Sunday, February 3, 2013

Being Present and Being Real

"The secrets of good teaching are the same as the secrets of good living:
  seeing oneself without blinking,
  offering hospitality to the alien other
  having compassion for all of the suffering,
  speaking the truth to power.
  Being present and being real.
  These secrets are hidden in plain sight."    
                                         Mary Rose O'Reilley

    These words I received at a conference years ago and ever since they have been posted somewhere near my desk. It is the single best advice I have ever received regarding teaching. My students, especially in their most vulnerable moments, are some of my greatest teachers in this area. When we listen we learn, and  my students time and time again share insights rivaling the best methods course money can buy. They say, "This is hard." "I don't understand why we have to learn this." I liked this book but it is really strange!" "I feel like I have to be the dumbest kid in the school."  " I woke up this morning dreading seeing you for math tutoring."  "Is it TIME for lunch?"  I have learned that my best teaching moments come when I am honest as well. Many times I have seen a student sigh with relief when I can say, "That is hard for me too."   Then when they "get it" and they always do eventually,  I love it when they share the good news. I have learned that being present and being real means that I support them when they are struggling and celebrate with them when the proverbial light bulb comes on.

 I work with a wonderful teacher who told me early one morning while we were both gathering materials for the day., "I try to remember that my students are little human beings." So true. She reminds her students daily that no matter how they learn and no matter what their family is like, they are special and loved.   Too often this message gets lost in the daily duties, the rigorous curriculum, and the emphasis on accountability. Frequently we focus on product, not process, and lose the chance to be present and real. This same teacher readily admits to her students when she finds things difficult and anxiety producing.

Focus on Autism

In this entry I wanted to share some resources for parents and teachers who have the honor of living with or working with students who are on the autism spectrum. Although I will use some generalizations I am mindful of the fact that each person with autism is unique and amazing. There may be some characteristics common to many individuals with autism but as one of my colleagues says, "Once you have met one child with autism, you have met ONE child with autism."

If you have a student or a child with autism, here are some good resources for learning more. My favorites are the movies or books that tell stories from the perspective of someone with autism.


 Temple Grandin is amazing. She is an adult with autism who can tell you exactly how her brain works and what has been helpful to her. She has written several  books and there is a an HBO movie based on her life called "Temple Grandin." I had the chance to hear her speak once and I have never forgotten her courage and her honesty. It was so helpful to my understanding of how a person with autism might experience the world. I will never forget how she said that one of the strongest, most prevalent feelings she believes a lot of people with autism has is anxiety. Understanding this characteristic has helped me tremendously. When one of my students is upset or displaying challenging behavior I seek to understand, to listen to what could be causing anxiety and then address that. Read any of her books and you will receive valuable insights.

TED talks feature a talk by Temple Grandin and also one by Faith Jegede titled, "What I've Learned from my Autistic Brothers."  Excellent insights for anyone who wants to learn more about the gifts of autism.

 I recently read a book by Kathryn Erskine called "Mockingbird." It is so good although in the beginning it is  a rather sad story.  The narrator in the story is a young woman with autism and her perspectives on being taught social skills and navigating the world of relationships is insightful and helpful.

Michelle Garcia Winner has written a lot of books and produced resources on the subject of social thinking. Her materials contain helpful strategies and tools for working with kids who may have trouble taking the perspective of others. When I heard Michelle speak once, it became clear to me why my students often have trouble with reading comprehension. It is because so much of understanding literature is about taking perspective and understanding author's intent. So, she has tools and activities that are great for helping kids with this. She also has good insights into how people with autism understand the hidden rules of relationships. Time and again I have heard parents of children with autism express fear that their child won't have friends. This curriculum really does address the basic skills many students need to interact with "expected" behaviors. Google her and you will find what materials she offers!

There is an app called Social Express. It is pricey (around $80)  but it is good for children ages 5-8 or so who may need some assistance with the basic skills of recognizing how to make eye contact and how to determine what someone else might be thinking. It is interactive and has good graphics. My students like it and I have noticed they can transfer the skills to real life situations. For older students, I suggest Noteability. Students can organize notes into color coded sections for classes and record their instructor while they write or type. It is great and only costs about $2.

This letter was written by one of my students after reading a book I had given to her. I love her honest critique!

Finally, don't underestimate the sensory needs of students. We all have sensory needs and we have appropriate ways to meet those needs. Be an astute observer of your student to discover what is alerting or calming to him or her. What are the environmental conditions that help him/her be successful?  A good occupational therapist is a wonderful asset in this area but again, listening and being observant goes a long way. I worked with a little boy once who pulled hair at circle time. When I watched him I noticed that when he was isolated from others he pulled his own hair or scratched the carpet. Naughty? No. Sensory seeking? Yes. There was an easy fix as we got him a little troll to hold at circle time and he pulled that dear thing hairless as he sat happily beside his peers. Teachers who are incorporating flexible seating options are finding them helpful for an array of sensory seeking students. Work with it, not against it!


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