Are we limiting children based on our belief?

“Part of the problem with the word ‘disabilities’ is that it immediately suggests an inability to see or hear or walk or do other things that many of us take for granted. But what of people who can’t feel? Or talk about their feelings? Or manage their feelings in constructive ways? What of people who aren’t able to form close and strong relationships? And people who cannot find fulfillment  , or those who have lost hope, who live in disappointment and bitterness and find in life no joy, no love? These, it seems to me, are the real disabilities.” Fred Rogers,

    Working with children who have learning challenges has often resulted in my learning more about myself and my teaching. I don’t like labeling students, but I don’t mind it if it brings clarity to an issue. If a student has Autism, there can be value in telling a teacher or principal that a student has Autism. Autism is, not a reason to expect less but it is a reason to expect something different. Fear of labels often hinders the support and understanding that should be given. I call them learning challenges; disabilities, to me, overshadow the student’s abilities. 

I was a child in speech and reading support, so I have my personal perspective, including my own experiences in biases. Every child is different, and it is hard to accept that at times. My son is dyslexic; his challenges were different from my own. That is where the problems of labels come in; we expect the child to match the label, and that is not always true.

    I have shared this story to parents over the years as an illustration of what a student can do and not want they cannot do. Where do I begin? This tall, athletic, loud blond girl walked into my room. I had heard about her, but I don’t remember if I had met her or not. As the saying goes “she was a force to be reckoned with.” She was brilliant. She was obnoxious. She was loud and annoyed me and others. She took risks others were too scared to try. She was all of these things, and I loved it. On more than one occasion she stumped me with her questions. She interrupted my lesson to do it too! She was funny, intelligent, creative, did I mention she was loud?

Megan was finding herself and becoming an individual.  She would not conform to others’ viewpoints. Megan had a fantastic memory for what she had learned. I am not sure if it was a long-term memory gift because her short-term memory did not always have the same ability. If she heard something once it stuck and other times she was completely forgetful.  It is incredible how one student can tell you everything you said but forget her books in your classroom. That was Megan.

One day Megan turned in an essay which I read during my prep period. I cried when I read it. I laughed and I cried. Megan stopped in to see me and asked how she did. I asked her to sit down so I could read it to her. She was embarrassed and asked, “what’s wrong with it?” She tried to grab it from me. “Megan, it’s okay.  Just sit and listen”. I proceed to read the essay to her out loud. “The north vitamins have attacked the south vitamins in order to spread communism.” I know you think you just read a typo; however, Megan spelled Vietnamese wrong. 

She went on to explain the VC support the north vitamins and would set traps to capture and kill the south vitamins and US soldiers stationed there. She described how the US did not understand the Chinese and Vietnamese relationship. The essay explained the political impact of the war and the misconceptions of Vietnam by the US. 

Megan at first laughed, then got a little embarrassed then laughed again. This time we cried and laughed together. I assured her it was a fantastic essay. She had a clear understanding of the Vietnam War. She understood its political impact and the politics of the time. Unfortunately, this was a clear case of spell check not working for a student. Megan wanted to rip it up. Again, I told her it was an excellent essay and asked how she had learned so much about the Vietnam War? She gave her usual answer of “I don’t know.” She said she watched documentaries, heard stories, and read. It was one of the best essays from a high school student on the Vietnam War I had ever read. I was a bit taken back. I, too, was embarrassed. I sold Megan short. I had not expected her to write an essay with such depth and content.

 If I set the misspelled words aside, the piece had a thesis and was well supported by evidence and sources. I made assumptions about Megan. I knew she was bright. I knew she could debate. I did not expect her to write such an intelligent essay. I was wrong. My bias came out, and I am rather ashamed by it. My “Why” for becoming a teacher was to support the kid whom adults did not believe in; kids just like me who struggled in school. I was a teacher  because I believed all students could learn, and I loved proving people wrong when they stereotyped a student as not high achieving, or a pain. I love the “Underdog.” That day I was reminded by Megan of this simple truth.

Megan, for all of her boisterous and loud behavior, reminded me that she was why I became a teacher. Even if her viewpoint was different than mine on most occasions, her voice, and her education were why I became a teacher. I had forgotten that, or maybe I had just not applied it to her. Where is the equity in that? 

I read her essay to a few other students. I changed Vitamins to Vietnam so they would not miss her message and brilliance.  Megan’s credibility grew that day. My arrogance was put in to check. The following year when Megan was in my economics class, she did a presentation on Roth IRA’s that blew anyone’s presentation away in economics. I still regret not taking her advice on a Roth IRA’s!

Megan is incredibly successful today. Breaking barriers wherever she goes. She has been a firefighter and a journalist.  Graduated from Mills College with a BA in Political, Legal and Economic Analysis. She has traveled the world. She was a guest lecturer at Columbia University and held an internship at National Geographic Television. She is an award-winning film producer today, both teaching film and creating documentaries. Boxadora is one of her award-winning documentaries. This is just a short summary of Megan’s extensive resume!

