Amanda, Amanda, Amanda

Amanda was coming home.  She was coming home for Christmas break.  Robert was waiting.  Every day, he demanded that we establish that fact beyond any doubts.

“Amanda, Amanda, Amanda.  (?) (!)”

“What about Amanda?”

“She is for Christmas.”

“You are right. She is coming.”

It was a dialogue which with slight variations was repeated many times each day for over four weeks.

“Amanda, Amanda, Amanda? (.) (!)”

“What about Amanda?”

“She home.”

“You are right, she is coming home for Holidays.”

And she came.

Robert smiled.  Came closer, and wasn’t sure what to do next.  Amanda smiled and gave him a hug.  Robert accepted passively and smiled again.  Then he turned back, ran away, returned, and bounced in place in the Tigger like way.

During the following days, he went to Walpole Park, Stony Brook Park and Moose Hill with Amanda.  He played board games with Amanda.  He built a village out of gingerbread, decorated it with candies, and ate all the candies, leaving white frosting on all the roofs.  He built gingerbread carousel, decorated it with candies, and then ate all the candies.  He went skiing at Sunapee Mountain with Amanda and their dad.  In his own way, on legs spread widely, he  rushed past her, showing off the way siblings might.  She had trouble keeping up with him.  They ate at the lodge on the top of the Mountain. A few times, Amanda took him to McDonald’s and Starbucks.

During all that time, I did not study with Robert.  I watched how he was surviving the 10 day long break from school without almost any interference from me.

He survived pretty well.  Of course it helped that dad took him to movies and reminded him every day to take a bath and do a few other little things.  But mostly, Robert survived because of Amanda, Amanda, Amanda.

This must be both exciting and scary for Amanda.

But she is not the only one with very ambivalent feelings….

Setback. The Lesson That Wasn’t

December 18, 2013

This is the post that is supposed to show the difference between teaching and pretending to teach.  Both processes start the same way with gathering materials, but then go in two different directions.  One is the thoughtless approach that doesn’t take into account the profile of the learner, the second is an effort to meet the learner at some point and guide it from that point on.  It still might fail, but it is a process that deserve to be called TEACHING

Yesterday, I was not prepared to teach Robert.  Yes, I did gather a few worksheets, but I did not read them and did not rethink the approach. No surprise that it was a disaster. Just this one example:  There was a problem that called for Robert to find the times of the bus’ departures.  Knowing that the buses leave every 35 minutes starting with 6.00 AM, Robert was supposed to find the departure times of the six or seven next buses.

What should I have done?

1. Analyze  different approaches to solving this problem:  1A.  By using Judy clock and count minutes by five while moving the minutes hand.  1B   By adding 35 minutes to the previous times, and if necessary regrouping minutes into hours and minutes. 1C Practice mental addition of minutes by first adding a part to the full hour and then the rest.

2. Formulate possible goals matching each of the approach and state the challenges associated with each.  Using Judy Clock, the simplest of the method, would allow for extra practice and increase Robert independence. Adding times would offer a tool that could be used without support of the clock and allow for additional practice with changing minutes into hours. The third method could increase mental counting abilities and, if mastered, would offer the quickest tool to solve similar problems in the future.

3. Choose one method and through appropriate introduction remind Robert what he already knew and could do.  The introduction might include some easier problems.  For instance changing 80 minutes into 1 hour and 20 minutes.  Or for the third approach practice adding minutes on paper 45min +20min= 45min+15min+5min=60min+5min=1 hour+5min.  A few exercises like that would allow Robert to connect the skills he had (or he method he was exposed to) to the new sort of a problem. OR remind Robert about the two approaches (He used both in the past in different circumstances) and let him choose one.

4. Given, what I knew about Robert, I should have chosen second approach and use it consistently all the time, despite the fact that Robert could do some operation mentally (for instance adding  35 min to 7:10). The reason for that is to demonstrate to  Robert that the more difficult addition with a regrouping is a form of the easier one not demanding regrouping.

5.  Observe Robert’s performance,and decide on needed adjustments or the next step.

I did not do that!

Instead, I started with the most demanding, the third, approach.  Noticing difficulties it caused Robert, I abandoned it in the middle of the lesson and presented Robert with Judy clock suggesting  to count by five while moving minute’s hand. That did not satisfied me, as too mechanical, so I suggested to Robert to first count the minutes till full hour, and then add the remaining.  This way, I returned to the third approach, which had already failed and… complicated the easiest one.  Finally, to find the last three times, I suggested to Robert to just add the times with regrouping.

