learning to live and love from a new perspective

One of the things I love most about working at Camp Ramah is the impact that it’s had on my own personal spiritual development. I grew up going to a Jewish sleepaway camp, so I remember how profound it is to live in an immersive Jewish community for weeks at a time. I remember how the pace slows on Shabbat, how the spirit lifts during an exciting round of Israeli dance, and how the soul is refreshed during quiet Saturday night singing under the stars. I remember all of these things, but the depth of change in my own spiritual being now that I’m experiencing Jewish camp as an adult has come as a surprise to me.

This year, in particular, I came to camp seeking a particular kind of change. During the off-season, I work in a supplementary Religious School. Part of my job is to teach students to read and chant tefillot. I get a lot of satisfaction when my students can recite all the words of Birchot Hashachar or can chant the Amidah flawlessly after weeks of practice. However, I’m aware that these accomplishments would feel much more rewarding if reciting these prayers felt more personally meaningful to me. And so, I came to camp this summer primed to deepen my own prayer experience.

I had several “Aha!” moments during Staff Training week. The first was during Tefillot on the second morning of training. The leaders of the activity encouraged all of us to brainstorm ideas for getting our campers “physically and spiritually ready” for tefillot each morning. This was a new thought for me. I always just show up at tefillot. I never thought about how the experience would be different if I did some type of preparation. But once I thought about it, it made so much sense. Musicians can’t produce beautiful music without tuning and warming up their instruments. Athletes can’t accomplish amazing physical feats without stretching and warming up their bodies. To what new heights could we lift our campers’ prayer experience if we helped them get physically and spiritually ready for tefillot? To what new heights could I lift my own tefillot? I left the session eager to explore.

The next “Aha!” moment came during a staff learning session about the poetry of Yehuda Amichai. I was deeply moved by Amichai’s simple but elegant imagery, as he explored themes of man’s relationship with G-d, peoplehood, and prayer. The poem that resonated with me the most was titled simply, “A Tallis Poem”. In the poem, Amichai uses beautiful images to explore the experience of wearing a tallis. As soon as I finished reading the poem, the answer to the previous session’s question (how can I make myself physically and spiritually ready for tefillot each morning?) became clear. I wanted to try wearing a tallis.

Sometime in the coming year, I plan to make an excursion with my daughter to buy “real” tallitot for the two of us in honor of her upcoming Bat Mitzvah. But for the purposes of this summer, I felt a sense of urgency. I went on to Amazon (yes, you really can buy anything on Amazon!), and picked out a simple tallis. It was light-weight, with a pretty purple and gold trim, and most importantly, they assured me it would arrive by Shabbat.

Wearing a tallis during tefillot has changed the experience for me. I used to scan the room during tefillot and think that everyone else looked like they were doing “real” prayer. I often felt like I was just saying words, but not really praying. I felt like there was some intrinsic difference between everyone else’s prayers and mine. My brain was always filled with thoughts like, “I didn’t go to Day School, I don’t speak Hebrew, I don’t go to a Conservative Shul. Everyone else knows what they’re doing here, and I don’t.” Making the decision to purchase and wear a tallis, for me, was making the decision to take ownership of my own tefillot experience. While my background in tefillot might not be as robust as other members of the camp community, I can feel good about where I am on my journey. I can take any step I want to deepen my own spirituality and heighten my own prayer experience. This summer, the step I’ve taken is to start wearing a tallis.

Tefillot feel so different to me now. Every morning, I make an effort to arrive a few minutes early. I take a moment to breathe deeply. I kiss the tallis and recite the blessings. I swoop it up over my head, and feel the weight as it rests on my shoulders and envelops me. During those few moments I settle my own mind, and I set my own intentions for tefillot. I feel, for the first time, warmed up. I feel physically and spiritually ready for tefillot, and for the rest of the day.

 

A Tallis Poem

By Yehuda Amichai

Whoever put on a tallis when he was young will never forget:

taking it out of the soft velvet bag, opening the folded shawl,

spreading it out, kissing the length of the neckband (embroidered

or trimmed in gold). Then swinging it in a great swoop overhead

like a sky, a wedding canopy, a parachute. And then winding it

around his head as in Hide-and-Seek, wrapping

his whole body in it, close and slow, snuggling into it like the cocoon

of a butterfly, then opening would-be wings to fly.

