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Years ago, I was present as our friend’s son unwrapped birthday gifts.  One was a school bus with the alphabet emblazoned on it.  Each time you pressed a letter-button, it would name the letter.  Our friend took great delights in pushing “F” “U” over and over.  It went right back to the store.  Later, either in one of the many daycares I visited as an itinerant early intervention speech therapist, or in Kohl’s as a hormonal woman pregnant with twins, we chanced upon a toy lawn mower.  It looked just like a regular toy mower, with a handle, some noise when you pushed it around, like many walking toys, but it had one more thing – a label proclaiming it to be a “learning mower”.  I laughed it off, deciding the manufacturers had given it that title because there were ABC and 123 stickers, which added supposed educational value without actually doing anything extra in product development.

Unfortunately, the trend caught on, and it’s more than just some colorful decals on the side of a toy.  Behold: the Fisher-Price “Laugh and Learn” line.  Characterized by the goofy (and I’m sure trademarked) eyes and mouth emblazoned on every single toy, the “Laugh and Learn” line has remade such classics as mowers, vacuums, shape sorters, telephones, cameras, puzzles,  and now encompasses such things as lanterns, mirrors, chairs, iPod cases, stuffed dogs, smart phones, and ball poppers.  There’s even a soccer ball.  Fisher-Price has created a cash cow by slapping the word “learn” on their products, as if the plain, classic version had no educational value whatsoever.  Parents see a plain toy next to the jacked up “Laugh and Learn” (or, increasingly, see only the electronic version), deduce there’s added value in the battery power, and bring that home instead.  I cannot stand the battery-powered version with its repetitive mechanical tunes, and promises to “teach” babies.

Let’s take one example, the shape sorting cookie jar.  Shape sorters teach many things to babies and toddlers.  My kids, who just turned one this weekend, are able to open the lid to their classic 1972 Fisher Price shape sorter, and take out all the shapes, as well as put them back in, with or without the lid.  They can learn visual-spatial skills as they put things inside, hone fine motor tasks of grasping and releasing, fine-tune pre-puzzle skills of rotating shapes to fit into the holes, explore gravity as they drop the pieces in or out of the bucket, and there are even opportunities for such pre-academic classics as shapes, colors, and numbers.  The triangles are all green, the rectangles are red, and the circles are blue.  We can count them as they go in or out.  We can introduce an action vocabulary — push, drop, hold, count, sort.  We can sort them into different piles by shape/color.  We can even add advanced vocabulary and learn the names for 3D forms such as cylinder, rectangular prism, and triangular prism.  Maybe I’m the only one who does that.  We can learn the opposites “on” and “off”, and take shapes “out” or put them “in”.  They learn determination (“grit”) as they persevere to fit the shapes through the holes.

We received, by way of hand-me-down from my nephew, the Fisher-Price Laugh and Learn Cookie Shape Surprise cookie jar shape sorter.  It has five shapes/colors, so you know it already has added value (my kids may never learn what a star or a heart is otherwise). Plus, the shapes are all emblazoned with a raised numeral, even though it’s not developmentally appropriate to be teaching number symbols until kids have an awareness of quantity of real objects (“two” feet?  My kids just learned they have feet).  Then, we get to the battery-operated wonder.  The cookie jar has little ball-bearings in each opening, so when you successfully force a shape through the hole (it requires more force than the traditional shape sorter owing to the motion sensing technology impeding the shape’s progress), it labels the shape (or number) for you.  And then sings its stupid song.  “Shapes are in my cookie jar, triangle, heart and star.  There’s a circle over there, here’s a square!”  Or, if the toggle switch is set on “number” mode: “Would you like some cookies? Here they are!  Five different shapes, in my cookie jar! You can take them out, you can put them back, five little cookies make a tasty snack!” You can also just push the red nose of the cookie jar’s face to get a bonus song.  The most positive reviews of this toy range from detailing how the song is “catchy, not too annoying” to “It’s my kid’s favorite toy, but I want to shoot myself for buying it”.  That seems to be the theme.  As a parent, you have to put up with the stupid songs or noises because of their “educational” value, and if they’re only mildly annoying, that’s as good as you can expect to do.

What’s ironic, is that in trying to bolster educational value by adding sounds/music, the companies are actually grossly simplifying what the toy can actually “teach”.  It also makes parents feel like they’re depriving their child of something educational if they buy the plain shape sorter.  What do kids “learn” from these toys?  They learn mostly cause and effect.  If I push the button here, I get a song.  Many, many toys teach this concept.  While this is an important baby toy skill, it is only one aspect of play, and of learning.  Just as hearing a mechanical voice say “triangle” is only one exposure a child will have, and will mostly certainly not be the way my children end up figuring out the abstract concepts of shapes.  What I cannot stand is when parents measure educational value by the amount of time their child pushed the red nose over and over and stayed quiet in their crib.  While I appreciate time to go shower, make a phone call, or eat a sandwich, I do not conflate repetitive button-pushing with “learning”.  Nor do I think my kids will figure out shapes, colors, or numbers from playing with educational toys.  I also rail against what those songs are replacing.  For the parents who think it’s the toy’s job to “teach”, and not theirs, it’s replacing a parent coaching a child along, saying, perhaps, “Yes, mummy, that red square goes in the hole.  Can you put it in there?  Oops, not quite.  Try it a different way.  Yes, like that.  Push.  Almost.  Good job!”  The toy says, “Square” or “Four” and then sings a song.  If recent research in language acquisition is any guide, the child playing with the toy without the parent has just lost out on 28 additional words.  Fast-forward to preschool-aged children using a “learning vacuum” for pretend play.  If the vacuum’s job is to teach letters or numbers, and the toy constantly sings when you push its buttons, where is the voice of the child going ‘vroooom’ pretending to suck up dirt?  Where is the child narrating his play as he imitates the adults in his life?  Where is the integration of the vacuum into a larger ‘house’ play scheme?  So-called educational toys are by far the least open-ended toys I’ve seen on the market.

Why does a soccer ball need additional value?  So you can charge more for it, obviously.  So you can guilt well-meaning but anxious parents into purchasing more crap.  So you can assuage the guilt parents feel about not providing constant stimulation so their children can “get ahead” by the time they get to preschool.

