In August when I open my letter from the Special Education Department of our school district for Katharina, I know we are in for some heavy reading. 16 pages this year. I started to read it, but put it down after a few minutes, completely overwhelmed. I couldn’t read it all in one sitting. Then I thought about how Kath’s teacher would deal with that heavy Individual Learning Profile. How could she manage to read and grasp all that it contains from Kath’s vision issues to her cognitive delays to her potty issues---and do the same for any other child with an ILP---AND teach a room full of other multi-abilitied children??
Katharina has certainly made me view the world of education through a different lens.
I always wanted to be a school teacher, but my experience with Kath shows my true aspiration is to be an educator. Education is not the same as “school.” And it’s taken Kath’s experience to show me this. We have been blessed with many educators for Kath, who have been strong advocates for her and who took the time to figure out how Kath ticked and saw that the gap that was there was not one of petulance or disobedience, but truly one of her not being able to connect the dots without assistance.
When Kath began Early Intervention at 14 months, her therapists took the time to see who Kath was beneath the exterior, even when she was a non-talking immobile toddler. Kath has been lucky to also have a really sweet disposition (most of the time). But she is the kind of girl who if she thinks she is not pleasing you she will try to make you laugh…which usually looks instead like she wants to push more of your buttons. If Kath feels cornered she will try to exit that corner by making you laugh or acting out. And her therapists would always adapt exercises, or reset her, or switch activities or stop for the day, realizing that Kath mentally could do no more at that point.
When Kath was in a therapy-based special education preschool, her experience truly made me understand how different Kath’s learning style is. Kath was moved from a self-contained classroom, where she soared with a wonderful teacher and aides, to an inclusion class. After the switch, we began to see some shutting-down. Kath started to come to me in the morning telling me that her school was closed that day, that she saw 'the note on the door.' A girl who loved school was now telling me she wanted it to be a no-school day, every day. In all fairness it was a very stressful time at home. Our regular caretaker had to leave us to take care of a family member and I scrambled for before and after school care. A generous friend, Darlene, stepped up to take care of both girls in the morning and take them both to school, every day. My son Nick (then-recently diagnosed with his own TBI) picked Kath up at 1 pm every afternoon and watched her until I was done teaching, every day. That was way too many transitions for this girl who struggled with transitions. And she did not feel the teacher or aides in this new room liked her, but it took me awhile to figure that out. If Kath can’t make you smile, she feels lost. She was usually surrounded by smiles and laughs, so not being around people she knew who smiled at her was a big struggle. (This was something I had to teach even family members. When she knew that she was doing things not-right and would look to see reactions, she either saw frowns of disappointment or smiles of encouragement. Smiles were what she needed, or at least an explanation and a path back to where there were smiles). I thought she was simply struggling with the transition to the new class, and blamed the fact that I had to work and leave her to the care of so many other people (there is a guilt thread in every chapter isn’t there?). Fortunately after a few months our previous caretaker came back and she began the morning in our house and helped get the girls ready for school, drove them both to school then picked up and cared for Kath at the end of her school day until I was ‘done’ with my teaching day. The stability steadied Kath. And since Robin is also an artist, she brought a different avenue of connection to Kath’s blossoming mind.
In elementary school, Kath began a wonderful program that we were fortunate enough to be able to create for her. She did a two-year full day ‘kindergarten’ program where she was in a self-contained classroom and received therapies for the first year, with occasional times in the integrated class. The second year was more of a traditional kindergarten program where she transitioned into the integrated class and became a member of the class for real. Except for her locker, which was in her original special ed classroom -- and which she often asked if it could get moved into the regular classroom. I told her there wasn’t any room, but she was observant and noticed that there was an open locker one day so I told her that she needed to be able to take off and put on her coat and backpack by herself in order for her to be moved in, help that she got from her special ed teacher Mrs Brown. She seemed to understand she wasn’t there yet and she stopped asking.
Kath knows she needs more help than the other kids. She sees that she is one of the only ones who needs help toileting. She knows she goes to therapy and that all of her therapist are her teachers too and they are helping her think better, walk better, write better, speak better, use her eyes better, and she accepts that. Most of the time.
But there are times when her brain just goes into overload and she explodes into a little ball of mean frustration. It is usually when I am trying to do something that takes all of my concentration, like writing. About her.
In schooling, especially with the way teachers are being forced into teaching nowadays…with their time and attention being taken up by larger class sizes and teaching to tests instead of ideas, Kath will struggle. To sit and have to take hours of seat time and testing…Kath will explode. I am not trying to predict her future, I am trying to be like Ray Bradbury in his book Fahrenheit 451 and prevent this future. Anyone with their own Katharinas knows what I am talking about with her issues and how this can make my curious loving-to-learn girl want to go back to saying, “School is closed, I saw the note on the door” again.
In education, where students are encouraged to think, given time to analyze and figure out, Kath will blossom. When Kath has the right setting and patient educators, Kath will thrive.
