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summer reading program

The Kinglet, summer 2011

The following essay popped up in my Facebook feed this morning.  I originally wrote it in 2013 after we had to pull my son out of a creative arts summer camp.  He was easily frustrated, cried a lot, had to take lots of cool-down breaks — all things that are normal for a child with autism (which we didn’t know he had, at the time) and an emotional disorder.  I’d put two weeks of my summer aside so I could be there as his coach, but it still didn’t work out. The art teacher treated him (and me) like he had a contagious disease, and the administration (my employer, and friend, at the time) threw up her hands, because what can you do, you know? We have to think of the other children.

I cringed when I saw it again this morning — not because of what I said in it, but because this is a problem – a prejudice – that we’ve been battling all his life. In 2011 it was summer camp at the local Lutheran church — nice people, not equipped to handle him.  In 2012 it was the sports camp sponsored by the City of Newark.  Before his diagnosis, it was the school system that dumped him in an “intervention” room (closet) for most of the school day, or suspended him.  Last year it was the new gifted teacher that didn’t want him in her class, even though his test scores are through the roof and rote remedial learning bores him (literally) to tears.  Why should the other gifted children have to listen to my son cry, right, or witness him being removed by a para, or do their work like good boys and girls while my son audits the class because he’s too stressed that day? That’s not fair, is it? We have to think of the other children.

But you know what? No.  No, your child doesn’t need to be sheltered from my child.

My Child’s Meltdown Belongs in Your Classroom

(Summer 2013)  I’m trying to be professional and understanding about things that have happened this week, but as a parent, my heart is a little broken.

When asked to consider the place of children with emotional and behavioral disorders in an educational setting, the first concern of most people seems to be for the benefit of the other children, and the teachers, and the harmony of the group. Which makes sense, right? When you first think about it.

But I ask you to consider this. A generation ago, even less, these same arguments, based on misunderstanding at best, prejudice at worst, kept children with developmental delays and other handicaps from attending school. It was only with activism on the part of parents and child advocates that this attitude was challenged, and changed, resulting in laws that protect the right of ALL children to an inclusive education, in the least restrictive setting, with all possible and reasonable accommodation.

These days, we don’t much dispute the right of a child with physical challenges to take part in the same activities as healthy children. When it comes to children with emotional and behavioral disorders, however, there is still a pervasive prejudice. There is a perception that such children are bad, that their behavior is willful – they are punished, rather than worked with, and they are marginalized.

The truth is, such a child has as much control over his condition as a child with epilepsy, or with Tourettes, or with Autism, or Cerebral Palsy, or with any other host of impairments can control theirs. That is to say, given an opportunity, and a conducive environment, and appropriate supports, they can succeed as well as any child.

The questions I am asked, as a parent of a child with an emotional and behavioral disorder… Why should other children have to suffer when such a child acts out in the classroom?

– Because these people exist together in the world.
– Because discomfort over differences is healed by familiarity, compassion, and understanding.
– Because segregating “normal” children from “abnormal” children when it is not strictly necessary will not prepare either one for living in an inclusive world. It can only further misconceptions and prejudice. It can only distance the special needs child from a sense of belonging and success.

Why should teachers have to interrupt their class to deal with a child who acts out in the classroom?

– Because every child is different. Some have learning disabilities and need help understanding their assignments. Some children have physical challenges and need help maneuvering their world. Some children have language barriers, cultural barriers, problems at home, problems of self-esteem, problems keeping their breakfast down, problems sitting still, problems paying attention, problems with you.
-If you are a teacher, presumably you are so for a reason. Please don’t shy away from something because you don’t understand it.

With the rate at which children in our society are being diagnosed with behavioral and psychiatric disorders, and in the wake of national tragedies that have dragged the state of mental health care into the limelight, I believe this is something that needs to be said. This is a conversation we need to be having. This is a situation that needs to be challenged.

At the very least, it’s something I need to get off my chest.

— we could encourage more young people to express themselves in the arts.

My mother and father were, unquestionably, a positive influence on my writing.  My teachers, too — were it not for their mentoring, cheer-leading, and instigation, I might not be who I am today.  But perhaps equally important to my development as a writer was the opportunity to showcase and compete.

I had my first poems published when I was ten: one in Creative Kids (which, whoah, is still around?!?) and another in Piano, two magazines with content by and for children.

I won my first writing award in middle school: honorable mention in a student essay contest sponsored by the Postal Service, for which I earned a shiny stamped certificate signed by Some Important Government Official (fun bit of trivia, I missed the award ceremony because the invitation arrived in the mail a week late.  Hahaha – no, really.)

And, no, I didn’t always win, and, no, I didn’t necessarily take losing gracefully.  But the opportunity to compete was just as valuable.  It felt good when teachers encouraged me to try; the fact that they believed I could win helped me believe it. The feedback I received was usually very rewarding – I remember to this day when one of my classmates told me that her mother, who was a judge for a local competition, thought my story was the most imaginative of the batch.  And even if/when I didn’t win, competitions and journals and creative arts programs showed me that writing was something that mattered outside of the classroom.  That my words could go places I’d never imagined.  So even if/when I didn’t win, I kept writing.

A budding young author circa 1993 – haha, look at me pretending to be straight-laced.

It was a community that valued the arts that fostered the artist in me.

So when I heard that the Delaware PTA needed writing judges for the 2015 PTA Reflections contest, I jumped at the chance to pay it forward.

In my kitchen right now there are 69 essays, poems, and short stories by Delaware student writers, grades K-12, along with a table for scoring and a short blurb to guide me in my judging.  Having poured my heart into this responsibility, I’ve found it fabulous, fascinating, and, frankly, overwhelming – in the best possible way.

Over the last few days, I’ve decided that being a teacher must be REALLY HARD.  Imagine putting a grade on some budding author’s precious work of art. How do you carefully and thoughtfully soak in someone’s heartfelt written work and then squeeze it into some arbitrary shape by which it can be compared to a ream of other uniquely conceived masterpieces? Oy.  I honestly don’t know how people do this without breaking off little pieces of their hearts every day.

I have new appreciation, also, for the editors and judges who handle slush piles on a regular basis.  Even piles of the most stellar submissions start to swim before your eyes after just a few hours.

I learned that entering national writing contests is not a top priority for high school students — I handled a total of FOUR high school entries, compared to dozens from middle-schoolers and younger grades.  Hey, kids — What’s with that? Why U No Compete? Something to look at more closely, methinks.

I also enjoyed a glimpse into how young people are thinking these days.  This year’s theme, “THE WORLD WOULD BE A BETTER PLACE IF…” opened up a wide range of ideas, from personal wish-fulfillment to frustration with society to highly sophisticated analysis and solutions for global problems.  I took special joy in the poems and stories, of course (including a lot of science fiction, of all things), but the essays and narratives were also surprisingly creative.

In short, I believe kudos are in order — for the students, obviously, but also for the village of families, teachers, and arts enthusiasts who have encouraged these kids to put a pencil in their hands, their ideas on paper, and their writing out in the world.

I read each entry several times over, in between Babycakes care and laundry and what passes as my own”writing work” these days (which is to say, some lazy shifting of words around my keyboard like cold peas on a dinner plate).  A small sacrifice of time and brain power, but to me, totally worth it.  Contributing to this process for the sake of young Delaware writers has been truly an honor.