Thursday, May 29, 2008

Thoth returns... :)

Today was Ancient Egypt day for Brendan's class- the culmination of all of their research & creative efforts. They presented their work by inviting the rest of the school to a "wax museum" of gods & goddesses (all of them dressed-up, wearing the masks they'd made). They all had drawn buttons to push for info on paper, then sat in costume beside their statues, ready to talk to anyone who pushed their button about their god or goddess. At some mutually-agreed-upon time, the groups of kids decided to take off their masks & represent regular ancient Egyptians, & were ready to talk about their every-day lives as well.

So, here's Brendan as Thoth & as a regular, ancient Egyptian scribe.

And Brendan posing with his Thoth statue.

I left before the presentations (stayed to help Brendan get costumed-up & take a bunch of pictures of the kids :), so I can't wait to hear how it went!!


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Meet Thoth :)

For the past few weeks Brendan's class at school has been studying ancient Egypt. They've been working in groups to make model pyramids, learning about what is believed to be the everyday life of ancient Egyptians, & also were asked to choose a god or goddess to do a research project on (he chose Thoth, the god of wisdom, scribes, & magic). Brendan has enjoyed this unit & was able to bring some resources from home for his research- one of my cousins married a man from Egypt & has sent Brendan books on Egypt & also pictures of her family in front of the pyramids- pretty cool! A couple of weekends ago Brendan found himself challenged by the homework, though... well, the fact that they had homework over the weekend (not a usual phenomenon :) was the first challenge to wrap his head around. He has very specific ideas of when & where homework should occur, & we are generally supportive of these ideas, since he needs his down-time at home very much. This is the first year since homework became part of life (in 3rd grade) that he (now in 6th grade) has been able to cope with consistently doing homework- big sigh of relief! So Brendan met the weekend homework assignment with mixed feelings, particularly since it was a craft project...

Brendan is one of the many on the spectrum who really dislikes getting his hands messy or gooey. His fine-motor co-ordination has come along very nicely & although he doesn't much like cutting with scissors or glueing things together, he will do it if someone sticks by him. I was really proud & amazed when he went along with the mask-making project at school- using plaster of paris strips on a form to make a mask of his chosen Egyptian god. He had drawn & cut out facial features, & then worked with a couple of his teachers to do the messy parts. I was there when they did it & watched him do it! He was just about maxxed-out by the gooiness of the plaster by the time he finished, & ran straight for the sink to rinse his hands afterward, but he did it :) The painting of the dry mask went better & he happily told me about the cool colours he choose for it after school one day. Again, hooray!

The weekend project was to make a statue, at least 12 inches high, of their chosen god. Brendan's first reaction was to opt out. It was an option, since his teachers are very reasonable about not pushing him too hard when it comes to homework (or allowing him to do it at school, rather than at home). Charlie told Brendan that he thought it could be fun & why don't they try doing it together? Brendan cautiously agreed... And so began an interesting weekend for all of us :)

They discussed options & decided to do a mixed-media project. They found a mailing tube that was already more than 12" tall, & then Charlie discovered that an old medicine bottle fit perfectly into the top... which led them to decided to make "Thoth as Pez dispenser :) They decided to make the head from sculpey, so I gave them total access to my sculpey stash, plus made them look at the Klutz sculpey book before going ahead. This helped them decide to make a tin foil armature first, since it would make the head lighter. They used a straightened-out paper clip for the beak (Thoth has the head of an ibis).

Charlie cut a circle out of waxed paper the same size as the top of the bottle to use as a template, so it would be the right size. They worked for over an hour on the sculpture, & then drilled holes in the lid & bottle (to wire the top in so it could be flipped off like a Pez dispenser) while it baked. I really enjoyed watching them work on it together, heads bent over various bits & pieces, discussion of how to fit things together, how best to smooth the sculpey, what colour to make the eyes :) By the end of day 1, the head was made & epoxyed to the lid & Brendan had discovered that he likes the feeling of working with sculpey. Hooray!

On day 2 it was my turn to get involved, since we needed to dress Thoth in the latest ancient Egyptian style. I brought down odds & ends of fabric & Brendan & I looked a pictures to decide how he wanted it to look. I draped & he critiqued, & finally we finished it off with a ribbon belt & a torque made from a string of glass beads Brendan had made. He was really pleased. So were we... on many levels. First, he hadn't opted out of a challenging assignment. Then... he had fun doing it! So did we :) And, mostly, I am always looking for ways to share the wonderful feeling I feel when I make stuff, with Brendan. This is not something that comes as naturally to him as it does to me, but the feeling of accomplishment is something that just makes me want to keep doing it, making things, experimenting with ideas & techniques & media. It was so lovely to see him enjoying himself so much while doing this. And... it was a great hit at school (especially the Pez... :). As I think of the summer ahead, I think we'll be doing more with sculpey- maybe this year he'll make beads to use for his holiday gifts!

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

Returning to the fray :)

Time certainly passes quickly, doesn't it?

Thanks to a timely sermon this morning at church (on the topic of Jonah, the call to make the world a better place, all the reasons we try to avoid this call, & why we should answer it anyway) I realised that I've been away from blogging for far too long, & need to jump back into this community. I've come to understand that part of the reason I took time away from writing & sharing was my participation in the search for a new minister for my church. Not only was it very intense & time-consuming, but so much of the process was confidential & I worried about inadvertantly letting something slip while blogging. But the search is over, we successfully called our new minister last month, & it time to get back to the discipline of writing. One thing that I did discover during my break was that I felt a bit of a relief to be out from under the magnifying glass of looking at (& writing about) my family & my life on an almost daily basis, so I'm going to try to keep that in mind as I find a new rhythm for writing.