In my family, the premier purchaser of this Chinese-made, battery-powered plastic crap is the last person you’d think of — a librarian.  But my mother-in-law gobbles up these toys, from the Vtech Infant Learning Jungle Fun Music Box my nephew was scared of for his first six months, to the “Rhyme and Discover” “book” (from a librarian — this shocked me), the infamous cookie jar, and the newest one, that just left my jaw hanging open, the Singin’ Soccer Ball, which, in addition to ABCs and 123s (again, not developmentally appropriate for the 9 month old pictured holding it), purports to teach sportsmanship.

I try to pretend I’m coming around on the electronic toy front, for the sake of family harmony.  I try to pretend it’s all copasetic if I just turn the toy off when I’m around. (though the kids are confused why the buttons that used to light up are now dark…) I try to pretend it’s okay if our household isn’t 100% battery-powered toy free.  In short, I try not to be a helicopter control-freak parent.  But every time we unwrap a new gift, whether it’s a talking puzzle from my uncle, or a battery-powered walking toy from my in-laws, or when we receive a new bag of hand-me-downs (and that fucking cookie jar) from my nephew, I just want to cringe.  It should simply be a parent’s choice to offer these toys.  It shouldn’t make me so angry, should it?  Yet, short of explaining (again) to my in-laws that we don’t want those toys, they keep on coming.  I doubt they’d sit and listen to a condensed lecture from this diatribe.  Maybe it’s more the fact that I feel disrespected in my parenting decisions, the fact that the burden of deciding whether to return a well-intentioned toy, try to remove the batteries, allow it, or smash it into a million pieces falls on us.  I’d rather spend my time building block towers with my kids for them to smash than arranging for childcare so I can run to Kohl’s for the third time this month, and return the piece of junk.

As I goggled in disbelief at the Singin’ Soccer Ball, I was unable to disguise my contempt in the usual forced smile I reserve for playtime at my in-laws’ house, and my father-in-law asked, “Why, it’s bad?” while I searched in vain for the off switch (IT HAS NONE!!!), I replied, through gritted teeth, “No, they’re just not my favorite kind of toy.” It’s true, kind of.  If my wonderful mother-in-law is sitting on the floor with my children, interacting with them and the heathenous toy, it’s not harming them.  If my brother likes pushing the buttons, and it helps him play with my kids, then that’s great for everyone.  No one toy sitting on the shelf is going to make or break a child’s kindergarten readiness.  No open-ended shoebox, or high-priced baby laptop can replace a parent’s interactions.

I am officially going on record to speak for all those parents writing Amazon reviews about annoying songs and tolerable noise levels — you don’t have to buy that crap.  I absolve you of your feeling a need to buy “educational” toys.  You are so much better than that.  You are not only your child’s first teacher; you’re also his first — and best — toy.

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It certainly is a different world than the one I grew up in.  Or maybe it’s just a different community.

In a class I observed today, the kids discussed the meaning of their newest vocabulary word, poverty.  As vocabulary is not a subject taught lightly here, it was not merely taught as a synonym for “poor”; the teacher wanted to make sure his 6th graders understood relative poverty and standard of living, how a person owning in a house in Haiti might not have a TV, but would be considered wealthy, while a person in a similar situation in the United States could very well be in poverty.  He left their heads swimming with thoughts of kids so poor they can’t afford shore houses or annual trips to Vail.  I’m sure it will be a stretch for some of them to connect to a Mexican immigrant girl living the life of a migrant worker in the 1930s.

Ignorance, like poverty, is relative.  And just as these student struggle to relate to characters from stories of far off places, times, and socio-economic statuses, I, too, find myself amazed at the level of ignorance of Judaism in this community.  Note I did not specify the degree of ignorance; what astounds me is the dynamic of power the Jewish community seems to wield over a private school.

I don’t know if the changes between my childhood and the ones I’m currently observing are a result of shift in attitude and tolerance over the last 20 years, or merely in the presence of a more sizeable Jewish population in this part of the world than in the one I grew up.  I do remember the complete ignorance in my community in the late 1980s and early 1990s – not so long ago – and how it shaped my views of what is happening around me now.

My school district had not heard of the separation of church and state.  They put on Christmas concerts, tossing in a “Dreidle, Dreidle” to pacify the six Jewish students in the school.  They orchestrated crafts of countdowns to Christmas.  They let out all the Catholic students 30 minutes early every Monday for catechism, while the remaining 4 or so of us non-Catholics clapped out erasers and helped the teachers put up bulletin boards.  It was no wonder that the district continually had to be reminded each year about “our” holidays in the fall.  My rabbi had to, for each school a student in her congregation attended, call or write a letter explaining what Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were, why we were to be excused from school, and how the Holidays were of great importance.  Still, they balked.  Still, we got confused looks at our excuse notes.  Still, we did our homework sitting in the religious school classrooms during breaks between services.

Last December, my jaw nearly dropped as I witnessed the suddenly very observant Jewish students present verbal excuses about not doing their homework for a period of 8 days.  The miracle in my mind was not that the oil of Hanukkah lasted all 8 days, but that the teachers simply accepted it.  Hanukkah is, for a child, a 15-minute observance involving lighting candles, saying 2-3 blessings (and not Catholic-style benedictions, either), and opening a gift.  Sure, there may be a night or two with family over, or a party, but do other family/party occasions warrant a week-long homework pass?

Kids take off “mental health” days leading up to and after their Bar Mitzvahs.  I think they’re at suit fittings and hair appointments.  Kids show up 2 hours late (or call out Jewish) the day after the first and second Passover seders.  Granted, the seders of my father’s youth (now we’re turning back the clock) used to involve a cover-to-cover reading of the Haggadah, and not the Maxwell House version, either.  I believe he’d be falling asleep in the matzah ball soup at 11:30pm.  Today, only the very observant still have marathon seders.  And their kids miss school as if they were the ones grating horseradish for the seder plate and making matzah balls out of their textbooks.  Do the adults call out from work, too?  Do they use the holidays as an excuse not to be meet deadlines or not to finish work projects?

What lesson are they teaching their kids about budgeting time to complete work in a busy week, about reading ahead in their textbooks so they can enjoy an evening with extended family, about being accountable for responsibilities that go on outside the protective bubble of their home/school life?