Never underestimate a student, let them raise. Open the doors of education and get out of the way, or, better yet, escort them safely through the doors and let them take hold of what is inside. I limited Megan by believing her dyslexia defined her; I was wrong. Thankfully she did not restrict herself by my beliefs but instead rose above them. I was honored to be her teacher. She always pushes the envelope, she opens her doors for herself and closes doors on any who want to hold her back. I expected her to struggle. Instead, I should’ve expected her to learn differently. Maybe you know a Megan, or perhaps you are just like her. Keep opening doors and push through them if you have too. You are a reminder to the rest of us that we should not be closing doors on you.
I will leave you with this quote from Megan – “The human element is the most compelling thing that changes us and connects us,”  Meg

With something to think about….

Your friend, Chris

Every student has a story…

“When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

I learned years ago in my classroom that I will never know what my students are going through until I am willing to listen to them share. I also learned that when I listen every student has a story. 

Teddy Roosevelt once said people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” 

I know that is true for my students because it was true for me when I was in school.

While preparing for the new year, a Liberty High School counselor shared with me that he had placed a student in my classroom whose father had recently died of a brain aneurysm. Tears welled in my eyes because my own father died a year earlier. I was 24 at the time and knew that I would have been lost if I had been a teenager when he passed. 

Five percent of children experience the loss of a parent before their eighteenth birthday. The trauma and uncertainty that comes from this tragic loss can have a significant impact. 

That day, I stood at my door greeting my students like any day as they walked into my room for World History. I asked them to introduce themselves. Erin told me her name, and I smiled and welcomed her. I treated her like anyone else. When the opportunity presented itself, I planned to listen and share my own experience with her. Right now, Erin needed to be a regular kid. She managed to hide her sadness in those first few weeks. She had a big smile, very sweet and kind. She quickly made friends. She and a friend Austin would chat up with each other before and after class, and maybe even during. The two became close friends. Austin was very caring and a great sense of humor. Erin’s smile was as infectious as her laughter. The two of them were a bright spot in my day.
Before long, Erin shared that her dad had been a superintendent of a school district but had died of a brain aneurysm. I can remember where I was standing in the room. I tried not to cry as she told me. She was remarkably brave as she spoke about his passing. Like anyone in her situation, she appeared hurt, confused and sad. He had been her world. 

I listened attentively and asked her gentle questions, such as “What was he like?” Erin continued to talk and she shared more than I asked. I listened, nodded, maintained eye contact. 

Finally, I said, “Erin, I lost my dad a year ago. I wish I could tell you it gets better; I wish I could tell you the hurt, and the emptiness gets better, but I don’t know. You will always miss him. I am not sure if it ever gets better. Some days are better than others. I hold on to the memories I have, and I like sharing them with others.” 

We hugged, and we cried a little. She said, “I love talking about my dad, too.” I thanked her for sharing as she got up and left with Austin. I was so thankful she had been in my class.
As I watched Erin and Austin leave, I prayed I would have the right words to support her and that our connection would not be lost. I also wanted to talk more about her and not about our shared tragedy. I have found that when someone passes in your life, and someone else has a similar experience, soon that is all they talk about. As much as I love talking about my dad, I wanted Erin to experience as typical of a sophomore year as she could. When she needed to talk I would let her talk about her life — her current moments of happiness, frustrations, hopes & dreams, etc..
That year Erin worked hard; she was full of life and sadness all at the same time. She wanted to prove herself to others and herself. I suspect she wanted to make her dad proud, too, and I am sure she did. I was proud of her. She cared for others around her, and she made friends quickly. She listened to those who were hurting and encouraged them. At every opportunity, I helped her. I also didn’t lower my expectations and she never let me down. She had every right to be angry and mad, but if she was she managed it. She could have pushed others away and some days she did. Time and time again I saw her laughing and listening to friends, helping them and encouraging them. She was honoring her dad. She was stronger then she believed.
When things were dark, I watched Erin lean into Austin and other friends. I watched Austin support her. I was learning from them both that helping others helps us to heal both spiritually and emotionally. Acts of deliberate selflessness will help to improve the constant hurt we’re feeling. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, but caring and encouraging others helps us to show the legacy our departed loved ones left. Grief does not stop but it does change. Erin showed others how much she cared and reinforced what I learned when my own father died. 

As adults, we often do not know what to say to someone grieving. I would say just be there. Don’t try to point out to us stars in the darkness.
I share some convictions Robert Fulghum once pointed out:
“I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge. That myth is more potent than history. That dreams are more powerful than facts. That hope always triumphs over experience. That laughter is the only cure for grief. And I believe that love is stronger than death”.Robert Fulghum

“Laughter is the only cure for grief” maybe that’s why I enjoy telling stories about my dad; those joyful stories about him make me laugh. 

With something to think about

 your friend, Chris.

See this article from National Public Radio, NPR, for more information about children who have lost a parent before age 18.