Thursday, May 28, 2009

Language learning

I spend a lot of time watching my grandkids - especially the youngest ones. They have me totally convinced that the human brain is truly amazing - a sponge for new learning, perhaps most dramatically when it comes to language.

The youngest is almost two now, and her vocabulary is expanding by leaps and bounds. She eagerly repeats anything she hears, and plays around with new words and concepts as if they were toys from Wal-Mart. Just the other day, I teased her with "procrastinate" as she tried to avoid bedtime, and then "precocious" as she teased me back by repeating my first word over and over again. I am quite sure the next step will be for her to surprise us by using one or the other of these words in the right context, totally unprompted!

And her older sister, who resisted with all her might my grandma/teacher efforts to learn letters and numbers until just a few months ago, now carries paper and pencil with her around the house asking any available adult how to spell the names of everyone she knows, every word she hears, etc. She just turned five and notices words and letters everywhere she goes.

The brain is obviously programmed from very early on to figure out language patterns and make sense of both the spoken and written language (or languages) to which they are exposed. Learning takes place with or without structured practice, but naturally develops more rapidly in situations where the child has more exposure and encouragement.

So what if the child is unable to speak? Or unable to hold a writing tool? Unable to attend to anything for more than a second or two at time?
Unfortunately, we have made some very poor assumptions about this for far too long and many kids have been declared "cognitively disabled" because of our misunderstanding.

Young kids with autism, Down syndrome, or other conditions might be limited in many ways, but their brains are functioning in much the same way - listening, watching, and constantly learning. Their brains look for patterns in what they see and what they hear, and their brains are programmed to figure out the language(s) that surround them -- just like their peers who can walk, talk, use writing tools and ask questions.

The lesson I have learned is that young children with disabilities (according to our current labeling system - maybe someday we'll drop the labels entirely) deserve to be exposed to an environment rich in written and spoken language. If they are unable to ask questions, the adults in their lives must provide even more in the way of explanation and stimulation to encourage the development of their brains in those critical early years. How tragic to think that for far too long we thought we were doing what was best for them by placing kids like this in institutions or special schools.

I remember my personal "training" in such an institution, where I was instructed to speak to my students in very simple language, using only basic vocabulary and always using the same short words or phrases - so as not to confuse them, maybe? Many of the parents received the same sort of training. We tried to follow the rules, but fortunately for the kids involved, most of them lived in families where books were plentiful and dinnertime conversation was lively and stimulating. As for me, their teacher, I simply could not play the game that way. I had to be myself, had to interact with all of my students as if they understood every word I was speaking. (Whew - lucky for all of us, as they eventually were able to show me they understood all too well!)

Thanks to all for being so patient and forgiving. My hope is that others might learn from my experience - in this area and so many others.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Conference presentation

Just a week ago, I had the privilege of presenting a breakout session at the annual conference of our state autism society. For several years, I had submitted a proposal and been rejected - till last year, when I was given the chance to present the basics of FC (what it is, who might benefit, history and controversy). This year, things were even better, because the conference committee actually encouraged me to include at least one speaker who uses FC to communicate.

As it turned out, I had not one, but three, young men willing to participate. Thanks to the dedication and effort of their families and various support staff, all three were able to be present and take an active part in the discussion. It was wonderful!

I again focused on the basics, but had proposed that we move beyond the controversy to talk about the many success stories that FC has generated. My three very special friends made my work a piece of cake!

R.B. has now given several presentations of this sort, and it's truly amazing that he is able to put on his suit and tie, attend a conference, and remain seated throughout the entire time of our 75 minute breakout session. He attended at least one other presentation as well.

D.M. is a little newer at this, and had more trouble remaining seated, but his message is a powerful one that grabbed everyone's attention. He too was able to attend other sessions during the conference.

Q.P. is still in high school, and newer yet at public speaking. He needed to leave the room a few times, but remained connected to the ongoing conversation and was willing and able to add to the discussion whenever he had something to say.
Each of these guys uses FC a little differently, and their support teams are at differing stages of proficiency. All of us agree that the acceptance we are feeling right now is extremely exciting.

Sadly, the attendance at our session was very light. For a conference that attracts close to 1000 attendees, we had hoped to have a larger crowd. But the 20 (or so) who were there appeared to be sincerely interested and truly impressed.

It's a foot in the door. Now we wait to see what happens next.

Monday, May 11, 2009

What's the big deal about IQ anyhow?

