* The London Eye Mystery

The London Eye Mystery

What intrigue, fun, and amazing depth in The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd!  What’s this gripping mystery about?  Aunt Gloria and her son, Salim, come to London to say goodbye to Ted and Kat’s family before heading for a new life in New York.  The sisters and kids decide to take in a final day of sightseeing.  Salim ends up on the Eye by himself but he never gets off!  What happened to Salim?

Told in first person point-of-view by Ted, a 12 year old on the autism spectrum, this book is a gem for many reasons.  As a read-aloud or for kids in upper elementary and older, this book is loaded with enough material to satisfy readers and teachers alike.  All the characters in the book are well-developed.  Themes abound.  The clues are intriguing, the mystery is a real page turner, and the shattering reality of a missing kid is not glossed over.

The portrayal of the thoughts and actions of a kiddo on the autism spectrum is a primary accomplishment of this book.  Seriously, that is no mean feat.  Ted talks to us about his brain with its different operating system, relates his never-ending and complex thoughts on weather systems, and lets us know when he’s stressed, including habitual hand shaking and occasional banging and kicking walls.  Poor Ted.  I’d bang walls in his position, too.  If ONLY his family would listen to Ted!

Ted’s sister, Kat, is a tweener in rebellion against her mum, secretly smoking and often lying, and cursing several times in the book.  While reading this aloud, I left out most of those words.  On the other hand, I appreciate the author’s authentic description of Kat’s struggle to find her way while grappling with agonizing guilt over Salim’s disappearance.

As a special ed teacher, I’d use this book to develop empathy among neurotypical learners for those whose brain are on IOS-Autism.  Kids on the spectrum are at risk for bullying and this book would be a terrific tool for countering those prejudices.  The London Eye Mystery could also validate kids who have been made aware of their diagnosis of ASD.

I was grieved to discover that Siobhan Dowd passed away in 2007 at the age of 47.  She had devoted much of her life’s energy to “tak[ing] stories to children and young people without stories.”  In the days before her death, she established The Siobhan Dowd Trust, a worthwhile project to supply books to those who otherwise couldn’t access them.  Siobhan Dowd definitely achieved her goal of giving a voice to kiddos like Ted.  I encourage you to read the book and check out her foundation, where all royalties and funds from overseas sales provide hope for the voiceless.

* Catching up

I’m sorry that I’ve been hit or miss with my blog for awhile now.  Medical issues and work have derailed my best-laid plans.  Here are a few updates on my life.

This week, I spent quite a few hours programming Communicator 5 on a Tobii Dynavox I-12+ device.  The I-12 is a terrific stand-alone eye gaze device with a sturdy case (gorilla glass), amazing technology, and a Windows 10 operating system.  tobiidynavox-iseries-i12-1920x1080.jpg

Communicator 5 is Tobii’s intuitive program for augmentative and alternative communication (AAC).  With the handy, downloadable manual, it’s a snap to set up a cool homepage with lots of links.  Granted, I still have to fix a few flaws, but I’m pleased with how user-friendly this system is.  For kids who need a voice, Communicator 5 can be a game changer.

Speaking of games, my nephew Christopher has a new game plan: “Never let Aunt Katharine catch me for a hug after church.”  He loves the idea of hugs but he adores the chase even more!  I couldn’t wait to see his latest scheme today.  I was not disappointed.  The gang came piling out of Sunday School, asking me if I knew where to find Christopher.  None of us mentioned that there was a ghost lingering behind the chairs, eyes glistening with excitement.  After I caught him, his sister got into the act.  Sister Act?  Groan….

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My dearest widower took me on a date last night!  Woohoo!  We watched John Wick, Chapter 2.  Not for the faint of heart.  We had an interesting discussion at lunch with our son and his wife (happy birthday to her!) about whether John Wick portrays a parallel universe.  If so, I’m glad to be in ours!  Keanu Reeves brings gun-fu to a new level.

 

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Image from Film Music Reporter, where you can purchase the soundtrack.

I hope you have a great week!  I’m eager to catch up on the Color Your World blogging challenge, share some math ideas, and post a review of the second book in the Nick Hall series.

* Building a future

In the news:  Parents with autistic children are planning a $12 million community to provide future homes and care for their adult children.  Headed by a Dallas couple with an adult, low-functioning son, this community will provide 15 homes, a community center, and an academic academy.  Read more about the details in this article by the Dallas News.  Although we see many moderate and high functioning kids in an inclusive setting, the low- to-moderate group faces unique challenges as they age related to behavior, social skills, and ability to earn a living.