In spite of the Jewish families seemingly taking advantage of a) the school’s widespread acquiescence to Jewish holidays and customs, and b) the Jewish parents’ power (and tuition), there is still ignorance.  Though Thursday will be a school holiday (one I will not have to use a personal day for, nor acquire a note from my rabbi), the head of school decided to schedule a back-to-school barbecue for all staff…Wednesday night.

They don’t even know that all Jewish holidays start the night before.  Forget sundown, forget waiting for three stars to come out, forget even the 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah, Friday, when several suddenly religious students will be out, you can’t schedule a barbecue for the beginning of the High Holidays when you have Jewish employees you would like to include.

So they moved it to Friday night.  I won’t even pretend to be insulted that Friday nights are always a holiday.  I won’t pretend there are any Jews on staff (or in the student body) who even feign that level of observance.  I am grateful they made the right choice to move the barbecue.  I am grateful they are trying to respect my religion and my customs. I am grateful no one has asked me in a long time why the Jews killed Jesus.

In spite of the families who take advantage of gentile ignorance, and use their checkbooks and their righteous indignation to cow the administration into special treatment for their kids (and people wonder why there is still anti-Semitism), it is still a more pleasant and more tolerant world to live in than it was in the community of my youth.

L’shanah tovah, y’all.  May your New Year be sweet.

I am proctoring a final exam in biology, 7th grade science. They’ve studied the circulatory and digestive systems this semester, and this is their final test. I am also a “reader”, accommodating students whose reading fluency would negatively impact their ability to decipher words such as “esophagus” and “salivary”, and would be a barrier in their ability to demonstrate their knowledge. I read every single question, and every single answer. I pause, waiting an eternity for them to match 5. with C., before moving on. I have said the word “anus” in a calm, articulated manner, no fewer than 8 times.

Sometimes, I feel like a fraud, like my entire first year teaching here has been a crash-course in learning disabilities. Sure, I had a course in written language disorders, and one of my professors in my school-age language disorders class talked with us about her daughter’s struggle with dyslexia. We learned about acquired dyslexia in adults who have strokes, and about the theoretical models of reading. But really, I hadn’t worked with a single kid with dyslexia until I began this job. I knew next to nothing, and much of my experience in working with children with speech and language disorders was useless.

Even worse, as someone to whom reading, spelling, and writing came effortlessly, I was ill-prepared with reading strategies, and low on empathy. One of the buzz words in education – which often seems like a euphemism – is learning differences, not learning disabilities. While it may definitely be that dyslexia is a learning disability, these kids can still learn to become fluent, proficient readers, but they will have to learn differently. I did not know what that meant. I internalized spelling rules (when to doubling consonants, when dropping an ‘e’ before adding a suffix) as I learned to spell, but I had never been taught them explicitly (except for the rhyming ones: “I before E except after C, or when sounded as A as in ‘neighbor’ or ‘weigh’. Exceptions: Neither foreigner has leisure to seize the weird heights.”). And now I was being asked to support kids who need to know those tools, who need those strategies repeated and reinforced daily.

Suddenly, instead of working on “go car” and picture exchange communication, I was faced with 5-paragraph essays, topic sentences, main ideas, and open and closed syllables. Morphology, something I hadn’t looked at since reviewing linguistics for my comprehensive speech-pathology exams, was now front and center. Apparently, 6th graders with dyslexia study Latin roots. My 9th graders are studying Buddhism, and my 10th graders are knee-deep in an analysis of Romeo & Juliet that goes leagues beyond the iambic pentameter I learned so many years ago.

Mr. Apron said yesterday that my post-secondary education provided the background knowledge, so that I can figure out the underlying mechanisms, so that I can figure out applicable strategies and levels of support. In a way, I can use some of what I learned working with preschoolers; it just looks different. Now, instead of holding up a paper square with a picture of a toilet when calling a child to the bathroom, my visual support looks like pulling up a Google image every time a student says “what’s that?” when we’re reading through a book about the 1930s. Simplifying and breaking down directions is not so different either. They’re just following different directions, and using more pencils and MacBooks than crayons and Legos.

There is a tremendous amount of common sense involved in working with kids with dyslexia. For the ones with memory issues, you have to spell things letter by letter, not letting out a whole string at a time. For the ones with comprehension issues, you pull out all the visual aids, and reread and reformulate information until you’re blue in the face. You don’t give answers to kids struggling to express themselves; you gradually lead out of them what you’re fairly certain they already know by using cues, prompts, hints, and carefully worded questions. If a kid has difficulty with word recall – already today I’ve seen a girl struggle to recall the words “streamers” and “pipe cleaners” – you give them multiple choice questions. You don’t teach vocabulary by memorizing a verbatim definition; you teach new words in the context of a text, with a million different associations, connections, and shades of meaning.

Still, sometimes I feel like I’m faking it until I have absorbed enough terminology from the reading teachers, methodology from the writing teachers, and ideas from the English teachers. I feel like I’m expected to be all three, yet I’ve never taken a single education course in my life. Each time I sign up for a teacher discount at a store, I feel like I’m doing so fraudulently. Not because I’m not technically a teacher, but because I don’t feel worthy of the patience, expertise, and knowledge I have come to associate with the educators at this school, and the title of teacher that these men and women bear.

Mr. Eggleston endeared himself to his 4th grade class with a kindly smile, non-nonsense demeanor, and a very special game.  A much-anticipated part of 4th grade, Mum-Ball was a hallowed activity, one taught to eager younger siblings by older brothers and sisters who had already passed through the 4th grade.  Trouble was, you couldn’t quite replicate it outside a classroom.  We tried.  Once, at a party, in someone’s basement, we all hopped up on mats and chairs as someone’s older sister tried to explain the magical game that such allures, but it couldn’t be done without rows of desks and chairs, and a classroom full of eager kids.

Mum-Ball had a number of lesser rules, but the basic tenets of the game were that you had to be absolutely quiet (hence “mum”), you had to throw and catch a ball according to specified dictates (one hand or left handed catches two hand throws), and you had to stay up on your desk.  Any grazing of the floor or the seat of your chair, and you were out.  Any murmur leaves your lips, and you sat down to watch the rest battle it out.  There were additional rules governing no-throw-backs, and no throwing over anyone’s head.  These last rules could pretty quickly end a cut-throat game of four, or a check-mate scenario of 3 kids in a row. 

