* U is for uncontrolled

Blogging A-Z: U is for uncontrolled, otherwise known as “Me in a Wheelchair.”  I had a serious accident at school several years ago and ended up in a wheelchair for 2 1/2 years.  I could select from a multitude of adjectives to describe that period in my life, but uncontrolled is a start.  For the first months, I was in a manual wheelchair. wheelchair

I was a hazard just to myself in that manual model, smashing my hand into door frames and requiring four teachers to extricate me from a hallway and a couple of opened doors.  As my knee worsened and it became obvious that I was down for the count, I graduated to a Jazzy motorized chair.  That is when my uncontrolled phase began in earnest.  And I was a hazard to the world at large.wheelchair 2

This splendid machine had a joystick device with adjustable speed controls!  Woohoo!  The speeds ranged from “turtle” to “jackrabbit.”  Can you guess which speed I used?  There was not a door or wall in the school I hadn’t rammed, a kid whose feet I hadn’t rolled over.  My Jazzy had a horn, so I could shoo people out of the way, or at least warn them that they were about to collide with an uncontrolled teacher.  A school secretary took primary responsibility for reprimanding me about my poor driving etiquette.  I know she was right, but I ran heedlessly over everything she said.

I justified my outrageous careening as a way to start my groups on time.  Hey, it was a very large building.  The secretary would shake her head when she saw me rolling ahead of the pack of kids who trailed behind me, trying to keep up by power walking (a euphemism for slow running).

Perhaps I was overcompensating for being stuck in a chair.  Perhaps my true, pushy self was simply more visible on wheels.  I must admit to a certain pleasure from feeling the wind in my hair as I flew through the school.  Aah, uncontrollable!

* T is for transient

rails-253134_640Blogging A-Z: T is for transient.  I have wondered what percentage of special needs kids live in transient circumstances.  In my experience, these families have fallen into three categories: women on the run from domestic abuse, families homeless and unable to find stable employment, and families on the run from IEP committees.

The latter transient group are really tough to handle.  First of all, they show up at school with just enough paperwork to get in the door.  No mention of learning or behavior issues.  In fact, I usually don’t even see the parents.  These kids are often quiet and unresponsive to questions about their previous school.  The more obstreperous kids make waves and initiate Phone or Note Wars with their invisible parents.  Overall, the kids are well below grade level and the classroom teacher is stunned at their performance.  One third grader could not write his name.

At this point, someone has alerted the person responsible for special ed paperwork and the hunt officially begins.  The paper trail can be amazingly convoluted and by the time there’s a hint that this student was referred for an evaluation, that transient family has moved on again.  I have felt sorry for kids who show up under those circumstances.  The kids are trained not to talk and have a slim chance of getting much-needed support.  I assume their parents are in denial or perhaps hiding something even worse.

The special needs kids whose moms are hiding in a shelter have double their share of difficulties.  They are usually more anxious, defiant, or generally difficult to manage, for obvious reasons.  Their mothers usually make a connection with the school counselor, nurse, or police resource officer immediately as a form of protection.

For families who are homeless and/or with a history of moving to find work, the student may stay for most of a year.  The child might even go through the evaluation process and qualify for an IEP.  But within a year or so, the transient family continues its meager, wandering existence.

Occasionally (rarely) these transient kids wander back into our schools, which is always a joy.  When I think about the effort needed to support a special needs kid in an “established” home, I cannot imagine how difficult it must be to parent when you are on the move.

* S is for sanitary

germ-41367_640Blogging A-Z: S is for sanitary.  I don’t mean sanity, but the two can go together.

WARNING: This post contains graphic information of the sort that my husband refuses to read or discuss at dinner.  You may want to skip this one.  I know he will.

My two worst school-related illnesses were transmitted by one kid on the autism spectrum.  Here’s the background on “Adam.”  Because he was so socially impaired, Adam had never developed those valuable pre-kindergarten antibodies; he was never close enough to any student to share materials OR germs.  When he started kindergarten and learned to sit and work with a group, Adam caught everything.  Of course, he hadn’t learned to manage the bodily functions associated with these illnesses.  One day, he showed up in my room, looking quite pale, while I heard desperate calls on the intercom for a custodian to report to his classroom.  I wrote my first social story on “how to vomit into a toilet” for this kiddo.  After he had learned this valuable skill, I found myself practicing it as well.

