Saturday, September 28, 2013

Year Three: PRESCHOOL!!!!

In the summer of 1976, my husband got a job with the Washington Department of Fish and Game. He was to be the new editor for their publication Washington Wildlife.  This was exciting, but it meant moving away from Oak Harbor and into the Olympia area. For me, the change didn't seem too great as I grew up in Seattle and my parents still lived there. So I was still close to family.

I applied for some special education jobs in the Olympia area, and was delighted when I was interviewed and chosen for an early childhood position in a birth to six program! I loved early childhood and couldn't wait to get started. The program was called PEPSI and that stood for Parent Educator Pre School Intervention. For the birth to three population, we went into the homes once a week and worked with the children and their parents, recognizing that the parents really are their child's first and most important teacher. These same parents and children also came into the center once a week and received occupational, speech, and physical therapy. Again, we watched and learned along with the parents. It was the first time I watched therapists "co-treat" children and I was fascinated. Speech therapists worked with children while the occupational therapist bounced them on large therapy balls. The reason? All that movement and input helped these little ones make more vocalizations. And I can't say enough about the parents! I remember working with an eight month old boy with down syndrome. He was delightful and happy and his young mother could come up with more ways to get him to use his pincer grasp! Each week I learned as much from her as she did from me!

The three to six year old's came in the morning each day. There were three of us teachers and each of us had an instructional assistant. Some parts of the morning routine we did as a group, like circle, music, and free play. Other parts we did individually, working one-on-one with children on specific goals and objectives. I had so much fun this year and learned a lot about early childhood. Next week I will go into more detail about my work with one special little girl!

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Year Two: Harassment and Redemption

As much as I loved this second year of my teaching career, it wasn't without it's challenges. The students in my class, ranging in age from 13 to 21, had a variety of disabilities, some of them with multiple disorders. But one student I had seemed to not have the disorder she was labeled with.

This young woman was said to be hearing impaired. Indeed she wore two hearing aids and had been aided since she was a very young child. However, even though she had been taught sign language, and that was her primary method of communication, she never seemed to initiate communication on her own. In fact, if you started signing to her, she would just sign the same thing back to you, at the same time. In this respect, she reminded me more of someone with autism, someone who was echoic; that is, someone who repeated back whatever you said. Although I was still relatively new to the special education field, I had met and worked with a number of young children and adults with autism. Most of them that had language, displayed a certain amount of echoic behaviors. So I was curious: could this young lady have been misdiagnosed all of these years? Could she actually hear? I tried on several occasions calling her name when she was in the back of the classroom and I was in the front. I called it in a normal voice; not too loud or too soft. The result? Every time she looked up and at me! I decided that I would meet with her mother and discuss what I had witnessed and what I thought might be going on.

As I was planning to set this meeting up, an event happened that made me frustrated and extremely unhappy. This young woman's bus dropped her off early every day. The bus was so early, that it arrived even before I got to school which was at least 45 minutes ahead of the start of the school day. Well on this one particular day, I arrived shortly after her bus dropped her off. I could see her waiting by the door to the classroom and she was surrounded by several eighth and ninth grade boys. They were all laughing and making rude gestures to her, barking like a dog, and worse. And what was she doing? She was imitating these and sobbing, tears running down her cheeks. Did this make them stop? No. These boys were like a pack of dogs that had their prey and were enjoying toying with it. I can't even tell you how angry I was! I marched down there and took the girl into my classroom and tried to calm her down and let her know she was safe. When my paraprofessional arrived, I left her in her care and went straight to the principal. I knew who a couple of the students were and that was enough for him to figure out who the rest of the offenders were.

Although this behavior did not surprise me, and in fact it unfortunately only reinforced what I thought about junior high school students; what happened next did. As word got around about what happened, the leaders of the freshman class came to me and wanted to apologize for the behaviors of that few from their group. They wanted to somehow make up for this unfortunate incident and soon I had several ninth grade students volunteering daily in my classroom! They also asked if they could hold an assembly to help educate all of the students by explaining more about who the students in my class were and why they need additional support and different ways to learn. I have never forgotten this kindness on the heels of such a horrible, humiliating experience. It allowed me to see that redemption is always possible.