And then there were the ever-changing variables.  Mr. E., as we often called him, kept a cache of every type of ball imaginable in a corner behind his desk – Kooshes, dodge balls, soccer balls, foam balls, ping pong balls, even the ball with a balloon inside, the Balzac.  Kids would bring in new types of balls; we were always adding to the mix.  Mr. E. also loved to change up the game midway through.  He would start the game with a leisurely “two-hand catches, two-hand throws” and suddenly switch to “left-hand catches, two-hand throws”.  Try keeping that all in your head as a projectile zooms about the classroom.  Unlike in the gym, where the female contingent was usually plastered along the wall trying to pretend they didn’t exist, in Mum Ball, the girls were as likely as the boys to make a last-ditch dive off the desk, struggling for balance lest they catch the ball but fall to the floor. 

I was thinking about Mum-Ball this week and, unfortunately, dissecting it into its many virtues.  Now that I’m tasked with motivating a single student or classroom full of kids, I am beginning to understand the brilliance of Mum-Ball.  From a teacher’s point of view, it’s a great way to command silence instantly.  Beyond being simply a game for “following directions,” Mum-Ball requires students to activate working memory.  While the main rules may be learned and stored in long-term memory, the sudden rule changes (e.g., from two-hand throws to left-hand catches) keep the kids constantly alert and focused.  There is strategy with the no-throw-back and no-overhead throw rules, and kids must pay attention to where the ball is at all times.  From a physical standpoint, Mum-Ball also hones balance and ball-handling skills, as kids are accountable not only for successful catches, but also for accurate throws.  Imagine a game kids beg to play where they have to stay quiet – that is the beauty of Mum Ball.

“Cool outfit,” my coworker said casually as I waited for a turn at the copier.  “The kids really enjoy your style, no joke.”

And as my heart melted into an oozy pile of love, acceptance, and validation, I assessed what it is exactly that I am wearing today that elicited such a comment. 

Definitely the most distinctive piece I have on today is a skirt made for me a former student’s mother.  It’s light blue hand-dyed old-fashioned chenille (like the blankets your grandma always had on the beds), complete with fringe tickling my knees.  To battle off the winter chill, I also am sporting an off-white men’s long underwear-style Henley I picked up at a genuine “dry goods” store in the Federal Hill section of Providence as it was going out of business, paired with a lurid red Orlon acrylic cardigan picked up for $4.00 at a job-lot style store, intended for use with school uniforms.  It’s a child’s XL, so the cuffs of my Henley peek stylishly out from beneath.  I also have on candy-striped knee socks (a trend I will never let die), which I’m hoping tie together the whole outfit with their lifesaver’s colors.  On my feet are T-strap Doc Marten’s from the late 1990s. 

The kids enjoy my style.  Ha.  When I was in high school, we would often arrive a few minutes before school started, and we’d find ourselves killing time by walking the main hallway.  As the school was a 1960s circle, we could just keep walking round and round without too much effort, which was all our brains could handle at 7:00am anyhow.  On these walks, a particular friend would enjoy counting how many oblique stares my outfits would elicit as we rounded the school.  Whether it was the bright orange Pendleton wool pantsuit, or my dress made from 26 neckties, she never seemed to tire of entertainment at my expense.  At a conservative Minnesotan school where our limited shopping diversity meant the trends were specific (yellow Columbia coats, Winona knits mittens, brown Doc Marten’s oxfords, American Eagle tank tops), hideous (white socks with Birkenstocks) and rarely defied, I stuck out.  Sure, there was the ROTC guy who always wore army fatigues, and the Marilyn Manson girl with her sullen black clothing, chains, and heavy eye make-up, but then there was me, and very little variety beyond that.

Over the years, my initial inability to figure out even simple trends like bootleg jeans, waffle knit shirts, or Umbro shorts (I never knew what a Tretorn was until this year), has morphed into some sort of defying-the-mainstream identity.  I wish I could be proud, confident, and somewhat oblivious like Jerry Spinelli’s “Star Girl,” but I’ll settle for some respect of myself as an individual, as a “cool teacher.”  Or, at the very least, a dork-tastic teacher with some respect from some teenagers for my “cool outfits”.

I never thought I’d see myself working with children taller than I am. At merely 5 feet tall, this would seem a ballsy assertion, but I never thought I’d make it out of elementary school as a speech pathologist.  Most speech-language therapy targets this younger set, with an increased focus on early intervention before kiddos even walk through the kindergarten doors.  While decent-sized elementary schools may employ 2 or 3 SLPs, middle and high schools have starkly shrunken caseloads that often mean an SLP is running among all the high schools in the district to comprise a full caseload.  Intervention in the upper grades, too, has a different focus.  More and more, these are kids who will be needing lifelong strategies.  I include in this group both kids on the higher functioning end of the autism spectrum, as well as kids in learning support.  These are no longer issues than can be “fixed” with some intensive articulation therapy or flashcard drills with verb tenses. 

I never saw myself working with an adolescent population because I really liked preschoolers.  I never thought I’d be taken seriously by a gaggle of 6th graders taller than me.  I never thought I’d be back in middle/high school dressing up for Spirit Week, either, but here I am. 

Yes, they’re taller than I am.  But one-on-one, which is how I usually see kids, middle and high schoolers can be quite rewarding to work with.  I don’t have to deal with classroom management, grading tests, or running parent-teacher conferences.  And I no longer have to sit on itty-bitty chairs and worry about boogers in the play-dough.  I miss the play-dough, but not the boogers. 

Still, I am now working in a middle/high school, and, as this week is Spirit Week, there is sprit run amuck.  On Monday, I was too tired and mopey to participate in Clash Day, which I’d ordinarily embrace whole-heartedly.  My closet is overflowing with garishly colored stripes, plaids, polka-dots, madras, and floral prints.  At 6:00 Monday morning, I just wasn’t feeling it.  I was also unsure how fully the student and faculty body embraced their spirit.  For 4 years in high school, I tentatively tried to participate in such themed days and holidays.  I was disheartened to note that few kids dressed up for Halloween, but I tried to keep the spirit by wearing an orange shirt. 

