See First

pic23What if a student was highly intelligent, perhaps even with stronger understanding of complex concepts than you and me, but was unable to speak or write or type. What then? How would we know? How would we see?

I recently had the pleasure of talking with wonderful parents of a boy who was considered to be nonverbal until he got his hands on a letterboard — a way to communicate that didn’t require fine motor skills. It turns out that he processes auditory information quite well, is very bright, and is now on a path to prepare for a college education likely in physics. That letterboard was a game changer.

His story reminded me of Carly Fleischmann whose inner voice could finally be “heard” by typing. The part about Carly’s story that stuck with me was her dad reflecting on how they used to talk about Carly with Carly in the room, as if Carly was not able to understand. He later found out that she was comprehending everything, and the regret weighed heavy in his voice.

These stories are awe-inspiring, but what about the more mundane stories out there?  There are so many other students who are being assessed by methods that are limited. The limited methods… limit our ability to truly “see” students for all that they are. This is more common than not. One of the problems with most school assessments is that they are limited to “paper and pencil”, or perhaps computerized, tests that required verbal-linguistic skills.

Why do we do this? It’s a cycle. Those who did well with verbal-linguistic skills, along with meeting other neurotypical expectations, are the ones who go on to become the test-makers and evaluators of the test results.

Now it is time to see beyond. The first step is gaining awareness through stories like Carly’s and studies such as the following:

Words Say Little About Cognitive Abilities in Autism by Nicholette Zeliadt, Spectrum News

Interaction Takes Two: Typical Adults Exhibit Mind-Blindness Towards Those With Autism Spectrum Disorder. Edey R, et al. J Abnorm Psychol. 2016

Note that second one isn’t about verbal so much as nonverbal, and the title caught several people by surprise when it was first posted. This reaction shows how pervasive our preconceived filters can be, including in how we frame our research.

To quote Douglas Adams, “See first, think later, then test. But always see first. Otherwise, you will only see what you were expecting.”

 

Could Have Been My Child

rainbow flower“But what am I?” Her eyes were glassy from unshed tears.

“You’re you. And you’re wonderful,” I tried to reassure her, but she saw the worry on my face.

My beautiful daughter: smart, compassionate, kind to all things living and not. Seriously, the kid bonded to pet rocks! And she never did fit in a box.

“There just isn’t a label for you yet,” I said as the letters of the current acronym went through my mind. None of those letters fit.

But she wanted a label. As much as she didn’t fit into boxes, she always wanted them. She would even ask me to create them for her. “Just tell me what to do,” she would say, even as a teenager.  I, however, was the worst parent for that request.

“I’ll help you find your way,” I would usually say. But this time I felt lost on how to do that. She was hurting, and I didn’t know how to help.

“I love you. We all love you.”

The words felt weak. Insufficient. How well would that love armor her against a world full of hate?

That was seven years ago, and my daughter travels the country, living life, lighting up the world the best she can. There’s still no perfect checkbox for her, but she has found a sense of belonging in other ways, and she makes the world a better place.

As I listened to Anderson Cooper recently read each name of those who died in Orlando, my fingernails cut into my clenched hands as I tried to stay as resolved as he was. With each name, I  thought, that could have been my child. I will hear these names. Then I saw the text message of one child to his mother. I had no words. Only emotions in a sea of synesthesia.

My heart turned to CMASAS students. So many of our students are targeted – for their culture, or religion, or neurotype, or sexuality, or other reasons.  Each one is precious.  We open our arms to them and their families, and do what is within our power to help them find their way. And love them.  Always love them.

But I find myself wondering what more we could do.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”  ~ Fred Rogers

Personalization Only for the Privileged?

Credit: United Way of the Columbia-Willamette

Credit: United Way of the Columbia-Willamette

On a panel about nonconformity, the conversation mentioned the need for people to not be cogs in the wheel. Of course I shared what we were doing at CMASAS to help with that.

Two fellow panelists were ready to remind me that schools like ours only worked for the privileged elite.

*Sigh*

This is a common perception. Why? Because it is mostly true. Programs perceived to be similar to ours often fail to serve students outside of a particular set of demographics.

So how can I be so sure that our model can work outside of those demographics? Because it already has.

