In her short book Teaching
a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard comments that words, some words, bring us
back to reality, waking us from sleep. The people who use those words catch us
asleep or ‘dead and gone and grieving’ and become, as it were, alarm clocks
rousing us from our slumber.
She writes, “The mind—the culture—has two little tools,
grammar and lexicon: a decorated sand bucket and a matching shovel. With these
we bluster about the continents and do all the world’s work. With these we try
to save our very lives.” (Annie Dillard,
Teaching a Stone to Talk 24).
That’s probably a lot deeper than I think; nevertheless, I
think we can agree that we live in a culture—a world—intoxicated on words.
There are words everywhere, on everything. “Signs, signs, everywhere there’s
signs.” (Five Man Electrical Band). Environmental signs. Billboard advertising.
Sky-writing—seriously, can you imagine Shakespeare meeting Orville and Wilbur
If we lack anything in this world, it is not uses for the 26
straight and curved pen strokes that form the shapes of our most basic form of
communication: the letter. And sometimes a large part of our job as special
educators is to help students who have severe communication deficits make sense
of those letters and the sounds, words, sentences, and so on, that they form.
Furthermore, we have to do so in creative ways, with few words ourselves, and
sometimes with no spoken words at all.
We are paid to pay attention, to listen more than we talk—to
teach communication often by the very way we communicate.
My aunt, who is a career teacher, told me one day that it is
important as a teacher to keep a notebook or a journal (I personally carry a
Moleskine notebook) in order to have a place to write down all the things that
students say—the silly and the serious. I have been journaling since I was 16 years
old so this was not a big change for me and thus I began adding these anecdotes
to my journal.
I would like to share a couple of things with you that I
have written down in my Moleskine that students have uttered over the course of
the last month or so:
- In my afternoon reading camp session I asked the
question: What is a homophone? The student’s reply? “An old-fashioned phone?”
- In the same group, some students were working on
a synonyms game. As they worked, I mentioned that I had dictionaries available
for use if they needed them. One student looks to his friend and says, “Go
- Two of my students were at the play table. One
student started to make a mess of another student’s toys. I said, “Please do
not knock down his blocks.” The student replied, “But he knocked my stuff down
earlier.” I said, “Well, that’s not how we do things here.” He replied,
straight-faced, “But that’s how we do things at home.”
- A student was working with my paraprofessional
coloring bags of white rice for a game we were making. The paraprofessional
said, “Come help me color rice.” We could not figure out why the student then
started playing with cars and talking about racing them on the counter. When
she asked him to put the cars away, he replied, “I thought you said we had cars
- I recently went on a field trip with a first-grade
class to a pumpkin patch. Good times. One little girl talked my ear off for the
entire 45-minute ride to the pumpkin patch and ended by reciting a beloved
poem, “This one and that one sitting in a tree. K-I-S-S-I-N-G.” I knew the rest
until she got to the part where she said, “First comes love, then comes
marriage, then comes baby in a baby carriage.” Then, after that, “that’s not
all, that’s not all, then daddy comes drinking lots of alcohol” followed by the
comment, “My dad told me that.” I’m not
making this stuff up at all.
Communication deficits continue to be one of our main issues
in special education. There are all sorts of devices available to help overcome
said deficits from PECS (Ryan,
Hughes, Katsiyannis, McDaniel, & Sprinkle, 2011) to American Sign
Language to BIGmack (Beck,
2002) or another augmentative or alternative communication technology (King
& Fahsl, 2012).
The truth is: special education teachers are in the business
of sounds, letters, words, signs, pictures—communication. That is what we do
day in and day out. Most of the issues we deal with, behavior or academic or
otherwise, stem from an inability, on the part of the student, to communicate.
In some ways this complicates our job; in other ways it simplifies it.
One last story to tie all of this together. I was walking
down the hallway with one of my kids who has autism. He had had an incident
with another student and he was trying to express himself. He was beginning to
rant and his tone was turning sharp, the volume increasing. As we were in the
hallway, I reminded him that we needed to be quiet and talk with our hallway
voice. I asked him to just tell me what was wrong. He looked at me and simply said:
“I am upset with…”
The alarm went off loudly. I smiled, my heart warmed. And
the rest of my day was perfect.
What funny or deep things have you heard from the lips of