Now that I’m back in school, so to speak, I’m still feeling it out, still waiting to see what the other teachers do, so I don’t stick out too much one way or another.  For Halloween, I chose a pink tutu, something I have worn out in public in a non-costumed outfit, and something which is appearing on racks as apparel outside of the dance studio.  That way, if all the teachers were in costume, I’d totally be like, “Hey!   Me, too!” and if no one dressed up, I’d be all cool, like, “Yeah, I totally wear this any day, not just because it’s Halloween.”  Totally.  At my high school we had, in addition to Spirit Day, which always were safely celebrated by wearing a school t-shirt, Twin Day, PJ Day, and some others I can’t recall.  Since graphic novels and comic books have started entering the main stream (and cinemas), superheroes now rule.  We had Superhero Day at the request of the student body.  Since I’d pussied out of Monday’s Clash Day, I needed to redeem myself after seeing colorfully festooned students and adults alike. 

After school on Monday, I went home and worked on my transformation from mild-mannered speech teacher, into Wawa Warrior.  I had at home a large promotional t-shirt I probably picked up for $1 at a thrift store, emblazoned with the Wawa logo and some coffee/sandwich deal advertised on the back.  For future crafting purposes, of course, just waiting to be transformed.  Last night, I cut away the front around the neckline to fashion a cape.  The front (with logo) I cut into a strip and tied around my forehead à la Rambo.  Then, I got out the duct tape.  After a quick trip to Wawa for some half-caff for Mr. Apron, I had all I needed for my gear belt.  I taped sugar packets for flair, and holstered the coffee cups into my belt for some quick mock-dispensing action.  I was good to go.

It was a big hit.  I had achieved the perfect costumed combination of regional recognizability, comfort, and panache. 

Today was Crazy Hair day, so of course I tied my ever-growing locks up into tightly wound buns at four points on my head, and embellished them with various ribbons: red ball fringe, autumnal stripes, flimsy organza, and rubber ducks. 

Tomorrow is School Spirit Day.  I have no idea what I’m going to do, but I know I’ll do something.  I hope these kids aren’t the paint-the-face and tattoo-the-chest types. 

Back in high school, I tentatively tried to navigate the unspoken rules of social acceptability.  Though I was probably never in the right, and definitely never popular, I still cared how I appeared to others.   I wish I could have been like Jerry Spinelli’s “Star Girl,” mysterious and magical in the ways that made me different, instead of awkward and self-doubting.  While this is my first year, I’m still feeling out how things are done here – how much people socialize outside of work, what kind of clothing constitutes the adult dress code, whether adults dress up for Halloween.  I’m still testing, still comparing, still making sure I don’t stick out too much.  It seems like conformity, at least a smidgen of it, is a protective mechanism in high school.  As we work with kids who clearly don’t fit in, and are uncomfortable about socializing, it helps to remember that not everyone can be a “Star Girl”, with a devil-may-care attitude about our rainbow mohawks or our pop-tab chain maille or our pink army fatigues.  Some of us try to keep our differences hidden just a bit, so we can feel that much more at ease in new surroundings.

Reasonable accommodation.  Differentiation of instruction.  These are principles on which my school/place of employment thrives.  With low student-to-teacher ratios, teachers are able to get to know each student individually, and make adjustments according to his or her personal needs. 

In spite of this, I am aware of a fine line between being reasonably accommodating and being overtly permissive, and I believe it’s a complicated dance the teachers are doing. 

In a school with as few as 4 kids in a class, teachers can allow kids the freedom to work in an environment that supports their needs.  During a recent writing block, some kids cozied up in a sunny window seat; others splayed out on pillows on the floor.  Yet others chose to stay at the table, or to find a desk away from the main group.  With few students, there is the space and the opportunity, not to mention the open attitude of the teacher.  Ironically, this building was once a Catholic girls’ school, where I have no doubt that strict uniform compliance and straight-backed students seated at rows of identical desks were commonplace. 

When teaching kids with learning differences, teachers at my school have to develop ways within their curricula not only to target the reading and writing difficulties; they also have to find ways to foster positive experiences in learning, and promote successful expression of students’ knowledge.  They have to apply different methods for teaching as well as assessing.  While vocabulary continues to be an area of weakness in many children with learning disabilities, teachers teach and test this skill in different ways.  Instead of requiring rehearsal and regurgitation of a memorized definition, which the student may or may not actually understand (“Relentless: steady and persistent.  Relentless: steady and persistent.”), teachers allow students to act out words in games of charades, think of examples drawing on life experiences, draw pictures showing the meaning, and create multi-media collages using photographs of the actual students.  (“Torrent” showed a student crouching under an umbrella while a storm of collaged National Geographic lightning bolts threatened to split him asunder.)  It’s not just a way of accommodating students whose reading, writing, spelling, and oral expressive skills need some work; it’s better pedagogy.  It’s a way of getting kids to use their new vocab., to help them relate it to their lives, and to hope it sticks more effectively than “relentless: steady and persistent,” which I memorized in 8th grade, but didn’t really understand.  It’s also way more fun for kids and teachers.

Another bit of awesomeness I have witnesses revolves around certain students who are more “active” than others.  Is there a kid alive today with a learning disability who is not also automatically assumed to have ADD or ADHD?  Somehow or another, “auditory processing disorders,” which may look like “he’s just not listening,” have been labeled “ADD”.  More intriguing, in spite of actual ADD, these kids often get sent to speech therapy to get “fixed” because they’re “not listening”.  Is it a speech disorder or not?

Until the linguistic-medical-psycho-educational community differentiates that one, behaviors that look like ADD will be rampant in this school.  Thankfully, teachers here understand ADD, as well as auditory processing difficulties, and they don’t just yell at the daydreamer gazing longingly out the window, or punish the wiggly 12 year old who’s expected to sit in a stiff chair for 7 hours a day.  They get it, and they create solutions.

At a recent conference, a student’s math teacher expressed to the parent that the boy often looks like he’s shutting down, as his math class is at the end of the day and he’s been working hard on focusing all day long.  Since she knew he was into his Rip Stik, would mom send it into school with him?  So she did.  Sure enough, later that week, at 2:30pm, as I worked with another child in an adjacent room, I heard a faint roaring outside my open door, and looked up to see the student cruising down an empty hallway, recharging his batteries, so to speak.  He later reflected, “Ms. B. said she needed to see me in the hall, and I thought I was in trouble, but then she said to ride my Rip Stik down the hall and back.”  Guess who stayed focused until the end of the day?