This way, I managed to completely confuse Robert, leaving  him without any  tool at all for finding times of departures and causing him to regress.

I made similar blunders with a reading page.  I did not read it myself before, and thus couldn’t do any pre-telling by invoking similar events from Robert’s life.

I continued making errors with science pages while “teaching” about animals’ adaptations and I even failed the part of the lesson devoted to talking in sentences.

Two hours were completely lost by the teacher – me- not being prepared to teach.

I was not prepared because, I became  arrogant in believing that I could do everything well specially since those were such “easy” topics.

Well, they are not easy.  The most basic concepts are the most difficult to appropriate and thus the hardest to teach.

Unexpected Reward

December 16, 2013

Usually, when Robert returns from school, the worksheets and textbooks are waiting for him.  Robert won’t take an evening bath before first completing all assignments I prepared for him. Today, I forgot to assemble papers and books.  Robert took it as an indication that there won’t be any evening learning.  When I tried to make up for my negligence, he protested  repeating softly and quickly, “No, no, no, no.”  He watched me opening books and taking out worksheets from a folder full of copies, then convinced by inescapable fact, – the worksheets spread on the table-, he surrendered, picked up his favorite pencil and got ready to study.

1.We read two pages about organisms competing for scarce resources. I am not sure what Robert understood. He encountered the word population in a new context. In the past the word related only to people, now to all organisms of the same kind. He heard and read the word “resources” before, mainly in the context of the conservation through recycling, reusing, and reducing.  Today, for the first time, he read about possible scarcity of resources and their grave consequences.  As I said, I am not sure what he understood.  Below the text there were questions, but I did not use them as a way of checking Robert’s retention of information but as a way to review and reteach.  I mostly fed the answers to Robert.

2. Robert practiced talking in sentences.  The hardest thing for him.  I asked the questions related to pictures and Robert should answer in full sentences. Although he had to apply the same sentence structure, he  too often put the words in a wrong order.  I asked, “Which animals have stripes (whiskers, bushy tails, pouches…) He responded with one word and then reluctantly followed with a full sentence. I noticed, to my surprise, that as we went on, Robert demonstrated more difficulties, not less in speaking in sentences.   I stopped this exercise as soon as he strung words correctly in his answer so he could finish on a high note.

3.A page from Reasoning and Writing level C, provided him with some relief.  Robert was supposed to write a paragraph about the picture and he did it without verbal prompting.  Still, I kept pointing to different parts of the picture to help Robert build sentences.  After he did, he read the whole paragraph and was pretty pleased with himself.

4. Robert floated through lesson 85 from Saxon Math. Among other thing, he properly aligned numbers for addition: $3.26 + $45 +36c changing units, using decimal points, placing decimal points under each other and adding properly.

Then, he smiled. He smiled at himself.  He smiled because he felt he mastered the skill, because he wasn’t tricked by the lack of decimal points in cents and dollars and he knew exactly where he should put them, because he was proud, because he could do it all by himself.

His  joy of his accomplishment!

And my joy of Robert RECOGNIZING  his accomplishment.

How Low Can You Go?

Two psychologists and one teacher can go low, very low, and extremely low in describing Robert’s results achieved, or rather failed, on the assessments they gave him. That happened during Robert’s 2010 evaluation by the former teacher and the former school psychologist.  It happened again this year.  Both the new teacher and a new school psychologist used as the most appropriate description of Robert the terms: low, very low, extremely low.

This time, I addressed such “description” of Robert during the last IEP.  I stated that “low” is a judgement and/or opinion with very negative consequences.  From 2010 on, the teachers with the blessings of their administrative supervisors kept writing in the IEPs that Robert was “too low” to have his progress assessed by any objective criteria. His progress could be only assessed by subjective opinions of the observing him members of the team.   I argued again, that there were times when Robert couldn’t read, didn’t follow directions, couldn’t write, couldn’t do any of the math operations and yet the teachers from the Private school he had attended in the past, were able to set MEASURABLE goals and check the progress objectively.

The consequences of using “low, very low, and extremely low” are  graver still.  It is not a coincidence that after the 2010 testing was finalized, Robert stopped participating in group lessons and was relegated to a separate desk, where day after day, he had to complete packets of word searches.