And why is the tallis striped and not checkered black and white

like a chessboard? Because squares are finite and hopeless.

Stripes come from infinity and to infinity they go

like airport runways where angels land and take off

Whoever has put on a tallis will never forget.

When he comes out of a swimming pool or the sea,

he wraps himself in a large towel, spreads it out again

over his head, and again snuggles into it close and slow,

still shivering a little, and he laughs and blesses.

 

Open Closed Open: Poems, trans. by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld (New York: Harcourt, 2000), p. 44

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We are here at camp for our third summer. It’s been a wonderful first week and a half. S is delighted to be reunited with her camp friends. G has had a great time in the staff kids program (the Gan), rediscovering his favorite routines and activities at camp. I’m enjoying re

IMG_1445turning to the same role for a third time, and discovering that my work becomes more rewarding and enjoyable each summer.

This Sunday, I will say good-bye to my first group of campers, and begin preparing for the next group to arrive on Tuesday.

It’s all part of the routine of camp, except for one major difference. The next group of campers will include my son, G.

Every time I think about G leaving the safety and comfort of the Gan, and becoming a “real camper”, I get emotional.   I feel a deep urge to take a moment, and appreciate the significance of this moment.IMG_3740

I find myself thinking back to when G was first diagnosed with autism. He was two and a half. At that time, we had no idea what G’s life was going to be like. We thought of all the things that are part of a typically developing kid’s childhood– baseball games and play dates, sleepovers and swim classes, piano recitals and bike rides, and on and on and on. We thought of all these things, and we worried that all of them would be out of G’s reach. That because of his challenges, that he would live life on the sidelines.

IMG_1418Over the years, we began to see that our worries about life on the sidelines were unfounded. Slowly but surely, we became connected to wonderful people and amazing programs that suited G’s needs and interests. Challenger League has provided an opportunity to play baseball. iCanBike Camp has provided an opportunity to learn to ride a bike. The Academy of Physical and Social Development has provided an opportunity for G to practice the social skills he needs to interact successfully with his peers.

But of all the wonderful and amazing supports in our lives, the one that rises to the top is Camp Ramah.

Shortly after we signed S up for her first summer of camp, we learned about the Tikvah Family Shabbaton. This weekend for parents, siblings and children with a disability has been our lifeline for the last four years. Twice a year during the off-season, we come to Camp Ramah to reconnect with our Tikvah family. For 72 hours, we eat, pray and play together. We celebrate one another’s successes, and help each other through hard times. At Tikvah, both our children are known and loved for who they are.019-L2260635

Then summer rolls around. We come back to camp for the “on-season”. We get to see many of our friends from Tikvah (both kids and staff) at camp during the summer, and deepen those relationships during our time here. S has her buddies in her bunk, and those friendships become closer and more significant each year. For the last two summers, G has been part of the Gan. As far as I know, he is the first child with a disability who has been part of this program. From day one, he has been given the support he needs to succeed, all the while building his confidence and independence.

photoFor the past ten days, G has spent the majority of his waking hours with the Gan. However, he’s also spent a good chunk of time with me and my campers. Morning prayers, evening activity, and most of Shabbat, G has been with my group. I can’t express how deeply it’s touched my heart to see G welcomed into the group by the kids and the staff. When we walk into prayers in the morning, the kids scoot over to make room for G on the bench. At evening activity, a counselor notices G on the edge of the group, and gently guides him into the thick of the activity. Yesterday, I asked the boys in the group to give G a tour of their cabin. They walked him around the bunk, pointing out where they put their toothbrushes, where they hang their jackets, and what they do with their towels after they shower. I could see on G’s face the excitement he’s feeling about moving on to this next level of independence. More importantly, I could see on the boys’ faces that they felt proud and important to be called on as helpers.IMG_2600

I’ve spent the last few days on the phone with parents of my future campers who will be dropped off at camp for the first time on Tuesday. They’ve expressed to me how they are going to drop off quickly, and hope to get out of sight before they start crying over this exciting but heart-wrenching milestone of dropping their baby off at camp. For me, I think I’ll be able to hold it together for the day. But I know the tears will come when I return to my cabin at night- the cabin I’ve shared with G for the past two and a half summers. I’ll be by myself here for the first time. I know I will mourn the passing of time, and how quickly G’s childhood is flying by. However, I will also be celebrating this enormous moment in his life. G will be a real camper, in a real bunk. He’s going to have an experience that we never, ever thought would be possible back when he was first diagnosed with autism. He’s going to share this experience with friends we’ve made through Tikvah over the years, and he’s going to be supported by staff who’ve grown up in Ramah understanding the value of inclusion.
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Of all the wonderful and amazing supports in our lives, the one that rises to the top is Camp Ramah. Thank you, Camp Ramah. We are so very, very grateful.