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Autism Speaks addresses the challenges of providing long term care.  They report that only 24% of caregivers reported that they were on a waiting list for community services and only a quarter of families are saving for future housing needs.  If families cannot secure alternatives, this population is likely to be housed in group homes; as Autism Speaks points out, group homes are confronted by the “not in my neighborhood” mentality.  I did a search of resources in North Carolina and the list looks slim.

As an elementary teacher, I don’t always see where my kiddos end up, but I’ve known a couple of families struggling to care for low-functioning adults in their 60s.  Distant cousins, already in their 60s as well, were strapped as they tried to support their needy relatives.  Thankfully, organizations like Autism Speaks are drawing attention to alternatives and options.

 

* Christopher and me: update

It’s been ages since I updated you all on my tutoring sessions with Christopher, my nephew on the autism spectrum.  Christopher continues to work hard, flying in the house eagerly after a long day at school.  He has enough energy for both of us!

Great progress on vocabulary:  The number of unfamiliar words we encounter per session can be daunting, but with continual chipping away, using Quizlet and “natural” conversations, Christopher is steadily moving forward.  By “natural” conversations, I mean anything related to his fascination with all things Bowser and Donkey Kong.  Did you know these video characters can be sinister, peer at others, have jagged claws, and bolt away from enemies?  Christopher enjoys thinking of ways to include the vocabulary words so that he can safely talk about Bowser without straying “off task.”  Clever young man.

Improved word recognition has led to improved reading and listening comprehension, but we have miles to go before he is on grade level.  On the other hand, his improving language skills will eventually bring him close to that goal.  We are still progressing through the language-based Tasks of Problem-Solving, after which I’ll need to decide on next steps.  Christopher has come a LONG way since this past summer; he now answers 10 complex questions on problem scenarios with about 80% accuracy, depending upon his focus and familiarity with the topic.

A one-track mind:  Christopher asked me today, “Why is it bad to talk about one thing?”  We had a delightful discussion of conversational skills and his preference for lots of Mario and little “active.”  Did you know that “active” makes you hot and cold and that everyone doesn’t like active?  I certainly agreed with him there.  Christopher is at a stage where he recognizes how his narrow interests affect his social standing.  Fortunately, he has found a couple of kiddos who share his interests and dislike of “active.”  He is searching for ways to connect with others, so I asked what he might talk about at school tomorrow.  (Hint: We have winter storm Helena barreling in our direction.)  I can guarantee that Christopher is not going to mention the possibility of 5″ of snow.  When we got to that part of my suggestions, all he could imagine was “no school on Monday,” which led to quiet fascination of a day devoted to all things Bowser and no “active.”

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* Electronics as contact sports

There’s a time and place for electronics.  At our house, it’s every Saturday.  We call it movie night, but it’s currently morphed into digital dynamite.  Somehow, the kids manage to transform every  activity into a contact sport.  As the social event coordinator, my usual comment is “That’s horseplay.  Outside only, please.”  I can (privately) encourage Christopher to stop repeatedly saying, “You’re my best friend, right?”  Human nature being what it is, kids don’t value desperate friends.  Christopher hasn’t said that once tonight, BTW!

I managed to catch the kiddos looking like angels…

but I watch them like a hawk, alert them to decibel levels over 90, and scan for those furtive glances that mean someone has stepped over a boundary.  These Saturday nights have been a terrific learning experience for me.  I refine my behavior strategies, watch multiple game plays of Mario Bros., learn how to use nunchucks, and record videos for a nephew’s YouTube channel.  Mostly, I love spending time with a motley crew of adorable kiddos.  And their guardians breathe a sigh of relief!

* The Lightning Club

This is a post on one of the most delightful social skills groups I have ever taught.  There were seven kids in the group.  I was desperate for an eighth student for partner activities, but we managed.  The kids were in fourth grade but all of them had been retained, so they were fifth grade age.  Three were labeled with behavior/ emotional disorders and four were high functioning autistic students.  It was one of those wonderful groups where we actually had a non-lunch time slot and it was at the end of the day.  That meant we weren’t rushing to cram down our food and I could squeeze every possible second out the session.

The kids were a joy to teach.  They were wildly enthusiastic about everything, including bossing each other, winning every game at any cost, and being in charge of everyone else’s business.  I much prefer a group with spunk, and these guys had it in spades.  They arrived like firecrackers.  I’d selected the bossiest student to remind the others,going class-to-class, that it was time for our group,  They assured me, panting and out of breath, that they had all walked down the hall.  Of course, they immediately tattled on each other for running   So we started off in fine spirits, with additional bickering about who got to sit on the edge of the table closest to me.  I smiled at the thought of all the skills they were going to learn.  (Eventually they learned to walk to my room 76% of the time.)