Words “low, very low, and extremely low” were used as an excuse not to teach Robert  and as an argument why Robert did not learn at school. (Although he kept learning at home.) Nobody said, that he was “too low” to learn”, but it was a clear implication of everything that has been written in the assessments and in the IEPs.

As I said, during this year IEP, I protested.  I stated, that I didn’t mind using age or grade  equivalency on different subsets of the assessments, as that would at least have given me some ideas how to understand Robert better, allow me to find those aspects of his development that affect negatively the other ones, and those relative strengths that could be used to build on. I couldn’t accept however, the word low repeated 10 times in a nine line long paragraph as the ONLY characterization of Robert’s skill.   Ten times!

There is no doubt that Robert has severe delays in his development, and that his IQ is well below the average. How much below? What  his scores tell us about  the ways he understands others, and about the obstacles others might have to understand him?  I am not afraid of the numbers describing his processing speed, short memory (or working memory), or reasoning.  I am, however, petrified of others using terms: low, extremely low, very low, as a way of not only dismissing Robert but also validating that dismissal in their own minds.

The expressions “low, very low, extremely low” don’t tell anything about Robert. They tell a lot, about the teacher’s and the psychologist’s knowledge of Robert.  And that might indeed be low, very low, or extremely low.

Although I am planning a separate post to address the fact, that for some psychologists, low IQ of a client means that he/she is a sort of stick figure, and not a complex and complicated human being , I feel obligation to state that Robert is indeed a person with  intricate personality that compounds ethics,  logic, and the ability to create his own social structure and  his own kinds of ontology and epistemology.

Learning WITH Robert

December 13, 2013

Last Sunday, Robert, Jan, and I went to the Science Museum for a show Undiscovered worlds: The Search Beyond Our Sun.  Our last trip to the planetarium a few weeks earlier left me with the impression that we, Robert’s parents, often do not acknowledge his maturity to the peril to his development. The previous show was about Big Bird exploring the universe and was geared toward preschoolers. Robert and we, his parents, survived an hour of cute but infantile entertainment. Nonetheless,  I left with very mixed feeling.  That was why, when I was purchasing tickets on line, the only criterion I used for choosing the show was the information about appropriate age.  This show was recommended for grades 5 to 12 and adult.

It was a beautiful show, filled with artistic images of the extrasolar planets.  Somehow in the past, the discoveries of the planets beyond our solar system, didn’t register too strongly in my brain. The news of such discoveries taking place in the last 18 years passed quickly through my brain without allowing me to understand the gravity of this scientific achievement and the serious consequences to well… human kind.

Now, I had 40 minutes to enjoy the mixture of science and artistry conspiring to help the viewers digest the slowly unfolding mystery of the universe.

I was amazed. More importantly, my husband and Robert seemed to be as transfixed as I was.

I did not need to direct Robert’s attention toward the dome, as I had to during Big Bird’s Adventure: One World, One Sky. I did not need to do really anything to keep Robert engaged in the presentation, as it had been the case during our trips to movie theaters.

Of course, the teacher in me, forced me to whisper a few times this new word “exoplanet” to Robert.  But that tells more about my anxiety than about Robert’s needs.

We were all learning TOGETHER by absorbing not only the thrilling existence of extrasolar planets but also about the power of the scientists who kept discovering them, and the mastery of artists able to present them to us in this highly mesmerizing way.

Whose Social Skills?

Long, long ago, in those long gone years of 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009, Robert walked to high school cafeteria with his aide, Mrs. Scott. Before they reached the table, they were surrounded by other students – some from his classroom, some not.  I was told that Robert loved to eat lunch with his peers.  His peers also liked to sit next to him and next to Mrs. Scott.  Her personality attracted others.  The way she treated Robert – her acceptance of his idiosyncrasies, her ways of addressing him, let other students relax and treat him with similar approval.  As far as I know, she did not use that time for any extra training of social skills. From time to time, as necessary, she might have given  Robert some cues of how to behave or what to say, but she did not follow any special curriculum.  She was just herself and let others be their better selves too. I can speculate as to why the other students were attracted to the  table where Mrs. Scott and Robert sat.  They probably felt safer there. They did not feel rejected by many in-groups made by the students on higher levels of pecking order.  Robert, despite his antics, didn’t seem threatening.  To the contrary, he seemed interesting. They did not have to pretend to be somebody else to fit with “cool” guys.  They could relax, accept each other including Robert, and feel good about themselves.