A clever teacher, finding a way to single a student out, not for punishment, not for special treatment, but to meet his needs in a way that was neither disruptive nor unreasonable.  A successful accommodation.

Other adaptations are, in my view, less successful.  When a teacher tells the students they may sit anywhere they like, there’s usually one who makes a sprint for the teacher’s desk.  I’m all for accommodation and providing a supportive work environment, but I’m also for boundaries, and I dislike when kids seem to overtly push them.  There are always kids who will take advantage of a laissez-faire teacher: asking to use the bathroom 27 times an hour; telling a teacher their hair hurts so they can slack off of school work; making up excuses for not doing homework.  Again, in a small class, discipline can afford to be a little less strict, but there’s a fine line between laid-back teacher, and a run-over teacher.

As in most good ideas, when pushed too far, there are accommodations gone bad – good ideas, or necessary adjustments that don’t work as well as imagined. 

If Kid A gets to chew gum during class because his OT says it helps him focus, why can’t the rest of the class?  If Kid B needs a snack at 10:30am because he’s hypoglycemic (or just plain hungry), what qualifies as a snack?  Does it have to be a quiet food?  A healthful food?  Can it be a crinkly bag of Sunchips?  How many items make up a snack?  Is a breakfast burrito a snack?  If a kid prefers to eat her lunch at 9:00am, and then has no food at lunchtime, is the school obligated to provide a back-up?  One child I sometimes work with eats his way through his day. He’s still short and skinny, so I won’t make any growth spurt excuses.  He can consume, during one 45-minute period, right before lunch, 3 “Fruit by the Foot” snacks, 2 packs of “Gushers,” a bag of chips, pretzels, a wrap, and several drinks (including lemonade and espresso-based beverages).  It makes me ill to watch, and, contrary to what has been said to allow this accommodation, I don’t think it helps him focus.  His hands are too busy unwrapping and stuffing his mouth to type or write or follow along on a worksheet, his wrappers end up all over the table or floor, and he’s constantly refreshing from a large shopping bag on the floor. It distracts me; I can’t imagine the other kids in his class see his food as just part of the scenery.  In this case, an accommodation which started out as reasonable has been taken too far, and at this point is probably feeding into some unhealthy obsessive behaviors, not to mention the sheer quantity of calories and junk in his body. 

My wish for the education community at large is that teachers like those I work with are able to infiltrate larger, public schools, and bring the same open-minded approach to accommodate to the larger community of learners.  I know it’s a difficult task.  I understand how most classrooms cannot create private writing cubbies/window seats/bean-bag chairs for each of their 25 or 30 kids.  There simply isn’t the space.  I also understand the inherent difficulties in making special rules for each student so that no one is getting any more special treatment than the next, and in maintaining attitudes of fairness in the classroom.  In the adult world, we are expected to take care of our own needs.  Some people are fine sitting for an entire transatlantic flight; others need to stretch their legs every hour.  We don’t ask the flight attendant’s permission to get up, or complain about our seatmate: “He has already used the bathroom 4 times on this flight; I think he’s faking so he can hit on the hot flight attendant.  It’s not fair!” 

But in a classroom, a teacher would have to work extra hard to make sure a kid gets a chance to move around more if he needs it, or to have a different chair than all the rest.  Clever teachers can do it.  They can find errands to send active children on; they can invent jobs involving heavy work for kids who need that kind of work.  If one child needs a snack, they can institute a structured snack time, for those who care to munch.  They can make adaptive pencil grips and scissors available for the whole class – are they really going to hurt a kid who doesn’t “need” that accommodation?  Rather, they may open the other children’s mind to seeing multiple ways of navigating the world.  More than scheming for stealthy introduction of accommodations for specific students, clever teachers make it a priority to promote acceptance of diversity.  While they might quietly provide extra time on an assignment for one student, they don’t try to hide the very fact that we all have different needs.  Not only is a zero-tolerance policy on teasing necessary, but a positive attitude can foster a better understanding of each child’s image of self.  Without promoting “special treatment,” they can still help each kid learn what is motivating to him, how he learns best, and what he can do to help himself.  They can provide acceptable choices within the structure of the assignment – draw a picture, illustrate a comic strip, or write a play – that play to different students’ needs and strengths. 

It is my sincere hope that teachers can begin to implement this sort of “specially designed instruction” for all students, to recognize and celebrate their differences.  They don’t have to wait for the IEP to mandate adjustments for the one child with an identified disability; they can make learning unique for each student in the room.

Peer pressure a funny thing – what it can make you do, or not do.  Peer pressure is responsible for my brother’s almost normal, borderline Eurotrash, um, fashion stylings.  And I think I prefer this (even with the sun glasses indoors) to his middle school uniform of track pants or sweat suits.  In high school, he suddenly became aware there was more to life than clothing that went swish, and my mother found herself in the GAP, trying, at his insistence, to ease his transition into high school with such novelties as jeans and khakis. 

Peer pressure is also an evil, terrible thing.  I’m not even talking about doing drugs and just saying no, and bullying (wait, maybe a little, but we’ll get to that).  I’m talking about my career research project in 7th grade Home-Ec, or Family & Career Skills, or Home and Consumer Science – whatever they called it in 1993.  In a unit that had us engaging in mock interviews, writing checks, and filling out job applications at McDonald’s, we were of course charged with researching and writing a paper on a career of our choice.  At that point in my life, I wanted to do interior design.  I don’t know where I picked up the idea, but I knew that I loved color and fabric, and that whenever the mood would strike me, I’d rearrange my room.  It’s not just a far leap to interior design.  I still cannot resist, upon entering a friend’s apartment or a house for sale, mentally knocking down walls and rearranging furniture.  Just mentally.  Until I get my jackhammer. 

