On Making Thank You Cards

Tomorrow is the last day of 2012/2013 school year.  This evening, Robert and I made cards for his teachers and his schoolmates. Since drawing is very hard for Robert, I decided to cut some  geometrical forms from colored paper and let Robert make pictures out of them.  He got the hint, and soon he started drawing and cutting those forms by himself.  He arranged them to make a tent under a tree, a sailboat on the water, mountains with foothills in front, kites, sun, grass, rainbow, and-the hardest- palm tree.   On each card he wrote teachers’ or friends’ name.  He wished his friends to have a great summer and he thanked his teachers for their work. As he finished placing cards in the envelopes, he seemed happy and proud.  After all, he fulfilled a new kind of  responsibility. Responsibility we have toward those with whom we spent time together and  share the space, experiences, learning, work, and food. The responsibility to communicate. Robert  was proud of making so many pictures.  It took him almost three hours.  But  he loved  writing names and wishes on the cards and,  even more, he enjoyed writing names on the envelopes.

Were his emotions caused by discovering  a way to communicate with his schoolmates and teachers?  After all, he never initiates any conversation.  Without prompts he never tells anything.  But he carries those shapeless thoughts all the time, unable to let them out, as words don’t come to help.

That is why the fact that he could write almost mechanically the same phrase, “Have a great summer.”  is much more important than it seems.

How important was it for Robert to write, “Thank you for teaching.”?

I know Robert likes going to school.  I deduce he likes his teacher and his aide.  I think he has learned to appreciate the help he gets while learning new skills at one of the job sites.  I suspect, he notices the support he gets while navigating new situations.

Is he grateful?  I think he is.  I think he is more appreciative than many typical students are toward their educators.  That is why he was so pleased with all those words he enclosed in envelopes addressed to his teachers and classmates.

On Constant Worries and Sudden Gratifications

A few days of worries.  On Thursday, I picked Robert from school because he got sick.  Of course, he did not want to go home in the middle of the day as it was a clear break in the routine and thus reason for heightened anxiety.  So Robert protested.  He wanted me to go home and he wanted to go on a school bus.  Similar thing happened a year before at Bridge Center.  You could either convince him to go home or to wait with him for a bus.  Except when he is already agitated, convincing him is hardly possible.

He HAD to eat his lunch despite upset stomach. He had to fill his daily form – rigid ritual of copying names of activities completed that day  from the strips with pre-written short phrases.   The only original sentence was the one suggested to Robert by his aide. As  the last activity Robert wrote: I got sick. 

He slept most of the afternoon.  When he woke up in the evening, he started making noises.  Something I don’t remember him doing for a very long time.  I worried.  Was he not feeling well?  Was he anxious about something?  Was he telling me something or was he retreating into the world that was inaccessible to me?  Was that in any way a result of my screaming at him the previous evening?

He couldn’t sleep during the night, and continued to make noises.  I let him sleep long into Friday, not sending him to school.  When he woke up, he did not ask for school and seemed rather happy.  So we worked together on analogies, Venn Diagrams, and problems requiring logical application of language concepts. Every time  Robert place an element in one of the Venn’s sets  he had to tell either  an X is a Y or an X is not a Y. For instance, “A hummer is a tool” or  “A feather is not a tool.” He also had to tell in which way the words in analogy related to each other.

In the past, I found out  that the best approach to Robert making inarticulate sounds, was to tell him, “I noticed that you want to talk, so let’s talk.” After a few times of “talking” either by repeating separate sounds, the whole words, or short phrases, the frequency and the duration of vocalization decreased or disappeared completely.

What was different this time was that the sounds seemed to indicate either sadness, anger, or pain.

Nonetheless working together seemed to distract Robert  for a while.  Later, we went to the store, where he behaved very appropriately. The noises were gone.  He found all three ito look for bar code to scan each item.

The rest of afternoon Robert spent watching Netflix on his IPAD. From time to time, I heard his vocalizations and I worried.

