of their choosing, and for my students, this is no small feat. All of the steps involved in writing a paragraph when you have significant learning/language disabilities and challenges, maybe with ADHD and anxiety also, can take up to 5 or 6 48-minute sessions. Which is why their end products are so wonderful and move me to tears. (For the record, I also got moved to tears when they wrote a paragraph comparing and contrasting two different types of penguins – they are just such smart kids, such hard workers, and it is not. at. all. easy for them)

So: enjoy. Here’s the final products (with a pretty bulletin board display to come, hopefully next week) of some of my wonderful 6th-8th graders. Read one or two or all of them – because this is the world from the next generation’s perspective. This is the future.

Just listen

The minute we got into the room, she put her head down on the table and, sighing heavily, said, “Parents are SO over-protective.”

(Hey, she’s 12. She’s allowed to say stuff like that.)

The role that she needs me to play, as I’ve quickly learned over the weeks, is to be a listener. Think about it – even as adults, all we want is to be listened to, right? Now think back to adolescence and pre-adolescence. We had people telling us we were being dramatic, overreacting, not appreciating what we have. But all we really wanted was validation. So that’s what I give her, while she complains about not being allowed to have social media accounts. She rants about the state of the government, and she talks about how “stupid” it is that people still think that girls and boys aren’t equal. (I know. She’s outstanding.)

We get through a little work. Then she groans again.

“Stupid getting dark early. The lack of sunlight messes with my pineal gland and makes melatonin at the wrong times so my sleep gets so messed up. Ugh. Stupid pineal gland. Sorry in advance if I get even grumpier. It’s not my fault.” I nod. I tell her I so get it.

We do a little more work. We get to a point where she’s going to need to read out loud. She muscles through, struggling to sound out words, struggling to scan to find the part she’s looking for. Most days she’d push through, maybe complain once or twice, but she’d get through it. But lately, things have been getting harder, and she knows it. She’s coming off a bad cold. She’s exhausted. She’s brilliant and struggling in school. And she’s 12.

On the verge of tears, she puts her head in her hands and says, “This is HARD. It’s not fair.”

“I know,” I tell her, as I tell her every week. “I know it’s hard for you. You work so, so hard.”

But this week she keeps going. “It’s not fair. I did so great in 5th grade. And now I’m doing horribly in 6th grade. Everything’s hard. It makes me feel stupid.”

We talk openly, as we always do, about her struggles in school. We talk about how 6th grade is harder. And how her IEP team, including her parents, are working to find out the best ways to help her. We talk about how even if school, particularly reading and writing, are hard, it doesn’t mean she’s not smart. She knows all of this, but we talk about it anyway. Because, how many times have you known something deep down but can’t trust it? Can’t believe it? Need to hear it from someone else? (Me? Only about every day.)

We get through a little more work and then I tell her we have 5 minutes left. She groans. “Why does time go fast when I want it to go slow, and goes slow when I want it to hurry up?” I smile. I tell her I can relate.

She asks if she can draw a picture. She tells me, “This is going to be a picture of what life is like for me.” And she starts to title it (H – E -). She pauses, looks at me, and asks, “Do I need to keep going?” Knowing that “hell” is one of her favorite words, one she usually works into our sessions at least once because she knows I won’t tell her parents, I tell her, “I think I know what you’re going to write.” She then draws the picture. Frustrated with herself for not drawing it correctly, she tells me, “This part is fire, and this part is water. Fire for the horrible and hard parts. Water for the parts that I guess are okay.”

I run with it. “So what are the parts that are okay, or even good?”

She rolls her eyes and recites, like a little performer, “I’m healthy, I have food and water, I have a roof over my head, I have a lot to be thankful for.”

OH, I so know this. Raise your hand if ever you were told those things as part of a reason about why you shouldn’t be anxious/depressed/upset/traumatized/heartbroken/etc? Yup. That’s what I thought.

I look her dead in the eye and I tell her, “No, not those things. What are the parts that each day are good? That you truly love, that make you smile? The smaller things.”

She thinks. “My family,” she starts. “And art.” Her face lights up. “Pottery. Making things.” She names a few other specific things that she loves. She looks at me.

“I’m glad you have those things,” I tell her.