But as I prepared to make my selection in 7th grade, D.F. also made his choice, and he said interior design, too.  In an era before such things as “Asperger’s” and “social pragmatic language disorder” likely existed, and certainly before they came into vogue, there was D. F., waiting for the psycho-educational specialists to find him.  I think back then society may have referred to him by the derogatory “idiot savant” designation.  He and another student, C. S., had each completed high school math by the end of 8th grade.  Because we lived in a small town, there was barely such a thing as advanced course work, and very little support for the gifted student, so D.F. and C.S. were pretty much self-taught.  They worked their way through textbooks, taking the New York State Regents when they felt they ready, and acing them all along the way.  I’m sure they’re on their way into Fortune 500s and discovering cures for diseases by now. 

But back in 7th grade, they were just awkward, dorky, snivelly, and the only 2 kids who wore their backpacks by both straps.  As soon as the words “interior designer” left D.F.’s lips, I was on the path to becoming something else, anything else.  So I chose to research “teacher”.

Somehow or another, Teacher stayed in my mind.  I think many children must think about being teachers when they grow up, as teachers are the profession they interact with most.  I knew doctor was out, as it took too long.  Lawyer was out, because it seemed incomprehensibly boring, and required you to wear blazers.  The whole idea of “business” remains a mystery to me.  I watch “The Office” occasionally, and while I can now identify with cubicle jokes and staff meeting agony, I still am no closer to understanding the daily jobs of middle management or the work-a-day cubicle-slave.  I just didn’t know about that many other professions, and, besides, I idolized my teachers, keepers of the answer keys and ultimate givers of positive feedback.  When you’re good at school, you kind of want to stay there forever. 

College opened up other worlds to me, but I still couldn’t quite see the correlation between undergraduate majors and the jobs available in the Real World.  Turns out that’s because there isn’t any.  And unless you’re brilliant like my sister, and major in social work, or have relevant skills like my computer science friends do, you’re pretty much lining up for minimum wage jobs, but with B.A. after your name. 

Sadly, I was considered too educated for many of the jobs I applied for.  I say this not to be a snob, but because I was very flatteringly told so, as I applied to job after job after job.  I couldn’t even get a mall job.  And I tried.  I put on my most epic look, and went down to Pacific Sunwear.  I got an initial interview, and never heard back. 

So I started teaching, not because it was my first choice anymore, but because it was there.  I worked at a private school, which is the only place I could work, given that I didn’t have any teacher certification, and I had majored in linguistics.  That’s almost as bad as classics, employment-wise.  I loved working in preschool.  I soaked up all the information my lead teacher/mentor doled out, and used it effortlessly in the classroom.  I loved the campus, I loved the kids, I loved the creativity.  I was still a little petrified on days when I’d sub for the lead, afraid the kids would find out I was a fraud, or not completely a grown-up, or had never taken a course in child development. 

They never asked.  I was lucky in that my mentor took a chance on me, on my interactions with children, on my babysitting and camp counseling experience, on my common-sense approach and my way with words, and my intuitive understanding of the 3- and 4-year-old mind.  Truthfully, though, it was not something I could envision myself doing forever.  Though the job was rewarding, the pay (private school + preschool + assistant + no certification) was abysmal, and I looked into my options. 

Let us forget for a moment my brain surgery, my burgeoning relationship with my then-boyfriend, or the full range of absurd career options my mother was trying to cram into my head. 

Did teaching enter my mind?  Absolutely.  Master’s in Education, certification, etc.  And it all meant graduate school.  Whereas undergrad had meant 4 years of self-indulgence, sleeping in, and selecting courses based on the workload and best schedule, graduate school might actually lead to some employable skills (besides, of course, work avoidance, which I had practically majored in).  

In evaluating my options, I considered my strengths.  I preferred working with kids in small groups.  Though my classroom management skills have become a strength I continue to rely on, I recognized that I didn’t want to spend my career at the front of a class of 25 or 30 school-age kids, or even 18 or 20 preschoolers.  I didn’t want to be the one responsible for teaching all the subjects, at elementary level, or dealing with adolescent drama, in middle and high school.  While preschool is great, and I will frequently profess it is my favorite age, I really wanted to get away from extraneous boogers, toileting, and shoe-tying.  I tell people that the reason I went to graduate school is so I wouldn’t have to change diapers (other than my own children’s). 

It’s not just the actual act of the diaper change, which of course is gross but necessary.  It becomes even less appealing as the kids get older.  Ask me how I know.  But as a speech pathologist, I get the benefit of returning a 5 year old to his classroom and telling the teacher he needs to be changed.  I recognized this power in grad school.

That, and I was terrified of full classrooms of children. 

From time to time, a great idea of a lesson plan or a curricular theme, or even a bulletin board design will invade my brain.  I’ll think of fantastic projects or writing activities I’d love to explore with different age groups.  I’ll think of ways I could improve the layout or decor of any classroom I enter, and I take mental notes upon entering classrooms what ideas I would hypothetically steal for my imaginary class.  When I was working in community-based early intervention, I couldn’t help but think of and suggest ways to improve the environment; it was my job.  I guess Teacher is still wired into my brain on some level. 

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to explore that unrequited calling.  Because it was Bullying Awareness Week last week, my school is exploring what the kids know about bullying and using it for several activities.  The speech pathologists were each charged with bringing a planned discussion and activity into several classrooms.  On Wednesday, as I reviewed my lesson plan, a teacher whose class I was to take over asked kindly if he could use that period as a prep to finish his presentation for an upcoming conference.  Translation: I had his kids alone, by myself, without him.  Twice. 

Well, after shitting myself and recoiling from the shock, I steeled myself against the prospect of two 7th grade classes.  And yesterday, I did it. 

I’ll not pretend everything went perfectly according to plan.  Some kids took a “pass” on the independent work altogether, while others dwelled on misremembered amalgams of news stories/internet memes related to bully-instigated suicide.  However, they were all engaged in the activity to some extent, and I made it through without letting on how terrified I really was.  Twice. 

 What’s ironic is that the other class I invaded had even more kids, and their teacher sat idly by at his desk, noodling around on his computer, or perhaps doing progress notes (which, as an SLP, I don’t have to do!  Perk!).  I wasn’t sure how engaged he would be in the discussion, as some teachers had interacted more than others, but he said only one thing during the entire class – he asked for relative silence during the independent work portion of the period.  And that was it.  He didn’t have to be there, but in my mind he provided a safe “out”.  I could royally fuck up, and he would be there to rescue me.  I could lose the kids entirely, and he’d step in to make it relevant.  They might threaten mutiny, and he’d give them the stink eye.  None of which happened, mind you.  It really was just me, acting as the Teacher, in front of a classroom full of kids.

