Tuesday, June 06, 2006

So, you think you're "special?"

Today was my first foray to the battle lines of special education as I spent the morning observing P721X, The Stephen D. McSweeney Occupational Training Center in the Bronx. It was a vocational high school, with outside work service…and I was genuinely nervous. I felt like I was finally getting my hands dirty; running into the fray. Being a Fellow in the NYC Fellowship program, and having my Master paid for by the government looks great on paper…but I’ll admit I’m as comfortable as most folks around those with disabilities. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll be at the front of the line to condemn any abuses or damage served to those with special needs; but with the urge to protect comes a sense of pity, of otherness. My biggest fear is to stand in front of my class, poised and prepped, ready to learn…and letting my discomfort show. So my plan today was to immerse myself in the class, and sink or swim.

“What’s your favorite Muppet?”
“What’s your favorite Southpark Character?”
“What’s your favorite Southpark episode?”
What’s your favorite Muppet’s episode?”

The barrage of questions came from a teenage boy, a foot taller than me with functional autism, Sonny. His teacher (and my tour guide), Laurie, who was introducing me to her class, smiled at the boy. I couldn’t answer each question fully before his next query overlapped my words.

“What’s your favorite Muppet?”
“Gonz-“ I began.
“What’s your favorite Southpark Character?”
“Kenny, bec-“ I uttered.
“He’s dead! What’s your favorite Southpark episode?”
“The Lord of the Rings one-“
“What’s your favorite Muppet’s episode?”
I think I said something about Muppets in Space because it’s been years since I actually watched a Muppet Show episode.

“I’m not a Shrimp. I’m a King Prawn.”

Seriously, Sonnie is the Rainman of Muppets and Southpark info. He knows ALL the names of episodes, and minute details of each show. And, he wasn’t creepy…Just very excited.

Laurie, who is a second year Fellow, and has been through the whole rigmarole, was an absolute godsend. She would explain the diagnosis of each child, her words compassionate and wry, and she knew each student; what they were like, how they learned, what set them off. Her classroom ran the gamut between highly functional’s like Sonnie, and non-verbal’s like Andy. Ages were between 15 and 19, some kids were working on division and multiplication, and Andy worked on memorizing how to spell his name and recognize his address.

I won’t lie and say I was comfortable with Andy, in fact out of all the kids I met today…he was the one that made me really think about the choice I am making. Andy is 19, 270 pounds, 6 foot 4, and aggressive. Laurie fondly call him a linebacker, but seriously, this kid could play for the Jets. The guy is huge, and I began to ask questions about teacher safety. Yes, students get aggressive. Yes, Laurie has had scary situations in the past. No, she wouldn’t choose another job.

In the beginning of the school year Laurie had a run-in with Andy. Apparently he wanted a gummy candy from the closet, but being non-verbal and unable to ask or explain his desire he rushed Laurie and knocked her down while scrambling to where the candy was kept. She was very nonchalant telling the story, but I was a little chilled. Even without bad intentions aggression is dangerous in the classroom.

Thankfully there was resolution. A clever machine with large buttons with symbols painted on. The symbols were reflecting everyday needs, a toilet to represent bathroom, a plate of food to show hunger, and a piece of candy to reflect, well, candy. While Andy can’t actually speak and ask for candy, he can carry his “talker” up to Laurie, push the button and the device will state Andy’s wants. “I have to go to the bathroom,” or “I want candy” And it’s completely programmable, with options suited to his specific needs.

The most striking part of the entire experience was the realization of how much my thinking needs to shift. Such a huge part of teaching students with special needs is changing how you think about teachers. I’m more aware of how I’m not going to be like the teachers I had in school…I will have to shift my cognitive drive with students, and change my goals with those I instruct.
I asked Laurie today about her levels of frustration dealing with kids who don’t, and may never read or speak. She countered my question by stating her pride in Andy: He’d been practicing the memorization of his name since January…and he gets it 50% of the time. But he no longer spits at people, or sticks out his tongue. And most of the job is teaching what you can, and being happy with the smallest of results; as they are often the greatest accomplishments in the eyes of the student.


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