I am a bit of a control freak.
It’s part, I think, of why I’m good at my job–I have a clear sense of how I want things to play out, and I’m able to plan and structure things so they do that. Usually. Well, often. Um, perhaps, sometimes.
And the less comfortable I am with something, the more I want to control it–the more important it is for me to have a clear structure, a defined game plan, an advance sense of how it’s gonna go.
The part of my job that I’m least comfortable with is the social piece–specifically, it’s the social groups I lead, several times weekly, in which I recruit general education students to work on conversations, turn-taking, and social interaction with my students who struggle in this crucial area. It’s honestly nerve-wracking, how many doubts I have about it: think every fear you have about hosting a party, and then make sure you’re also inviting your crazy uncle and a random televangelist.
What if the general ed kids don’t want to come? What if my students act more strangely than usual? What if the conversation becomes inappropriate? What happens if there’s no conversation at all? I feel, during lunch group, that my students are on a stage, of sorts–that I’m putting them in a position where others are watching them, and that this is a performance that’s hard to do well. And I want them to do well–I want them to seem competent. I want the gen-ed peers to remember having fun, not feeling awkward: I want them to smile when they think of my kids.
I want it all to be perfect. So I want to control it. I want to minimize every possible bump in the road.
I set out folding black chairs, because those are the only chairs I have in quantity which are precisely identical: the wooden chairs look similar, but one is much higher than the others, and one is much smaller. I’m not starting lunch group with a scramble for the best chair.
I create a structure for the conversations we’ll have. Back when I worked with students with severe autism, I collected a bunch of “sensory fidgets”–things to look at and squish and roll in your hands. One item is a plastic wand, with colored sand and sequins sealed in liquid inside of it: we use this as the talking stick. When you’re holding the stick, it’s your turn to talk: when you don’t hold the stick, it’s your turn to listen. We review, every time, what “whole body listening” looks like–eyes watching, ears listening, mouth closed, body facing speaker.
There’s always a question of the day. I typically choose a simple topic, connected if possible with what’s happening around us. On a rainy day, we talk about what we like to do when it rains; for Halloween, we share about our favorite candy. I do everything I can to increase the likelihood that my target students will give an on-topic, “cool” answer and listen attentively to their peers. Art Club is geared around a fifth-grade girl with intellectual disabilities: I typically show a picture slideshow or have an icon sheet available so that the visuals can give her ideas. Twenty minutes before Yosef and Juan Carlos’ group, the three of us do a dry run to rehearse their answers. Of late, this has largely involved me sternly forbidding one of them from reciting a drawn-out narrative involving Frog and Toad while the other dissolves helplessly into giggles.
When I see him 1:1, Juan Carlos is a very Serious Learner. He listens, he reflects, he remembers, he generalizes. He came back to me, two days after I used a word web about his teacher to show him Main Idea and Details, and used my exact whiteboard to make himself the Main Idea. He considers our math work to be his “Training Exercises”: this is a child who still can’t memorize the simple equation, 1+2 =3, but he once used finger counting to add 2 four-digit numbers. Juan Carlos has a very specific and sometimes idiosyncratic approach to the task at hand, but he always gives it his solemn best.
Three weeks ago, he informed me that he’d been thinking a lot about the Question of the Day, and that he had a suggestion for what we should talk about. “We need to ask the kids, ‘What’s your favorite part of bedtime?’ ” Excited hand-flapping and a subvocal “wheee!” noise–Juan Carlos was pumped that he’d come up with an idea.
I pictured how that could play out, in our Structured Social Group. Imagined kids looking at him, eyebrows quirked, utterly at a loss. Your Favorite Part of Bedtime? Seriously? Kids talk, as I’ve often explained to Yosef and Juan Carlos–with Powerpoints and visual charts when necessary–about movies. About sports. T.V. and food. Sometimes, about holidays. And often about brand named items. But your favorite part of bedtime makes Frog and Toad seem cool.
Gently, I tried to redirect Juan Carlos, thanking him sincerely for his contribution and, well, putting it off. (Possibly indefinitely.) “Well, that could be an interesting question, and perhaps we’ll do it another week, but, um…Thanksgiving is coming up. Wouldn’t it be nice to know what people like to eat for that?”
And then, hooray, a week off for Thanksgiving–no social group to orchestrate at all. When everyone came back to school, I was exceptionally hopeful that Juan Carlos had forgotten, but this is the child who still remembers which store I bought the Goldfish crackers from two and a half years ago. “Today is lunch group, Teacher Beth! We will ask all the students their Favorite Part of Bedtime.”
A bit of hemming. And hawing. “It is an interesting question, my friend. And I’d love to hear your answer. But you know, we just had Thanksgiving break. A whole week to do fun things. Don’t you think kids would like to share something they did over the vacation?”
Juan Carlos acquiesced, and lunch group came and went with a minimum of awkwardness. Whole Body Listening was practiced and employed, the talking stick passed from hand to hand, Yosef summarized 12 details as “and I did a lot of other stuff, also.” Gradually, bit by bit, we’re all getting a little bit more socially competent; gradually, I’m wrapping my brain around the idea that maybe, just maybe, what I’ve got is a success.
And here’s the thing you need to do, when you’ve got a success but there’s further to go. You need to stretch things a bit, to trust what you’re building on. You need to take a risk and let go of just a little control.
So last week, I set up the five black chairs in a ring around my own chair and the talking stick. Invited the peers, and noticed that they seemed happy to come with us. Facilitated some chit chat. Had the Question of the Day.
“Okay, everybody, one of the things that’s great about Lunch Group is that it gives us all a chance to get to know each other a little better. Sometimes, it’s nice because it gives us new things to talk about. And today, Juan Carlos had a question he’d like us all to talk about: the question is, ‘What is your favorite part of bedtime?'”
I waited for the snickers that simply never came. Noelia took the stick, and said she always read a book before she went to sleep. Alison asked the Follow Up Question, “Which book?” “The Bible.” Yosef said he watched an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants. “The same one each time, or different ones?” “The same one.” Ahmed nodded, and observed, “You like things to be the same.” Kayla loves to wrestle with her little brother before she goes to bed; Juan Carlos, beaming ear to ear, said that was his answer, too. Conversation shifted, after awhile, to how Lunch Group worked, and Yosef loudly monologued about how only he and Juan Carlos got to go every time: I told the whole group, honestly, “Remember how I said that Lunch Group gives us new things to talk about? Well, that’s nice for all of us, but it’s especially nice for you, Yosef, and for you, Juan Carlos. It’s a chance for you both to learn something that doesn’t come super easy–how to be in a group, and ask questions, and take turns.” The three peers all nodded, and Alison grinned. “You guys are the STARS of Lunch Group! We can be the visitors, and you guys are the stars!”
Always, it’s important to scaffold for success–to get a sense of where your students are, and to think about ways to bring them even further. A big part of my job will always be the work that I do to help my students be seen as competent, as “normal”–to interpret their actions in ways that make sense to an audience who may not know what all the hand-flapping’s about.But I learned that day, through the Favorite Part of Bedtime, that another big part of my job needs to be about trusting. I need to set up the conditions, and then let my kids be kids. I need to believe, sometimes, that their peers are able to accept them for exactly who they are–that it’s not always about cool, or even normal. When I give children enough information to be comfortable with difference, I am constantly humbled by how much grace they show each other. And it helps me to remember that I can let that grace play out.