Saturday, October 26, 2013

Years 6 and 7: Co-op Preschool at Camp Thunderbird on Summit Lake

By the end of my fifth year of teaching, I'd been married for four years, had a brand new baby son, lived on ten acres of land outside of Olympia in a house that my husband and I had built, and had taught everything from birth to age twenty-one in four different locations! I was ready for a rest.

Of course as we all know, being a mother is not all that restful! However, it was a different kind of work and one that I'd been looking forward to for a while. Being at home with first Matt and then two years later, Mark too, was great. But it was a little lonely out where we lived and I was hoping to meet some other young mothers who lived nearby.

Camp Thunderbird
When Matt was almost four and Mark about a year old, I did meet some other moms. There was a small community center nearby for the Summit Lake area, and soon a group of us were using the center to do aerobics. One of the moms was an early childhood educator who worked for the local community college helping to set up parent co-op preschools. When she found out that I was a certificated teacher with some early childhood experience, she talked about the possibility of setting up a co-op preschool right there at Summit Lake.

Halloween party
There was a boy scout camp, Camp Thunderbird, right on the lake. Karen knew the camp director and soon we had permission to set up a preschool in one of the buildings that wasn't used very much. This was great! We had a lot of help from parents wanting an opportunity for their young children to have playmates. As I recall, I taught the group of two year olds and was amazed at how quickly they learned and remembered what they learned! It was a whole new ball game for me! Matt had a chance to meet other kids, and later Mark participated too.

One of my funniest memories from this time is the end of year program we put on for all of the parents. All the little girls were decked out in ruffles and shiny shoes. The little boys had on sweaters and looked very neat. We had prepared a delightful program of children's songs.

Sad Matt.
Now some of you know me and know my love of children's music. I don't mind hearing these songs over and over, and I don't mind waking up at three in the morning with them going through my head! However, in my family, I am alone in that. My two sons hated children's music and would beg me to turn it off if I happened to play some at home! They get this from their father! They like other kinds of music, but not children's!

So on the day of the performance, there was Matt, looking all spiffed up, but with the saddest face ever. He looked like he was going to cry! At one point he disappeared behind some bookcases and I had to go and get him and sit him in my lap until the concert was over. Poor guy!

But I have my revenge now. Matt's son Eddie LOVES children's music and he loves grandma's books she's made to go with them. When I visit, we sing, and sing, and sing! Who's having the last laugh?

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Year Five: Morning Sickness, Eighty Mile Daily Drive and Happiness

 My current school district has a motto that says "Special education is a service; not a place". But by the end of my fourth year, with my self-esteem at an all time low, I felt like the place I worked was going to ruin my teaching career and my ability to provide any valuable service. As the year ended, I made an appointment with the special education director and told him I wouldn't return to that job the following year. I asked if anything else would be available. He told me that there was a resource room opening in Rochester, a forty mile trip one way from where I lived. I'm pretty sure he thought that would discourage me, but I said I'd do it.

And so in September, 1978, I started my daily eighty mile commute. This was a very long drive and since my husband and I had only one car, I dropped him off in Olympia at his job before continuing my drive south to Rochester. Rochester then, and maybe still is, a very small community south of Tumwater and Little Rock, and just north of Centralia and Chehalis. It is right off of the I-5 corridor so the drive is pretty direct and easy. However, I was pregnant with my first child during this school year, so I was also fighting a daily dose of morning sickness! I have to say it did make for a much more interesting commute!

But back to the actual school year. After having a very humorless and militaristic principal the previous year, this year's principal was a breath of fresh air, and also a baptist minister. He was kind, patient, and soft-spoken, with a deep concern for all of his students. The teachers were open and welcoming. My instructional assistant was the mother of a little boy I'd worked with in the preschool program two years earlier in Olympia.

My resource room consisted of twelve boys! They were great! One boy in particular really captured my "teacher's heart". He was probably the most learning disabled student I've ever worked with. Extremely intelligent, if he heard the material he needed to know, he could orally answer any questions you asked. However, if he had to read the material, or write a response, the process would take hours and was painful to watch. At the time I thought, if only we treated him like a student with a visual impairment, gave him everything on tape to listen to, and had him take the tests orally, he could be successful. I met with his teacher and started the process of recording his history, social studies, science, etc. lessons on cassette tapes. Then I would give him the tests orally. He would ace these tests! He was so smart! I had to be careful in the classroom when I was working with other students though.
He would hear the material, and later when I was asking questions of that small group, he was ready with all of the answers, even though he had not been a part of that discussion! Strong auditory memory! Today we have so much more technology like Don Johnson's SOLO Suite that allows students with severe learning disabilities to learn alongside their typical peers and stay at grade level. But thirty-five years ago, the best we could do was a cassette recorder and a microphone!

Years later, while working as an education specialist in Spokane, I was in a self-contained program helping a teacher. The instructional assistant looked very familiar. I was talking to the teacher, but watching the IA and thinking, why does she look so familiar? Well it turned out to be the woman I worked with that year in Rochester! She and her husband had moved to Spokane, and her son, the one I worked with in preschool, was now an adult and living in a group home here! Sometimes it really is a small world!

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Year Four: Military Principal, Appendicitis and Working with a future SNL star?

When I started working for the Olympia school district, I was unaware that they served most of Thurston county's special education needs through a co-op model. So after having such a fun year with preschool in year three, I was moved to Tumwater to teach a self-contained special education class for children 6 to 12. I was heart-broken at having to leave the preschool, but I was the last teacher hired for that program, and numbers had dropped.

