Saturday, February 27, 2010

Spirit of the Learner

I'm not about breaking the spirit of a child. I'd rather guide that spirit into a positive direction.

My first year of teaching taught me that. I was a high school art teacher out of my element in a country school. I had a kid who constantly talked while I was teaching and sometimes what he was saying was in opposition to what I was saying. He was quite intelligent but he knew he was wrong. I soon figured out he was about how he looked in front of his classmates. Some of the students thought he was weird so in his insecurity he was reaching out to be a part of them by being in conflict with me and whoever was teaching in his other classes.

At conference time, before his mom arrived, one of the assistant principals made is a point to tell me how weird this kid was and that his sister wanted the same attention so she was weird, too.

When the mom came, she told me that she knew her son was defiant and that he needed firmness, however, she also explained that he was classic learning disabled due to dyslexia. He'd spent his early years in school being convinced he was stupid and even after diagnosis, some of his teachers thought it was all a joke and just a way to get by without doing some of his school work. Mom explained that if he had these few accommodations made for his learning style he could do the work. The assistant principal rolled her eyes, but it all made sense to me.

This kid could sculpt like he was born with handfuls of clay. When we went over art history on Fridays he would hold and model a piece of clay rather than take notes. When it was time for a test on what he'd learned, he'd take a few minutes of his lunch period to come in and take the test orally and ace it! He started feeling comfortable about sharing with me. He kept a notebook of ideas and even wrote some poetry. His handwriting was atrocious, however, each paragraph represented a half an hour of laboring to put his words on paper. That was back in the late 1970's before we had PCs.Sometimes I just think of how awesome he'd have been with a computer back then!

Still, he was not a perfect angel in class but that class became more of a little family of advanced students and he was part of the family rather than just that weird loud-mouth kid. He was able to help his classmates with molding methods when we came to that part of the sculpture lessons and he had great ideas for the art club. He was very knowledgeable and helpful but still himself.

I am thankful for that experience because with all I'd read about dyslexia, I had a student in my first year who gave me experience in working with a child with the learning difference. Throughout my teaching career, learning differences have been my interest and a gift for understanding.

On more than one occasion I have been in a teacher's class where the differences are considered defiance and something to be fought and won over. For instance, I shared a room with another teacher. My kids were visually impaired with multiple disabilities due to premature birth and hers were "vanilla blind."

One of her babies was a very gifted three-year-old. At nap time, this child could not stay on the mat and he never took a nap during the first few months after his arrival to the class. He was moved to the other side of the toy shelves so that his wiggling would not disturbed the other children at nap time. Of course that meant that he spent nap time exploring the toys.  He wiggled all over the place! That was just one trait of a hyperactivity disorder.

I saw this, well meaning teacher try to tame this child by explaining to him that he must just be still when it was time to be still because she said he must. She gave him a task of stringing beads with a timer. In order to increase his attention span he was forced under threat of punishment with sitting and stringing an assigned number of beads in fifteen minutes. I had to ask if this method was working to any degree. As it turned out she was keeping data and he had actually strung five more beads the day before which was proof that he could do it if her chose. That day he was being punished for not increasing the number of beads he was assigned. I think I'd sarcastically made the statement that he was obviously enjoying the punishment.

The teacher's thoughts were that in order to learn, he was going to have to learn to sit still and string beads for hours on end.  She said his mother should really consider putting him on some type of drugs that would calm him down and keep him out of trouble when he left her class and went to regular kindergarten, first grade and so on and that those teachers were not going to be able to suffer his wiggling even though he was blind.

I was getting frustrated for the child for getting in trouble at nap time so I talked to him about it and told him he had to stay in one area and stay quiet as possible even though he didn't feel like going to sleep. It dawned on me that if I have something to look at with my eyes at nap time I'm going to look. He was searching the toy shelves with his little fingers which were his eyes. Who could blame him? The teacher had taken his nap mat saying that i he couldn't be still then he didn't deserve a mat so actually he was laying on the floor next to the toy shelf and expected to go fast asleep. I took a bed spread that I kept on my side of the room for when my kids got too cold under the air conditioner that blew directly on to our side of the room. I wrapped that little wiggle worm like a he was a caterpillar in a cocoon, except his little face stuck out. In five minutes he was snoring like a grandfather.

The summer between his kindergarten and first grade year, he was assigned to my class. He was to complete some chapters in the Sally Mangold reader for blind children. Inside the cover of this book was the name of a former student who was now an adult possibly with children of his own. The teacher who had him for braille in kindergarten wanted him to sit and read and braille for hours on end and since he couldn't do it, he was with me for summer school. Well, Sally Mangold is a fine method for teaching braille, however, some of the references are antiquated like "a plug for a tub" and a "door-to-door salesman." Expect to see more old school references when a former student who is now grown was assigned the same edition.

At any rate, just as with sighted children, a NOT lazy teacher is going to have different resources for her/his kids based on how the child learns. Dr. Wormsley even says that it's not a text to be used in isolation just as sighted children have supplemental reading materials so should the blind, unless your child has a "Lazy A" teacher. I had a wonderful short course/workshop under Dr. Wormsley when she was invited here. What she was saying made so much sense although I know "Lazy A" who needed to be there would have blown it off because that's the nature of being lazy. Anything different means work.

My thing with this child was that asking him to focus and pay attention the way the teaher wanted was like having a child with one leg and punishing him for not behaving like he has two. It was crazy making, and I could see him giving up. So I took the same signs and contractions he needed to learn that were in those same chapters he was to complete and made shorter, humorous and more up-to-date stories based on his interests. I didn't have him sit behind the braille writer all day. Depending on the story and the new words we did activities with them. For example, sine it was summer we had each child nring fruit and we made fruit smoothies to go with the story. We kept swimming clothes and I had a couple of wading pools so we he and the other children did their best, every week on the last day, right before getting on the bus we had a splash time. That was incentive for him to get as much done as he could. I never had him just sit for 30 minutes but I had enough activities for him to have him work for 15 minutes at a time.

Although he did not complete the summer he learned more signs than he was supposed to know to enter first grade and we did it using Sally Mangold as a guide and NOT as a bible. That kid actually hated Pam and Sam, two recurring characters in the Sally Mangold series. I was getting a bit weary of them too for watching him suffer through another of their adventures.Trying to force him to learn the way that teacher wanted--according to her "style" was not working. Taking his style of learning and working with it did work.
When you have children in a special setting, there is no excuse for not tea hing the way they learn. The classes are smaller for that reason. Any other way is just being a "Lazy A" teacher. I was told "Oh nobody has time for that!" No she just doesn't want to take the time. It's not about finishing a book, it's about learning the concept through any means necessary and not forcing the child to make your lazy life easier.

That summer, when we had visitor on campus, the lead teacher would bring them to my room where there was a kindergarten braille reader doing awesome things. He was writing paragraphs on second grade level! Of course his regular school year teacher was upset with me and rather than come to me she reported to the head of the special education summer program that I had not taught straight from the book she liked. It didn't matter. The child had a summer of successful learning and I sent her a prayer. Didn't stop her from being upset with me but there is no concern in my eye!

Personally, I find it thrilling to figure out the little puzzles my kids are and how they learn. Some people like to figure out cross word puzzles. I like to figure out specifics of learning differences. That is SO exciting to me! What's even better is when I step into the classroom of a teacher and we work together to figure out what works for a child! YAY! Yeah, that works for me. I love stepping into the rooms of excited teachers!

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