Saturday, March 29, 2014

Years 23 to 34: Education Specialist for Spokane Public Schools: There's Preschool; and then there's Milena!

As I've said before, one of the great joys of being an education specialist is getting the opportunity to work with such a diverse group of people. You get to see teachers who are organized and methodical; finding a style that works for them and honing it to perfection. You see brand new teachers who's faces light up and their confidence increase when they take suggestions you've given and put them into practice. And you also see teachers who may be having problems with behavior or other classroom issues, never take a suggestion or the help that's offered.

Such was my experience over and over in Spokane. But when I had the opportunity to focus more with the preschool group after about a year and a half in the job, the experiences became more positive. When I left Spokane in 1989 to go to Cheney, I was one of just five preschool teachers in the district. When I returned in 1999 as an education specialist, that number had grown to twelve. And the types of programs had changed as well. Not only did we have self-contained programs for our children with more severe disabilities, but we also had integrated programs with Head Start and our district childcare program, Express.

 I'll never forget my first meeting with the preschool group. Susan B., the elementary coordinator I worked with was also put in charge of managing the preschool programs. By the 2000/2001 school year, the other education specialists had slowly turned over the preschool programs in their buildings to me. So Susan decided to make it a permanent part of my job and asked me to attend a meeting at Bancroft where one of our CAPE and one of our self-contained programs were housed. Susan had some ideas of how to move these programs forward which included having a group of psychologists dedicated to the testing of preschoolers. It also included more professional development for this group and adding me as their ed specialist to help with curriculum development, classroom  observations and the management of behavior issues. Susan outlined some of her plans and then she introduced me. By this time, I knew several of these teachers, but I had not yet met Milena!

 I'd heard stories about this woman, and truth be told, some of the ed specialists were a little afraid of her. Tall, with short white hair and a thick Czech accent; she could be a bit intimidating. So when she came up to talk to me after the meeting, I was a little afraid as well! She said, "So, what makes you think you would be a good ed specialist for preschool?" I said, "Twenty-two years in the classroom as a special education teacher; fifteen of those in preschool?" She paused for a minute, and then she smiled her big smile and laughed and said, "Okay!" And thus a long standing friendship was born!

Milena is one of those teachers who changes the lives of those who are privileged enough to meet and work with her. She has a style that is uniquely her own. Trained at Gonzaga, she is a master in using direct instruction, applied behavior analysis, and the Picture Exchange Communication System to make huge gains with her children with autism. But she doesn't stop there; she is also a master in more eclectic social communication models like James McDonald's ECO and Stephen Gutstein's Relationship Development Intervention.

She has the patience of twelve people put together. I've seen her continue to do Circle Time; calmly calling on children to come and choose a song, conducting a game, or doing greetings; all the while with a screaming child holding onto a hunk of her hair and pulling it hard! She is kind and thoughtful almost to a fault. I've seen her be completely distraught when we had to tell one child's parents that he had broken her jaw (she had this wired shut for 10 weeks during the summer, living off liquids and mashed potatoes). She did not want his parents to give up on him. And her sense of humor is amazing! One day I was talking to a teacher who taught in a self contained program one level up from preschool. She told me that she went to do an observation of a student she would be getting from Milena the next year. When she arrived, Milena was just beginning her Circle Time. Things started out quietly, but then, just when everyone was relaxed and unsuspecting, Milena pulls out one of her opening activities she does to get the children's attention. On this day it happened to be a frog toy that when you squeezed it, a long tongue came out and touched you! My friend Sue said she almost fell off her chair! That's Milena! She has the best attention getting activities ever!

And what about today? Well this gifted teacher who I've seen move from Indian Trail, to Woodridge, to Bryant, to Browne and now to Holmes, continues to teach some of our most impacted preschool children. Recently I called her during a lunch break on a Friday. I know that the preschool teachers have Fridays to help with assessments and get lesson plans and activities ready for the following week. So I expected to be able to chat for a few minutes. However that was not the case. When I called, Milena said, "I'm so glad you called but I only have a minute to talk. My first grade social group is coming down and I need to be ready." It seems that Milena saw the need to work with students beyond the preschool in this poverty stricken school, and so volunteers her planning time to conduct social skills groups with the different grades. That is dedication.