Because everyone in the group was so strong-willed, it took us weeks to decide on a name and theme for our “club.”  We ended up being The Lightning Club.  They thought it was a cool name; I thought it was prophetic.  What made this group so appealing?  I loved their honesty most of all.  Everything was out in the open, including their disputes and struggles in class and at home.  They would tell me that our role-playing had no effect at all on their classroom behavior.  In their respective classrooms, and with each other, they were social outcasts.  They had been at the same school since kindergarten and had grown to dislike one another as much as other kids disliked them.  When we started The Lightning Club, none of them would pick anyone else to be a partner, citing numerous old grudges and the “disgusting” behavior of their fellow Clubbers.lightning-bolt

I started us off with games.  I could only manage two games or groups at a time, because there were so many conflicts.  Everyone memorized “Play fair, Take turns, and Say nice things” pretty quickly.  The kids used checklists to monitor themselves, although they much preferred to monitor everyone else.  “Winning and Losing” was another challenge.  I would ask, “Do you want to win or do you want friends?”  The answer was “I want to win at all costs,” but I could identify with them, easily being the most competitive of all.  They rather enjoyed smearing me in games.

We worked our way through basic skills, spitting out “nice” words to each on command.  I videotaped everything and we watched edited versions, which they enjoyed a great deal.  We role-played a skill (which was nicely done in practice), then I set them loose and refereed the semi-chaos.  We laughed a lot, because I did let them demonstrate how NOT to make friends.  They were experts at NOT making friends, so we had plenty of fun with those skits.

We’d been together about a month when I initiated our altruistic phase.  I wanted them to experience the satisfaction of helping others.  Their suggestions?  All variations of me buying them stuff.  Ultimately, they decided to record a series of self-created puppet shows on social skills for younger kids.  I had dramatically described the difficulties these younger kids were having, so my wild group was quite eager to set the little ones on the right course.  The puppet shows were challenging.  Lightning Clubbers had to agree on a theme, fight over the more desirable puppets, and take turns being the bossy director.  I kept reminding them of our purpose, to help these poor little kids who had no friends.  It was a worthwhile project for a couple of reasons.  Their practice was more authentic than it had been when rehearsing for themselves and the videos were actually engaging to younger kids.

By winter break, The Lightning Club coalesced into a real community.  We settled into a natural rhythm of activities, often suggested by the kids, with opportunities to role-play, critique videotapes, and work through conflicts between group members.  Kids no longer had to be forced to think of positive comments for others.  Yes, there were days when keeping everyone separated was my best strategy.  Like a large family, we laughed and struggled together.  We had parties to celebrate almost everything.  When the kids decided to make gifts for one another, I felt like a contented mother hen with a brood of spunky chicks.

I wish I could say that the rest of their school year was as successful.  On the last day of school (a half day, at that), most of my group had been transported to me for an impromptu “session,” booted out of their rooms for disruptive behavior.  Their presence was bittersweet under the circumstances, but I was thrilled they could spend their last few hours at school under my wings.

* Christopher and me: not so fast

I’ve been sharing my efforts to help my nephew, Christopher, a kiddo on the autism spectrum (aka, A Sweet Dude).  He has a reading profile similar to many ASD kids I’ve taught: tremendous word recognition and fluency with weak vocabulary and comprehension.  Christopher entered 4th grade this year (having been retained once already) with a 2+ year discrepancy between word recognition and comprehension.  His reading performance was recently assessed at school and voilà!  Christopher has gained more than a year’s growth in reading since we began our sessions!  

But before we break out the champagne, let’s examine the data provided by the school. Christopher has a “scale score” of 142 and the cut-off is 139; his score is even above his district average for third graders.  But a scale score on what?  It’s likely to be an mClass assessment called TRC, which uses the Fountas and Pinnel reading levels.  How is the parent supposed to know?  How could a parent advocate for their child on the basis of this information?  There is not a single clear reference to the test, which has now successfully removed “the retained reading label.”  Well, that’s a relief!  A second relief is that Christopher “will now remain with [his] current classroom teacher and take the 4th grade EOGs at the end of the year.”  That’s good news/bad news?

I do know that Christopher has made marvelous progress in reading, so why my sarcasm?  In 2012, North Carolina initiated the Read to Achieve program designed to reduce social promotion of students not reading at grade level by third grade.  Statistically, if kids aren’t proficient by then, they are at risk for school drop out.  But the devil’s in the details.  And you wouldn’t believe the details.  Here’s a link to those details, which are amazingly convoluted even to me- and I’m familiar with the convoluted world of education.  In an Op-Ed piece published by the News and Observer in June, 2015, a teacher is quoted as saying, “It is a dark day to be a third grade teacher in North Carolina.”  The writers, Robert Smith and Scott Imig, take NC to task for the unintended effects of Read to Achieve, such as high rates of anxiety among third graders and teacher ratings of strong negative effects on reading.

