It’s been a quiet few weeks in TeacherBeth BlogLand. Which is, alas, not due to it being a quiet few weeks in the life of TeacherBeth. Mostly, I haven’t written because I’ve been too utterly exhausted at the end of the day to even think about teaching, much less carefully compose whole, connected sentences about it.
The reason is a small one. Well, small for her age. The reason is Ja’Neesha, whom astute readers may remember from her brief visit on a Friday last month, during which she pointed at stuff, mumbled a bit, and fell loudly, snoringly asleep for the duration of the placement IEP. Ja’Neesha has bright brown eyes, an appreciation for pink and purple, a somewhat insatiable appetite for school lunch, severe sleep apnea, and very significant global developmental delays. Also, she bites.
It’s been quite an adventure, introducing Ja’Neesha to the school environment after her two months spent at home due to paperwork mishaps. We placed her in what turned out to be the quietest, most organized, best-behaved classroom
of all time in the first grade: I’d say you could probably hear a mouse fart, except even a mouse in this room would fully understand that his teacher Would Not Like That. Mrs. K has been teaching for the lifespan of several Ja’Neesha’s. She’s got her routines down pat, has high expectations, and tolerates the absolute minimum of shenanigans necessary to differentiate 1st Grade from Law School: blocks are played with, oh yes, in Mrs. K’s class during choosing time, but the structures are tidy and will never be knocked down. For our Oratorical Fest, the kindergarteners sang while Mr. F played ukelele; one first grade class did a skit with 12 bus drivers yelling at 12 Rosa Parks-s, and another did a song with one verse performed entirely using kazoos. Mrs. K’s class sternly recited a portion of Barack Obama’s first inaugural speech. And they nailed it.
This, then, is the general education classroom environment selected for the Full Inclusion of a certain young Ja’Neesha. Who, even if one discounts the numerous bad habits picked up through her time away from the school environment, comes with a set of inborn challenges. Down Syndrome plays out in highly individual ways, but one consistent feature is that learning takes more time. Sometimes, lots more time. And sometimes, what this means is that the child simply won’t, ever, be able to learn all of it, so you have to be mindful of what the main priorities are. For Ja’Neesha, right now, we’re working on:
- Match her name card to an identical card with her name on it
- Wash hands after using the toilet
- Count to 5
- Within a year or so, say maybe 10 words that she doesn’t know how to say just yet
- Hold a pencil and draw lines that go from left to right
- Follow the directions, “come here”, “sit down”, “wait”.
Ja’Neesha’s world at home makes sense to her: she is surrounded by adults and children who love her, indulge her, provide for her needs and anticipate her wants. She is, as she should be, the family’s treasure–a child with a giant chest scar and a cabinet of asthma medicine who has overcome incredible odds just to be here, a child they are committed to serving, every day. “How does Ja’Neesha tell you she wants something?” “She reaches for it.” “And what do you do then?” “We give it to her.”
As her teachers, I and my team have a different and necessary role: we have to teach Ja’Neesha that the world, at large, plays out differently. We will teach her to ask for things and to wait in order to receive them, to hear and accept “no”, to first understand what the teacher said should happen before she considers her own preferences and wants. We receive her from an extended family with five adults living to take care of two children and we bring her into a room where one adult guides 26 of her peers. And for now, this requires one extra adult, all the time, and almost every moment is a source of confusion or struggle.
The cavernous disjunct between who Ja’Neesha is, right now, and how her peers have learned to be sometimes makes me feel, as I bring her in at 8:45, like I’m about to dump out a suitcase of gerbils in the middle of Solemn High Mass. Mrs. K is a phenomenal teacher and her students are absolutely thriving–beneath the tough exterior beats a heart which is truly passionate for kids. And it is that boundless heart that Mrs. K. draws from, as she welcomes Ja’Neesha into the room.
Step one: go to desk, hang up backpack. The rest of the class is usually settled in at their desks already, working quietly and diligently to copy off the board. Ja’Neesha walks past 15 classmates, attempting to slap 7 of them. She is an inherently sociable creature, and we’re still working on how to say “good morning” instead. My hands shadow hers, redirecting each slap into a wave. 13 days into it, she’ll start waving on her own. The kids wave back, honestly delighted to see her. Even on the mornings when she slaps them first.
Step two: choose morning worksheet. According to my teacher training, offering choices is the key to ensuring compliance. I hold out two line dittos (we’re actually working on much simpler ones than these), to let her pick one: she hasn’t yet learned how to select between two items, and touches both in succession with a loud punching noise. I give her the first one she slapped at: eventually, I hope she notices that this is what happens.
Step three: complete morning worksheet. And here begins the first of several epic battles, as Ja’Neesha attempts to idiosyncratically trace some of the lines that might be in the middle and I hone in on Top To Bottom, Left to Right. Sometimes, she lets me guide her hand. Sometimes, she tries to push my own hand away as I tap to show her, “First here, then there”. At times, she yells and attempts to bite me, because it is simply inconceivable to not do it Her Way. Kids look up from their long-vowel spelling patterns. Mrs. K redirects them. I tap again.
Step four: Morning Meeting. At Mrs. K’s signal, everyone puts their pencils in their pencil boxes, slides their papers under the boxes, stands, pushes chairs in, and comes quietly to the rug. Ja’Neesha will also perform each of these actions, with various degrees of hand-over-hand guidance which range from one high-five for excellent listening to both my arms lifting her from under the desk and depositing her, unceremoniously, in the back row while she flails.
Steps five through thirty-six unfold as you might imagine, based on my description of the first fifteen minutes. Every day is a dozen little power struggles and at least a couple tantrums, as Ja’Neesha grapples with what it means to be a student in this classroom community. As the students around her begin to understand her– to see Ja’Neesha’s learning for what it really kind of is. Every bit that difficult. The victories that hard-won.
I spend much of my day narrating Ja’Neesha’s actions, ostensibly to her, but really to the audience. “You’re right; it’s frustrating. Right now, you hit to show me that. You’ll learn to stomp your feet instead.” “Good job! You made that line perfectly. Worksheets like this get you ready to write.”
And the line that I am so often saying, to myself as much as to the five kids who watch. As Ja’Neesha twists in her seat and the decodable book sails across the floor. As Ja’Neesha falls asleep in the middle of workshop, as the pencil goes up the nose instead of in the pencil box, as we get just a little closer to doing something right.
“Ja’Neesha, you’re learning. It’s hard work to learn. Every day, we’ll find that things get a little easier.”