And so I was placed at an elementary school in Tumwater. Now this elementary school had never housed a self-contained program before. They did have a resource room, but that was the extent of their special needs population. The principal of the school was not interested in having this program either. A former military commander, he fought with the special education director to keep it out, but lost. So when I came to set up my class, he told me there was not a place for me. It seemed that there was a portable classroom, but that was for the resource room. It looked like I would be put on the stage in the gym. I went back to the special ed director for guidance. He called the principal and told him that I should have the portable and the resource teacher should be put in a smaller space. But the principal decided that the two special ed programs should share the space. I had half of the portable with 12 students with moderate delays and no educational assistant. The resource room teacher, serving 2 to 3 students at a time, had the other half, and an aide! Not only that, but she insisted that we be quiet at all times, and if we were too loud, she would lean over the bookcase dividers and go "SHHH!"

There were some bright spots; the kindergarten teachers were very friendly and wanted to include some of my younger students in their classes. However, the principal refused to have any of my students mainstream out. We were not allowed to be on the playground at the same time as the general ed population, have lunch outside of our class, or walk off of the sidewalks. The principal frequently turned on the intercom to listen in on my class, I'm sure hoping to catch me doing something he could get rid of the program for. By the middle of October, I was a nervous wreck. I started having stomach problems and severe abdominal pains. I chalked it up to stress. But then one day, the pains were so severe, my husband was called to come and take me to the emergency room. It turned out I had acute appendicitis and had to be operated on immediately! And because I had eaten that
day, I had to be awake during the operation! Those of you that know me well know how horrible this kind of thing is for me. I have a deathly fear of blood, needles and especially that combination! Well that little fiasco gave me a much needed two week reprieve.

After the first of the year, the special services department came through with a single-wide portable for the resource teacher to move into. Now I had the whole portable to myself! It felt wonderful! And we could be as loud as we wanted, we could sing and move and have some fun. The aide that the resource teacher had was now assigned to me half time as well. Life was getting a little more bearable. And then the biggest surprise of all: one of my students could start attending kindergarten. I have kept this note all of these years because it was a victory for inclusion. The first battle I had launched and actually won.

Finally, are you wondering which future SNL star I was working with? I've given you a little bit of information about the resource teacher. She was strict, cold, ultra-religious (but not necessarily "christian" in her actions), and constantly talking about her church and singing in some upcoming cantata. When the aide we shared finished her half day with me, she would have to brace herself for the "force" that was that resource teacher! Well about 5 years or so later, my husband and I were watching SNL, and there was Dana Carvey as the "Church Lady". I turned to my husband and said, "Oh my God! He had to have met (the resource teacher)! That is her exactly!" I have a picture of her, and it is almost a dead ringer for this one of Dana as the Church Lady! However, my husband said, "If anyone remembers her and she sees this, you are in a lot of trouble!" He's right. So instead, I'm leaving you with this one. Take my word for it, she looked just like this!

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Year Three: Cheerios and Cheese

During this third year of teaching, I had a little girl who was on the autism spectrum.  She was my first real experience with a young child with autism. She was 6 years old, non-verbal, not toilet trained, and would only eat two foods: Cheerios and cheese. Her mother reported that at 9 months, she had about four words. She smiled, interacted, played. And then she began to loose these skills. When I first started working with this young girl, she ignored all attempts to bring her out of her self-stimming world.  Nothing seemed to be reinforcing enough to get her to stop.

Being new to autism, I looked for inspiration and help anywhere I could. This book, Son Rise had just come out the year I was working with Marlene. In the book, Barry Kaufman and his wife Suzi, claimed to have cured their son Raun’s autism through a unique program they developed. Essentially someone was with Raun every waking moment. They decided that since he was not joining their world, they would join his. Whatever Raun did, spinning plates, rocking back and forth, making noises; they joined him in the same activity. I decided to give it a try!

I started right away. The two of us would find a quiet place to work. Whatever she did, I did. If she made noises, I made the same ones. If she jumped, I jumped. This was quite alarming to this child! For the first time all year, she stopped what she was doing and looked at me! She would make a frustrated sound and slap the table or wall with her hand. I would do the same. She looked more and more. Sometimes she cried and would walk away, and I would wait. She would come back, and do something and wait to see what I would do. Eventually she came to enjoy our time together and when I imitated her actions, she would smile and make excellent eye contact.

Since she seemed so much more “available” to me and her world, I decided to see what else I could get her to do. I used a Polaroid camera and took pictures of her two foods; cheerios and cheese. I sewed Velcro onto the apron I wore in the class, and attached the pictures to it.  I made sure I had these foods with me whenever we worked. Soon she started to look at the pictures and whenever she touched one, I gave her a little of that item. She caught on quickly, and eventually, I added pictures of other items or activities she showed an interest in. At home, she started pulling her mom into the kitchen and putting her mom’s hands on the refrigerator (to get cheese), or on the cupboard for the Cheerios. Her mom was amazed. This was the first time since she was a baby that she was attempting communication.  By the end of the school year, she was much more connected to her world, was communicating with pictures and some gestures, and was actively seeking out adult company. 

Sadly, this special little girl and her family moved away the next year, and I've never known what became of her. I often dream about her though, and in my dreams, she is laughing, playing and talking!