But when people look at her and expect that because she ‘looks’ normal she can handle all, she will struggle. When she has to reach some bar of success dreamed up by non-educators, she will struggle.
How then do we make the successful model work for Kath and other kids like her, with varied abilitied-brains?
What I have seen so far is that Kath needs someone who can be her connector to the regular world, someone who will explain what she doesn’t understand, a translator, with patience. Someone who will not make her feel more wrong-footed than she does every day. We have been so blessed by the teacher we have been provided with, Jen Votra Brown, S.E.T.E. (Special Education teacher extraordinaire).
Last night when I was putting Kath to sleep she said, “I don’t understand that story about Belle, the one where she fell off the ladder. What happened?”
We had watched that episode from the first season of the TV show “Once Upon a Time” last week, and moved into the second season with more of a focus on this Beauty and the Beast character since. A week ago she saw something and it didn’t make sense, but she didn’t tell me she didn’t know what was going on until last night. First of all I tried to understand exactly what she meant, and that’s when I realized it was the original first season introduction of Belle. Then I praised her for asking me to explain something she didn’t understand. I told her that was a really smart thing to do, to tell someone when she didn’t understand and ask it to be explained.
The smile and the way her body relaxed into me highlighted for me how uptight she was about this, admitting her lack of knowing. I told her smart people ask for help, that’s how they get smarter. The conversation we had then was flowing and she starting to make connections. Unfortunately, it was really late and I wanted to read my book, but this was a teachable moment I couldn’t bypass.
When I came downstairs I talked to Roger and I told him about Kath’s and my conversation. We talked about how we (Alex included) knew the fairytale stories that were being used and twisted and mixed together in this fractured fairy tale TV show, but that was a lot of cognitive work for Kath to pull together.
When teachers are allowed to take the time to teach in those teachable moments, that’s when they truly educate. When teachers are allowed and encouraged to find the various paths their students learn, then they truly educate.
In Kath’s brain she may need to be taught something 15 times before she ‘gets it,’ but she will get it if she is given that time, shown the different paths she can come to the knowledge table by and allowed/encouraged to ask questions.
The way we are forcing teachers into teaching now with the new testing does not allow for Kath and others like Kath to fully learn. It’s as though we are shrugging off the struggling learners and all of the brain research of how to teach them; it’s as though we are saying these kids don’t matter.
Every year since Alex was born I looked into homeschooling. Every year. This year, yesterday, I actually unsubscribed to the homeschool email groups I’ve belonged to for 7 years. The teachers and the programs that my girls have been involved in has made sure that despite what is being slammed down teachers’ throats they are educators of students, first and foremost.
They will make sure that Kath (and all of their students) has her teachable moments. That Kath has her time. They know Kath because we have a school community that makes time to talk and share, regardless of what is provided for by State Ed or even our district. These teachers have met at one another’s homes during the summer to begin planning times, they have gone into their classrooms and set up their rooms (we teachers at the high school are not allowed in until 9 days before school begins). They have talked to last year’s teachers and they have studied the Individual Learning Profiles of their special education students as well as studied the testing scores and write-ups about all of the other students in their classes.
They will make sure that my Kath finds her paths and they will show her doorways and make sure there is always a place at the table for her. And what’s more is that not only will they allow her time to learn, but they will push her and challenge her too.
I don’t know how they do it. As a mom I am overwhelmed by the 16 pages of Kath’s ILP, and I live it. I am constantly challenged to learn and make Kath’s connections solid. As a teacher, I have so much respect for and admiration of her teachers who have so many ‘tricks in their bags.’ And as a human, I am grateful that when I said to Kath’s 1st grade teacher Mrs Kim Culnan, “I am so happy Kath has you this year…,” then pretty much sobbed when I finished with “…but I am sorry, she is going to mess up your teacher rating,” Kath’s teacher looked shocked and told me, “Don’t you ever say that, Veronica. I am glad I have Kath."
This is why I don’t worry about education and my daughters (and my students) as much as I used to. There will always be teachers who are angry and shut down because of how educators are being treated, and their students will suffer because of their negative classroom environment. That is a tragic but true fact.
But I have been fortunate to also know that there are so many other teachers who, though disgruntled by how educators are being treated and while fighting for what is right for educators and our voiceless students, will do what is right for the students, despite the erroneous ways we are being told to teach, despite the testings and despite the way teachers and students are being evaluated.
I asked a few people on my Facebook page what they thought about this subject—teaching to special education students in a world with standardized testing and how this will impact our scores as teachers. How they felt about stuffing round pegs into square holes. And my teacher friends from around the United States shared their agony of how this unfair system is on all students, especially special education students, and how they would still make sure that what they know works will still be used and taught, despite what is being pushed down the pike by State Ed.
As long as we teachers (and parents) continue to fight the system yet continue to educate the way we know works, our kids will be alright (how exhausting, I know!). And I am so happy to say that the educators we have in our girls’ life are the right kind. They make me up my game in teaching my high school kids. They make me want to be a better educator and reach every single student in one way or another, just like they do.