Milena has mentored and influenced many young teachers over the years. Whitney, Pia, Lisa, Sally; all have gone on to be amazing teachers. Something my sister said to me a few years ago when I was thinking about getting my second dog, Darby seems to fit here. She said, "Kathy, if you get a dog now, Murphy will help to train him and when Murphy is gone, you'll have a little bit of him left in Darby." And that's what I see when I watch some of these teachers mentored by Milena; they all have their own styles, but there is a little bit of Milena in all of them! And that is a wonderful gift.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Years 23 to 34: Education Specialist for Spokane Public Schools: Babies, Babies, and More Babies (and quilts)!

It's interesting when you have a job that allows you to work with lots of different people. So many different personalities, ages, approaches to teaching, etc. I had this opportunity for twelve years in Spokane and the teachers, psychologists, therapists, administrators and other support staff encompassed all ages, sizes, shapes, and dispositions!

Probably the most cohesive group, by age anyway, was the preschool group. Except for a few in my age group or older, most of this group were young, just married, and/or having babies! Wow! For a while there, these young women were contributing to the increased population of Spokane at what seemed like an alarming rate! I say that because as a quilter, I decided to make baby quilts for many of these babies. It seemed like a good idea at the beginning, but then I couldn't keep up! Most of the quilts I made I designed myself, and all of them used fabrics that did not come from places like JoAnne's, but instead from quality quilt stores. These fabrics have a much higher thread count and longer life span.

In 2000, two teachers I worked with had their first babies. One was a self-contained teacher I did my Master's with, and the other was a teacher I worked with first in Cheney, but who now worked in Spokane. Kellie's quilt was all in stitchery with angels. This quilt also involved applique and was entirely quilted by hand. Around the inside border I hand stitched the Prayer to My Guardian Angel. Susan's quilt was done using a technique called paper piecing and was all sailboats and seagulls. Unfortunately, I don't have a picture of it.

I did a quilt with ducks for Jessieanna, one with circles for Carmen, and one with hearts for Louise.

A quilt with crayons for Meghan, one with brown and pink stars for Dawn, and one with crazy squares for Kristi.
And teachers having babies weren't the only recipients of quilts. There were quilts to be made for people who were retiring like Judi and Mary. And quilts for those who were sick, like Bonnie.

Judi's quilt I made with the hand prints of her students in the shape of caterpillars and flowers. Then I added hand prints of all of the preschool teachers. That was a fun quilt and a big surprise for Judi!

Leslie Weller and I worked together on Mary's retirement quilt. Leslie did the beautiful piecing of the quilt in wonderful colors and fabrics. I did the machine quilting, quilting pansies throughout the quilt.

Bonnie's quilt was extra special. Sometimes when I begin a quilt, I start to get thoughts about who should get it when I'm finished. I had thought I was making the quilt as a wall hanging for myself, but then the thoughts about Bonnie persisted and I knew I needed to make it for her. I called this quilt "Once in a Blue Moon" as a person like Bonnie comes around about that often.

There were more quilts like this one I made for Regal principal Mallory Thomas. She was kind enough to provide me office space for many years.

And I've continued the tradition in Central Valley. Last year Deb Lathrop and I worked together to make Geri a retirement quilt that included T-shirts from all 14 of the elementary schools. And almost two years ago, I designed and made this baby quilt for Stacia, a wonderful OT that I've actually known since she was 3 years old (her mother was my hair dresser lo these many years ago!). Since she works at McDonald, I made a barn quilt and machine quilted "Old McDonald" around the border. It turned out very cute!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Years 23 to 34: Education Specialist for Spokane Public Schools: Technology Fun and Books for Songs!

