Reasons for Teaching

This post deals mostly with my experiences from the previous years, not the last one. This last school year, which has just ended today, as my son turns 22 on Sunday, Robert has become familiar with many science, math, and language concepts at school.

Not once in during my son’s education in my town’s public schools, I had to defend his right to be taught. I sensed such resistance to the idea of teaching someone with severe disabilities coming from the people who WERE, after all, OBLIGATED to teach that I felt bewildered, angry, and hurt. I lost a lot of energy insisting on the benefits that learning might have for my son. Trying to convince teachers, specialists, and most of all, administrators that my son DESERVED to learn was a deeply humiliating experience. I had to argue for everything knowing that the resistance really came from the fact, that those teachers, specialists, administrators doubted their ability to teach Robert and thus concluded that Robert couldn’t learn. Consequently, they probably considered any efforts aimed at educating him, to be without merit. Over the years, I kept arguing for math, for reading, for writing, for science, and for social studies. I argued for community exposure, for life skills, and for vocational skills, for social skills, and for physical education.
I argued that there is a value in teaching more math than counting coins. I argued that there is a value in teaching reading comprehension using fiction, as the stories provide a key to understanding others. I argued for science and social studies, so Robert could understand better not only how the things work but also his place in the world, and his connections to other people. I argued of course for introducing him to more work, not just volunteering but earning money, so Robert could understand the connections between his efforts and his earnings.
I lost on most accounts.
By the time Robert turned 21, I was already used to school representatives dislike of even the idea of teaching Robert. Still the argument used by the previous school administrator gave me a pause.
She stated that she visited a program for adults with disabilities, which she envisioned Robert to attend in the future. She decided that Robert really didn’t need to learn anything else, to fit there.
In her opinion, there was no reason to teach Robert if he was destined to go to this program or any other just like it.

Of course I argued again. Except, I don’t remember what I said, as her words which sounded like a life sentence and hurt me deeply.
Today I would say.
1. That the more Robert understands, the better a PROGRAM he attends would become.
2. That the better the other children are taught, the better their future programs and thus their lives become.
3. That with the learning and understanding of the world comes acceptance of it, and better adjustments to the environment.
4. That with the exposure to science concepts and social studies ideas, even on the very basic levels, comes the understanding of causes and effects and of general rules, even if they are not explicitly taught.
5. That learning to be productive can results in satisfaction and can shield one against depression.
I would say that and similar things.
I wouldn’t, however, share what I noticed today as Robert practiced adding two negative numbers or two numbers of opposite signs. As he grasped the idea (I know it was only temporary understanding, and we would have to do it again and again) behind the addition of the whole numbers and successfully added -23 + -(32) and -25 + 14, his face brightened with pride, satisfaction, and deep pleasure.
I don’t think that creating such feeling in the student would be considered a good reason for teaching.
For me, however, it was the best reason for teaching.
I think that for Robert it was also the best reason for learning.

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Rounding Angles

I wanted to add this commentary to my previous post about teaching Robert to write and draw but after thinking it over, I decided to add this short post instead. It took us, his teachers and me, a lot of time to deal with the problem I described below, so it might warrant a separate post.
When Robert was very young (4-6 years old), he was unable to draw any picture with angles. Squares and triangles were “rounded” in such a way that they resembled deformed circles and not the polygons they were. Robert couldn’t stop at the polygons vertices even for a nano second. In smooth, continuous motion he slid to the next side leaving the curve where the vertex should be.
I thought about a few remedies to address that.
One was to ask Robert to raise his hand after completing each single segment as this movement assured that he stopped. Robert used this approach when he was asked, for instance, to draw a house.
Another one was to suggest to Robert to begin with placing all the vertices on paper and then connecting them. When Robert saw those black end-points, he considered them his cues to stop and start anew with a next side of a polygon.
It took long time and many trails for Robert to master that skill.
Moreover, although he doesn’t need to use it to draw triangles or square, he still uses it to “plan” other drawings.
Lately, for instance, he learned to place five dots in a way that helps him to draw a five sided star. Quite an achievement for him. He also places appropriate number of dots on a circle to draw a hexagon, pentagon, or octagon.
When he was learning cursive writing, he encountered most difficulties while writing lowercase “s” as it required drawing slant segment (drawing aslant line is problem in itself) and then turning it into a curve at the top of the letter. Again, Robert tended to “round” that corner. He still does this, if he is not reminded not to do so.