On another occasion, Adam came to my room for social skills instruction with a chest cold that resembled TB.  As I looked at Adam’s face, with this brownish mucus oozing from his nose, my know-it-all self took charge.  I gave him a tissue and said, “Blow your nose.”  Adam obeyed promptly, spraying the table with the most disgusting slime I’d ever seen (except perhaps in the Alien movie series).  A couple of the less distracted kids actually saw this and were quite fascinated.  I regretted my assumption that Adam knew the relationship between a tissue and nose blowing.  That was the impetus for another social story and my acquisition of antibacterial wipes.

Adam had a tough time kicking that “bug” so he had much-needed practice in using tissues for nose-blowing.  Sadly, I had not anticipated sneezing.  I don’t know what to say in my defense.  For some reason, I was on a deadly slow learning curve with Adam.  I was up close and personal as I demonstrated how to get all that crud from his nose.  YOU know what’s coming, but I never anticipated that mother of all sneezes, which drenched and coated my eyelashes.  Within two days, I had bronchitis and was eventually hospitalized for pneumonia.

Adam taught me all I ever needed to know about: sanitary.

* R is for rescue

rescue-191232_640Blogging A-Z: R is for rescue.  Imagine yourself caught in a flash flood, hanging to a tree limb for dear life, when some strong arms pluck you to safety.  It’s the responsibility of special educators, in particular, to be those who rescue special needs kids from the not-so-unexpected crises of school life.  We operate in that role because we know the sandbars, riptides, and swift currents which lurk among social and teacher-student interactions.  For kids on the autism spectrum, and kids with learning disabilities who have been pushed to their limits, we must be especially vigilant at this time of year.  For many students, the school year has eroded their capacity to respond flexibly.  Arm yourself with a strong rope and fearless attitude.  Stay alert for floundering kids.  Special note: Just because these scenarios involve classroom teachers, don’t imagine for a moment that a special educator is not capable of the same blunders.  I’ve seen both!

Here’s what rescue operations can look like:

1.  You get a call that “your” student is running amok in the gym.  You know that this environment is particularly difficult for this kid, with noise, massive space, and the in-your-face gym teacher.  The class and teacher are pretending to ignore your rampaging student.  You have two quick rescue actions to take: one, avoid burning bridges with the teacher by quickly letting her know you’ll deal with this (familiar language for her); and two, pluck your kid to safety with a smile and calm demeanor (again, familiar reaction and few words).

2.  You are on your way to pull out a student when you hear the commotion before you can see what’s happening.  You know this kid happens to irritate the already irritable teaching assistant.  Sure enough, your student is cornered, angry and shaking, as the assistant blasts off his skin with scathing words.  The entire class is lined up in that hallway, watching the blistering.  You have three quick rescue actions to take: one, ignore the adult, who will start shrieking at you momentarily; two, engage your student in a brilliant and humorous conversation about a topic of interest while moving him far away from the ruckus; and three, smile and briefly greet kids in the class line as you move away, establishing a sense that your student is just fine.

3.  You walk into a classroom and see your student being raked over the coals for trying to use a modification which is part of his IEP.  You have two quick rescue actions and one delayed reaction: one, quickly apologize for being late and rush the student away; two, empathize with the student (“Oh, my gosh!  I couldn’t believe you were being told to write that again!”); and three, set up a meeting with the teacher to help her implement modifications.

Way to go, rescuer!

* Q is for quizzing

help-146370_640Blogging A-Z: Q is for quizzing.  I’m not talking about pop quizzes or end of grade tests.  You don’t know what I mean?  Listen….

What is something like tests?  Yes, like EOGs.  Yes, like questions.  Anyone else?  No?  I’m thinking about how we might start a new topic.  Yes, we talk about it.  Well, it’s more than that.  It starts with the letter Q.  No, we already said it wasn’t questions.  Hmm, that’s close.  Quizzes!  Yes, yes, but I’m thinking of more.  Can you think of a different ending for that word?  I mean the word ‘quiz.’  What’s an ending for the word ‘quiz?’

If you’re still reading, you must be wondering what I am doing.  I am introducing a topic (in this case, “Why Teachers Should Not Use Questioning to Introduce Topics”) by quizzing or questioning my audience.  Instead of laying a foundation for a topic, I am challenging my students to figure out what we are doing and where we’re going.  I must be thinking that this is a good way to engage the class.  I must figure that all those responses indicate that my class is with me as we launch a topic.  Maybe I think this “guess my topic” approach is intriguing and entertaining.  But quizzing is NOT an effective way to begin a topic.  Here’s why.  I am wasting valuable instructional time playing 21 Questions when the kids could already understand where we are.  Their brains have lost a unique opportunity to put this lesson in some context, which is vital for recall.  By the time we’ve played my quizzing game, I have lost their initial interest, the kids are frustrated at their inability to answer my questions, and their brains are all over the map (if they are still attentive at all).