Those years are long gone.  Mrs. Scott retired and moved to Vermont.

The sad years of loneliness followed. Years of Robert being relegated to a separate table, with pages of word searches. In the eyes of his teacher, he didn’t deserve to be taught with the rest of his peers. Well, they didn’t seem to be his peers anymore.

The sad years when nobody wanted to join him for adaptive physical ed lessons and  pass a ball to him or catch a ball he might throw.  Nobody would call his name in the games which were not played.

Of course, during those piercingly lonely years, there were always social skills goals in all of my son’s IEPs.  They were mostly the same and didn’t result in an acquisition of any of them.

Just this Monday, as I emphasized the need for Robert to be less reliable on his 1-1 aide and to foster his independence necessary for adulthood, the classroom teacher opposed that idea arguing that without the aide, Robert would not have anybody to talk to and would be very lonely.

I understood what he meant.  I understood that under the leadership of the last three teachers, no student sees Robert as his or her peer.  Nobody sees a value in talking to him, working with him, playing with him.

He is not one of them. I don’t know what image of Robert has been installed in other students minds, but it is not the one which elicits acceptance.

You cannot make a person fit in the group that passively reject him or her.  Those words from the teacher  made me realize how terribly lonely my son has been in this classroom. I couldn’t bear the pain of that realization.

When, I came home, the pain turned into anger.  The anger transformed into this post.

Robert loneliness might be partially caused by his underdeveloped social skills, his difficulties speaking and communicating. But it is mainly caused by those who year after year write down artificial social skills goals for Robert, but never for themselves.

Same but Different

December 5, 2013

Yesterday, Robert had to rewrite the short paragraph replacing underlined words with their antonyms. On the top of the page, there was a box with ten antonyms to choose from. It seemed that the task was easy enough to be completed by Robert without my support.  Moreover, I made sure that Robert read each underlined word and verbally matched it with its opposite.  When Robert began to copy the first sentence, I went to the kitchen.  A few minutes later, I returned and found out, that Robert stopped copying the text exactly at the moment he should have used the substitution for the first time.

On the back of the page, I wrote all the underlined words in one column, and all their opposites in the other.  Without any difficulties Robert properly matched them.  We returned to the text.  I left Robert alone with his assignment.  Robert exhibited the same behavior as before.  He stopped writing and waited for my return.

It was the same task, and yet for Robert it was a different one. When the words were tightly packed in sentences and surrounded by other words, Robert was confused and not sure what to do.

I gave up on “independence”  and allowed Robert to look at the back of the page to find matching words. He did look twice.

Then he got it. He substituted  the remaining eight words with their opposites without looking at the back of the page.

As he worked on antonyms, Robert  learned that tasks which present themselves differently are, in fact, similar. I understood the opposite, “Tasks that look identical to me, can be quite different for Robert.”

Learning to …Whisper

December 4, 2013

Robert and I were reading another story about a boy, Carlos, and his robot named Mosh.  The story came from the third grade level Spectrum Reading,  I bought this workbook years ago, but introduced it to Robert this summer. I think that Robert likes stories about Mosh, who although full of best intentions, often gets into trouble.  Mosh, not unlike Robert, takes verbal directions literally and extends their use beyond the range of their applicability.  Maybe Robert sees himself in Mosh. Maybe not.

In the story, Carlos whispers a secret to his sister.  I asked Robert to whisper as well.  Robert couldn’t!

Although Robert reads very softly, he is not able to whisper.  It was a surprise.  We practiced with voiceless consonants. Then we moved to voiceless consonants followed by vowels.  The whisper disappeared.

I knew that Robert cannot change intonation of his speech.  We are still working on increasing the volume of his utterances, on extending the length of vowels, on spacing syllables by connecting their pronunciation with movement of hand along imaginary shapes (triangle for three syllable words, square for four).  However, I did not realize that Robert has difficulties whispering.

I  goofed and  puffed  in a rather playful mood.  Robert was amused and tried hard to join me in the whispering. He couldn’t. Only one word came twice in its whispered form, “Got” .

I wonder if Robert’s  lack of ability to whisper is connected to the invalid prosody of his speech.

If it is, then teaching whispering might be an important first step in addressing other aspects of prosody.  If not, then teaching whispering might be just …fun