On Writing and Drawing

February 23, 2014

I noticed that Robert’s most important advantage of being taught many, so-called, academic skills, was that he was simultaneously learning something else, something more basic, and thus much more difficult to teach.
For instance, when I was teaching Robert to add numbers with regrouping the most important benefit was that he was exercising and improving (?) his working memory.
When I was teaching Robert the meaning of words: “south, north”, it was to help him learn such basic words like “up” and “down”.. While teaching Robert to print and, later, to write in cursive I was aware that he was simultaneously appropriating concepts related to the basic shapes and directions. While “typical” learners might use those very basic skills to learn more advanced concepts, for my son, the opposite was true. It is a process of learning/teaching a rebours. Most of the typically developing youngster use what they know and/or what they see in the picture to draw a similar one. Robert is copying pictures as a way to SEE them, to notice important characteristics.

This morning, Robert wrote a check to pay for his ski lesson. He printed all the letters including those in his signature. In the evening, he practiced writing capital letters in a simplified cursive as they were presented in Handwriting without Tears. Later, he wrote summary of his winter vacation activities using cursive. Every time he had to use a capital letter, he consulted with the page, he had just finished. It seemed such a great achievement and yet…..
Copying simple drawing is still a huge problem for Robert. The proportions and the angles are very challenging for him. Not once, I asked myself, “How it can be that Robert can write relatively well but is unable to complete a simple drawing even when he has a model in front of him?” He might have a sequence of steps needed to complete the picture, but the end result is a far cry from the “original” drawing.
To teach Robert to print letters, his private school and I used Sensible Pencil program. It seemed to match exactly Robert’s needs: his difficulties with slant segments, difficulties stopping at the corners resulting in curves instead of verticies, and a few other issues. A couple of years later, he completed two volumes of Write from the Start by Ion Teodorescu and Lois M. Addy. Drawing curvy lines, sharply connected segments inside and outside of other shapes seemed to be a good way to address some of the problems Robert had with copying drawing and at the same time preparing him for cursive writing. I suspect that there were many additional benefits of that skill like improving eye-hand coordination, learning to plan and execute movements…
Except, I did not plan on teaching Robert cursive at all. It seemed to be unnecessary skill. He could print letters and he could type them too. So what would be the point of cursive? Moreover, I simply didn’t like American cursive. It was so different from printed letters. No wonder the whole year of practice was devoted to cursive at schools. I was never taught to print. I learned cursive from the start. Except it was a very simple one. Just like the one I found in Handwriting without Tears
For the reason I don’t understand, at some point, Robert’s writing became very messy. His printed letters were written too fast, with too light a pressure placed on the pencil. They were both messy and hardly visible. Sizes and shapes fluctuated in almost every word. Robert simply didn’t pay attention and didn’t care.
Instead of reteaching Robert the same skill, I decided to teach him cursive. In a simple, straight manner. No slant writing!
As Robert was slowly learning simplified cursive, his printing also got better.
But not his drawing.
In the past, Robert used many books for young kids to learn to draw animals by following three to six steps. I don’t think however, he internalized those steps. Besides, the goal was not to learn (YET) to draw a specific animal, but to learn to copy the lines, reproduce angles, got an idea about proportion. For the last couple weeks Robert has been drawing people with the help of I Can Draw People by Ray Gibson and Amanda Barlow. Robert draws one part of the picture a day (one person or one object), after he finishes the whole picture, he colors it, shows it to his dad and then they proudly attaches it to the refrigerator. So far, he completed three pictures – a soccer game scene, ocean diving scene, and skiing scene. And he is still drawing.
Well, copying.

