Bureaucracy v. Teaching

We could do all the things we NEED to do

if we weren’t so dang busy

doing all the things we “have to” do!

Down a hall, noisily

It’s amazing just how much hallways comprise the problem-solving part of my day, compared to the actual amount of time I am in them, instead of the classroom.

But in our program for secondary students with emotional and behavioral problems, hallways (like lunchrooms or busses) comprise that part of the space-time continuum that is just so fraught with issues.  Part of the reason for this is the somewhat unstructured quality of the time.

Sure, they are supposed to just go between the classrooms.  We don’t even have a full “passing period”, because allowing these students to loiter around the hallways or hang out together in the bathrooms just invites problems with bullying, making interpersonal or sometimes illegal deals, petty theft, tardiness and so on.  Instead, we just herd the troops to and fro, like so many wayward cats.

And still there’s all sorts of nonsense that goes on in the hallways: Read the rest of this entry »

Backwards Symphonies

“It’s been a long week — I bet you’re ready to decompose.”

I stared at my husband, blinking through the mental fog of too-many-jobs-not-enough-sleep.

“I’m not ready for the compost pile yet,” I replied, trying to figure out what his latest malapropism was meant to be.

“Or whatever the term is,” he added.

My brain finally catches up. “Decompress,” I answered.

What an incredibly long week.  I can’t remember the last time I had one like this, and in my over-busy world that’s saying something.

Wednesday last week I had a pneumonia vaccination, which left my arm so sore I couldn’t take off my jogbra without assistance, nor even get my hand up to head level until the weekend.  Moreover, Read the rest of this entry »

Mystery Jam and Other Achievements

I lost a label. I don’t mean the sticky label missing from the jar of “mystery jam” in my pantry (the goo is yellow, so I’m pretty sure it’s last summer’s ginger-pear jam), but rather a diagnostic label. For many parents, one of the highlights or milestones in life is for their child to “lose the label”.

Once-upon-a-time the getting that label (or labels) was highly important, so everyone knew what the problem was (well, sorta) and so the child could get some kind of educational or therapeutic services. Getting the label was oft times a relief because it meant that Someone Official had recognised that the child’s problems were not due to bad parenting, moral failure, or general laziness on the child’s part. Usually parents suspected something was “off” for quite a while, so having that validated is a bit of a relief.

Of course, then once the suspicions are confirmed, there are often new kinds of feelings while adjusting to the new daily reality. Frequently there are skirmishes with school districts or other bureaucracies. Sometimes there’s a bit of a grieving process for not having the perfect little darlings imagined during pregnancy. Some families have issues with relatives not understanding, accepting or even “believing in” whatever problem with the child is dealing with. Nasty episodes can erupt in extended families if one of the parents is accused of “causing” the problem or bringing “bad blood” to the lineage.

And of course, a number of parents eventually realise that the child’s issues are echoes of some of their own issues. Going through these things is very complex, sometimes stressful, and often enlightening. Having a child with a disability does not automatically tear a family apart or make the siblings resentful; depending upon how the parents respond to the issues and to each other, it can strengthen the family members’ ties to each other, and lead people to be more compassionate and less judgmental.

So losing the label can mean that the family has (finally!) managed to get beyond a lot of those stresses. Or so it seems.

But what does it really mean to “lose the label”? It can mean a number of things. Read the rest of this entry »

Box? What box?

When I first read this job advert, I began to weep. I didn’t know anyone else understood what it was like to be this sort of person – to have this kind of mind – much less that anyone out there valued it.

Miscellaneous Vacancies

Are you:
• A creative, articulate scientist with research experience in biological, medical, chemical, electrical, mechanical or materials engineering disciplines?
• A lateral thinker, passionate about science and your own discipline, yet able to think outside of the box and make connections to other fields?
• A great listener with highly developed interpersonal skills, with career goals in commercialisation, technology transfer or business development and able to manage relationships with clients in a highly fluid environment, respect confidentiality and work with people across all levels of an organisation?

Do you:
• Thrive on change and derive great pleasure from making connections between seemingly unrelated ideas?
• Get a buzz from finding new routes that others have not trodden before and yet would be comfortable with working collaboratively to develop your ideas and those of others without expectation of extra personal or monetary recognition?

