* Christopher and me: cheating?

You have to love Christopher’s desire for integrity.  I have been tutoring this nephew of mine, a middle schooler on the autism spectrum, for a few years now.  He currently lives in Texas so our work is accomplished through Hangouts.

Christopher gaming

Christopher steered his way through a favorite game this past summer.


In a recent session, I was helping Christopher with his language arts homework.  He had a list of 12 words to write in sentences.  Each word was 4-5 syllables long (such as ‘inconceivably’) and he hadn’t the slightest clue what any of them meant.  The directions suggested that he’d encountered these in a reading assignment, but I know that Christopher is not going to learn or even hear any new words that way.  To him, school is largely white noise.  He is constantly scanning for clues and rules because “I’m not a slacker,” but the big picture?  Not so much.

After I wrote the first sentence in the shortest and most concise way to illustrate the word’s meaning, he looked at me and asked, “Is this cheating?”  I wanted to weep but I said, with confidence, that this was not cheating because he should never be expected to write these words in sentences until he knows what the words mean.  I said it was impossible for him and for me to complete this assignment if we didn’t know the words yet.

My heart breaks when I see this kind of one-size-fits-all teaching.  Poor Christopher, definitely not a slacker.  Definitely losing out on daily opportunities to learn because no one is taking the time to provide needed support.  If you come across the Christophers in your school or class, please remember their desire to learn and PLEASE get some help if you don’t know how to modify their environment.  Check out the Friday Institute’s  free Learning Differences course!

* Update on long distance teaching

In yesterday’s post, I described some bumps in the road for my twice exceptional student.  We’re using his summer break to catch up on crucial reading and writing skills.  What a precious kid.  When I asked him how he felt about summer tutoring, his response was so poignant: “I’m disappointed but overall it’s a good thing.”  I asked him to tell me more about the disappointment and he said, “I’m at my grandparents’ house and I sort of want to relax over the summer.”

His statements are a clear window into the dilemma faced by twice exceptional students.  He does understand the long-term benefits and that reasoning sustains his effort for needed academic gains.  But he also feels the weight of this summer work.  It’s an hour or so each day, so I could tell myself (and him) that it’s a small fraction of his time.  However, it’s not a small price to pay.  He worked extremely hard all year in the face of tremendous challenges.  As I’ve written numerous times, twice exceptional students often exert at least twice the effort.  The cost of feeling stupid, when in fact he’s brilliant, takes its toll.  He also pays a price for our one hour a day, which does stretch beyond that hour, I admit,  First, it feels unfair, although he didn’t use those words.  Second, we are working about one-fifth of his academic school day with relentless intensity.  In a classroom, his teacher would walk away and then return to see how he’s doing.  With me, he is continually providing verbal and written responses.  All accompanied by the delightful sound effects and accessories of Google Hangouts.  He achieved a ghost-like effect today.  Very creative!hangout 3

I had been concerned that his anxiety about the upcoming school year was affecting our sessions, but that does not seem to be the case.  He feels confident about the school year with the exception of the librarian, who “acts nice to the kids when the assistant principal comes by, but as soon as she’s gone, the librarian is yelling at us, ‘You can only get a book at your reading level.’ ”  That request might sound reasonable, but for a student who is acutely aware of reading well below his peers, that comment is devastating.  It does not account for his interests in more advanced subjects nor his parents’ willingness to read to him.

When I reviewed where he had started the summer, where we are now, and how much more he needs to accomplish, my student was thrilled.  He had thought there was so much more!  Despite the issues of working memory and phonological weaknesses, he’s better able to locate the correct “files” for categories of words and syllabication rules.  His skills and confidence are on the rise!

* S O S !

Save Our Students?  Student in distress?  How do I handle situations when students are stressed and in tears?  This happened yesterday during a long distance session using Google Hangout.  The student and I were comparing syllabication rules and he seemed to be uncertain about pronouncing “vanish.”  He had been playfully mispronouncing a few words and was also having a struggle with some unfamiliar words.  In this case, he was trying to tell me that he understood how to read the word, but I wasn’t sure he knew what rule to apply.  What to do?