Somewhere a long time ago, we went terribly wrong when we thought we had found a way to quantify intelligence and assign number scores to everyone. So much time and effort have gone into developing tests that give an objective figure that is supposed to tell us what a person's ability to learn might be. And then we carried it further yet by putting labels with the numbers: terms like "gifted," "moron," "imbecile," "trainable," even "normal" should never have been allowed into popular usage. So much damage has been done! Can we possibly bring about a serious paradigm shift and look at all people as people, with varying learning styles and learning curves, varying (and valuable!) strengths and interests? Can we possibly move on with a new way of looking at things?

Being told as a child that one is "gifted" can cause just as much life-long trauma as hearing the term "retarded" being tossed around in one's presence. Could we possibly ban all such labels forever?

In my first year as a teacher, I was incredibly naive but oh so idealistic and full of enthusiasm. The kids in that first class were also my first real teachers when it came to learning about "special" education. There were eight of them, roughly between the ages of six and 12, all carrying the label of "educable mentally retarded" or EMR. For our first month together, we were located in a Sunday School room in the basement of a church one block away from the school in which we were officially enrolled. They must have been working on a more suitable arrangement, or maybe some parent complained, because we were soon moved to a room within the regular public school.

I was thrilled to have a job, and loved the kids. Life was good. Looking back, however, some things were missing. I had no materials, no supervisor (other than the building principal who knew nothing about Special Education), no budget, no integration, and absolutely no time to myself. From the moment we arrived in the morning till I sent the kids home at the end of the day, we were in this new experience together. I was invited to visit the storage closet nearby where a variety of unused books, workbooks and other educational materials were available for my use. It was great - I have always loved garage sales, and this one was all school-related. What more could I ask for?! (Well, maybe a bathroom break and some quiet lunch time, for starters.)

It was the early years of having kids with mild handicapping conditions in the public schools and we all had a lot to learn. The law requiring public schools to welcome "ALL" students into their buildings was still a long way off.

And that is how I got my start at speaking up and advocating for kids. It was only a whisper in that first year, but somehow I boldly told more than one set of parents that I really didn't think their child was "retarded." They might have a problem with attention, or maybe their speech was very hard to understand. Maybe it was a different learning style (I admit I knew nothing about this at this time in my life), or behavior issues were interfering with learning. But I truly believed all of these kids were capable of learning and deserved a more inclusive and appropriate academic education than I was providing in my very limited classroom. If anyone in the school district had been paying attention to what I was doing, I realize now that I might have been without a job after just one year!

Fast forward about 25 years: In the meantime I had taught in a residential facility, a school specifically for those with the most severe disabilities (i.e, the lowest IQ scores), and now find myself back in a regular school trying to make inclusive education a reality for kids who presented many more challenges than that original group did. I have learned so much from the kids, but am still "stuck" in my thinking to the point that I am providing mostly functional life skills training to the kids in my current classroom.

Again, they range in age from about six to twelve, but now the label has changed. These kids are considered to be "moderately to severely cognitively disabled" - comparable to our old label of "trainable mentally retarded." Our classroom is right in the middle of the elementary school, and everyone is supposed to be working to "mainstream" the kids as much as possible.

I was moved out into the mainstream because I had become somewhat of a thorn in the side of the administrators at the special school. I was concerned that too many kids were being isolated from their more typical peers and we weren't following the intent of the law that said all kids should be educated together. My voice was getting a little louder - although I definitely tended to prefer putting my thoughts into writing over speaking them out loud - and essentially I was given the chance to put my money where my mouth had been. No one knew if this would work, and there was lots of opposition from parents, teachers, administrators - even local newspapers. We had never done things this way. The kids would be teased. Teachers in regular classes weren't prepared for this. On and on and on -- barriers everywhere.

I was told to design a program that would allow these kids to work on their life skills in the setting of regular school - how to use a public restroom, move safely through the halls, eat lunch in a cafeteria, play outside during recess, etc. What I learned very quickly (again the kids were my teachers) was that these kids were way ahead of me. If they were going to be in this setting, they wanted to do what the other kids were doing - they wanted books, notebooks, and all the other educational trappings they saw around them. And they wanted/needed academics, not life skills.

This was so new to me. I spent my nights at home combing through unfamiliar teachers' manuals trying to put together lessons that would meet their needs; I used all the interpersonal skills I would muster in the teachers' lounge to get the regular educators to consider including my students in their classrooms.

Then there was the computer that was included as part of our classroom furniture. It was frustratingly new to me, and didn't appeal to all the kids, but for some it had almost a magnetic effect. They were highly motivated to explore all the possibilities (vastly more limited than today's options, as you might imagine) and always unafraid to push more buttons or insert a different disk to see what it might offer. At first I was terrified that we would "break" it and cause major expenses, but as time went on and I found myself busy with other things happening in the room, I gradually let go and turned it over to those enterprising young students who seemed to know much more about this new technology than I did.

To be continued --- I still had so much to learn!