Monday, May 21, 2012

Collaborating for Kids

As the school year draws to a close, some of us are feeling the exhilaration of not having to prepare lessons for the summer.  Or grade tests.  Or get up early.  Others are feeling the dread of the lack of structure school provides for their children, and may be scrambling to put together a reasonable itinerary for the 10 or so weeks off.  And many of us are somewhere in-between: ready for a break, but recognizing the need for summer goals.

It's easy to lose sight of the big picture in this mad dash to the school year finish line.  We have a hyper focus on our roles as parents and educators in the home stretch.  Yet when we widen the lens, we see that the summer is the best time to collaborate for the sake of students.  Teachers are in a unique position to know what extra practice will be beneficial for the upcoming school year, and parents can reach out to gather resources and suggestions for summertime follow-through.

We know the 4th grade teacher spends some six hours a day with 4th grade students; but we also know that these 4th graders are being molded by their educators and families into adults, equipped with the skills, knowledge, and character they'll need to become the kind of citizens of whom we as a community can be proud.

The state of Wisconsin, along with 45 others, have adopted the Common Core State Standards, which are accessible for viewing by both families and schools.  Viewing these standards for mathematics and language arts might be one way to initiate this conversation between home and school about what academic concepts could use a little extra attention.

The National Association of School Psychologists published a paper in 1999 and revised in 2005 about the importance of the home-school collaboration.  All students will achieve more if we as families and schools work in partnership with one another.

During last week's World CafĂ©™-style Community Conversation on Meaningful Inclusion in Elementary School, Good Friend hosted an inspiring mix of 30 parents, therapists, educators, and administrators.  One parent commented afterward how moved she was by the commitment of the educators who were present.  The limited number of minutes in the day is sometimes a barrier to effective communication between home and school, but we must not lose sight of the fact that we are all on the same team.

Work hard to collaborate for the benefit of your students this summer.  And then tell us what steps you've taken together to help them run the race!  Your comment could earn you a Good Friend prize!

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Right Tools

Last week, I had four enormous spruce trees removed from my yard.  The work crew arrived at 9 a.m. and by 2 p.m., all that remained were four piles of fragrant, shredded mulch.  Even if my husband and I possessed the skill and knowledge these gentlemen had, there's no way we could have done the same job.  We didn't have the right tools.  These guys had enormous chainsaws and bow saws and stump grinders and cranes.  They had cherry pickers and wood chippers and hand trucks.  And muscles -- big ones.

Anyone who works with tools, whether in a kitchen or a garage or at a desk in front of a computer, will tell you how important it is to have the right tool for the right job.  Wrong tools for the right job and vice versa will be useless.  Why do we think this is any different for our children?

Our children need tools for their social-emotional toolbox.  Noticing the social impairments in children on the autism spectrum, caregivers developed social skills training.  We were equipping students with autism with tools we assumed they could use with their typically-developing peers.  In some cases, it was a case of right tool, wrong job; we were equipping students for the job that comes after social understanding.  It was kind of like handing over the chisel before we gave them the mallet.  And they looked at the block of stone, glanced at the chisel and thought, "Why do I need this again?"

Somehow, we missed the importance of putting the tools of awareness and acceptance in our typically-developing kids' toolboxes also.  We sent them to school with their pencils and paper and crayons in the backpack without explaining the differences between learners, and how important it was to accept each of their classmates regardless of those differences.  It didn't seem to matter much when the kindergarteners walked away wide-eyed and turtle-shelled with their big backpacks.  Even in first grade, they interacted mostly with whomever they were near.  And we assumed they just understood their classmates with differently-wired brains.

Boy, were we wrong.

They have all sorts of problems to solve, but no tools to get the job done.  Without the right tools, they'll chip away at the block of stone without much skill or finesse, and we'll wonder why they've been unable to produce a masterpiece.  They did the best they had with the tools we provided.  Had we put the right tools in their toolboxes and showed them what each was for (think Peer-Mediated Instruction and Intervention), imagine what the finished result might have been!

I think it would have looked like meaningful inclusion.  Let Good Friend help you equip your students for an inclusive classroom in the 2012-'13 school year by scheduling staff and student services to take place immediately in the fall.  Contact me or Denise before school's out for the summer!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Lead by Example

The past few days have offered Denise and me wonderful opportunities to communicate Good Friend's Awareness-Acceptance-Empathy message.  As parents and professionals, we absorbed the teachings of dozens of speakers at the Autism Society of Wisconsin Conference.  The closing keynote speaker on Sunday, Nicole Beurkens of Horizons Developmental Resource Center, offered one of my favorite "a-ha" moments of the three-day run: Making meaning of information is critical.  We are quick to offer information to people and eager to see what they do with that information.  But if they aren't able to attach appropriate meaning to that input, then the output will seemingly fall short.

During our presentations at both the ASW and WASC JAM (Wisconsin Association for Student Council Junior and Middle School) Conferences, Denise and I emphasized how important it is to give middle school students relevant information about autism so they can be aware of why peers with ASD experience the world differently.  But awareness is not enough, as we all know.  Because if we don't make meaning of why we need to understand the differences, then acceptance won't come easily, and empathy may not be an outcome at all.

Ellie Trewyn, narrator of our award-winning film Choosing To Be a GFF (2011), along with Jacob Schamens, another of the film's stars and the older sibling of a brother in middle school with autism, were critical to creating meaning for the 5th through 9th grade students who attended our WASC JAM Super Sectional presentations yesterday.  Throughout the presentation, these high school freshmen were able to tell their peers how their perceptions of autism and bullying had changed as a result of participating in Good Friend's development and production of the film, how important student leaders are, and what they've been able to accomplish in their own peer groups as far as acceptance goes.

In the hotel atrium following their WASC JAM Conference presentations are (left to right) Chelsea Budde, Ellie Trewyn, Jacob Schamens, Denise Schamens, and Dani Rossa.
Ellie's stories highlight the importance of meaning.  She said that while she's spoken with her close friends many times about her connection to the film and the cause, they were astonished when she took the initiative during a recent school lunch period to help a distressed friend with autism.  Ellie was confused by their amazement over her gesture of kindness, assuming that any of them should and would have done the same thing.  Her message to the students was clear: Do the right thing, no matter what your friends think. Being a leader means showing others the right thing to do, hoping they'll follow, but not caring if they don't.

We appreciate students who lead by example.  We have one more week to accept nominations for our Good Friend in Education Award.  Send Denise a short email about who you know who's demonstrating acceptance of autism.