On Saturday morning he was still making “sounds” .  I was not sure if he should go to his Saturday Program at Bridge Center.  But that was the last session this spring and he really wanted to go.  He was tense in the car.  When he made noises I asked him to repeat after me ten words.  He did. Then I turned on the music.  That seemed to relax him.

I forgot to mention that on all three of those days he asked for his dad, who went to New York on business trip and for his sister who had been in France since end of May. Was he making noise to express his longing for them?

He asked for them again.  He was happy when I reminded him that after Bridge Center we would go to New York to pick up dad and grandma.

Still, I was concerned leaving him at the program.  Four hours later I picked him up.  Claudia told me that Robert was using  whole phrases or short sentences to communicate. That was a new development.  Usually, Robert attempts to communicate by repeating quickly the same word many times. Only those who know him well, can recognize that word.  Sometimes.

It was rewarding to hear that.  I began to believe that the recent emphasis on language in our daily work somehow has started to pay off.   So on the way to New York, we did a lot of “talking” interspersed by listening to music and  to “traffic and weather together”.  After we came to his grandma’s apartment, Robert with his dad went for a walk along Hudson River.  He still was making noises, but somehow my insincere offer, “Let’s talk” calmed him immediately.

This morning he went for a walk in Central Park, then we drove back to Massachusetts.  On the way home, we did just a little, soft “talking”.  We did not want to bother other passengers.  Robert was busy with his IPAD, but let me use it to find a GPS position of our car when we decided to leave the highway.  (Dad was driving.) With fleeting interest, he  watched the picture of our car moving through the roads as seen from the satellite. Not bad for the first time.

When we got home, Robert, as always, unpacked our suitcases. He left clothes in the laundry room, placed medicines in the medicine cabinets, and carried toiletries to the bathroom.  He also folded laundry I had made before the trip.  I cooked dinner.  After we ate and I washed the dishes, I went to laundry room to turn on the washing machine.

There was no dirty laundry on the floor.  The dark clothes waited in the drier to be taken out.The lightly colored clothes  in the washing machine waited for their turn to dry.

In our home only two people do laundry.  Robert and I.  I did not do it.

He did!

I just don’t know who  taught him to separate light clothes  from dark?

And when?

Screaming at the Wrong Person

I was screaming at my son today.  He did not do anything wrong.  He just did not know the answer.  I was tired.  This is not an excuse; just the fact.  I did not want to study with Robert, but he kept asking, “Work, work, work.”  So I forced myself to work with him. As he kept making mistakes, I became mad at his school. I was mad at his teachers and the administrators.  But I screamed at Robert.  He tried to be calm, but he felt hurt.  He was hurt.

I was mad at his teacher, his speech therapist, the administration and the members of the school committee. I was mad at everybody.  I was mad at myself.  I don’t know of one thing my son learned this year at school.  I got so-called “progress reports” but couldn’t find any sign of progress.  I was mad at the situation I was not able to rectify. Still, I screamed at Robert.

I am a damaged human being.  I become a bad mother and a terrible  teacher.  Dealing with the school during last four years took its toll.

Now, I am the person, who hurts Robert by screaming at him.

I don’t know where to go from here.

I cannot teach my son if I scream at him.

Maybe,because of his OCD, he wants to keep the same pattern of the day and that includes learning with me.  Maybe he knows that if I won’t teach him, nobody else will.  Anyway, he insists on learning together.  I am afraid to continue our evening sessions.

I screamed at my son and I don’t know how to go past that.

I shorten this post today.  In the first version I vented my frustration and went overboard with my anger at school.  I was petrified by my screaming at Robert.  I considered removing that post entirely, but I decided to leave it here as an example of the damage caused by four years of incessant efforts to assure proper education.  I have to say, that the worst year was four years ago, and I still am not able to address it.  It also has to be said, that every year was a little better than the previous  one. The constant vigilance, however,  came at a price.  The price is that, for the last six months, I was not able  to have calm, professional contacts with school and that had to have a negative effect on Robert.