As I started working more and more with teachers and students, I embraced technology and what it could do for me in the way of making customized visual supports. Many teachers were working with children with little or no language. They relied on pictures for their students to use to communicate. Other teachers used pictures for schedules, stories, etc. I knew how important using visual supports were for our children with special needs, especially our children on the autism spectrum.

For a while I struggled with low tech paint programs like the free one that comes with Microsoft Office. These programs drove me crazy! Not very flexible, it took me hours to put pictures together or to change colors, etc. And then I discovered Paint.NET. Oh my! Did my world change! This is a free program that is like PhotoShop "light". It may not be quite as extensive, but the things I can do with that program! I can layer, rotate, change colors, sharpen, soften - you name it, I can do it! And thanks to my son Mark, I learned what "tolerance" means as related to a paint program!

This new ability allowed me to go crazy! Suddenly I was able to make books to go with favorite children's songs like I Am A Pizza, Slap Those Mosquitoes, and Five Little Ducks. Favorite poems or fingerplays also turned into books like Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear and Ten in the Bed. I shared these books with all of the teachers I worked with. Preschool teachers, kindergarten teachers, and primary special education classroom teachers loved these.

And it wasn't just fun songs with books that got made. I also started to make social stories and scripts with my new found technology. Social stories and scripts are social lessons that help children with autism navigate difficult social situations. Originally developed by Carol Gray, these stories and scripts can be written about anything a child is struggling to learn about or understand. These books also help children with other behavior issues, so soon I was getting requests from many teachers to write stories for them.

Then one day I was meeting with Cori Valley, and she told me about Cathy Bollinger. Cathy is a singer/songwriter who writes many kinds of educational songs, but has at least two excellent CDs of musical social stories. These are fantastic and fun! Wow! I got to work right away making books to go with eleven of the songs that seemed most appropriate for the students and teachers I was working with. Here are a few of them.

Today I have about 200 books, social stories, poems, fingerplays, and musical social stories illustrated and saved. These books are being used by Head Start and ECEAP programs as well as Montessori and special education preschools on both sides of the state. Indeed, some of the teachers I've worked with who have moved to other parts of the country are using them in those new places as well. I am proud to have helped produce some strong visual supports that are fun as well, and help so many children make sense of their world.

And I am now also having fun sharing these books with my own grandson Eddie! He thinks they're great!

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Years 23 to 34: Education Specialist for Spokane Public Schools: Behavior is WHAT now?

Now after over twenty years in the classroom, you would think that I would have learned something about behavior and children with and without special needs. Indeed I had figured out some things. For instance, with young children with little or no verbal skills, you could get them to stay with you and respond to you if you followed their lead; that is, did what they did or what they showed an interest in. This was the classic James McDonald social communication model. That was (and still is) one of my great "soapbox" messages.

However, what about the children who scream at Circle Time when they have to sit and participate? Or the children who rip up their papers every time you give them a writing task? And then there are the children who hit others or hurt them for what seems like no reason at all. Throughout my classroom experience, I pretty much used a "time-out" approach to all behaviors. Sometimes this worked and the behaviors got better. Sometimes it didn't work at all.

This started to change once I became an education specialist. And the reason; I had the chance to work with some pretty awesome people who really understood all about behavior. There was Tom Weddle and Liz Pechous who were (and still are) experts in working with children with autism. I had many opportunities to work alongside these two and pick up on subtle nuances in the behaviors that children with autism demonstrated. Bonnie PetersCori Valley and Michelle Gwinn worked as behavior interventionists and taught me the most important lesson EVER: All behavior is COMMUNICATION; and all behavior has a FUNCTION. I'm passing this on to whoever is reading this blog as you will need to use this whenever you are dealing with anyone exhibiting behaviors you can't figure out!