 

I am part of a “Community of Practice” that meets monthly.  Our group is comprised of educators who work in Jewish schools.  Together, we study and learn together on the topic of supporting inclusion of individuals with disabilities within our schools.  Each meeting begins with one member offering a “D’var Torah”.  Literally, this means “words of Torah”.  We connect the Torah story of the week to the work we are doing around inclusion.  It was my turn today….  and even though I’m not experienced in writing a D’var, I was happy with the way this one turned out.  So here it is.  Enjoy!

 

D’Var Torah – Parsha Vayikra

I’d like to start with a story I posted on my personal Facebook page last week:

We have a fence in our backyard that’s about 10 panels long. In the last storm, the posts that hold up the first three panels got uprooted. David called a contractor to come look at the fence, and give an estimate for repair. Yesterday, the doorbell rang. It was the contractor. He was a big, taciturn-looking guy with a thick Russian accent. I went with him into the back yard to look at the fence. Big Fence Guy paces back and forth a few times, scratching his chin as he goes. Then he comes back to me.


Big Fence Guy: I theenk you have two choices. You can replace whole fence, which weel cost lots. Or, you can replace just posts ruined in storm. I’m not sure how long rest of fence will last, so I’m not sure best answer.


Me: Oh, I see. You’re not sure which advice to give me. It sounds like you’re on the fence.


Big Fence Guy:


Me: It’s an American expression. “On the fence” means you’re having trouble making a decision.


Big Fence Guy:


Me: In your line of work, I think that’s an expression you might enjoy knowing.


Big Fence Guy: (after a long pause, I see a slight smile). Yes, that’s good expression to know.

 In the current political climate, I’ve been very mindful of trying to make connections with people from a wide variety of backgrounds. I really enjoyed creating this particular bridge with a person whose job it is to build fences.

 And,yes…. I’m well aware that I’m a nerd.

 

While most of my friends appreciated the story, the puns, and my nerdiness… I did get push-back from one friend who argued that we should always reach out to people who are different from us, no matter what the political climate.

And this brings me to this week’s parsha.

In this first Parsha in the Book of Leviticus, G-d describes to Moses the laws of animal sacrifice. G-d goes into great, great detail about which animals shall be sacrificed, how they should be sacrificed, when they should be sacrificed and why they should sacrificed. There is very little left to the imagination in this recitation of laws.

Which led me to wonder, given that animal sacrifice is no longer part of Jewish ritual practice, what can be learned from this parsha? As I read through the commentaries, I discovered some of the purposes for sacrificing animals: to give the People of Israel a physical act that they could do to atone for sins, show appreciation to G-d, and also to bring themselves closer to G-d.

In modern life, our prayer services have taken the place of ritual sacrifice. Three times a day, there is an opportunity to physically take out a prayer book, and engage with G-d through prayer.

I also think a mindful commitment to Jewish values can take the place of ritual sacrifice as well. I believe that we all have good intentions. Jewish ritual and prayer can help us to transform those good intentions, which only exist in our minds and hearts, into behavior that carries out into the world.

Take the story at the beginning.   In our current political climate, my heart aches for immigrant families who live in fear of being deported and Muslim people (or people who resemble Muslims) who live in fear of being the target of hatred and bigotry. But it’s not enough for my heart to ache. I need to turn that ache into action. Make donations, attend rallies, and yes… even make a gesture of friendship and humor towards the big, burly guy who is mending my fence.

How does this relate to inclusion?

