While at the CEC Conference & Expo, I attended the Sunshine State Social, which was a party for CEC members from California and Florida. While I’m a California girl now, I grew up in Florida, so this social felt like it was made just for me.* Among the people I met at the social were representatives from Talent Assessment, a reading curriculum researcher, a SELPA director, and a couple CEC chapter heads. We talked about the paths that led to our job choices and our experiences within the field. Overall, it wound up a highly entertaining evening that ended with making new professional acquaintances. In short, I networked.
Life and Social Skills
I am the Queen of Crazy Field Trips. Every time I hand the school secretary a field trip permission form, she laughs and asks where we’re going this time. The joke is that we’re headed for Disneyland come May; she’s already volunteered to chaperone.
Let me assure you we are not headed for Disneyland—ever. Even still, I don’t plan on relinquishing my title any time soon.
This all started when I brought my fifth grader to the 99-cent store across the street from school. He had money goals, so it made sense. Then we headed (as an entire class) to PetSmart, as we had been studying animal vocabulary and PetSmart is a billion times cheaper than the Phoenix Zoo. In fact, all my crazy field trips are free.
If you live in Phoenix — the city of 100-degree temps even after midnight — San Diego sounds like a dream. It’s by the ocean, it’s within driving distance, it experiences perfect weather all year round, and it’s not the desert.
My lucky, lucky parents happen to live in San Diego, so a friend and I road-tripped on over to the City of Perfect Weather for the Labor Day weekend. While we were there, we went to the beach, saw wild dolphins jumping around in the ocean, and ate both seafood and home-cooked Chinese food. It was pretty much a perfect long weekend and a great escape from the desert heat.
On our 5.5-hour drive back to Phoenix, we were hit by a haboob. What’s a haboob, you ask? Well, a haboob is a type of intense dust storm commonly observed in arid regions around the world like the Middle East and, of course, central and southern Arizona. While I’ve experienced haboobs and dust storms before, this one hit me especially hard: 1) physically because I was driving at the time and 2) mentally because it reminded me that while I’m able to escape from the desert on a whim, none of my students have that option.
Student: Teacher, Guy called me stupid.
Guy: Only because Student said I was a jerk.
Student: But he took my lunch spot.
Guy: I got to the table first.
Student: No, I got to it first.
Guy: No, I did!
(a quick glance at the lunchroom shows a good 20 empty seats)
Name-calling and petty arguments are the types of conflicts that most commonly occur at my school, and they are difficult for a third party such as myself to resolve. This is because of emotional investment.
Shortly after the last day of school, I spent some time in the Midwest and managed to visit friends and family, get married, then drive north and relax for a few days — all before returning to Alaska to begin teaching summer school.
Teaching summer school is enjoyable because it’s an opportunity to work with a new set of co-workers while instructing students who are often at a very different educational level. Much of it is teaching the very important skills of basic communication, social interaction, and participation. So much of what we do in life depends on our skills in these areas and committing to improve any areas of weakness.
One tool I use to develop vital communication and participation skills is music. At its most basic level, music is a medium that allows us to choose the way we’d like to respond. Some of us hum along, some dance in their chairs, and others even sing (some in tune, some out of tune). Wherever there’s a crowd of people gathered, somebody inevitably chooses to communicate through song. Individual reactions vary, usually depending on who or where you are and what type of music you appreciate. At any rate, many of my students with severe intellectual disabilities connect to and respond well to music.
Each morning our students gather for circle time, where we review the day of the week, the weather, and the daily plan. I happen to play guitar and harmonica, so we also take a few minutes to sing songs and react to the music. I notice that when I talk and play guitar, most students are much more engaged and connected to the topic of conversation — and they’re also more likely to communicate with others when prompted.
Last week, I had the opportunity to travel to Bethel, Alaska, with two other teachers and 11 students. This was our first experience traveling anywhere off Alaska’s road system and for a few of the students, it was their first time on an airplane. We were invited to Bethel by the local high school’s Partners Club, who hosted a Unified Track and Basketball Tournament.
Overall, it was an amazing experience. We practiced preparing and packing for the trip, checking-in at the airport, and navigating security. One of my life-skills students had his first experience with the TSA, which included a professional swab of his nervous and sweaty palm.