1.  My core beliefs about children form a foundation for my responses.  I have never met a student who did not want to do their best, who did not want to learn or to please.  I’ve worked with struggling learners from pre-K to high school, and no matter how they might act, they are desperate to do well.  Elementary students, with whom I’ve spent most of my teaching career, are typically not as well-guarded as older students by a wall of apparent disinterest or hostility, but sometimes those walls have gone up at an early age.

2.  When students struggle, the first person I examine is myself.  I look at my behavior, my strategies, my history with the child, my expectations, and my plans.  In what ways did I contribute to the problem?  What early warning signs did I miss?  In this case, I have been propelling us forward at a very brisk rate.  We are coming to the last third of the summer and still have much ground to cover.  I’m balancing continual review and introduction of new concepts with brief brain breaks.  I have not focused on how much he has learned.

3.  I consider what the child is bringing to the table.  He had to do a lot of writing in that lesson, which is his most difficult assignment.  He seemed tired and needed a fair amount of redirection.  In fact, I hadn’t spotted the misunderstanding because it was fairly similar to what he had been saying playfully just a few moments before.

What did I do yesterday?  I realized we had a mini-storm which I could defuse quickly by apologizing.  I told him I was so sorry I hadn’t understood what he was trying to tell me.  I said I would ask him to show me his work (held up to the camera) if I was ever uncertain.  I told him that we were going to do a favorite activity when this one was finished.  He recovered quickly and before we disconnected, I apologized again for not understanding what he was saying.  I didn’t press him to talk about it, because that behavior was atypical and he was feeling fragile.

What did I do today?  After probing to see how resilient he was feeling today, I addressed the issue immediately.  I did repeat that I had misunderstood what he was saying, but I also pointed out that he had made it more difficult for me to understand him.  We discussed the best way to handle misunderstandings in the future and I thanked him for working so hard.  He had a good session today bur did show more fatigue than usual, so I added some favorite activities to keep him going.

What will I do next?  Tomorrow we talk about fatigue and anxiety.  Knowing his background, I am aware that he is probably dreading the next school year, he has a good sense of what skills he still needs to master, and he is probably feeling some summer tutoring fatigue.  We will review his goals and the reward system as well.  To switch analogies, he needs a tune-up, oil change, and air in his tires.  Again, based on past experience, I think he can continue with this pace of instruction, but we need to look at the road map to celebrate how far he has traveled this summer.folding-map-360382_640

* Google Hangnoose, er, Hangout

HangoutSo much for long-distance teaching!  Here’s what happened this morning. I woke up at 7:15 to be totally on for my 8:00 session.  At 7:45, I started readying my computer, Black Beauty.  Only while I was sleeping, a direhorse (from Avatar, remember?) slipped into Black Beauty’s sleek frame.  Remember how much fun Jake had trying to ride a direhorse?  I was a broken woman after 45 minutes of struggling to get saddled up.  My poor student and his grandparents had been patiently waiting, so we eventually started our session.  It was 8:37, my student told me.  But who’s counting the minutes?

My student was perfect but we lost Google Hangouts three times during the session.  At one point, I became “mute” to him.  He started saying, “I can’t hear you!”  I can’t hear you!”  I nodded to let him know I was aware of the problem.  He wrote me a note that read, “I can’t hear you.”  I wrote him a note saying. “I can hear you!”  He started nodding and making gestures, which reminded me of how people react when someone is deaf or speaks another language.  Eventually that was resolved.

If you read my previous post on long distance teaching, you recall my overwhelming pride in the careful organization of materials.  That feature also went awry when this kid’s game section had fallen out of his binder and all the calling cards became separated from their matching bingo cards.  The calling cards have various types of syllables which make no sense unless you have the matching bingo set.  They were color-coded but two were yellow and neither one matched, for some odd reason.  I would liked to have put my hand through the screen and… (you thought I was going to say something else) checked the bags for myself, but we moved on to a different game.

Oh, Google Hangouts does not have an on-screen timer like Skype.  Or at least I couldn’t find it.  I did play around with the accessories, adding a halo to my student since he was so awesome.  That was when I “lost” my microphone, so perhaps that glitch was my fault.  Probably not.