And what about the young woman? Well, I did meet with her mother and after our conversation, we took her down to the University of Washington's Child Development and Mental Retardation Center (CDMRC). As part of her evaluation, they did agree that autism was most likely the primary disorder. I don't know what happened after that as the next year, my husband and I moved to Olympia. But I like to imagine that a proper diagnosis may well have helped in her future interventions!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Year Two continued: Life Skills and Real Life

When I look back at that second year of teaching, life seemed so much simpler. For students with disabilities that were more moderate and severe, the expectations for what to teach and how to do it were generally left up to the teacher. Because of my experiences working in group homes and up at summer camp, I really tried to focus on "life skills"; those skills that would get them ready for living in group situations or as independently as they could. So we learned to take care of clothes, sorting by color, folding correctly, etc. We worked on grooming skills like brushing teeth and hair and washing our faces. And the best of all was our little cafe! We called it Cafe 6A, since that was my room number.

I decided that once every couple of weeks we would make a meal at lunch time and invite one of the faculty to attend. There was a lot of teaching of skills with this activity and preparations for it. The students learned how to set a table correctly. They learned how to write up a menu and invitations.
Cooking the meal involved learning about food groups,the importance of washing your hands well,  measuring and cutting up vegetables, pouring, stirring, turning on a stove or oven, and what to do if the temperature was too hot or too cold.

We also worked on social skills by having the students take turns being the waiter and taking the orders and conversing with the guest. In fact we all sat down with the guest and ate together, working on good manners and using proper utensils and napkins. Afterwards we always wrote a note to the guest thanking them for coming. I'm not sure what the faculty thought about this, and maybe they were just being gracious and took pity on a young teacher, but no one ever refused to come and everybody ate!

One more story about year two next week, and then on to year three!

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Year Two continued: Teaching "the facts of life"

Last week, while spending time in our district special education in-service, the topic of social skills curriculum was discussed. Central Valley is very proactive in providing social skills curriculum to their teachers with the expectation that they will be intentional in teaching social skills to their students with disabilities. This is fantastic and really one of a very few districts I know of or have worked in that actually provides this. So as part of this in-service, we were reviewing the lists of curriculum provided to the elementary and secondary teachers. Since I work with the elementary teachers and programs, I was unaware of some of the secondary materials, including one called F.L.A.S.H. (Family Life and Sexual Health). I thought to myself, boy I sure could have used that my second year of teaching! And here's the story:

That second year I had about eight students between the ages of 14 and 21. Of the eight, only two were boys. But one boy in particular had definitely hit puberty and had many questions about "the facts of life". He also had issues with personal space, and so when he wanted to ask one of his many questions, he was usually standing about two inches from my face. Now you have to realize, between year one and year two, I got married. So I am a newlywed, and as I told the special ed teachers, I barely knew the facts of life myself at this point! These questions and how to answer them were making me very uneasy, but I wasn't the only one. After a couple of months, this young man's parents came to me and asked me to take on the task of actually explaining the facts of life to him. Yikes! Remember, I am living in Oak Harbor on Whidbey Island, and this is long before we had Amazon or Barnes and Noble or the internet where I could have searched for something appropriate to use for this task. But there was a small bookstore on the island (my husband is an avid reader and knew where to find books) and so I set out to find something I could use.

I did find a great book (see illustration) that is still in print. In 1975, when I was looking for something, it had just been published. This book has great illustrations and the explanations are simple but straightforward. I reviewed the book with the young man's parents, and they gave me the okay. Can I just say this was one of the hardest tasks I've had as a teacher? Sitting down with this boy and reading the book, showing the pictures, and answering his questions was almost more than I could handle at the age of 23! But you know what? It worked! After that this young man stopped asking questions, seemed more relaxed, and his parents were thrilled! Whew!