Coloring with IPAD

Almost two weeks ago, I left on the table two pages from a long gone workbook. On each page, there were six or seven drawings of tropical animals.
Robert saw the pages and wanted to learn, whatever there was to learn from them. Except, I didn’t know what I could teach using these pictures. So I kept putting them away hoping to match them later with other materials addressing life in the tropical forest.
But for Robert, if the worksheets are out of the folder, then they have to be used in learning. To my surprise, he tolerated not completing them (there was really nothing to complete, as they were just drawings) for a few days, but last Saturday afternoon, he stood his ground. As I was busy preparing dinner, he followed me with those pages demanding in half-speech, half gestures that I teach him something from those pages. It was really annoying.
Luckily, Robert had an IPAD, which we used sparingly in the past to find information about new concepts/words/things.
In the previous months, with my help, Robert, used the search button to find out how teal, coral, or magenta looked like, what was Saint Andreas fault, and a few other things.
This Saturday, I decided to use IPAD to “complete” the worksheets. I asked Robert to find the first animal, Jaguar, on his IPAD and color it accordingly to the image on the screen. I assisted Robert while he was searching, and I returned to the kitchen while he was coloring. Twice or three times. Then I noticed that Robert didn’t need my help anymore. He kept typing, searching, and coloring until 14 out of 15 animals wore proper colors on their bodies.
The exception was the poisonous dart frog. The images Robert found on his IPAD had many different colors. Since the IPAD couldn’t give him proper directions, Robert decided to use his common sense. It was a frog so it had to be green. And it was.

Because I didn’t have too much time, I provided minimum of instruction, but Robert responded with maximum independence. That is a result which shouldn’t be ignored.

Tea Almost Together

A few weeks ago, I attended workshop on issues related to executive function. It was a nice review of the topic I was already familiar with. What was new for me and quite interesting was what the presenter said almost on the margin of the main topic. She remember her former Quaker School which held weekly hour of silence. The oldest children came to the hall first and stayed for the full hour. The youngest came last and remained for only a few minutes.
If this digression caught my attention it was because,that is precisely what Robert needs. Staying a few minutes silently, without moving, without watching TV, without asking for one of the same thing over and over. A few minutes to just look around, contemplate (sort of), and try to be at peace with himself.
Of course I knew that even five minutes of sitting and doing nothing would be too much. Although in the past, I frequently gave Robert a choice, “Robert do you want to study or do nothing?” and he kept answering, “Do nothing.”, he really didn’t mean that. Neither did I. I wanted Robert to leave me alone for a few minutes and Robert wanted to just watch Netflix or DVD.
“Do nothing”,meant that I wouldn’t have to do anything with Robert.
That was by the way one of the most useful phrases I stole from Winnie the Pooh.
So I tried to keep Robert seated for a minute, maybe two. Very hard. For him and for me. I gave up. For now.
Yesterday, after we finished shoveling the snow, I asked Robert if he wanted hot tea. Without really thinking, he said, “Yes.”
So, I made hot tea for the three of us, took it to living room, to drink it together. Not the dinner, where everybody is kept at the table by the abundance of food, but the drink Robert doesn’t even like too much. The drink you sip between periods of light conversation,
or silence. It had to be very awkward for Robert. He ran away a few times, only to be called back. He had many excuses to get up: bathroom, tissue, taking a teaspoon back to the kitchen sink. But for the most of the fifteen minutes he was with us and he drank all his hot tea.

First Victory. Shoveling the Snow

This winter offered us, Robert’s parents, many opportunity to clear our driveway from snow.  We had all kinds of snow from light, fluffy, but more than a foot high to thin, soaked with rain, and very heavy.  Our driveway, placed between two retaining walls, is now surrounded by tall mounds of shoveled snow.  In previous years, from time to time, we asked Robert to help.  He was not thrilled.  With a lot of nagging, he moved a shovel a few times in varied directions and left.  We didn’t mind.  After all, with Robert outside, the shoveling took more energy and more time.

This year, however, Jan and I, made it our goal to teach Robert how to help his aging parents.  But to do so, we had to plan well. The expectation should be clear. Jan and I had to divide our responsibilities. Every time we wanted Robert to help, I went outside first to prepare the work station for him. I made a path parallel to the retaining wall, two – three feet away from it.   Jan had more difficult job to do.  He had to convince Robert to dress warmly and help us. That took a lot of persuasions, enticing, and even bribing. Nonetheless, Jan managed and Robert was ready to help.

But to the point.