Sadly, the closing date for the position had long since passed by the time I read it. But like so many dangerous ideas, knowing that such a thing even existed reverberated up and down my mental timelines.

In graduate school, the entomology professors didn’t understand how or why I kept making connections between ecology and learning disabilities. Such details were certainly not necessary to researching insect behaviour, no matter how much they might apply to some of the students in the department.

In a recent New York Times article, “Innovative Minds Don’t Think Alike”, Janet Rae-Dupree describes the “so-called curse of knowledge” where experts are so familiar with traditional means of getting things done that their expertise gets in the way of innovation. The article also describes how bringing in people who have other fields of knowledge, but who are not bogged down by the specialist jargon that reinforces and limits the current understanding, can free up boxed-in thinking and create new ideas.

It’s a conundrum how organisations (academic or otherwise) claim to want innovation, but are resistant to novel suggestions that often go against what everyone knows will work. But as the saying goes, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got.”

More recently, an education professor was not only unfazed by my entomological background, but thought it “wonderful” and mentioned that Jean Piaget had worked on snail behaviour before working with children. I was flabbergasted. I so rarely get such unexpected, sincere kudos that such a moment can keep my spirits buoyed for weeks.

“Thinking outside the box” has always been easy – rather, it’s trying to figure out just what the hell others perceive as The Box that’s hard. I’ve spent decades struggling to understand what people’s boxes are like, how they construct and use them, where the boxes came from, and when I am supposed to intuit and conform to those boxes.

Unfortunately, because of everyone’s jargon-constrained knowledge boxes, it’s hard to describe my own kind of lateral, inter-disciplinary thinking. Trying to convince others that they can benefit from such seems almost beyond my abilities, as I’m not a natural salesperson who can schmooze and easily persuade others.

Meanwhile, I’m still buzzing about, looking for a good niche. At least now I have a few more um, “buzz-words” that will help me describe what I can offer.

Epidemiology Bass-Ackwards


A short news item caught my attention today. Unfortunately, it looks like a fabulous example of bad science, with lousy sampling methods, correllation trying to equal causality, and a heavy dose of confirmation bias. Add in a big dose of well-connected media personalities, and it’s absolute chum-bucket for indiscriminate news sharks.

Dr Lawrence Rosen thinks there is probably some kind of “environmental problem” causing an “autism cluster around St. Anthony’s school in Northvale”, New Jersey. Why is that? “The initial study included interviews with 24 current or former school employees who had children after working at the school. Their 42 offspring included 24 with developmental disorders — and 10 of them have autism.”

Oh, and “The school serves children with autism and other learning disabilities.” Are we not surprised. ( /dry humor )

Saying that something around the school “causes” large numbers of autistics (et cetera) is like saying that swimming pools “cause” large numbers of bikinis. Read the rest of this entry »


So here I am, still trying to find a way to make the job scene work.

Don’t get me wrong, I really like my college student tutoring, and special education paraprofessional, and noncredit instructor positions. It’s just that I’d rather have one job that paid decently, rather than three jobs cobbled together into something that leaves me overworked but seriously underpaid. (“underpaid” = $11/hr for someone with a MSc)

Lots of schools need teachers. No matter what employment resource I search, there are lots of positions for secondary science and special education teachers. School districts in every state need them, not just in the US but also in the UK. But to teach I need certification, and for certification Read the rest of this entry »

“For no reason”

(Coffee-spew warning)

“I don’t know; he just started biting the other kid for no reason. But you know, children-with-autism just do those things.”

“We were just going over the lesson when alla-sudden she just BLEW UP for no reason, and started cussing and calling me an F-ing B and threw her folder papers all over and stormed out of the room!”

“I don’t know what’s wrong with this kid. He’ll just pitch an absolute FIT. We tried to restrain him but then he starting kicking the para and screaming and banging his head on the floor. Honestly, he does. It’s awful, believe me. He’s just uncontrollable — if you want, we can set him off and you’ll see what I mean!”

These are re-created quotes, not verbatim from documentation. But I’m sure you get the idea. (The behavior specialist was naturally horrified Read the rest of this entry »

A very painful problem

When you are looking at a particular problem behaviour in a child (student), the big question is, “Is it really a problem?” “Problem” does not mean it’s unusual, or that some people are uncomfortable because it’s a “stereotypical autistic thing”. “Problem” means someone is getting hurt, or in danger, or poses a considerable social issue. Rocking is not a problem, head-banging is. Lining toys up is not a problem, biting people is.