As of Today 6

We studied for only a short time.  One math page and a few pages of  exercises in logical thinking.

As for the math, Robert did two pages of the same type of exercises.  I chose that hoping that Robert would do that almost automatically and independently. I needed time to finish cooking. He made a 7 mistakes out of 50 problems. Not bad.  Moreover, those mistakes were caused by the problems I have already diagnosed but not addressed yet.  With whole numbers up to 100 and denominators up to 10, Robert doesn’t have any problems with finding a fraction of the number.  He quickly divides by denominators and multiplies by numerator.  But when the numbers get larger and the answers don’t present  themselves immediately, Robert hesitates and makes mistakes .  Only twice while solving those problems, Robert used long division and followed with multiplication.  Other times he divided twice.

I was surprised  that he couldn’t come with a quick answer to  division facts where  12 was either a divisor or a quotient.

Robert knows all multiplication facts involving 12 but is lost when he has to transform them into division facts.  All division facts up to 100, Robert learned  from using families of facts and changing a * b = c into c : b = a.  So why couldn’t he use, the fact he knew well   7 * 12=84 to solve   84 : 7 = ?

Probably, because we did not practice doing that at all.  Somehow we omitted dividing by 12, despite learning to multiply by it.

Today, we also continued solving  logical puzzles by placing pictures in order described by verbal cues.

I felt concerned that Robert had difficulties with following cues:

1. W is last.

2. X and Y are next to each other.

3. Z is between X and W.

The problem was with between.

When I placed Z, X, and W in front of Robert asking him to place Z between X and W,  Robert was confused.

I was sure he knew what it meant to place something between two other objects.  He has done it in the past.  Then I realized that there was a difference.  In the past he had to put  an object in the EMPTY space between two things that were already placed in unmovable places.  Now, he had to arrange all THREE objects: Z , X , and W in the same way.

He has never done that before.

I helped him.  I should not have.  I should have given him time to figure this on his own.  He can learn to think independently only if  he has a chance to think independently.  All too often, I am taking that chance from him by helping him all too soon.

There was a time when it was necessary to “help” before Robert made a mistake. Errorless teaching was  a powerful tool in creating basic concepts .  What I am writing here,however,  is entirely different.

It  is about trying, making mistakes, and trying to correct them INDEPENDENTLY. I don’t think you can learn to think without confronting errors independently.

When I was in seventh grade I was not very good in math.  In previous years, my brother often had helped me to solve those  word problems that required writing an equation or a set of two equations.   When he went to the University,  I was left with this horrid problem: At 3:00 the hands of a clock make right angles. What is the NEXT time the hands would make another right angle?

And no, the answer is not 9:00.

I spent three hours trying to solve this problem.  I cried.  I threw the book on the floor.  I gave up, I started again.  I drew the clock hundred times, I almost discovered calculus, before coming with a simple equation.

For the next 10 years, I did not have problems with math.  I went to study mathematics.  I did not have special talent, I certainly was not creative, but I knew that any problem in a textbook had a solution and thus I could find it.

This is why I want Robert to find a way to place three pictures in such a way that Z ends up between X and W.

To Teach or To Let Learn

It occurred to me, during our walk through the caves in the  Polar Caves Park in  New Hampshire, that long ago, I had made an assumption that Robert was not capable to learn on his own.  I assumed, without ever admitting it to myself , that  any new information or skill had to be forced, tricked, or infused into his brain by some form of teaching.

Although not once I noticed that Robert had learned many things through  observations, without any kind of instruction, I still acted as if Robert knew only that what he was taught.  This assumption probably motivates me to teach him any way I can and whenever and wherever I detect a learning  opportunity.