The hour is up and her dad comes in. We fill him in on the work we got done, and in general terms, that we talked about how 6th grade is hard, and how school is feeling really frustrating and more and more difficult. He looks her in the eye and tells her he knows, that they’re working on it, and that they will keep working to help her. After we all chat for a few more minutes, he tells her that they’re picking up pizza on the way home. Her face lights up and as we all walk out, she negotiates for a soda, listing all the reasons she should be allowed to have one.

I just adore that kid.

You guys – when anyone, but especially a child or adolescent, talks to you – really talks, and tells you their thoughts and their feelings and their fears and their hopes – listen. They’re trusting you with their inner storm, and most likely, they don’t share it with just anyone. I promise you – they don’t need you to give perfect advice. They don’t need you to fix it right now. They just need you to listen. To tell them you get it. To hear them. To give them time. To hold space.

No different from what we want, right?

Duck tolerance

Once upon a time, there was a school of ducks. Throughout the day, Teacher Duck worked with many different classes. One of her classes was a group of 3 ducks – 2 boys and 1 girl, if labels were necessary in the pond.

This class swam into Teacher Duck’s room and found their seats.

“Teacher Duck!” Johnny Duck exclaimed. “I know this is really off topic, but can I show you and the other ducks what I have in my backpack today?!”

“Hmm,” Teacher Duck thought. “Can you tell us what it is first, so I can make sure that’s a good choice?”

“I brought my dolls!” Johnny Duck exclaimed. “And I did their hair and it looks sooo good, and I want to show everyone.”

“Okay,” Teacher Duck agreed. “Let’s take two minutes for you to share and then we’re going to get started with the lesson.”

Johnny Duck swam over to his backpack and pulled out his dolls. He showed each of them to Billy Duck and Susie Duck, pointing out the complex braids he gave them, and the fashionable clothes he dressed them in.

Susie Duck said, “Cool! I like their hair.”

Billy Duck said, “Nice. You love dolls. I love Legos.”

Johnny Duck laughed. “I LOVE my dolls. I didn’t start collecting them until a few years ago, so I’m a little behind. But I just love them and I love playing with them and I love how beautiful they are.”

And Susie and Billy Duck smiled, because Johnny loves dolls, and they make him happy, so they had no reason to feel anything other than happy about Johnny.

Teacher Duck began the lesson. Partway through a creative writing, Billy Duck said, “Johnny, I’m going to make you a fairy in my story.”

Johnny Duck beamed. “I LOVE fairies! Can I have glitter and sparkles too?”

“Sure,” Billy Duck nodded.

A little while later, Teacher Duck was explaining the next task, when Johnny Duck glanced at Teacher Duck’s flipper. Though there had been a ring on it for many years, it only just registered with him.

“Teacher Duck, I love your ring!” Johnny Duck exclaimed. “Are you married?”

Teacher Duck nodded.

“So you have a husband?” Johnny Duck asked. “Well, of course you do, what else would you have?”

“Well,” Teacher Duck responded, “I could have a wife.”

“Yeah,” Susie Duck chimed in, who has a Mom Duck as her parent. “And if a girl marries a girl then if they want a baby they might have to adopt. Same with a boy who marries a boy.”

“That’s called gay,” Billy Duck added.

“Yup.” Johnny Duck confirmed.

And then they kept writing.

Teacher Duck looked in awe at her brilliant, compassionate, loving ducks, who loved each other for who each other was, and didn’t question it. Because a duck is a duck – and beyond that, it just didn’t matter.

Summer transition

The school year is winding down, and we are in what we know to be really difficult for a lot of our kids: transition.

Some kids are acting the same as they always do. Their behavior hasn’t shifted, and their mannerisms are the same.

Others are silly. Giggly, laughing, hyper, falling off their chairs, bodies flopping all over the place.

Some are weepy. Expressing fear, anxiety, worry, dread.

And others are angry. Seemingly rude, bitter, mean.

Years ago I worked with a 13-year-old at a summer program. All summer long, I was the one she would run away from, the one to whom she’d roll her eyes when I came after her, the one she’d use sarcasm and and an annoyed tone of voice with all day every day. Still I persisted. I adored her. On the very last day of camp, the group was on our way back from our last swimming block. The path split, the group headed in the direction we usually went, although both paths ended up where we needed to be, and she looked at me and said, “Can we walk through the woods path, just the two of us?” The entire walk she said nothing, but wrapped her arm around mine and held on tight. She never shed a tear, she never said “I’ll miss you”. But in her own way, she conveyed exactly that.