From students in rural communities of 1500, to cities of over 18 million, it has worked. For students who were homeless, or living in a meth house, or in a mansion, or on a boat for months at a time, it has worked. For students who had cancer, who were recovering from trauma, or who were healthy professional athletes with a demanding schedule, it has worked. For students who needed to move slowly through their studies, or those who needed to accelerate learning, it has worked.

The whole point of personalized education is to personalize for each individual student based on the current scenario of that student’s life in that moment. It requires providing levels of support with instructors, coaches, counselors, and other team members there to serve. It also requires tossing out the original rulebook most schools follow.

CMASAS is one version of the model — just one manifestation of the Personalized Education Philosophy. We serve a broad range of students, and the model could be used to serve even more (e.g. create a school in a language other than English).

Okay fine. It could be seen that we we’re different. But my fellow panelist Joyce accurately pointed out, “Yes, we have the positive things that people like you are doing, but that is not the majority trend as of yet in education.”

My response: “So my question is, how do we make it the majority?”

Of course, I couldn’t just leave it at that, especially since we have been actively encouraging partnerships this past year to bring what we do to serve more students. Learning centers, sports academies, and even public schools have integrated CMASAS into their programs. I am still waiting for somebody to create a performing arts academy with us.

I put out this call to the audience: “We’re looking for more Rangers,” I motioned to Joyce, “like you, who will come on board so we can actually make the changes in this country, and the rest of the world – I mean, because why not the rest of the world?”

And why not? As Christa McAuliffe said, “May your future be limited only by your dreams!”

Learn to be Lonely

There was a time when I would have claimed this as my life’s theme song. I first came across it synched with a Lord of the Rings video compilation that included Galadriel, responding to Frodo saying he cannot do the task alone, by informing him that “To bear a Ring of Power is to be alone.”

My earliest memories, about age 3, include handling crisis situations while either without a parent present, or said parent was an emotional puddle (and likely compounding the crisis). My upbringing nurtured a sense of “otherness.” Being in a culture that didn’t align with my anthropologist views created an “I must have been dropped off by aliens” feeling.

But the wilderness, and the animals in it, made sense. Sometimes I would wander off, sometimes run, heading toward water or trees or both. There, I belonged. There, I still do.

It’s a beautiful song. Enjoy!

 

Learn to be Lonely

by Minnie Driver

Child of the wilderness
Born into emptiness
Learn to be lonely
Learn to find your way in darkness

Who will be there for you
Comfort and care for you
Learn to be lonely
Learn to be your one companion

Never dreamed out in the world
There are arms to hold you
You’ve always known your heart was on its own

So laugh in your loneliness
Child of the wilderness
Learn to be lonely
Learn how to love life that is lived alone

Learn to be lonely
Life can be lived, life can be loved alone

 

Deficient? Detoxing from Negative Framing

equal testing has all animals climb a treeI attended the welcoming reception at the education conference I am at this week – an opportunity for vendors to entice people to their booths with free food. Obviously this works on me because I was there. I enjoy looking for new tools or strategies for our students, so the exhibit hall is a favorite part for me. However, as I went from one booth to another, there was one I hesitated approaching. It was huge, dominating a large portion of the room, but I passed by it several times. I was struggling with first bullet point on their sign: deficiency diagnostics.

Now, I understand the concept of deficiency diagnostics, and the importance of knowing where the gaps are – especially in a mastery-based program like ours. So I forced myself to finally read the rest of the booth’s signs to see if there was anything to redeem the negative feeling.

Nope.

What’s my hang-up? After years of detoxing kids from negative framing, I find that instead of becoming jaded, I have only become more sensitive. We often get students who see themselves as “deficient” and who need to be “fixed” because of all the things “wrong” about them. It takes time to help them reframe their approach: use their strengths to tackle the challenge areas to the best of their abilities, and focus on their gifts and personal goals to define themselves as the wonderfully unique beings they are.

Maybe there isn’t a better way of saying “deficiency diagnostics” that would fit on a display sign. However, is there a way we can help students recognize and work on areas for growth without them feeling “broken” as a result? Can we – the teachers, parents, and other potential mentors – model this, or are we struggling with this for ourselves?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Also, if you know of any tools, strategies, or other resources that focus on a positive growth mindset, please share them with me.

 

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