Yesterday, my students wrote letters to their first grade buddies. Once a week for the entire school year, my third graders walked to our first grade buddy classroom to act as reading role models for the younger students. The buddy partnerships would read together, talk about books, and occasionally giggle and goof around as kids do. Since the end of the year is approaching, I decided to have my students write letters to their buddies detailing their wonderful reading experiences together.
While writing these letters, the kids were all quietly working in class. Some were whisper asking for spelling advice, while others were writing, reading, and rereading their letters. I heard one ask another, "Do you think this is neat enough for a first grader to read?" The sound in the classroom was the calm, soft buzz of writing that I've grown to love over my past ten years of teaching. Then, I heard it again.
"Love that dog. I said I hate that cat!" was spoken in a loud voice by Jeffrey. No one flinched. No one stopped to look around. Everyone just kept writing and softly buzzing. Then, it came again, "Love that dog. I said I hate that cat!" a little louder this time. Again, none of my students batted an eye.
I gave Nora a knowing smile and walked over to her. Nora, Jeffrey's one to one full-inclusion aide, was crouched down near Jeffrey's desk assisting another student with editing. As I approached, she stood up and our conversation went something like this:
"Why do you think he's fixated on this?"
"I'm not sure, but it's great that he's fixated on poetry and not stats."
"True. Good for him!"
"He wrote a good letter to Steven."
"I know. I read what he has so far. He's come a long way."
(Love that Dog and Hate that Cat are two novel sized poems by Sharon Creech that Jeffrey has taken an interest in)
Jeffrey has autism. He becomes fixated on different things in the classroom, on the playground, at home, or out in the world. Some of his areas of interest have included baseball or football statistics or skyscrapers from around the world.
He'll often shout things out in the middle of class, get up from his desk to walk over to his preferred spot in the classroom library, or clench his fists, arms, and face to either seek out or block out external stimulation. Some may think that Jeffrey and students like him belong in a special class or special school. They may believe children with austism distract the other students or prevent them from learning. I used to be one of those people. Having Jeffrey as my student this year completely changed my mind.
At first, I was worried about how this school year would turn out. Last August, I knew Jeffrey was coming into my classroom, and I was up for the challenge. I didn't quite know what to expect, but I knew I was up for it. After all, I'm a public school teacher. As a public school teacher, I teach every child who comes through my door, regardless of perceived ability. It's my job, and I gladly take it on!
I also knew that Nora would be his full time one to one aide. The previous school year, Nora's son was a student in my classroom, so I was very familiar with and fond of her. She is a caring staff member who shares my philosophies in the classroom. Together, I felt she and I would make it a great year for Jeffrey and all of the other students in class.
The beginning of the school year was tough. I knew that transitions and new routines were typically difficult for children with autism, but I didn't quite understand how difficult until a few days into it. Things started off well for Jeffrey, but once we got going into our academics, he often fell apart. It was not unusual for him to yell out and throw himself on the floor. A couple times, he even took off running out of the classroom without warning. Nora got a lot of exercise at the beginning of the year!
We eventually consulted a behavior specialist. The particular specialist we consulted was experienced in working with children with autism. During her first visit, I remember thinking, this woman is tough. Too tough perhaps. Yet, tough and consistent is what it took. At first, Jeffrey had an extremely difficult time with the new routines and consequence system she put in place. However, after a few weeks of Nora and I working consistently with her system, we started seeing small breakthroughs. Eventually, Jeffrey had more good days than incident days. We don't say bad day, we say incident day.
Fast forward many months. Jeffrey is now starting to make eye contact when he talks to me. Making eye contact is not something that comes naturally or easily to autistic children. He willingly plays with other kids at free choice time. This is something he would not do the first six months of the school year. He also completes every single assignment that the other kids in class complete. He may need modification with many of the tasks, but he's learning just like the other kids.
Now, instead of yelling out when he doesn't want to do something, he'll just say things on his mind out of nowhere, which has actually become endearing... most of the time. "Love that dog. I said I hate that cat!"
The best thing about having Jeffrey in my classroom this year is that all of my other students and I learned more than we ever could have without him there. No lesson or unit plan in diversity and equity could ever compare to the nine months we just spent in my classroom. All of my students accept and include Jeffrey. They look out for him and ask him to play. Even if he doesn't want to play all the time, he is always asked. During writing workshop, he is often asked to have peer editing conferences. At math game time, a group of boys in class always seek him out to play multiplication baseball. Even more exciting is that Jeffrey also seeks them out at times. They all know that Jeffrey has autism, and that means that his brain just works a little differently. And, that's ok. There is nothing wrong with Jeffrey. "It's just autism," some of them say shrugging when asked about Jeffrey. He is their peer. He is accepted.
Does full inclusion work for every child with autism? I don't know. Should every child with autism be fully included with the service of a one to one aide? I certainly don't have the answer. All I know is that an active, sometimes loud nine-year old boy changed the way I view teaching and learning. I am a better teacher and person because of Jeffrey.
As we ended writing time yesterday, Jeffrey turned in his letter and immediately took Sharon Creech's two poetry books out of his desk. He opened one, a huge smile grew across his face, and he laughed as he stated, "Love that dog. I said I hate that cat!" It was just another day in room 21.
In my next post, I'll write about tips I learned for working with children with autism.