This year, one of my little cherubs constantly uses a rude tone of voice with me. I’ll give a direction to the group, and, seemingly exasperated, she’ll interrupt with some sort of off-topic comment, random demand, or expression of displeasure for what I’m saying. (I love this kid. So much. No sarcasm at all.) The thing is – I KNOW she adores me. Looking past the behavior I see the other things: how her behavior escalates when she knows she won’t see me if I have a meeting. How she acts even ruder if I’m paying attention to another kid in the group. How she acted like a bear and then told me she wished she could’ve been on my Field Day team. How she whined all class and then said, “I don’t only want to see you two more times this year!”

Yet again, I have to come back to behavior = communication (I know, you’re so sick of me saying that over and over again).

And this point is so necessary to remember as transitions come up, because amidst the silly, rude, mean, immature behavior, the off-topic comments, the whining, the meltdowns, we have to remember that for them, their world is turning upside down. And not necessarily in a bad way – it’s just shifting. I understand it particularly well, given that at age 28, I still don’t handle transitions well. I’m fine once the event has occurred. But the anticipation of anything, even a positive event, is hard.

Some of our kids are going to a different school next year. Some are entering middle school, some high school. Some staying in the same school and devastated that their good friends will be moving on, or moving up. Some are already worried about which teachers they’ll have next year. Some are excited for summer, and some dread it. Some are busy and kept stimulated, and some sit on their ipads and are bored.

Transitions are hard, especially when you’re particularly sensitive, or autistic, or have executive functioning challenges, or a learning disability, and you’ve spent the entire year acclimating to a routine and structure and now it’s being taken away from you.

What helps: talking about it, constantly. Previewing, constantly. Being transparent, constantly. Throughout the year, I reference the calendar in my room at least weekly. I point out what’s going on that week, if I won’t see a group for a holiday or if I have a meeting, if there are any special events, if it’s someone’s birthday.

This month, we talk about the calendar daily. Every single day we look at it, discuss the events that day, talk about how many days are left in school, how many more times they’ll see me, and their other teachers. Every single day we talk about it, because it helps. Remember, we are talking about kids who thrive on routine, thrive on repetition, thrive on knowing exactly what’s happening when. The more it’s discussed, the more they can accept it and process it.

We talk about how we feel about summer coming. For some, we do it simply: we show how we feel with a thumbs up, down, or medium. For others, we talk about the things we’ll miss about school and the things we won’t. Still, others, we talk about the feelings around moving to high school, saying goodbye to a friend. But we talk about it so we can meet it head on.

Change is hard. For all of us. To different degrees. It’ll manifest itself in a variety of different ways.

Just hold onto that knowledge, as we transition into summer.

When a snort is not a snort

Today one of my kids walked into my office for speech. I was in the middle of talking with a co-worker when he walked in, and I said a quick hi to him and then finished what I was saying.

He made an animal snorting noise in response.

(He’s 12, and while he can trend towards immature, he has never been a kid for whom making animal noises is common).

I glanced at him, telling him, “Try again, please.”

He snorted again.

In a moment of annoyance (which I really, truly can say happens very infrequently), because I was trying to finish my conversation and wrap up one of a zillion things that were going on, I told him,

“You will have an automatic detention if you do that again.”

I finished what I was saying to my co-worker, she left, and I turned back to him.

“It’s because I am tired,” he said, out of the blue, as an unsolicited explanation for why he snorted.

“If you’re tired, that’s okay, but you can’t make animal noises like that.” I told him.

His face changed, and he said, “I’m tired because my grandfather died.”

My heart stopped.

Shit.

I had totally messed up. He was trying to tell me something.

Look, am I not the one who preaches that behavior equals communication? Am I not the one who always says, look at what the behavior is trying to tell us? Am I not the one who suggests that we talk to our kids and meet them halfway, to understand what’s going on rather than punish it?

Yeah, he could’ve come in and said “I’m sad” or “Something happened” or “I need to tell you something.” But he didn’t. Maybe he couldn’t. Maybe he snorted because he didn’t know what else to do. Maybe he snorted because he had planned on talking to me but I was talking to my co-worker and it altered his plan. Who knows, and it doesn’t matter.