For all of us here, we are committed to making our schools, synagogues and communities more inclusive and welcoming towards individuals with disabilities. This Torah portion reminds us that it’s not enough for that commitment to reside within our own hearts and minds. In order to fulfill our commitment to inclusion, we need to be constantly at the ready to back up our commitment with action- even when that action is uncomfortable. We need to be ready to look beyond a child’s behavior (even if that behavior really pushes our buttons), and try to decode the message the child is communicating through the behavior. We need to be ready to offer feedback to our colleagues, even if we know that feedback might not be readily welcomed. We need to be ready to push back on parents, community members, or decision-makers in our communities if they are clinging to beliefs that pose barriers to inclusion.

Inclusion can be hard work. It can be messy and uncomfortable. However, we can hold on to the thought that that the work we do is an outward expression of a commitment to our Jewish values. And that thought can help us persevere when the work becomes difficult.

If you’ve been around here for a while, you will know that I’ve been involved in a project at my kids’ school to help parents in the school community better understand Inclusive Education.  The impetus behind this project
is described here:  https://frootloopsblog.wordpress.com/2016/10/10/changing-the-conversation-part-1.

I’ve had the privilege of working with an amazing team of educators at my kids’ school to plan and present a series of workshops to parents on the topic of Inclusive Education.  The most recent workshop was held last night.  The title of the workshop was ” Response to Intervention: Addressing the Needs of All Students at [our school]”.

The bulk of the workshop was a fabulous presentation by a first grade teacher and our school’s Intervention Specialist.  It was mostly about how the school uses assessment data to group kids, and plan lessons based on the specific skills each child needs to work on.  The presentation began and ended with this graphic:equity

Using the image as a springboard, one parent raised her hand and said the following, “I really appreciate your presentation, and I’m trying to get some more clarity on this issue.  I hope this question won’t seem insensitive, as that’s not my intention.”  She paused, and then continued, “ I get that we want to provide enough boxes so that everyone can see over the fence.  What I’m wondering is what would happen if we give everyone 3 boxes?  Then everyone can see over the fence AND the kids who could see over the fence already could see even further!  What would that look like?”

I think this question gets right at the heart of teaching people about inclusion and Inclusive Education.

When I see this graphic (and I’ve seen it many, many times), I see three kids who have the same goal.  Let’s watch a baseball game together!  The only problem is that, in the picture on the left, the two big guys are busy enjoying the game…  while the only thing the little kid can see is fence.

When I see this graphic, it makes me so happy that the kids have figured out how to solve the problem.  Cool!  We have enough boxes!!  All we need to do is transfer a box from the big guy to the little guy.  Now we can all see!!  Look at that…  the Red Sox just scored a home run!!!

However, I think our society perpetuates a scarcity mentality.  What’s in those boxes?  How do I get one for my kid?   I also think our society elevates individualism over community.  Who cares about that little guy, as long as my kid can see the game…  that’s all that matters.  We’re seeing this writ large in national politics at the moment, and we can see it play out in our day to day lives.

Well I’m here to let you in on a little secret.  THE BIGGEST THING I WANT FOR MY KID IS FOR HIM NOT TO NEED THE DAMN BOXES!

Just to demystify a little bit…  let me tell you a bit about what’s inside my kid’s boxes.  Our first boxes were delivered when G was just 9 months old.  He wasn’t meeting his physical benchmarks, so he started working with a physical therapist.  We added speech therapy and occupational therapy when he was two.  Later, we added behavioral therapy and a play skills group.  Did I mention we received all these boxes before he was even three years old?

I remember bursting into tears one day when G was five.  We were just wrapping up a two-hour session with our behavioral therapist.  I was saying good-bye to her in the driveway, and I happened to look across the street.  Our neighbor and her five-year-old daughter were just returning home from kindergarten soccer.  It was a beautiful spring day, and the little girl’s soccer uniform was practically glistening in the sun.  Moments earlier, I had been on top of the world, thinking about the amazing progress G had made that day with his therapist.  My high spirits came crashing down when I started thinking about what he was missing out on.

After three years with the behavioral therapist, we finally made the decision that G had made enough progress to “graduate”.  While he still needs many other supports, he had acquired the specific set of skills she had to offer.  Nothing makes me happier than to get rid of one of those boxes.

Back to the graphic…  I think it’s a natural reaction to want the best for your kid.  And maybe, when you see that someone else’s kid got two boxes, while your kid has none, it might raise some questions about the boxes.  What I’m asking is to please, please….  think for a moment about what might be inside those boxes.

