Hiding under Furniture

James was hard to find.  Sometimes in the closet, periodically in the hall, randomly in the washroom… and often under my desk.  James knew all the quiet spots.  Spots away from those annoying peers who liked to talk, spots away from the prying eyes of supervisors, and spots away from pencils.

The first few days in my grade 5 classroom I would scan the room to take attendance.  After the first two days I knew to look around to ensure James was on the premises.  His previous well-meaning teachers advised me that he was just a weak kid with social anxieties and to just do my best to get him through.  That was not on my ‘to do’ list.  I wanted to inspire learners!  Ignite fires and feed them books to keep their paths lit on their journeys through life.

Hmm, by week three I was feeling that the fire I aspired to set was being washed away by rivers of fear secreting the firewood away into dark thickets.  It is a difficult thing to undo a core belief that one simply ‘does not fit’.  The trail is lined with obstacles and webs are strung between strong poplars. I trekked on, through, over, until one day I sat beneath my desk.

James was also under the desk, just sitting.  He had stopped hiding outside the classroom after day three when he announced that I was “not scary!”  From that day until the desk (rather under desk) meeting James would conceal himself on shelves, in the cupboard, behind my desk, and sometimes lying under the chalkboard ledge.  We had to find a way to make this more successful.

hiding under desk8

On the morning of our desk meeting, James greeted me cheerfully with his crooked grin as he watched me climb over the footrest and join him under my rather large double pedestal. I sat with him calmly and then began to tell him about my favourite books.  I am a reader; books were and remain my saving place. I could not at that moment think of anything profound to say and so I spoke about what I loved. James listened intently.  He became animated asking me about different topics and he seemed thrilled that I was a history fan.  Now at this point in the class James had not been observed reading, looking for books, or even skimming the multiple titles suggested to him.  But in the quiet and shadowed underbelly of my desk I discovered a reader.  James read!  He read a lot and he read mature novels.  James reveled in the written word.  I thank God for an amazing group of students that day.  Students who just seemed to understand that someone needed my attention and who were willing to provide the time it required.

The following day when I looked for James he was not in his desk.  I peered under my desk and found his grin peeking back at me.  I left him there.  He began to participate in activities, follow instruction, and demonstrate growth after skill building! I designed a personal program to address deficits but to also springboard off James’ vast knowledge and interest areas.  James regularly worked under my desk.  It was a haven safe and secure in a world of unknowns.

I referred James for assessment before the end of October.  I met with his parents along with the school based team to discuss his strengths and weaknesses.  Everyone had something to say about James’ weaknesses but I was more interested in his strengths.  I believed James was above average; gifted. His parents laughed at the suggestion and signed the paperwork for assessment.  They weren’t laughing when we all met with the psychologist following multiple meetings to complete the process.  Parents can also be victims of social expectations, peer pressure, and bullying.  A child that hides must have problems, right?

James was identified as highly gifted with a significant writing and spelling disability.  I was elated for James.  His parents were really lovely caring people who wanted their son to be successful.  They didn’t mean to feel embarrassed by his strange behaviour but endless snickers and stinging comments from friends and family had left them wondering and sensitive.

James shone in his year with me, grew in skill, and developed coping strategies to bolster both social and academic abilities. His amazing gifts were embraced by his classmates and celebrated during discussions.  They had been unaware of his interests and his humour.  Peers clamoured for his attention away from the hiding spots which beckoned James less and less. He was full of ideas for stories and would design extravagant playground games based on living in space.

The following year I was the director of the Gifted Education program.  James was first on my list.  Included in the group was a six-year-old math genius, a 13-year-old language buff, and James.  They were all space fans.  Together they designed a space centre and presented their creation to a College professor.  The professor was astounded at the depth of knowledge, research, and understanding of galactic travel the students had demonstrated.  He felt they had developed a feasible plan.  Wow! The positive response and acknowledgement of hard work and innovative thinking was surprising to James most of all!