A great many of people’s responses can be categorised as trying to get something or to get away from something. If you’re trying to get rid of a problem behaviour, then you need to figure out what’s going on. If you can figure out what the stressor is, then you can avoid or reduce it. If you can figure out what the behaviour provides to the person, then you can figure out a more suitable replacement behavior that will provide a benefit, without the problematic issues also associated with it.

Let’s say you have a student (client, child) who is hurting themself. Read the rest of this entry »

Learning Nothing

“I don’t know what to do with my son. You don’t understand what it’s like. He CAN’T LEARN. He’s been in school for FIVE YEARS and has learned NOTHING! I’ve been to all these meetings. It took him MONTHS of therapy to teach him how to sit down! He’ll NEVER be able to talk. He’s severe.”

This is a made-up letter. It’s a highly shortened version of letters I’ve seen a number of parents post on various discussion boards. It’s alarming on several fronts: the parent is stressed beyond their limits, and is of the belief that their son has not learned anything and cannot learn anything, and not surprisingly, has all but given up on the school he’s been attending, and also that because the child cannot [reliably] speak at this age that they will never speak or never be able to communicate by other means. The parent is certain that the child is DOOMED and will never mature into a capable, happy adult. (The grammatical and attributive errors of “he’s severe” also make my brain hurt, but that’s another issue.)

Judging by the complaints of parents who blog about their frustrations with schools or with their children, there is no lack of bad pedagogical examples.

You try something. It doesn’t work. You tweak it, and persist at employing Instructional Method X for a semester. For an entire year. New IEP, with a few tweaks, new room, different teacher. Still pretty much a variation upon Method X for another semester and another year, because X is the method that the teachers learned when they went to teaching college, and the tweaks were what the SpEd specialist learned from when they went to teaching college, picked up at a seminar, and heard from another SpEd specialist that worked on another kid who was also diagnosed with “A”. By all accounts, it should work.

Let’s work on that some more. Read the rest of this entry »

Denial blah-blah-blah Denial

Some of our students with behavioural issues are masters of agitating peers, being defiant, and avoiding work. They have a wide and well-practiced arsenal of tactics for weaseling out of responsibility: the Nomothetic Fallacy, denial, distraction, “forgetting”, dismissal of the importance of what they did, wanting a “fresh start”, trivializing events or redefining the significance of their actions, hollow apologies, feigning victimhood, or personal attacks.

Three different events (all with the same student) provide a number of examples. What’s notable here are several things. Read the rest of this entry »

Just So Special

I had a half-hour long drive home. There’s a word stuck in my head, which I end up exorcising in the best way I know how, by repeating it. (Sometimes they call doing that “palilalia”. I call it simply getting stuck on a word.) Special. Special. Special. Special. Special. Special. Special. Special. Special. Special. Special. Special. Ssssspessshullll.

Maybe you know why it’s gotten stuck in my head, because you’ve heard it used in that horribly obnoxious way: “He’s special.”

What a stupid word. Well, a perfectly ordinary word used in stupid ways.

Special: something distinct, individual, unique, peculiar, distinguished, unusual, exceptional, extraordinary, or especially valued.

In its honest, original meaning, the word lends positive weight. And then it got horribly warped and weighted down with social baggage. (Albeit, not quite as badly as words such as “faggot”, which used to refer to a bundle of sticks for kindling.) But just use it in (ahem) special wordings, and you get a variety of negative visceral responses.

A special school for special children. Comes off variably snooty, smarmy, or condescending – what, the rest of the children aren’t special in their own ways? ::bleh::

My child has special needs.
Generates pity: “I’m so sorry to hear that.” May generate distrust or denial: “What’s so ‘special’ about your child? How come they get something extra?” May generate resentment: “Why does Mommy think she’s special and not me?”

Special education. A phrase so heavily loaded with a myriad of issues that it generates sighs in parents, educators, school administrators and educational psychologists everywhere. People fight to get special education, fix special education, or even to get out of special education. “Special” education was created because regular (or “normal”) education isn’t flexible enough to deal with the fact that students are not interchangeable units. At its worst special education meant segregation from one’s school peers, with reduced expectations and educational opportunities.