The first time, we asked Robert to push the snow toward the side of the driveway only ten times.   He was not happy , but he did it.  Then he went home.  After 15 minutes, Jan brought him back and asked Robert to do the same thing again.  Robert did that as I counted to ten. Then, left in a hurry. Probably, he  didn’t want to give us a chance to ask him again.

It had to be said, that although we paid some attention to Robert when he was working, we didn’t provide constant support. Jan was removing frozen snow from the street end of the driveway, I worked on the other side. We all had our own jobs to do.  I think, that was an important part, as it helped Robert on his path to independence later on.

The second time, Jan persuaded Robert to come and help just as I finished the “work station” digging again the path two feet away from one side of the driveway. This time, we asked Robert to push the snow all the way from the home to the street. We didn’t have to count, nonetheless the goal was clear.  Robert stopped a few times, but encouraged to go on, he finished that job.

The third time, he not only finished his assignment (the same as before) but “assisted” his father” in cleaning the car.  It was rather chaotic endeavor, and I did not think much about it, until today…

This morning, we had around 6 inches of snow.  It wasn’t heavy, and it wasn’t fluffy.  Just right for shoveling. I made a path, yet again.  Robert and Jan came sooner than I expected.  Jan gave him a broom and Robert independently and diligently swept all the snow from the car.  without any help from his father who as always went to deal with the icy snow at the street side.  After Robert finished with the car, he removed all the snow between the path I had just finished making and the mounds of snow on one side of the driveway.  This time he was throwing the snow high, on top of the mounds.  When he was done, we encouraged him to go home and rest, but he didn’t want to.  As long as we, his parents, were working, he had to be with us.  He scrubbed the ice off the car, removed the remaining snow on one side of the car, and looked around to find what else had to be done.

Like the captain of the ship, Robert had to be the last to leave his post.  Only when Jan and I entered home, Robert assembled all the shovels in a right way (Not like we did it, which was obviously wrong.), closed the garage door, and came home.

Put them in Order

As long as I have been working with Robert using haphazardly chosen workbooks, we kept encountering tasks that required putting words in alphabetical orders.  At first, they were easy.  Three words with different first letters. It became exponentially more difficult when the problems required learner to look at the first, second and the third letter in the word. When that happened, I helped Robert as much as it was needed to complete the task. I wrote the alphabet on top of the page.  I underlined the first letters in each word. If the first letters were the same, I circled the second ones.  If those were identical, I placed  lines over the third letters in the words…

Although I  tried to expose him to that skill so he could form general idea, I did not expect Robert to learn it.

I felt, the skill was too complex, and would require detailed programing. Besides,  with the arrivals of IPADs dictionaries,  placing words or sets of letters in an alphabetical order seemed obsolete.

But, we still have libraries  where the books are assigned positions on the shelves based on their  specific codes.  To find a book or to return the book to its proper place, one has to have both dictionary skills and number skills.

Robert and I spent considerable amount of time comparing numbers.   We didn’t spent much time on alphabetical order.  That is until now…

In the Writing Extension workbook, a part of the Reasoning and Writing, Part C curriculum, I found many pages devoted to just this skill.  They start with a list of words with different first letters and slowly progress to more complex lists.  Step by step. There are lists of words with the same first letters, but different second letters.  There are words that start with one out of two letters, but their second letters are different.

Sadly, this step by step approach was still not sufficient for Robert. However,  completing the series of lists, let me realize which step is the most difficult for him to take and what additional practice is required for Robert to master the skill.

The power of a good curriculum is not only that it results in student’s independence, but that it also makes better and more independent teachers. Even if that is a DIRECT INSTRUCTION PROGRAM.

A few day after writing this post, Robert and I found a new opportunity ( or rather a need.)to use alphabetical skills.
We were using self check register at the Stop and Shop Supermarket. Robert smoothly passed all the items throught the machine turning their bar codes towards the reader and then stopped. An eggplant did not have a bar code. It didn’t even have pin. And thus Robert was presented with a task of finding eggplant on a proper screen. To find a proper screen, Robert had to decide which group of letters placed o the different screen buttons included “e”. His pointer was moving sideways in then proximity of the button with “c- g” on it. Still Robert was a little hesitant in touching it, as if he wasn’t sure if what he had learned at home reallycluld be applied in this real life situation. Finally, he went for it, and soon found a picture of an egplant on the screen.