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Archive for April, 2012

Summer Un-School

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I’ve decided to call it Backyard Ecology. This spring and summer the kids and I will study the living things of our backyard and some of how the ecosystem around us functions. I’ve been learning lately about project based learning where kids are in charge of their own learning according to their interests. My three little ones are definitely interested in being outside and their big brother spends a fair amount of time back there with them. So far we’ve found, photographed and identified a couple of red admiral butterflies. (PS- I know this is a bad picture but its really hard to capture a good photo of a butterfly with a phone, two giggly kids and a dog nearby!) We found out that they like to eat fermented fruit and bird droppings (that is hilarious) most of all, but if rotten fruit and poop aren’t readily available, they’ll settle for nectar.

While we haven’t discussed the importance of fire to nature, we did discuss its importance to roasting marshmallows. We learned a fire needs three things (simplistically): air, heat and fuel. We have air all around us, so we found some sticks and leaves, and a lighter to fulfill the requirements.

I’ll try to post what we learn, but they are already moving so fast with their interests its hard to keep up! After fire-making this weekend, we had a snack and a recess adventure in the woods. Then Natalie informed me it was time to go “home.”

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20120423-144833.jpgThis list is not all inclusive. In fact, it probably doesn’t even cover what I’ve learned from kids with Autism this school year! I have some very special students who excite me, challenge me, and make me think on a daily basis. In fact, I nearly have to stand on my head while juggling, jumping robe and spinning hula hoops to even have a chance of staying one step ahead. I’m by no means an expert on kids with Autism, but I think, in some ways, my personality lends itself well to some of these kids. There are lots of things that I’ve learned the hard way, and no two kids with autism are the same, but, here are some things that I’ve learned about life from those who are challenged to communicate, socialize and operate in a neuro-typical world.

Be flexible – I had a student with Autism that did not want to go to his math class. I did a lot of groundwork with him to convince him to go, but he didn’t like it, so he spent the whole hour singing out loud, making comments to the teacher and generally being disruptive. I was happy that I got him to come into the room, but the frustrated teacher was upset that he didn’t do any math work. Well, I said to her, did you want him to come to math or did you want him to do math? Those are two completely different things. She came around to my way of thinking and he is now working on his math independently in my room. He’s doing math – and isn’t that the important thing?

Be forthright– you need to say what you mean and mean what you say. Don’t beat around the bush (yes, I know I just used figurative language to describe using direct speech) – if you do, you will get outcomes that you can never anticipate. One student was a good example of this. She was dumping puzzle pieces on the floor quite regularly and just playing in the mess. Clean up got to be a challenging time and finally, I told her, “Don’t ever let me see you make that kind of mess ever again.” Later that week, she did it again. I was so frustrated! I asked her why she would do that when I told her not to. She said, “You didn’t see me do it. I dumped these all out when you were gone.” Sigh.

Tell your feelings– We teach kids with Autism about their feelings and the words to use to express feelings so that we can understand what is going on in their mind. But then we, adults mostly, use indirect language and expressions to show our feelings. Such as, after a disagreement with your spouse, slamming kitchen drawers or speaking with a sarcastic tone. It works a lot better to tell your feelings like we teach our kids with Autism to do. One of my students was refusing to try something that he didn’t want to do. I tried everything to convince him to just try except standing on my head! Finally, I was honest about my feelings. I said, “I’m frustrated because I’ve done a whole list of things to help you be more comfortable. I’ve given up my time to help you through the problems on your mind. I’m asking you to trust me and try this one time. It makes me really sad and frustrated that you won’t try just once.” He looked at me, eyes wide, and wrote “I’m sorry.” He still has trouble doing something new, but with enough support he is at least willing to try.

Never assume– never assume that you know someone’s motives. I recently had a student with Autism tell me that he likes comfortable chairs. I started telling him that we could probably arrange for comfortable chairs in his classes when he cut in with a story about how his Health teacher didn’t like him. I wasn’t sure of the connection to comfy chairs but allowed him to continue. He relayed that he normally gets to her class early and sits in her big, black comfy chair. One day, as she asked him to vacate the seat, she remarked that that chair was only for teachers. He countered with the fact that teaching is not that hard and that he could probably do her job. She got upset with him, informing him that it was not appropriate to say that. As he left her comfy chair, he continued to comment that being a Phy Ed teacher was not that hard, etc, and that he could easily do that. In fact, he went on, he would like to do that job for now to make money while he went to school to get a real job. I know you’re all sitting there now, mouths agape, beginning to wonder what is wrong with kids today and their lack of respect. But, recall kids with autism generally call it like they see it. When one of my students is responsible for a social snafu such as this, I generally check in with to ensure they understand the consequence, whether it’s a natural social consequence or a punishment. In this case, I asked the student, why do you think your teacher was mad? He responded, ” Well, I guess she was probably worried that I was going to steal her job.” Yeah. Thats it…

Ignore it– There are lots of things that my students do that are extremely frustrating, especially when they are in crisis. I have had to learn to ignore that – like a student who can’t take “no” for an answer when he wants something. Then he will sit in my room talking and laughing loudly, not responding to requests or questions. I’ve learned to ignore it. Now that behavior has no bargaining power. He can talk and laugh out loud if he would like to but he won’t get any mileage out of it.

Forget it– Like the example above, when he is ready to talk, it does me no good to talk about the behavior he displayed – he either does not remember it or prefers not to discuss it. When he is ready to talk, we move on and talk. His talking and laughing out loud serves him some purpose that I don’t yet understand, but he is learning that there are other, more appropriate ways to get attention from me.

When I begin to reflect on these lessons that I have learned that help me more successful with students with Autism, I have realized that these lessons apply to other areas of life. Be flexible and never assume. Tell your feelings and be forthright. When you need to, ignore it and forget it!

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