In the regular classroom James was struggling.  His teacher in grade six did not believe in differentiating or in allowing tech devices (I recommended the provision of a laptop so James could get his ideas down without the restrictions of his writing disability and a calculator for basic facts). He was failing math despite exhibiting advanced problem solving and critical evaluation of complex data.  His teacher informed me that because James did not know his times tables by heart he would not pass.  Ahhhhhh.  I was so frustrated.  The principal worked with me that year to re-educate the teacher.  It was at James’ expense.  The following year I kept James in my program almost exclusively to allow him time to learn and grow with individualized curriculum and alternative learning opportunities.

James ignited the fire in me to fight for individualized student programming.  My peers often call out “I know!  Differentiate” as I approach them.  I am passionate about student success. I am vocal about the need for implementing varied instructional strategies and employing alternative work spaces.  I have seen James many times since he left the school.  His mom and I are friends on Facebook and James and I have shared stories with laughter.  He is a creative and successful adult.  He is still what many describe as ‘alternative’. I just remember an incredible person with surprising insights who taught me that sometimes learning under desks (or in closets or behind chart stands) is an amazing place to begin explorations, treks, and travels!

Names changed to protect privacy.

© Michelle Redman and mredmanwrites, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Michelle Redman and mredmanwrites https://mredmanwrites.wordpress.com/

Hiding in the Shadows



Every year teaching has brought tumultuous twists and turns with students who have challenged my thinking, pushed my expectations, and encouraged me with their personal courage.  Throughout my career I have seen the flickering of wings from the dark side of the moon, smiles flashing across crowded corridors pulling shadows from unseen hideaways, and resilient whispers pushing towards life on a thread of Faith. Over the next few weeks I will share just a few stories from decades of teaching incredible individuals.

Learning Assistance (LAT) is an often overlooked grey area of Special Education.  LAT includes students for whom there are specific learning challenges.  These students join a multitude of disabilities with invisible struggles.  Who are these kids!?  They are individuals whose brains lack working memory, the ability to see numbers, perhaps an inability to decipher phonics.  They are the ‘sensitive’ people who are overwhelmed by neural activation; sound, sight, taste, or touch.  They are undervalued, dismissed, pushed away.  These students take time, focus, skilled instruction providing differentiated curriculum, delivery, environment, or conditions.  There are so many possibilities for success. Inclusion is a right of all.  This includes Learning Assistance students.

Innumerable times in my career I have been informed by classroom teachers that students are ‘just lazy’, ‘too sensitive’, ‘take too much time’, or  ‘need to get over it’…  My fury was ultimately balanced by the need to educate and inform these teachers.  LAT kids appear mainstream.  Their designations may sound small and may be easily dismissed by misunderstanding.  So many times I have witnessed 60% of student populations receiving 100% of the instructional planning and delivery.  What about the edges?  As Shelley Moore has advocated, we need to aim for the corner pins! (Moore, S. 2016-04-04)

Mental health can be a precarious thing for learners who are led to doubt their abilities, their potential, their gifts.  Such was the case for Steven.  A strong personality with so many fractures he was held together by sheer will power.  The central belief that he was unable to learn and would forever be a burden to those around him, resulted in a deep debilitating depression.  In the regular classroom he was consistently overlooked.  A quiet person in a sea of teenage angst and social festivities, Steven would often reach the end of a unit without any notes (he was unable to hand write legibly), without any recollection of the topic (he had an extremely weak working memory), and without having participated in any activities or discussions (he suffered from extreme anxiety).

Steven and I found each other one year when by chance he arrived in my LAT classroom.  He was actively seeking a ‘safe place’. Somewhere he didn’t have to face people.  My room was quiet, soft music floated out the door, and light emanated from a table lamp with “Be Brave” emblazoned across it in glittering gold.  Steven chose the corner chair facing the door with his back to the wall.  What had happened to create such distrust?  As this was the first week at a new school I went looking for a file to provide background and hopefully arm me with strategies to communicate with a student who was at that time…silent.