At least one hour of our three hours long trip to White Mountains we spent on practicing long vowels sounds.  Surprisingly, many native English speakers, and that includes many teachers, don’t realize that long “a”, “i” or “o” sounds are made of two different sounds,  Robert tends to neglect that second sound.   He also has a tendency to omit the ending consonants.  As we drove,  Robert was repeating after me  long words and short phrases as they related to what we saw outside.

MountaiN,  Speeeeeeed Limit, Streeeeeeet SiiiiiiigN,  GreeeeN grass, Whiiiiiite ClOUds,  motorcycle (with counting syllables).  We repeated these and other words many times.

Practicing in the car is easier than working at the dinning room table. The opportunities to escape are limited.  There is nothing else to do but look outside and “talk” about what we see.

When we walked up the stairs of Flume Gorge, I did not teach, as I was busy  climbing up and keeping the pace with Jan and Robert.  The teaching restarted during the walk down the path.  We differentiated between broad-leaf and conifer trees, we read names of the plants attached to bright orange ribbons.  My main effort, however, went toward teaching Robert the concept of the “middle”.

I have the fear of heights and of poison ivy.  On the left side of the path there was a ridge, on the right there were plants. At least one of them looked as if it could be a poison ivy.  Naturally, I wanted Robert to walk in the middle.  As basic as it seems, this is a concept Robert is not exactly understanding despite a lot of attempts on my part to familiarize him with it.

I asked Robert to stretch his arms from time to time  and keep as far from the left as he was from the right.    It seemed to work at least  as long as nobody else was on the trail to disturb the clarity of space.

After lunch we drove to Polar Caves Park.

I was too busy  protecting  my head from bumping into rocks and my  feet from slipping on the wet stones to teach Robert anything.  He did not need teaching.  He observed his dad and followed his lead.  Only once, when Robert climbed  down the metal ladder and reached the cave before his dad, he became anxious.  He made a noise of distress.  When Jan reclaimed the leadership position, Robert calmed down and bending down or moving to the side followed his dad through narrow and low passages.  Luckily they were rather short.

I walked behind Robert, and couldn’t help but wonder to what degree my “teaching” might  interfere with his “learning”.

At that moment, I also realized, that many times, as Robert “explored” new places on his own, I immediately interfered  afraid he would do something inappropriate.  Many times, I placed myself between Robert and “the world” playing the role of an interpreter as if Robert could not make sense of the world on his own.

While I more or less know what I have taught Robert, I don’t have any idea to what degree my constant presence  has hindered his ability to learn independently.

And that is a reason for concern.

Taking the Teaching Outside

Yesterday, Robert did not go to school.  The reasons why he missed the school are complicated and would need a long post to be presented clearly. For the sake of this post, they can be ignored.

He woke up around 9:30 pretty happy, ate something, dressed up, watched his IPAD while I was putting new tiles on the basement’s floor.  Before 11 AM I told him that we should go to the store, for a walk, and maybe McDonald.  He chose which of two supermarkets we would go to.  (Stop and Shop).  In the car, I repeated a short list of groceries to buy that included apples, milk, and Italian bread.  I told him he would pay using his card.  Twice a month he pays for groceries.  I followed him in the store. He went to the dairy section and stopped.  On two sides of the refrigerator’s door were two men cleaning the bottom shelves.  Robert hesitated and turned away from them.  I got the milk. He proceeded to the produce section and stopped  in front of boxes with apples.  I asked him to choose and  he chose, as always, Fuji.  He found bread.  He made sure it was just plain Italian not Italian with sesame seeds or anything else, and we approached the register.  He used his card, but forgot his new pin number, and I forgot it too.  Luckily, his card still work as a credit card  so he could pay.   Before I started the car, I asked Robert, “Where have we been?” He looked a little bewildered, so I pointed to the store.  Robert answered, “Stop and Shop”.

I asked, “Where do you want to go now, Stony Brook for a walk or McDonald?”  To my surprise, Robert chose walk.  It was a beautiful day.  Robert was happy and started running.  I stopped him and  told him to run to the bench and wait for me.  Somehow, this did not seem right, so instead he walked close by.