Those boxes represent ramps that make buildings handicap accessible.  Those boxes represent assisted listening devices for kids who can’t hear.  Those boxes represent hours of phonics instruction for kids who can’t hear the difference in the sound of a “p” versus the sound of a “d”.  Those boxes represent aides who can support students in overcoming the obstacles they face due to autism, ADHD, anxiety, or a billion other disabilities.  Those boxes represent whatever a kid needs so they can see the ballgame instead of the fence.

So again, I ask you….  let’s keep our focus on our goals as a school community.  Heck, let’s keep our focus on our goals as a society.   At the end of the day, it’s not about how many boxes you have.  It’s about working together to make sure everybody can see the game.

Brave Choices

defiant girlI’ve only written one blog post since the election.  I haven’t written at all since the inauguration.  I’ve been feeling inundated and overwhelmed by the staggering amount of information coming at me every day.  I’ve been trying to keep up with the news, and the repercussions of each new ill-conceived policy, heartless executive order, and preposterous tweet.  As soon as I feel I have my head wrapped around one piece of news, and feel that I have an opinion I’d like to flesh out and share…  the next piece of news hits the wires…  and pulls my heartstrings in a different direction.

In honor of International Women’s Day, I carved out a bit of time for myself.  I wanted the luxury of an hour to think through and write about one topic.  The thought that kept bubbling to the top was “Impossible Choices”.  The Jewish holiday of Purim is coming up this weekend, where we honor the brave choices of female heroes.  Vashti, who chooses to refuse King Ahashverus’ order to come dance for him, even though it results in her banishment from the her position as queen.  Esther, who bravely risks a similar banishment when she chooses to tell King Ahashverus about Haman’s plot to kill the Jews.

I think about our current political climate and the impossible choices we are all either facing, or could face in the near future.  If you are a victim of a crime, but you are not a fully documented American, do you report the crime and risk deportation, or do you suffer the consequences of the act inflicted on you?  If you are poor, and you have to choose between health insurance and rent (or health insurance and the latest iPhone, as Paul Ryan would suggest), which do you choose?  If you witness an act of aggression towards an immigrant, a Muslim, a Jew…  do you intervene, and put yourself in harm’s way…  or do you look down, keep walking, and pretend you don’t see what’s happening?

It was this concept of “Impossible Choices” that guided me towards my first blog post in quite some time.

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I’ve known this day was coming.  March 8-  International Women’s Day.  Leaders from the Women’s March on Washington are organizing a “Day Without Women”.  Women across the country were encouraged to stay home from work if they can.

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve struggled.  I generally work from home on Wednesdays, so staying home from work wouldn’t be noticed.  I could choose not to work today…  but that would only end up making me feel bad…  as the emails pile up, and relationships get strained when I don’t follow through on promises.

Then, last night, I heard this news.  Prince George’s County, MD announced that they would be canceling school today.  1700 teachers, as well as 30% of their transportation staff had requested a personal day for today.

Wow.  I began my teaching career in Silver Spring, MD.  While Silver Spring was part of wealthy Montgomery County, we were just two miles up the road from the border of Prince George’s County.  The demographics of my school (majority of students from low-income, minority families) more closely matched the profile of PG county schools, and not the upper-class,  mostly white population of the greater part of Montgomery County (Bethesda, Rockville, etc…  for those of you familiar with the area).

When I heard those numbers (1700 teachers and 30% of the transportation staff), I began to imagine myself on the other end of that decision-making process.  If I was alone, choosing to take the day off would have no impact.  But joining 1700 other teachers and shutting down the system?  That’s powerful.  Still, it would be hard a decision to make.  The short-term impact on parents will be substantial today.  All of us parents know that finding last-minute childcare is hard.  I’d feel incredibly guilty as a teacher knowing that I was deliberately causing a hardship to my students’ families-  especially families where parents’ jobs could be at risk if they didn’t show up.

If I was teaching in that district today, what would I do?  The Trump Administration is rolling out legislation that is going to have devastating effects on our national security, our health, our environment, and our education system.  The long term effects of these policies are going to be staggeringly painful to all of us, but particularly to the very population I’d be trying to protect by showing up for work.  It would be a difficult choice to make-  to knowingly cause short term inconvenience (and possibly harm?) in the service of long term goals.  But this is the world of impossible choices that we are all being forced to grapple with.

