New Mexico: One school day…many lessons.

March 24, 2009 is what I repeated along side a few students with special needs this  morning as we sat in a semi-circle on little carpets on the floor of Rocky View Elementary School. One by one the teacher handed the students velcro words with the days of the week on them, saying , “today is Tuesday, if today is Tuesday, than tomorrow is Wednesday. If today is Tuesday, yesterday was Monday. They were mostly able to read the word and all sang me the “days of the week” song, but the teacher had to put the correct word in their hands for they wouldn’t have know on their own which day it was, or what came before or after. I spend the morning with this fascninating and diverse group of learners, ages pre-K to 4th grade, with autism, down syndrom and other yet unidentified learning disabilities. It was especially hard to insert myself into the classroom as a visiting volunteer because each child was at such a different level with strengths and weaknesses in very different areas, and the teacher to student ratio was nearly equal since two of the six kids had aids with them, plus the teacher and I. However, instead of lessening my own involvement in the classroom, I got to participate more by working one on one in rotations of learning (making letter shaps out of straight and curved wooden blocks,) and could also help by keeping the kids in their seats and placing a finger’s width of space between their first and last names they practiced writing. I was impressed with the small classroom size, and the teacher worked really well with them, each child practicing writing at their own level, tracing pre-written letters, or writing in cursive, and seemed to have a good schedule down that they were all comfortable with even if they often screamed in frustration or said they wanted to go home.

As a psychology major looking to go into education, I’ve considered working with special needs students in a pull out group such as this one, and seeing these kids accomplish what we may at first see as very small gains can be immensly satisfying, especially when they shoot you a smile, but I also couldn’t help but notice a feeling of deep sadness in the back of my mind, that most of these kids will never catch up to their peers, and can’t be expected to with an IQ in the 40s. I felt guilty noting this reality as I worked with them, because I should focus on all the wonderous things they can learn and where their individual strengths can take them. One boy who had just joined the group was a fabulous artist for example, and I can already see him as the passionate artist who does nothing but art. I was sad to leave when they took their snack and recess break, but headed down the hall to find three of my LC group-mates finishing up their “BEE” painting. This was our service project of the day, collectively painting three huge bees on the walls of the school halls to remind students of the 3Bs: Be save, be positive, be of good character, and be respectful. As we painted, tracing the projected image on the wall and trying not to drip on each other, heards of kids streamed by in lines saying things like, “awesome!” and “wow, that’s so cool” and “oh I really like it.” On occation we’d quiz them on the 4Bs and every kid knew them all! From their comments, you’d have thought these kids had never seen paint before, but their own art was all over the walls as well, they simply didn’t get to paint “awesome cartoon bees” directly on the walls which seems like a lot of fun…though I think most of us, even those of us who love to paint, did our best to finish ASAP so we could get back in the classrooms instead of inhaling toxic fumes and battling the clumby paint as we attempted neatly painted lines.

After this, I quickly ate a half of a PB n’ J, and went to a 4th grade classroom where they were working on a vocabulary project having to do with a story they read about the Titanic. This classroom was very radically different than the other two I’d been in. The first one had been very brief, we met the “superstars” in Ms. Longs’ 2nd grade who smiled and stared profusely and seemed thrilled that we were there, and then proceeded to describe every detail of a picture of a snail and an ant “staring” at each other. focused and interested in the activity as much as can be expected for an ant and a snail…both fascinating creatures. This 4th grade classroom however was all over the place. Students were up and about doing as they liked, running around and talking with friends, anxious to be done with the project, and were yelled at several times. I tried to help out, and asked the kids to read me their stories which they did willingly, but without much preperation, I couldn’t easily just jump into their project which I knew little about and spent much of the time critically observing the teacher-student interactions.This is what I noted: One girl, Dana, always shot her hand up and was almost always called on even though she often didn’t have an answer prepared. I thought that was she being favored by the teacher who always smiled at her and thanked her for her contribution, I quickly saw some hints of “teacher’s pet” on the side of the teacher, rather than the student, and I wondered if her classmates might be bitter towards her for unintentionally hogging attention, but that didn’t seem to be the case otherwise.

On the flip side, the boys name who was spoken most, Keano, was constantly yelled at, and told to stop doing this and that, usually causing him to act up more. I was impressed, however, with the teachers ability to yell at him one minute, and then call on him, and graciously accept his intelligent answer with a smile the next.

The third student I paid special attention to was Faith, sitting a good distance away from the other students in the back of the classroom, (closest to me), who was never called on, but sporadically yelled at for drumming her fingers or tapping her pencil repeatedly on the desk. I was sitting right by her and never even noticed until the teacher drew attention to her, asking with an exasperated look why she kept doing it. To me it seemed that her actions were completely unintentional, and that hands were simply antsie and needed something to occupy them. I don’t know if my observation was correct, but I thought I might as well attempt to prevent her from getting yelled at again, and knealed by her desk, whispering that when my fingers need to move, I like to twiddle my thumbs as fast as I can. She obliged, and we twiddled our thumbs together for nearly 10 minutes. At one moment, she was called on to read the next paragraph outloud as others had just done, and she read so well but so quietly and the teacher asked her to speak up, she did but not enough. Then the teacher asked her why she wouldn’t read louder, and said I guess we’ll have to get a different student to read who would read louder. I was immediatly upset by this response, thinking that she should have been given a better chance to contribute to the class (especially because every student had the book infront of them and could easily see the words she quietly spoke, but I was also aware that the teacher knew a lot more about this students abilities than I, and may simply know that Faith could reach her higher expectations of a loud voice. When I worked with Faith later, I learned that she was one of the brightest kids in the class, and the teacher later told me that she’d been acting up more than usual the past few weeks which might have been due to the fact that her mother keeps saying they’re finally going to move next week, and then next week, and then next week and it still hasn’t happened. I can see why a kid would mentally check out if they were expecting to move any moment, and that frustration of her mother’s promises could be negatively affecting her behavior in class. The teacher also told me that sometimes the kids are very well behaved and focused, but that her being sick caused them to take advantage, and that me as a distraction probably also caused them to try to be cool and shout out funny comments when they would have been on their best behavior if I’d been the principle.

There’s one student I haven’t yet mentioned, Katlyn, a 4th grader with down syndrom whom I’d worked with in the morning. She’d been quietly lying on the floor of the classroom when I noticed she was there, and since I wasn’t being of much use, I decided to go hang with her. She was flipping through a book of difficult statistics of US history and geography that I didn’t know the answer to, and seeing as she’d spend the morning learning the “R” sound, I didn’t think she was getting much out of that. So I asked if she wanted to read a book together, and she picked some great ones, and we read together, her shadowing my voice and moving her finger along each line with mine. As I saw that she couldn’t read or sound out words on her own yet, I had her focus on the word “I” which was frequent, and she tried to remember that word each time, doing a very good job. When we read Curious George, I had her track the word “George” by looking for the capital “G” as we read together, and she nailed it each time. While her reading hadn’t gone past recognizing individual letters, she had better reading comprehension than I did, knowing exactly what was going on at the end of each page, who was saying what to who, who was angry about what, and telling me so with the sweetest and softest smile on her face. While her IQ said one thing, her face and her actions betrayed a deep sense of maturity, an understanding, patience, and love that I had yet to see in her classmates eyes. She was very calmly living in the present,  grateful for every moment, and I began to see a marvelous sort of peace and joy just being around her. I doubt we’ll ever meet again in our lives, our collective one-on-one interactions adding up to less than an hour, but I’d love to see her in the years to come, so that perhaps, she can teach me more about life.

-Erika

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