What a novel idea! Behavior is communication? And it has a function? Here's the quick and dirty explanation: people will exhibit behavior as a function to get or get rid of something. It could be to get attention, or something tangible like a toy or food. It might even be to get some kind of sensory feedback. Or, people might exhibit behavior to get rid of something; attention, an unwanted demand or activity, or unpleasant object or food. Wow! Seriously? Why didn't someone explain that to me while I was still a teacher in the classroom? Or when my own personal children were growing up? That means all of the times I might have put a child in time-out when they were protesting being at Circle Time, I was reinforcing their behavior because they got to leave this unpleasant (really? All of my Circle Times were stellar!) demand. And it also explained why the children who were seeking attention by acting out actually got better with time-out, because we were taking the attention away.

I loved this! I began to look at students and behaviors in a completely different way. Working with Cori, Michelle and Bonnie really improved my skills. Cori has a very humorous and fun way of dealing with behaviors. We might be problem solving a particular student's behavior, and she would always find the funny side of things. Her laugh is entirely infectious so you can't get too bogged down in the problem when Cori is helping you out! Michelle is extremely clinical in her approach. Schooled in Functional Behavior Analysis at Gonzaga, she wanted to make sure we analyzed behavior using a full functional analysis! Yikes! Sometimes when all of us ladies got together and talked behavior, I would "smile and nod" hoping that they thought I knew as much as they did! These ladies are what my son Matt refers to as "big brain boxes".

And then there was Bonnie. Before I met Bonnie, she had been a classroom teacher working with students with disabilities at Stevens Elementary. Gifted in changing student's behaviors, she was drafted into a behavior interventionist position for the district. Bonnie and I got to know each other as we worked with our first integrated kindergarten program (often referred to as "baby BI"). We found out that we had both received our under graduate degrees at Central Washington University, and while attending college there, we had both worked in the same group home for children with disabilities. We compared notes on the children we'd worked with and on the professors and classes we'd taken. I really liked Bonnie and her down to earth approach to behavior. When group conversations about behavior started to get too lofty and theoretical, you could trust Bonnie to bring us all back to reality. Sadly, I didn't get to spend enough time with Bonnie. She died of cancer in November of 2005.

However, she leaves a lasting legacy to all of us who worked with her and the children whose lives she helped change. About two weeks before she died, she asked Michelle and I to lunch at a little diner called Hogan's on the south hill. We chatted and tried to keep our spirits up. Bonnie said to us, "Now tell me about the bad boys. Which bad boys are you working with? How's it going?" That was Bonnie! She loved hearing about the "bad boys"! This was the last time I saw Bonnie.

On the night Bonnie died, I had a dream. In the dream we were sitting in the diner and having something to eat. It was night time and we were the only people there. Around the table were Bonnie, Michelle, Milena, me and a woman I worked with that I really didn't care for, LK. After a while, Bonnie gets up and leaves. We continue chatting and then LK gets up, is gone for a minute, and then returns to the table. She says, "Bonnie's not coming back. She is gone forever now." We are all in shock and very sad. Slowly we leave and the diner is completely empty and cold.

I woke up from this dream and felt sad and confused, mostly because I couldn't figure out why LK had been in my dream. The next day was Monday and I was sitting in my office when LK came to my door. She said, "Did you hear the news? Bonnie died last night." Chills went up and down my spine. I was so shocked that I couldn't say anything. Not because this was unexpected news, but because it was LK who came and told me.

Do you believe in messages from the other side? Well sometimes I do, and this seemed like a clear and clever one directly from Bonnie herself! Gosh I miss that woman!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Years 23 to 34: Education Specialist for Spokane Public Schools: 2004; Hitting my Stride

By 2004 certain aspects of my education specialist role started to change and solidify. For one, the other ed specialists were thrilled by my early childhood background and petitioned to have me be the support person for all of the preschool programs. This suited me just fine! I loved working with the preschool programs and teachers, and was energized by all of the different programs and support staff I had the privilege to work with. This was the first time I had the opportunity to work with integrated early childhood programs. Spokane's CAPE programs integrated preschoolers with special needs into Head Start programs. These programs were and are excellent examples of what early childhood should look like. Strong beliefs in learning by doing, family style meals, homey features in the classroom, and social workers to help support families. I learned a lot from these programs. I also worked closely with the Head Start support staff to expand their knowledge of special education and how to provide programming for students with behavior concerns. We worked well together, providing many programs with professional development on topics like Behavior as Communication, the McDonald ECO model, and autism just to name a few. So it was a big surprise and honor for me in February of 2004 to be awarded Early Childhood Professional of the Year by the Eastern Washington Association for the Education of Young Children (EWAEYC), our local affiliation of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). To this day, the letter and plaque I received hang in my office at home. I will cherish these forever.