So... last night Charlie & I hosted a meeting of parents from our school who have kids with IEPs & who are concerned about how the IDEA law has finally filtered down to our local level & will be making perhaps significant changes to our school next year. Brendan's school is a private alternative school with a well-earned reputation for doing a great job of educating kids with IEPs. About 20% of the kids at school (of around 100 total students) have IEPs & they are all integrated into regular classrooms. Of the 13 parents who met last evening, about half have kids in Brendan's class, & many of us have found this school to be our last resort for educating our kids, having either had bad experiences with our public school districts, or having been advised that the public schools couldn't provide the appropriate environments for our kids. The beauty of our school is that it's able to provide the "least restrictive environment" while also providing the (sometimes intense) support that our guys need, all in an alternative education setting, which means no standardised testing, the use of multiple & creative ways of getting the information across, hands-on learning with lots of field trips, plenty of outside time... I could go on & on :)

Up until now, our school has been able to hire & train their own consultant teachers by contracting with the school districts to provide these services to kids with IEPs from those districts. Paying our school to hire their own teachers actually saves the districts money, for various reasons, so everyone's had their needs met. Kids needing OT, speech, PT, etc. were served by providers sent to the school from the districts in which each kid lived, which meant a lot of people in & out of the building, but it basically worked. This past year, New York State's appeal of the IDEA law failed, & now it is illegal for private schools to use public funds to hire their teachers... Our school is too small to hire these staff without using funds provided by the school districts. Also, instead of having the district in which the chid resides provide funds & services, it's the district in which the school is located that administers all of this. On one level, this has worked well this year, since just one OT, speech therapist, & PT providing services for all of the kids in the school makes it much easier to communicate & co-ordinate space. Unfortunately, our school is located in the poorest & most disorganised school district in the area... it's the district that we actually live in & although the service providers have been top-notch, the administration is a whole other matter. Sigh. According to the law, as the State is interpreting, the district is required to allow parents & non-public schools to have a say in who will be placed in their facilities, but the reality has been anything but encouraging, with shell-games being played with who the actual district contact person is, calls unanswered, funds withheld (the school finally hired an attorney to work on this).

What we are anticipating for next year is that our present consultant teachers will be gone. Brendan's teacher, Cherie, has been with him since 3rd grade & knows almost instinctively what to do when he's having a tough time with tics or OCD moments, so that most of the time he misses little or no class time when they pop up. We shudder to think what will happen to him with someone brand new, no matter how well-meaning, has to take the time to learn how to help him along. Also, right now Cherie is able to float between Brendan & her other kids, using her time efficiently & effectively, keeping things moving along throughout the day. We have no idea how the consultant teachers sent by the district will be assimilated into the classroom. Will they send a different one for each child with an IEP that requires consultant teacher hours? Will they send one to work with all of them? How many hours will they actually be in the building? If Brendan's IEP says he gets 5 hours daily, what will happen to him when they're not in the building...? We do know that the district is not allowing any time on IEPs for the consultant teachers to actually consult with the classroom teachers. What's up with that?

The other issue is that not only will they be sending their own teachers into an alternative school with a very specific education philosophy, but they will not be assigned until the day before school starts. How on earth is our school to maintain it's educational philosophy if a portion of the teachers either don't buy-into it or don't have time to even learn what it is? Extra added excitement is that our school will not be supervising any of these teachers, so there's no recourse if the new teachers don't get or like the way we do things...

Hence our concerns & our meeting last night. It was interesting to meet face-to-face in a group with people, many of whom we've known on an individual level (or not- being the door lady I know a lot of the parents at school that Charlie doesn't). Some of the parents we know because their kids are Brendan's closest friends, but this was the first time we've worked together on any kind of advocacy. It was good to hear what the parents of younger kids at school are thinking, too, & to understand their concerns. Our school's director, Paula (who's also the parent of a college-age kid who went through the school system with an IEP), was there to update us on the "shape of things to come" & field questions & suggestions for responses. It probably goes without saying that people came with radically different concerns, from "how do we change this stupid law?" to "how do we get the district to listen to us?" to "how do we make sure our kid functions in school next year?" (that was our particular concern). It was comforting to share our stories, about our kids, struggles with the school systems, about why we've chosen this school for our children. Charlie & I shared our frustration with Brendan's recent IEP meeting, in which we were told (after 45 minutes of what we thought was a normal annual review meeting) that they were "not authorised to approve his IEP as written" (which is almost identical to his current level of services) because his needs were too high... The CSE chair suggested moving his 3-year re-evaluation from next fall to, essentially, right now in order to prove that he needs what we're asking for. (When the permission for testing form arrived last Friday, I had it signed, copied, & back to the mailman before he left the neighbourhood. They'll get it back tomorrow... this is how serious I am about my kid's services, thank you!) Our family has been slogging through the special ed system for 7 years now, so we're not so much worried as wary... We we glad to hear, too, from other parents that their kids' annual reviews had gone better than Brendan's.

In the end, we decided to work on the situation from a few different directions. One of the parents agreed to draft a letter requesting that the district comply with state law by allowing the school & parents to be active participants in the selection of the teachers to be placed in our school next year. We'll all sign this & a packet of the letters will be sent not only to the district contact person but the school board president & the superintendent of schools. Charlie & I said we'd head up the group looking into helping the school fund a part-time consultant teacher hired by the school, to co-ordinate the new staff & particularly to work with the oldest kids (Brendan included). We talked about strategies for upping the ante, if the district decides to blow us off :) I'm left feeling guardedly hopeful about next year. I am still frustrated that a federal law can work against the best interests of my child's educational needs. I feel angry that so many uncaring people have the power to make things difficult for him, to affect whether or not he'll make it to high school or college, for goodness sake! It's just idiotic. I am glad to be part of a group of people of good will who want to work together to make things right. It's a very good start...

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