What matters is that for him, this behavior wasn’t typical. I certainly have kids who make animal noises and they aren’t communicating anything other than trying to be funny. For them, it should be approached in a whole different way.

But when a kid does something that they don’t usually do – when it’s atypical or something seems off, trust your gut.

I am sharing this because I am human. I’m sharing this because sometimes we all get annoyed, or snap. And that’s okay. It just matters that we rectify the situation as soon as possible. Which I did – on his own terms, we talked about it briefly (all he wanted to share was that sometimes he feels happy that his grandpa lived for 80 years and that his dad felt sad and he already talked to his counselor about it and felt [thumbs up] right now and didn’t need to check in more), a peer in the group shared that he had also lost his grandpa years ago, and then we moved on.

He moved on feeling heard, understood, and cared about.

I figured it out – even though it was a minute or two later than I would’ve liked.

That’s what matters.

MCAS Round 2: A Letter

MCAS round 2 begins tomorrow.

I am dreading every minute of it.

I hate MCAS for all kids, but I REALLY hate it it for our special ed kids.

(I know, I’ve already written about this.

I’m going to write about it again.

It’s that’s important.)

So I need to talk to you about it.


Dear parent/out of district coordinator/service provider/person across from me at the table in a meeting:

I know what you were going to say before you said it. You looked at last year’s MCAS scores listed in the IEP, and I saw you stiffen and swallow and open your mouth to speak. And I know exactly what you’re going to say, and you do:

“So I’m a little concerned about Student’s MCAS scores. Scores are low/the same as last year/show regression/don’t show improvement/are still in the Warning range.”

We sit and nod, because we see the scores. We aren’t shocked. We aren’t surprised. So you look around at us some more, adjust your papers, and go on.

“I’m very concerned about this. We need to talk about why Student is not improving in their scores.”

This is the part where I sit up straighter, clear my throat, and begin to speak. And even though I want to shout from the rooftops, I calmly say my piece. I tell you that MCAS is a long, exhausting test. I tell you that yes, of course we provide the accommodations given to Student in their IEP. I explain that usually Student puts forth 100% effort on the first part. But there are multiple parts. And it’s exhausting. And so effort falls to the wayside. And also, Student is still in elementary/middle school. And we’ve told Student that on MCAS their job is just to try.”

And then you nod, and agree, and sometimes move on and sometimes ask more questions.

But what I REALLY want to tell you, what I REALLY want to say, is this:

MCAS is a grade-level test. Student cannot read grade-level material or comprehend grade-level material. In fact, Student cannot access grade-level material without significant modifications and language-based teaching, repetition, spiraling, and breaking down concepts. Student has sensory processing difficulties, attentional difficulties, and executive function challenges. All of which make even modified material challenging. That’s why Student is at our school, and why Student is successfully learning at our school.

Yes, we provide Student with their accommodations. But having extra time, being allowed to type their answers, and being given access to spell check are not going to magically make them able to complete grade-level material, are not going to make their attention, anxiety, or executive function issues disappear. Oh, I wish I had that magic wand, but I don’t.  And so, of course, their scores are low.

I’m not going to sugar-coat it. You know that I adore this child. SO much. But I adore this child for who they are, and where they are. And where they are is not on grade-level. I am not a professional tennis player, and so I would not be able to win a professional tennis match. I know a few French words but I can’t hold a conversation in French. Despite any modifications I may be granted. But maybe some day I could. Right now your child’s MCAS scores are low. Maybe they’ll improve some day. In fact, I have high hopes that they will. Because I am good at my job, and my colleagues are good at my job, and we work with students to make miracles happen at this place.

But here’s the thing. You are looking at a number, which tells you nothing helpful about Student. And so, please, let me tell you about Student. Student has been raising their hand. Volunteering. Taking learning risks in class. Volunteering to read out loud, even when they stumble over words. Student is sitting with others at lunch time. Having conversations. Accepting help to problem-solve social situations. Student is more positive, happier, and more relaxed. Student is remembering what they learned in previous days. Student is starting to recall strategies. Starting to apply them. Accepting help. Taking feedback. Student is funny, and always makes others laugh. Student is energetic and sweet and puts a smile on everyone’s face. Student said to me the other day, “I don’t hate going to school anymore.”