The other aspect of my job that began to become more important was working with assistive technology. So many of our young children with disabilities struggled with communication and having the ability to really be a part of their peers' worlds. By 2004,we had two people in our district hired to find, adapt, and try out systems to help support all of these students. John and Carmen are amazing technology geniuses! And this year, John wrote a grant that raised enough money to send several support staff to the largest assistive technology conference in the states. This conference, Closing the Gap, takes place in Minnesota every October. This was such a great experience! I had a chance to see Linda Burkhart, one of the most amazing teachers to ever work in our field. The devices and switches she designed to help children become more a part of the non disabled world took my breath away. She has the most stunning before and after videos of children with and without the technology to support them. Seeing children without technology sit and do nothing and then to see them moving through their environment,  greeting people with voice output devices, and actually doing some jobs; well it's hard to put that into adequate words.

Now the other reason I was so happy to be going to Minnesota that October, was to  get a chance to go and see the Prairie Home Companion store in the Mall of America. Those of you that know me well, know that Garrison Keillor is one of my heroes. I started listening to these radio programs in 1976, doing my lesson plans for the week as it played in the background. So one night, Melany S., an SLP who came on this trip with me, and I went to the Prairie Home Companion store. I knew that we wouldn't still be in Minnesota on Saturday for the live broadcast, but thought it would be fun to go and see what was in the store. As we browsed and I found some things to buy, I told the clerk that I was sad not to still be in town for the live broadcast. She said, "Well you know that they do a dress rehearsal on Friday nights don't you? There may still be some tickets available." WHAT?! Oh, I was so going!

That Friday Melany, Heidi, and I got in a taxi and went to the Fitzgerald Theater to see the dress rehearsal. We sat on the stage in back of the action as those were the only seats left. I had such a great time! Singing the familiar songs like the Powdermilk Biscuit theme, marveling at the sound effects guy, and listening to Garrison's monologue. WOW! I couldn't believe our luck! The other ladies that came along didn't really know much about Prairie Home Companion, but they enjoyed watching me! Afterwards as we started to go, we noticed some people gathering down in front of the stage. We walked down there and one of the ushers told us that sometimes Garrison would come out and sign autographs. I asked the other ladies if they would mind waiting to see if he would come out that night. They did not mind. So we waited and little by little, more and more people tired of waiting and left. We were talking to one of the ushers and she said, "It looks like Garrison won't be out tonight. They have too many revisions to do and it is getting late. But if you wait for a few minutes, I can take you back to your hotel so that you won't have to get another taxi." This was incredibly kind and although I was disappointed, I understood. So we walked to the lobby to wait. I struck up a conversation with Garrison's sister and as we chatted, I noticed Melany going up to different ushers and theater people and talking, gesturing, and then they would shake their heads, and off she would go to someone else. I thought this was strange, but kept chatting and then all of a sudden, everybody got quiet. I stopped talking and turned around. OMG! It was Garrison himself! I was speechless, truly speechless! He said, "Well hello there young lady! Someone has been telling me that you've been listening to this program for about 30 years. I just thought I would come out and thank you." That's what Melany had been saying to all of these different people! And finally someone went back and persuaded Garrison to take a few minutes and meet us. I am forever indebted to Melany! This was one of my biggest thrills ever. We all chatted for about fifteen minutes and he signed my program. After that we piled into the usher's car for a somewhat scarey ride back to the hotel (this involved the driver going the wrong way on a one way street and having very dim headlights!) However, we made it back in one piece and went to have a glass of wine to celebrate! Good times!