If I ever get the hankering to be overworked, underappreciated, and have to deal with classroom issues like pencil sharpening, bathroom breaks, progress notes, grading papers, designing rubrics, assigning homework, and appearing confident, it’s nice to know I could do it.  As long as the school I taught at didn’t make me wear a blazer.

Similar to the “Roses and Thorns” family activity the Obamas allegedly play around the dinner table at the White House, Mr. Apron and I play a game we call “One Good Thing,” or, as he sometimes abbreviates it, “OGT”.  It’s not hard to find sucky things (ahem, “thorns”) in a shitty (“thorny”) day, but it can be hard to find a good thing.  We play OGT to help each other find one nice, decent, or even just mediocre thing in a day.  On a rough day, it might be, “I got a street parking spot in front of the house” or “The dog didn’t try to eat her shit.” 

Yesterday was just a normal day at work, until I received, out of the blue, an e-mail from a former supervisor.  She remembered that my birthday is coming up (October 9th; send presents!) this weekend, and wanted to send good wishes.  “I’m sure you are busy with your new job, but I hope you are loving that challenge too. They are very lucky to have you; I miss your positive attitude and clever insights. Please keep in touch.”  It made me feel all warm and snuggly all over.  I feel that I was able to leave my old job with no hard feelings.  Even though this woman sat in on my exit interview where I trashed the company she’s been working for; even though I left, citing irreconcilable differences with policies, management, and expectations.  That was definitely my OGT.

And my OGT was promptly derailed shortly after work.  A student I tutor, outside of school hours, inside of the school building, brushed briefly by my classroom/office/cubby/closet door, grinning ear to ear that he had no homework, making it clear he intended to get picked up with his sister today.  Bound by duty (and wary of 6th graders who proclaim they have no homework), I pulled him aside, checked his planner, and went through his classes.  Nope, seemed like no homework!  I got to leave early, all was good.

Until his mother e-mailed…didn’t he have a vocab quiz tomorrow?  Shit.  Of course he did.  And I, wonderful tutor, have neglected my duty, have shown myself to be forgetful (must not let them see my human side.  must be superhero speech therapist/tutor.), and have shirked my task.  I checked my e-mail obsessively after I replied, briefly, with a message that I hope came off more as, “Whoops!  I knew about the quiz — of course — but it slipped my mind.  Let me tell you about the quiz, to show you how much I know about. I’m responsible,”  and less as, “Sheesh, lady.  I can’t be expected to remember what every kid is doing in every class.  You do his studying with him.  You’re his mom.”  I kept expected to see her reply to my e-mail stating that she was 1) firing me from tutoring, 2) having me fired from the school, and 3) pulling her kid out of the school.  As of 8pm, I stopped checking my e-mail, figuring that she would have replied by then.  And I would have been fired by then. 

Lest I get too full of myself, it’s nice to know I will always make (and be called on) human errors to bring me back to earth, where the mortals belong.

While I have probably been at my new job long enough to declare either undying love or unmitigated frustration, it still too early to pronounce anything in between.  I am still getting to know the other staff and their particular education stylings.  I am fortunate not to be shut into my “speech closet” all day long; in addition to individualized pull-out speech therapy sessions, I also get to “push-in” to all sorts of literacy classes across the grades.  As the bloom is not yet off the rose during this, my second week, I am filled with silent admiration at the planning and activities the teachers are implementing, and how they’re able to engage their challenging students with interesting lessons that look more like games in the eyes of their pupils. 

In one class, a teacher puts 8-10 similar objects (leaves, apples, shells, rocks) on a desk in the middle of the room.  They are all assigned a number.  Each student is assigned a number, too, to correspond to the object.  After first brainstorming associated adjectives, verbs, and concepts, the kids retreat to silent writing.  They are charged with writing a short paragraph that will describe their specific object in such a way that the class will be able to identify it.  What at first seems impossible (8 black oak leaves – come on!) becomes not only a writing exercise, but also a perceptual task.  It requires focus and concentration to see that your leaf has more holes than the rest, that the color is not uniformly brown, but that it has tannish blazes towards the tips.  It requires differentiations beyond “big” and “small”, beyond “brown” and “green”, and has a motivating factor (the guessing of their classmates) built in.  The teachers participate to model their prose.  It’s a really nice activity that can continue throughout the year.  The types of descriptions are limited only by the types of objects displayed.  It’s endlessly more useful and engaging that generating lists of adjectives and rewriting “The girl had long hair” into revealingly adjective-heavy sentences like: “The cute little silly girl had long, curly, brown hair.” 

Another class is integrating their study of grammar (common nouns, proper nouns, adjectives, verbs, different types of sentences) with their study of Native Americans, so the classes are all designing games that have to include elements of 6 different grammatical concepts, and 6 different regions where the Native Americans originated.  Many of the games draw heavily on board games like Monopoly, Life, Sorry!, and Candy land.  A few kids designed a card game that uses 3 dice they made themselves.  This teacher understands that in order to make sure his kids understand the grammatical concepts, they have to be able to apply them in a more challenging way than outlining sentences.  In order to think critically about Native Americans, they integrate ideas about culture, food, geography, tool use, dwellings, and pull it all together in an admittedly very strange-sounding game.  I believe all of the kids are choosing to work in groups of 2-4, so they’re also using group problem-solving skills as they make joint decisions on what the dice should look like, delegate who will work on which cards, and figure out how to play the game.  It’s no group project I’d like to be made to work on, but then again, I hate group projects.   

I haven’t figured everyone out yet.  I’ve made first impressions, and I’ve had coworkers fervidly whisper personality traits into my ears (“Oh, he’s NOT flexible.  Needs to have EVERYTHING planned.  Just look out.) and passed along as a by-the-way (“I think she needs the help more than the kid does.  She just reacts strongly.  You’ll see.).  I think I’ll be okay, though.  As long as they’re treating the kids and the rest of us with respect and decency…as long as I’m given the tools and opportunity to do my job…I can tolerate a little personality here and there.