That’s what you need to know about Student. Student is going to be just fine, and accomplish great things in this life – whatever the right things for them end up being. Maybe Student will go to a 4-year college. Maybe take classes at community college. Maybe do a vocational/transitional program. Maybe Student will work in retail, or with animals, or in a cafeteria.  Maybe Student will live at home, or alone, or get married, or live in a group home. We don’t know yet, and MCAS scores don’t give us the answer. And also, Student is still in elementary/middle school. I sure didn’t know the answer to those questions at that age, and I scored proficient on MCAS.

So what you need to know now, is: Student is a brilliant, incredible human being. One that I am privileged to work with. One who will make this world a better place. One who, with your help, and with all of our support, is going to be just fine.

And that’s what you need to know. That’s what we should focus on.

All my best,
Jen

MCAS Day One

Today, I left work angry, frustrated, and discouraged.

No, this is not typical.

But today, MCAS began.

Today, I sat with my sweet little 3rd grade student from 9 in the morning until 2 in the afternoon, while she struggled through a test that she shouldn’t have to take.

Since she qualifies for special education under a language-based learning disability, she is eligible for some MCAS accommodations.

She was allowed to use a place marker to keep her place while reading.

But she couldn’t decode all the words. Let alone comprehend them. Because she’s a third grader with a severe LLD.

I was allowed to clarify directions. But “Yup, so you read the story and answer the questions,” doesn’t help when she has no idea what she’s reading.

She was allowed to type her responses. But that didn’t help when she couldn’t comprehend the story or what the questions were asking.

She doesn’t qualify for the “read aloud” accommodation. Because, to qualify for that, you have to be a “virtual non-reader”. Being significantly below grade level isn’t enough. Because, if I knew the Russian alphabet and could read a few basic words, I should be able to comprehend stories, right? Not to mention the fact that even if she could decode everything, which she can’t, she’s not comprehending. Because she has a disability. 

So today, I sat with her while she struggled to sound out each word in about 10 2-4-page stories. Tried not to tear up when she tried to read the questions, and then laboriously re-read the story, trying so hard to figure out the answer. Tried not to bang my head in frustration on her behalf when she looked at me and said, “I don’t know what this is even saying.”

I tried not to think about how detrimental this is. Because although I made light of it (by the end I was “woo-hoo!!!-ing every time she answered a question, and saying things like, “Only two more yucky questions!” to make her smile), she’s not stupid. In fact, she’s one of the smartest little kids I know. She knew she couldn’t do it. She knew she was supposed to be able to. She knew that if I had been able to help her, encourage her to use strategies, read it to her, she would’ve been able to do better (she said as much). She took breaks where I’d do what I could to make that little perfectionist girl, who hates getting anything wrong, smile as best I could. But it didn’t stop her from sighing, resigned, and saying, “It’s fine. I’ll just keep going.”

And then by the end, when she had given it everything she had – she had to do the sample PARCC session. Which really made MCAS look like a piece of cake, and that’s saying something. She looked at me and said, “This is so hard. I don’t even understand any of it. I’m just going to guess because I can’t do this.”

If we strive for language-based teaching, PARCC is the exact opposite.

“I think they’re hard, too.” I offered.

She looked up, skeptical. “Really?”

“Really.” And sadly, I wasn’t lying.

And so for yet another year, I think, there has got to be a better way. A better way than wasting our teaching time and their learning time on this test. A better way than having testing send us backwards in self-esteem and self-confidence. We spend so much energy teaching our students that having a learning disability doesn’t make them stupid, but really, we might as well be saying, “You’re not stupid. But! You’re going to have to spend some hours doing things that yes is for kids in your grade and yes you’re as smart as them but no you’re not going to be able to read most of it or answer most of it, but don’t even give it a second thought, you’re so smart and this means nothing!”

And we do what we can, and we joke and smile and stay calm and get through it. Year after year after year. There’s no other option.

But it shouldn’t be this way to begin with, where we struggle in this way. Where intelligence is measured by this test. Where a successful education is measured through this test. This test doesn’t say anything. It doesn’t capture how smart my students are (and they are often smarter than me). It doesn’t capture their personalities. It doesn’t capture their strengths. It tells us nothing valuable.

There’s got to be a better way.

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