Oh, how the word special can be seriously weighted down with derision: “Isn’t that just so special?”

During my drive home, I remembered a classic joke, one that ranks highly on sarcasm points: “Remember, you’re special, just like everyone else.” The sarcasm comes from the acknowledgement that the phrase “you’re special” is derived from the total deformation of the meaning of the word. There’s really nothing “special” about having different abilities and different needs than everyone else, because everyone does in some manner or another. The perfectly average person is actually profoundly rare, because everyone is un-average in at least one way. So why is a child “special”, or why are their needs “special”, or why does education have to be “special”?

“Oh how special!”
I hate hearing this. If everything you do is fabulous, then it doesn’t matter what you do, because you’ll get the same hollow praise and the same insincere responses. Hey, I’m not looking to be better than other people per se, but I am looking to be recognized for my particular efforts and my accomplishments.

I’ve heard it used in a variety of situations, and in a number of rôles in my life. After hearing it used by random adults throughout primary school, I began to cringe. I had no idea who most of those adults were – they weren’t my teachers, but were usually other associated staff members and parent volunteers (“room mothers” back when it was assumed that mothers stayed at home and were idle). After-school events (dare I say it? special events) such as ice cream socials or once-a-month films or anything so random as a meeting for the student library volunteers, seemed to attract such adults who then generated these kinds of comments.

The well-intended adults wanted to praise and encourage the children around them, and also wanted to keep them docile and occupied, possibly even entertained. So we as hapless victims ended up with stupid crafts using paper plates, felt or tongue depressors, crafts that no one wanted to do past the age of eight. Little kids would do the crafts because they just liked to mess around with the materials. But generally older kids would only do them to be compliant.

The problem with such special “arts and crafts” was that they were not very functional – we couldn’t learn any new real-world skills, and nothing useful to be made. What is anyone going to do with a “book mark” made from beads glued on a strip of felt? You can’t really use it because the glue won’t hold the beads, and even if you did, the beads were so lumpy they would damage the book. What is the point of a “place mat” made from construction paper and poster paint that will dissolve and then stain anything slightly damp? It really wasn’t a “special treat” to be told to cut out this shape from this color and glue to it this spot, and yet also be “creative” while doing so.

Even after I became an adult, I still hear people issuing bizarre commands and praises to the children and young adults (!) in their care, utterances like “Give me blue” or “Nice hands”. (Please folks, if you want children to learn to speak correctly, then you need to model good grammar.)

I can hardly explain just how much that squeaky, patronising, coo gets me riled up. It’s not just the tone of voice, or the phrasing, or the activities. It’s the adults’ insistence of the children’s slavish obedience to time-filling but personally-unfulfilling special activities. A few times it’s been all I can do not to upturn the tables of worksheets and ugly crayon stubs, and stomp out of there in frustration. I’ve seen this kind of behaviour in gradeschool classes, Sunday School classes, scout troops, after-school enrichment programs, summer camps and other places.

It doesn’t help to explain that no-one wanted to do the arts & crafts last time, and that probably no one will want to do the similar arts & crafts next time. Telling the children that it is a “special” project and that their finished products are also so “special” is not going to generate enthusiasm. If they committee members think the result is cute, they assume the children will think it’s cute and their parents will also think it’s cute. The worst part is that scores of people (usually women) seem to find doing this to the “precious children” to be just so wonderful and happy and helpful! They sit around having little hen-parties about how to come up with more saccharine phrases and more inane, time-wasting cutesy projects.

I do my best to avoid such situations. I’m not “aloof”, I’m horrified.

“Isn’t that special!”

If only.

Centenary Retrospective

“This process of the good life is not, I am convinced, a life for the faint-hearted. It involves the stretching and growing of becoming more and more of one’s potentialities. It involves the courage to be. It means launching oneself fully into the stream of life.”
~ Carl Rogers

Wow. The other day I was looking at my blog stats, and it said that I had 22,000 hits. I have also recently written my 100th post since June; that’s close to thrice a week, for the mathematically disinclined. So I thought I would take a step back and review what has gone by, to see what kinds of topical trends emerge, and pull up some of what I think are the better posts, for those of you who are newer visitors.