I realize not every class gets to leave the classroom often — much less fly somewhere 400 miles away — so I’d like to share how we found the support and fundraised the money to do it. In two words: espresso and community.
“…a condition exhibiting one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked degree that adversely affects a child’s educational performance:
(A) An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors.
(B) An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers.
(C) Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances.
(D) A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression.
(E) A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.”
I can remember a time not too long ago when I didn’t have a clue about what I would need to know in the future. I wasn’t worried about it. The future would come. And it did, along with many tough lessons about how not to handle certain situations.
When we’re young, most of us are capable of learning lessons through direct experience, even if we aren’t paying attention when our parents, teacher, school counselor, and Aunt Lydia try to tell us that it isn’t a good idea to play by the river in winter (just as an example).
Over time, I’ve found that when I’m called to a conversation in a quiet and empty hallway, it’s usually a situation I’m capable of handling. But last fall, I encountered one that I was sure I couldn’t handle.
Mai, a 17-year-old student in our life skills program, stood with her back to the blue ceramic tile wall. She stared at a point on the floor just beyond her tiny sandaled feet. Ms. Lynn, our classroom’s teacher assistant, put her hand on Mai’s shoulder: “Mai, go on and tell Mr. B what you told me.”
Lakes of tears welled in Mai’s eyes and as she turned her head toward the long emptiness of the hallway she said, “I think I’m pregnant and I’m scared.”
Once the words registered, I looked to Ms. Lynn. She drew a long breath and let it out with a sigh. Mai put her head back down and sniffled. Without really knowing it, in the moment I began to speak, I placed my faith in what our school would do to help and abandoned words like could or should. Could and should are words for political, philosophical, and hypothetical situations, not real ones like Mai’s.
Within the next few days, Mai’s pregnancy was confirmed and we learned that the father was her boyfriend, another student in our life skills classroom. We met with Mai’s family and her boyfriend’s family. We helped Mai set up the necessary pre-natal care appointments and helped arrange transportation supervision and training so she could attend them. A short time later, when Mai lost the support of her family, we helped arrange foster placement and began to teach Mai the basics of caring for herself and preparing for a baby. I also learned that our district has a school that offers a curriculum and community support for pregnant teens, so we began to think of ways we could tailor that program for a student who receives special education services, like Mai.
“The journey itself is delight.”— Rousseau
Last week Partners Club (a group I co-sponsor that connects students with and without disabilities through athletics and social activities) resumed its weekly ski outings. Although it had been uncharacteristically warm throughout the last week or so, there was still plenty of snow on the mountain.
As the kids climbed the hill in sets of twos and threes, I was genuinely moved by how our club really does impact every student beyond the classroom. In every sport, but especially in skiing, there’s a level of trust and care required to get students not only up the hill in cold weather, but also down again in a way that respects their level of athletic, psychological, and spiritual comfort. However, long before a student with a disability buckles into ski boots, he or she must hop over the first hurdle to getting involved with the club: getting out of the house.
Each Monday morning, my class discusses what they did that weekend, and the only response more common than watching television, playing video games, or sleeping is the ever-ubiquitous “nothing.” I often find that for some students this response is the ticket out of talking. But for a few of them, I realize that “nothing” is really an accurate summation of their weekend. And for a teacher who values student skills like connectedness, independence, and engagement, that realization is tough to make.
I’m excited to write this follow-up to my last blog post about the Mouse Project. (Glad you all enjoyed reading about it!)
My students did a great job on our second annual fundraiser project. We “adopted” a local family of three boys whose parents both have cancer. We decided to shake it up and make snowflake ornaments instead of the mice ornaments we made last year. And, silly me, I only got two bottles of tacky glue again, so my students had to share.
One of them asked if we could serve cookies to our “shoppers” this year. I thought that was an awesome idea, and a great way to sneak in some more social skills and life skills lessons. So we bundled up and headed off to the grocery store; each student had to find two or three items, and then go through the check-out themselves.
We returned to school, where the students had to quarter the original recipe (sneaky math!) and each mix up his own batch of dough, which he later rolled out and cut into cookies. I also discovered one of my students is a frosting-making whiz; he whipped up several shades of green frosting in about two minutes. I was very impressed—I even used his method when making cookies at home!