The bottom line: Christopher is making speedy progress in our sessions, but I’m not sure the school has proved it.     

 

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* Tiny Tap’s terrific online courses

Tiny Tap takes online learning to a new level with curated Tiny Tap Courses!  Now teachers and parents can combine lessons to create seamless learning units!  Competency can be determined by requiring students to reach a certain score before advancing to the next lesson or continuous practice is available without requiring a minimum score.  Students also earn certificates as they complete courses.  Here’s a look at how phonics instruction can be personalized by grouping skills for particular students.  With over 80 thousand available lessons, comprehensive instruction is a tap away!

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Tiny Tap’s lessons and units are available in 30 languages and offer personalized instruction on a wide range of topics.  In case you’d forgotten, Tiny Tap offers parents and teachers insights on individual and class performance while providing differentiated learning experiences for students.  Tiny Tap is a terrific resource for special needs students with a wide range of needs.

If all that isn’t enough, what about making money while you individualize instruction?  Here’s the Tiny Tap teacher-driven economy.  You gotta love it!

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I could easily imagine a social skills unit for my dear Christopher.  I think it’s time for me to start tapping!

 

* Christopher and me: what to read?

If you’re following this blog, you know I am tutoring my nephew, Christopher.  He’s A Sweet Dude (ASD) who flies into the house 4 times a week, calling out, “Aunt Katharine!  Aunt Katharine!”  When we started working together, I was a bit daunted by his weaknesses in language, social skills, reading comprehension, and writing.  But you would not believe his amazing progress!  He is a real trooper, working as hard as he can during long sessions after school.  Christopher writes 5 paragraph stories using graphic organizers, with over 80% of the work unaided by me.  That’s a huge reversal from his inability to write independently at all when we started.

Christopher’s progress in reading is equally strong.  While he still does not enjoy reading out loud, he understands that it helps him read more carefully; allows us to discuss unfamiliar vocabulary; and provides opportunities for analysis of characters and plot and making inferences and predictions.  I give him a “speeding ticket” when he races past punctuation, his eyes widening with delight as he gets ticketed.

How do I decide what books for him to read?  Like many kids on the autism spectrum, Christopher can identify words at grade level, but his comprehension lags well below that.  His preferred interests are video games, but given his eagerness for tutoring, I don’t need to stick with Mario Bros to keep his attention.  I look for books which are at his word-recognition level and will require him to learn needed skills.  Most importantly, I match the essence of him.  Christopher has a wacky sense of humor and loves anything gross, with shades of mischief and mayhem (yes, we are related!).  That brings to mind Roald Dahl, right?  We started with “The Twits” and have graduated to “James and the Giant Peach.”  These books provide a socially acceptable way to talk about nostrils and cabbage-shaped aunts and sad events to which he has strong personal connections.  Would you believe I have to force him to stop reading?   It’s all good.

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* Christopher and me: another tool for replacement behavior

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A stair stepper donated to me by a family who also used this as a calming tool.  You can find these at thrift shops or on Craigslist for reasonable prices.

This post is another in a series about my work with Christopher, A Seriously Sweet Dude on the autism spectrum.  At eleven years old, he is a poster child for “practice makes permanent.”  It is only in the last year that he has had limits placed on his video obsession, been encouraged to eat vegetables, and experienced effective intervention in social and academic skills.

Although his rate of tantruming has been markedly reduced, Christopher still “entertains” the neighborhood with manic episodes of frustration and agitation.  What to do with all that wild energy?  A stair stepper is a useful tool for replacing random running and pacing.  It must be part of a system for calming, with rehearsal in its use before Christopher reaches the point of no return.  That calming system, best presented through social stories, is more effective for him with some payoff for making a better choice.  He also responds well to a cost-reward system where he might lose some perks for tantruming.  Eventually, self-control will replace the wild-child habits.

Researchers (and many parents) are concerned that extrinsic rewards undermine motivation and effort.  In my experience, students like Christopher have not yet experienced the intrinsic joys of self-control and peaceful negotiations with adults and sibs.  He has not normalized his behavior independently; peer role models and parent/teacher directions been ineffective.  Christopher is a rule follower and eager to please, but operates according to an idiosyncratic set of goals and a rigid definition of fairness which are not shared by his family or classroom teachers.  As Christopher is rewarded for doing what we hope will become internalized behavior, social stories and graphs will assist him in charting his emotional growth.  We are capturing his attention, so to speak, by providing incentives to overcome habitually inappropriate behaviors.  The potential payoff is great.