The team at the school let me know that a full assessment had been done previously and that Steven was a Resource kid who missed the designation by a point with his perceptual reasoning.  I took that information, considered it, then proceeded to instead looked for patterns in his school history and communication.  Then I began the lengthy process to affirm myself as a ‘safe person’ in the safe room.  Over a few weeks I began to get eye contact, grunts, small talk.  My presence in Steven’s regular classes were a time of increased anxiety, even when I worked with other students in the opposite corner of the room.  I opted for one:one contact in the corner of my room with only one or two other students in the space.  The relaxation was palpable. Our first few real discussions about video games and websites were filled with evident trepidation. Once we had established trust and had begun building a relationship developed over common interests, Steven blossomed!  He would participate in animated debates and arrive with tales from home, friends, and the neighborhood.  Then began the process of addressing Steven’s academic needs.  Steven used the computer like a pro and was able to write using tech but he truly believed he was incapable.  He refused to look any different than ‘normal kids’ and would not use the technology available to improve his achievement.

A robust person appeared as Steven’s comfort increased.  Steven was bright, interactive, and demonstrated unexpected insights. As a result of my observations, I contacted the psychologist to request an adjudication as soon as possible.  When the report-out occurred, the results were not what other people expected.  He was within normal intelligence, completely capable, but incapacitated by severe disabilities spanning several competencies!  Additionally, the concurrent depression was stifling any possibility for growth.

The psychologist was new and extremely well trained.  He took the time to provide on-going counselling sessions to Steven.  Together they maneuvered the roadblocks wrought by years of misunderstanding and minimization. Steven sobbed the first day he truly believed he was not handicapped in the traditional sense.  We began to learn that he had been systematically bullied by a group using intellectually prejudicial slurs for a number of years.  A lack of understanding of Steven’s abilities, the absence of required instructional strategies, and weak interpersonal abilities created a perfect storm for both academic and social marginalization.

We began by removing students, or Steven, from classes where he continued to be a target of abuse.  It is my firm belief that the decision made for Steven’s safety, precluded any on-going attempts at educating the abusers.  The re-education of the targeting gang would continue without Steven’s victimization.  Next, we encouraged Steven to find his voice!  He began writing a story rich with profanity, violence, challenges.  His voice was angry and the ability to write with conviction and vision was liberating.  Steven was a prolific writer intent on being heard.  He repeatedly asked how he could create a richer reading experience for his audience.  Wow!  Reading had been difficult and continued to bring up emotional responses.  I introduced text to voice and found that Steven enjoyed listening to stories!  He would follow along with visual tracking programs and participate in small conversations with intimate groups of quiet students.  Numeracy was Steven’s weakest skill area.  Beginning with building blocks I discovered another passion initiating active engagement!  The hands on participation in numerical representations, re-grouping, and manipulation allowed Steven to feel successful and build demonstrable skill.  The blocks were a permanent part of our table, along with whiteboards, number tables, calculators, rulers, and colourful anchor charts for reference!

Incredibly slowly, painfully aware of each movement, Steven began to pull out of obscurity.  He developed a real friendship and implemented social strategies we practiced in the hushed confines of a comforting space.

The differentiation of curriculum, individualized programming, and the integration of strategies for success benefit all students.  Students with specific learning disabilities are able to explore their gifts when they are enabled and empowered. See beyond the wariness, the fear, the reticence. Pull those shadows out from the lockers, away from the corners, and up from under the tables.  Let them find their light and enable them to brighten their own path through recognition, empowerment, and trust!

** All names changed to protect individuals

Bibliography

  1. Moore, S. 2016-04-04. Transforming Education. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/RYtUlU8MjlY.

© Michelle Redman and mredmanwrites, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Michelle Redman and mredmanwrites https://mredmanwrites.wordpress.com/