Many years ago, when Robert was 3, 4, or 5 during our frequent walks he learned to recognize oak, maple, and pine leaves.  Now, I wanted him to learn to discriminate among broad-leaf and conifer trees.  Just the day before, we were learning about those two kinds and the third – palm trees. As we walked I kept pointing to Robert one kind or the other.  He repeated after me.  No pressure.  No overdoing.  I couldn’t help myself and pointed to Robert white bark of a small birch tree.  Just to help him recognize the familiar tree by its name.  It was a few years ago during our camping trip to Vermont when Amanda, Robert’s sister, showed him how to pick up old bark to start a campfire.

I am not sure if the name, I reminded him of , helped him remember our camping trip and the time we spent in a lean-to next to a small pond in a park close to the Canadian border.  The nature of names is to connect past and present, far away places and spaces near us.  I am not sure if the names, I am pushing Robert to learn, play the same role for him.  But recognizing names is important, as it makes one  acquainted to the nature that surrounds him or her.

On a way to McDonald, I asked, “Where did we go?” I provided the answer:  Stop and Shop and Stony Brook.  I asked again.  Robert answered, but Stony and Stop  got mixed up, so I did not ask again.  Instead as we drove, I decided to practice something else.  When we were approaching a turn, I kept saying, “We will turn. We will turn”  While turning I was repeating quickly, ‘We are turning, we are turning, we are turning.”   After the turn I emphasized   “We HAVE TURNED”.  After a few turns and similar exercises, Robert considered it a game and with a laugh finished the last sentence himself.  WE HAVE TURNED!.

And so we did.

Planning the Future (Sort Of) Forgetting the Past.

For many years now, Robert has been planning the future.  Next day, to be precise. His plans are simple and expressed in his own concise manner:

“Bridge Center.  Wendy’s.  Dad” is Robert’s plan for  Saturday.  It means that he will attend the program at  The Bridge Center.  After the program, he will eat lunch at  Wendy’s Restaurant.   Dad would do the driving.

“School.  Poblano.  Four. ” This is the plan for Wednesday.  Robert expects that after school, he will have four poblano peppers for dinner. Sometimes to be exact he adds, “With cheese.”

Although succinct, the plans are repeated a few times  as Robert wants to be sure and reassured that he and I are on the same page and no changes are looming.

Planning for  the future, seems relatively easy for Robert.  Unfortunately, recalling the past, even the past that happened 5 minutes before, has been a challenge.

For a long time, I did not know how to help Robert answer the simplest questions, “What did you do today?” or even  “Where did you go today?”.

It has to be said, that although Robert could respond properly to many questions about pictures, answering questions that related to his own life was impossible for him.  It still is very hard and confusing.

A couple of years ago, I started teaching Robert to answer just one question, “Where did you go?”

We did our lessons in the car.  One Saturday, as I was driving Robert from his Bridges to Independence Program, I asked, “Where have you been?”  and immediately provided him with an answer, (technique from Verbal Behavior), “Bridge Center”.  I repeated the question and waited for Robert to answer, “Bridge Center”.  Which he did.  Over and over until we got to the gas station.  After I filled the tank, but before we left the station, I asked again, “Where have you been?”, and fed him with an answer, “Bridge Center, Gas Station.”  I was not driving yet, so I used my fingers to count the places.  One finger for The Bridge Center, two fingers for a gas station.  I repeated this cycle until Robert listed both places himself.  I did not pay attention to the clarity of his pronunciation.

We kept repeating the question and the answer until we got to Wendy’s Restaurant.  In the restaurant, I asked a few times, “Where have you been?” and Robert answered sometimes with prompt, sometimes independently.  I also asked, “Where are we now?” That response came quickly and easily, “Wendy’s”.

As soon as we got in the car, still in parking lot, we repeated the extended list of places with the help of three fingers this time.

My line:  “Where have you been? Bridge Center, gas station, Wendy’s. Where have you been?”