There is a place for quizzing and questioning, but it’s not in guessing our topic.  Save the questions to find out what kids already know about a topic and what they would like to learn.  Capture their interest with authentic discussions, not “read my mind” games.

* P is for parents

parentsBlogging A-Z: P is for parents.  My career as a special educator has been deeply impacted by the parents of my special kiddos.  As a group, the parents of special needs kids tend to be exceptional as well: exceptionally passionate, exceptionally informed, and exceptionally supportive.  Here are some examples of a few families I’ve partnered with throughout the years.

Passionate:  The parent that comes to mind for this category amazed me with her passion for her special needs son, Martin.  While her husband also played an important role in Martin’s education, this mom was the beating heart behind their major decisions.  With her impetus, they moved from a different state so Martin could receive improved services.  She provided Martin’s teachers (and me) with helpful materials on his disability, along with thorough background info on his development and previous support services.  She was gentle but also strong like a mama bear.  There were times she had to leave meetings in her husband’s hands because her passionate heart was breaking.  She suffered some explosions and implosions along the way, but her passion never wavered.

Informed:  If there were a trophy for this category, I’d award it to a husband and wife team who have spent COUNTLESS hours becoming experts on their son’s disability.  I know they never imagined the course their lives would take, as they shifted from concerned mom and dad to resident experts on dyslexia, apraxia, attention disorders, and behavior management.  I can count on them to keep me informed and on track.  They also share their expertise with local school leadership in an effort to pave a better way for other families confronting difficult issues.  One remarkable aspect of this amazing couple is their humility.  They always admit when they don’t know something and are gently persuasive when they do.  They’ve been great role models for me!

Supportive:  This could describe numerous parents over the years, but I’ll pick Claire, who is a resilient survivor of her own childhood issues. Claire’s particular gift is seeing the good, calling attention to the strengths, and being her child’s loudest cheerleader.  Like other parents of special needs kids, Claire was unprepared for the struggles that began at birth.  Joshua has always lagged behind, a startling contrast to his high performing siblings.  But when you meet Claire, you know that Joshua is regarded as a leader, as a role model, as a bright light not dimmed by his struggles.  Claire’s ability to capture the essence of Joshua’s strengths is delightful.  He is blossoming into a precious young man with great hope for the future.

I would never have become an experienced educator without the passionate, informed, and supportive parents who have shaped my understanding of true education.

* O is for organized

calendar-660670_640Blogging A-Z: O is for organized, something I am not.  My last intern was an absolute whiz at organization.  Within 30 minutes of our first day of school, she had a perfectly organized, attractive binder and was reminding me of impending meetings.  She did it in such a sweet way, too.  Her: “Do you think it’s about time for us to go to our meeting?”  Me: “WHAT? What meeting?”  Her: “The staff meeting in the gym in 5 minutes.”   Me: “Oh, thank goodness you remembered!  Now where did I put that calendar?”  I always hope each year will be be my most organized ever.  Thanks to my intern, that year was!  I must say that she fell a bit short in organizing my filing cabinets (something she hinted about accomplishing) but I think she recognized a lost cause when she saw it.  After she left, I reverted to my usual chaos.

My path to organization always appears reasonable, on the surface.  I want a single calendar which shows all my meetings for a month at a time.  But a single calendar is fraught with difficulties.  How do I connect that calendar with all the “memos to self” jotted on my lesson plans?  I buy an expensive planner in August with high hopes and abundant room for my notes about meetings, phone calls to make, and materials to prepare.  As I’m teaching, I jot those notes on my lesson plans.  I get an email about a meeting and add that to a corner of my handy lesson plans.  Sadly, the calendar and lesson plans have now taken different paths.  I barely have time to jot notes once, much less record them a second time in a planner I will forget to read.  Then there’s my handwriting, which is a curse for a perfectionist.  As soon as I make the first ugly entry in my pristine planner, I don’t want to use that planner anymore.  I know that’s crazy but it’s true.  Have you seen how gorgeous those things are, with their padded and zippered cases?  After buying two more calendars in September which are similarly marred, I start printing my own calendar pages because I’ve spent too much on this already.  And those printables never look right, so I simply scribble all over my lesson plans, which are not meant to be pretty.  So who knew that the most important meeting for that month was written sideways in a section on place value materials?  It’s not like I really FORGET the meetings, I just have a vague idea of when they will occur.  Really vague.