So I fully support the strikes, the walk-outs, the boycotts, and whatever other forms of non-violent protest happen today.  I’ve been hearing the phrase “we need to throw sand in the gears of everything” a lot lately.  In PG County, 1700 teachers and a huge number of transportation workers made a brave choice to throw sand in the gears today, and call attention to issues that matter to them.  I feel inspired by their actions, and hope, if given the opportunity to make a brave stand myself sometime, I will have the courage to do it.

But what can I do today?

Today, I’m wearing red in support.  I’m blogging for the first time since the Inauguration.  And I’m donating.  Tonight, my husband and I have allotted some time to talk about the amazing women in our world, and how we can meaningfully honor their efforts through our contributions.

Happy Thanksgiving

Every year on Thanksgiving morning, a big crowd of grown-ups and kids of all ages come trotting down our street. Many of them are wearing costumes, and they are following a jolly looking man dressed in a turkey suit. It all looks like great fun, but I never knew who was organizing the event.

A couple of weeks ago, there was an invitation on the email listserve from my kids’ school. Come join us for the annual neighborhood Turkey Trot! It listed the gathering place and start time.

Because we were hosting a very small gathering for Thanksgiving this year, I thought it would be fun to begin the day with people. The gathering place was just a few blocks from our house, so at the appointed time my son and I headed over.

The scene was festive. A banner was strung across the street, and people were wearing Thanksgiving Day costumes. A group of teenage girls were wearing their High School sports uniforms, and had on face paint. They were dancing on a front lawn turned dance floor. Then I noticed one of them was wearing a Trump/Pence banner tied as a cape around her neck. I felt my spine stiffen.

My son and I stood on the edge of the crowd for a while. G is eight years old, and he has autism. So, while he likes looking at the colorful costumes, and listening to the music from a distance, he doesn’t like being in the thick of things. I felt awkward standing there, but couldn’t enter the crowd because of G. Nobody approached us, so we just stood.

Just then, I noticed several dogs in the crowd. A couple of them were on leashes, but there were two large dogs who were unleashed. G spotted them at the same time I did. “Let’s stay calm,” I whispered to G. “You just stand behind me. If the dog approaches us, I’ll keep it away from you.”

I could feel G’s body become rigid. The dog came closer to us, and G’s fingers dug into my skin as he clutched onto me. Finally, he couldn’t contain his fear anymore, and he started yelling, “Stay away from me! Get that dog away from me!” The tears were streaming down his face. I got down on my knees, and gripped G in an enormous hug, letting his tears splash onto my shoulders. I whispered in his ear until the dog passed, and G’s breathing returned to normal.

Then I looked up.

A band of teenage boys was standing about five feet away from us. “Did you see that kid?” asked one teen to another. “He’s crying and screaming because of a DOG!” The whole group started laughing, and a couple made fake crying noises.

I took a deep breath and pulled myself together. If G sensed that I was angry or upset, he would lose it again.

“Come on G!” I said in the most cheerful voice I could muster. “The Turkey Trot starts now. Three, two, one, TROT!!!” And with that, we started running, leaving the crowd behind us.

My son is eight years old. He makes funny movements and unusual sounds. He often has big, emotional reactions to things that others can manage more easily. I’ve always been worried that he will be bullied or teased some day. However, yesterday was the first time it’s happened in my presence.

 

Below is the text of my portion of the Inclusion Presentation from last week’s PTO meeting.  It’s my impression that it was well-received by the audience, and I hope it served it’s intended purpose of putting a personal face on the topic of Inclusion.

My name is Alison Lobron, and I’m the mom of S in grade 5 and G in grade 3. My son G has an autism spectrum disorder and ADHD. He has been receiving Special Education services from Newton Public Schools since he enrolled in the Newton Early Childhood Program on his third birthday.

When G was first diagnosed with autism, and later with ADHD, I knew very little about either disorder. I have found the teachers and specialists at Newton Public Schools to be an invaluable resource in learning about how to understand my child’s unique neurological wiring, and how to best support his growth and development.

It is my hope that by sharing with you a little bit about our journey, that it can help paint a more detailed picture of how special education works at Franklin School. I’d like to begin by reading an excerpt from a blog post I wrote in the spring of 2014, when G was in Kindergarten.