Robert’s line: “Bridge Center, gas station, Wendy’s”

Over and over, until Robert could answer just after, “Where have you been?”

We practiced a little on the way home, but not too much, as he became a little annoyed and asked for music.

At home, Robert with my help wrote a journal entry.  Today is Saturday.  I went to Bridge Center, gas station, and Wendy’s.” 

In the evening we expanded this entry to.  Today is Saturday.  I went to Bridge Center to cook and meet friends.  I went to gas station to get gas for the car.  I went to Wendy’s for fries.

Recalling what he was doing in these places was easy, except for The Bridge Center.  When Robert does too many thing in one place, somehow that becomes harder to  remember or to choose from.  Getting gas at the gas station is as obvious as getting fries at Wendy’s”.

It is a good technique, while applying this approach to teaching recalling the past  ( places and activities connected to them), to opt for a similar design.  Two (or one) places connected to activities that are easy to name and one that is a little harder.

I think, this approach to teaching about things that happened in the past (even in the previous hour) has been working.  Unfortunately, I practiced this skill only on Saturdays.  That is not enough to make a difference.

Who Is Learning?

My son is learning. He is learning slowly, but he does learn.   I am learning too.  I am learning who Robert is and  how to teach him.  I am learning in a slower pace  than Robert does, but I do learn.

My son’s educators from his public school don’t learn.

Year after year, they don’t learn.

They came to the position of my son’s teachers without proper preparation.  They don’t know my son.  They don’t know what my son knows.  They don’t know what he doesn’t know. They don’t even know how to find out what he knows or he doesn’t know.

They neglect my son with the consent of the school administrators.

Today I received the progress report written by his teacher.

From this progress I deduced two things:

1.  That my son cannot learn anything in this classroom. He looses what he learned before.

2.That his teachers cannot teach him, because they don’t know who he is or how to teach him.

It is all my fault. Every year, for three out of four last years I fought for my son’s right to education.

I fought to remove him from the teacher who was placing Robert in a separate desk with a packets of word searches puzzles. Day after day.  She refused to teach him.  She caused him to be in constant distress.  She was, willingly or not, destroying him.

Another year I fought for my son’s right to free and appropriate education.  Any education.  I tried to force the teacher to teach my son.  I fought with the teacher and very influential teacher’s aide.  They considered teaching to be illegal in this classroom.

Each of those years, my son lost six months of the  school year.  But I won for him at least three months of decent  teaching.

Each year, I ended up exhausted.  I couldn’t make up for the lost time.  My health was deteriorating.

This year, I gave up the fight in December.  I couldn’t force the school to teach my son.  I gave up and my son lost the whole year. Because of me.

It was too hard.  Just too hard.  I couldn’t cut  through the web of lies.  I couldn’t change anything. Even if I won concessions from school in regards to IEP, the IEP was not followed . The school is  unaccountable for my son’s progress. I fought before.  I tried to get help from the principal, special ed director, superintendent, school committee, SEPAC, Program Quality Assurance at Department of Education, Commissionaire Chester, Hearing Officers from BSEA.  The best I got was the three months of a relatively decent teaching out of the whole school year . The price was exhaustion, prolonged stress and deteriorating health.

It is almost the end of the school year.    Trying to preserve myself I abandoned my son.  I couldn’t negotiate anymore with the Public School District. I have a Stockholm Syndrome already.  Even a thought  of attending a meeting with the school turns my stomach upside down. I cannot face concentrated manipulations, which look like a prearranged conspiracy to defraud my son of education. I don’t know how to defend my son. I am humiliated by other people’s lack of knowledge.   I am offended  as a person with disability, as a mother of a powerless boy, as a former teacher, and as a  human being.  I am hysterical.  I gave up and my son lost the whole year.

For those who look at this pages to get some suggestions about teaching, I do apologize for this emotional outburst.  But this is a part (a missing part) of Robert’s education and life. Thus it should not be censored.