I have a blogging friend who is writing a book on getting and staying organized.  Dear friend, please finish that book before I forget that we are meeting for tea this weekend!  We are meeting, right?

* N is for noises

music-148238_640Blogging A-Z: N is for noises.  I’ve worked with a number of kids who make atypical noises and movements.  Some of these kids are labeled with Autism Spectrum Disorder, others Tourette syndrome, and still others have no clear diagnosis.  Just quirky.  Whatever the cause, those unusual vocalizations and tics are a social challenge for kids and their families.  Sometimes medication has been effective, while other kids have had therapy for anxiety.

I have found that establishing a community of acceptance is one of the best responses to the noises, gurgles, repeated words, twitching, etc.  It may not be as easy to accomplish that in a large classroom, but the small group setting (such as pull- out support) is ideal for creating a safe place for these kids. These noises and movements are not something to “eliminate,” even as we hope they will fade away (and perhaps respond to medication).  For whatever neurological reason, noises are with us.  They should not be the focus of our relationships.  Neither are they an “elephant” in the room.  We can compare them to the wide range of habits we all might share, which range from repeatedly straightening hair or glasses, licking our lips, or even giggling when we’re nervous.  After we banish the “elephant,” a matter-of-fact response from the teacher establishes an important message of acceptance, as does a swift and firm response to any giggling or comments from peers.  Kids will quickly ignore random noises once an appropriate response has been modeled and reinforced.

Besides the importance of teaching kids to value one another, a safe classroom reduces the anxiety level of kids who make atypical utterances.  In fact, I can guarantee that noise levels will increase if a student has been teased, bullied, or reprimanded.  Some of my “noisy” kids have been the best liked, once they were seen for who they are, not for how they might occasionally sound.

* M is for miserable

boy-311657_640Blogging A-Z: M is for miserable.  I have taught a bunch of miserable kids in the past few days.  Their misery stems from the mismatch between their abilities and the regular classroom expectations, between their inabilities and their own high expectations.  One student sat across from me, speechless as tears formed in her eyes.  She was confronting a cascade of failure at school.  Not only is she failing in her weakest area, she is now failing across the board, despite having tremendous abilities in most academic areas.  Before helping her achieve some success in our session, I said my heart ached for her.  And she just looked at me.  Another student reluctantly engaged in our conversation about his misbehavior at school.  He said that he rips up his math classwork but isn’t crawling under the table anymore.  He wants to become invisible but in his frustration, he has everyone’s attention.

I feel great anguish as I consider these and many other students who have fallen far behind their peers.  Only 8, 9, and 10 years old, they have formed strong, negative images of themselves.  They “officially” label themselves stupid.  Their social relationships are a wreck.  Classroom teachers are urging them to work harder, try harder, keep up, do their best, meet the challenges, manage their emotions.  Their parents are scolded for not pushing these kids harder, for wanting too many modifications, for being a pain in the neck.  Miserable.

Could these kids do better?  Could they exert more self control?  It would be easy to say “yes.”  But that is a simplistic answer which doesn’t take into account the abrading and degrading they have endured for most of their school lives.  Are they destined for a lifetime of misery at school?  I don’t think all of them are.  Nevertheless, I am staying here for now, in the miserable, because I can’t take their suffering lightly.

* L is for lines

Blogging A-Z: L is for lines.  Given my teaching focus, you might suppose I am talking about kids lining up.  There IS a lot you can learn by simply observing a class in line.  You can tell if the teacher has exhibited a sense of calm authority and if she has passed that baton to her teaching assistant.  You can tell if kids are going home on the last day of school or walking to their room for an End-of-Grade test.

But the lines I am talking about are those distinguishing (or should I say distinguished?) marks of age on a teacher’s face.  OK, on my face.  This year was the first time a student ever checked out my face for “puppet lines.”  If you have to ask, you’re too young.  Here’s a diagram from my observant student: puppet lines

Whew!  She said I don’t have THOSE lines, at least.  I am used to kids staring at my aging skin.  After all, the majority of kids I currently serve have teachers in their 20’s.  I’ve had kids accidentally touch my arm and say, “Oh! It’s so soft!”  (Yeah, that’s called lack of muscle tone.)  But even when I was much younger, kids had an unerring scrutiny of all my physical flaws.  Years ago, I was trying to get a student to use more than one color when drawing himself.  This “purple” kid seemed clueless about the color of hair and eyes, so I foolishly asked, “Well, what color are my eyes?”  He stared closely and said, “Yellow and red.”  Obviously, I’ve had lines of various sorts for many years.