Ever since G was a toddler, he has struggled with learning how and when rules apply.  Sometimes, he will over generalize.  If he is told to be quiet in the sanctuary at our synagogue one time (during services), then he will be quiet in the sanctuary always (no matter how loud and raucous everyone else is being).  He doesn’t recognize social cues…  he just remembers that last time we were in this place, he was told to be quiet.

Sometimes he will under generalize.  The other day, he put a hot French fry in his mouth and burned his tongue.  I taught him to look at the steam coming off the French fry.   The steam is a clue that the French fry is hot.  Blow on it first, it will cool off.  After ten repetitions, it seemed like he got it.  Until the next day, when we sat down for lunch and there was steam coming off his Mac and Cheese.  I assumed he wouldn’t put it in his mouth…  as we discussed JUST YESTERDAY that steam means the food is hot.  But I was thinking like me.  To me, steam means the food is hot.  To G, steam means a French fry is hot.  Steam coming off Mac and Cheese might mean something completely different.  So, he pops the noodle in the mouth…  and guess what?  Steam coming off Mac and Cheese is EXACTLY THE SAME as steam coming off French fries.

So how does this play out at school? In order to be successful in school, students need to learn school rules, and appropriate behavior for the classroom, the lunchroom, the playground, etc. We are all parents here. We all know how hard it is to get our kids to learn and follow rules for an extended period of time- like for an entire school day. This challenge is compounded when you have a tendency to over and undergeneralize. Some kids will learn and apply rules easily, and other kids will need more support. This variation of need is addressed by a system known as a Tiered Interventions.

Tiered Intervention works in the following way. There are three levels of support when it comes to teaching expected behavior and addressing inappropriate behavior. The first level of support is referred to as “Tier One”. Tier One supports are for all students. One of the main components of Tier One at Franklin School is Responsive Classroom. Responsive Classroom, when implemented with fidelity, puts in place all the things that most students need. Explicit review of behavioral expectations let students know what kind of behavior is appropriate in the gym vs the cafeteria vs the hallway vs the classroom. I strongly believe this is helpful for all children, but it is definitely true for a child who tends to over or undergeneralize. Morning meetings give students of all abilities the social skills they need to connect with other kids. Specific teacher language that is consistent from the classroom teacher to the lunchroom aide to the principal takes all the guess work out of trying to figure out what each new grown up wants students to do.

All of the Tier One supports are important for G, but they’re not enough. He also needs some individualized supports in order to be successful. These supports come from Tier Two (Show communication log, social story, Social Detective Book). When G was in preschool and kindergarten, he also received supports from Tier Three. At that time, even with all the support from Tier One and Tier Two, G would exhibit some “externalized behavior” – especially non-compliance. As a Tier Three support, his behavior was closely monitored by a Behavior Therapist. (Show some kind of data chart). The BT offered strategies to his teacher and aide, and eventually G developed the skills he was lacking. Because of his disabilities, he will always need some level of support, but it gives me a lot of joy to think about the supports that he no longer needs.

I want to say one more thing about G’s experience here at Franklin, and this is parent to parent. G has made such amazing strides, and has many strengths. But he is also vulnerable. Kids with special needs are about 60% more likely to be bullied than their non-disabled peers. Last year, some of the kids in G’s grade discovered G’s difficulties in learning rules. They created a game I like to call, “Let’s see what we can get G to do.” Most of the things they got him to do were fairly innocuous, like licking the table in the cafeteria. However, one day we were on the playground after school. A group of boys all picked up rocks and made a plan to throw the rocks on the count of three. They counted to three, and all the boys dropped the rocks, except for G. G didn’t realize he was being baited, and went ahead and threw the rock.

Fortunately, G has a strong team. One of the behavioral specialists went into the classroom and did a series of lessons on standing up to peer pressure and also how to be a good friend. The specialists worked in conjunction with his classroom teacher to address the needs of all the students and establish more supportive classroom norms.

G has been well-served by Newton Public Schools for the last five years. I couldn’t imagine what our lives would be like right now, if we hadn’t had access to the dedicated teachers and specialists here at Franklin. I also believe that the Tier One supports that are available to all students here at Franklin are precisely the kind of supports that make a difference for all students and help us build the kind of inclusive community we’d all like to have for our children.

 

 

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