Bloggers are usually loquacious and opinionated, a description I do not fail to meet. But why do I blog? Some bloggers just natter about their lives, others blog as an outlet for kvetching, some are pushing a specific agenda, and still others like to analyse what they see. I do a little of all the above, but mostly I like to analyse. I am less concerned about persuading you than I am about giving you something to think about. After all, if we all believed the same things, the dialogues would get pretty dull!

Now that there is data from which to draw a pattern, what kinds of things do I blog about? In a way it is hard to sort posts into single categories, because topically there is an n-dimensional hypervolume of intersecting sets. But as an approach, I like to explore themes from personal experience or news events, and also from philosophical perspectives. I feel that philosophy loses some of its significance without grounding it in the phenomenal fields of people’s lives. And telling stories of lives without examining the what and wherefore of those events falls short of the ultimate value of storytelling: revealing the patterns in human relations, and learning from them.

Some of the greater categories revolve around education, from both student and instructor perspectives, and they revolve around the politics of disability and advocacy. In contrast, there are some themes that connect those categories. One of the most important themes is taking the traditional understandings of how social systems work, and taking those apart to reveal very different perspectives on what is happening.

These systems include how we communicate, such as when the language of “choice” is really just a distractor, or doublespeak meant to transfer the apparent (symbolic) power to the one person who in actuality has little power over the situation. These systems also include power paradigms, including how we “help” people, how people miss the mark when trying to create “inclusiveness”, and why pity is such a evil force because it creates distance between people. (There is no need to congratulate me for having “bravely overcome” the insults and artificial obstacles that people put in my way.)

I also look at how the assumptions we make determine how we define groups of people, from the way that we create diagnostic labels, to the sometimes-absurdities of “person-first language”, and concepts of “tolerance”.

In the end, we don’t need better ways of “beating” the system, because we are all part of the system, and the beatings must stop. (They haven’t improved morale yet.) What we need are ways of overhauling the system by sidestepping these terrible games and introducing different ways of working together.

Our perceptions of the world influence how we act, including how we view and understand others. Sometimes people mistake better identification or newer kinds of identification with “epidemics” of autism, AD/HD et cetera. But I bet if we’d had these kinds of identifiers decades ago, a lot more of us would have been better understood. Hyperactive kids are kind of hard to miss, even those who otherwise do not misbehave. (You wouldn’t believe how many ways there are to sit inappropriately!) More boys than girls are diagnosed, but I have to wonder if that isn’t due more to diagnostic criteria than actual prevalence rate. Why didn’t we see kids with these kinds of “needs” in previous decades? Partly because some of those kids didn’t even go to regular schools — they were kept at home or in institutions. Those who did go to regular schools just had to struggle along. They rarely had IEPs and such because their parents didn’t – couldn’t – ask for services that simply did not exist.

When we make these changes in understanding systems and in our perceptions, they can be outwardly expressed by seeking to become a better advocates. Being able to create a new rôle for one’s self includes being able to learn about the various rôles that others have played. (But just try to find sources on disability studies at the local bookstore!) Advocacy requires overcoming inertia and moving into commitment, and moving into commitment and inclusiveness. We also have to be able to recognise our own sources of ability and power, especially if we’ve been convinced otherwise.

Advocacy is complex, and the concerns of parents for the futures of their disabled children is an important part of that. Unfortunately, people whine about how hard it is to have an autistic child, or any kind of exceptional child. All too often there are terrible news reports about parents who have killed their handicapped or autistic children because they were such a horrid burden. Even more horrifying is when the press perspective or quotes are full of sympathy for the murderer because killing your own child is “understandable” because a person can’t help but be insanely stressed from dealing with the child’s abnormality.

It’s hardly not a new trend. But this millennia-old attitude does a terrible disservice to disabled people everywhere to be cast as either devils or angels. It is dehumanizing, and removes us from our humanity, and thus our basic human rights. In light of the fact that many things have a genetic basis, then hating disabilities in our children involves a curious kind of denial and self-loathing.

Distraught parents also need to understand that there is a difference between getting cured and being healed. The unresolved grief leaves parents susceptible to errors of judgment, and these well-intended but scientifically ignorant people who buy into these things are being duped by charlatans, sometimes with loss of life as well as with great monetary expense. Then the problem is propagated because those well-intended but scientifically ignorant people become meme agents, earnestly spreading the false gospel. Meanwhile, the rest of us are left to weed out the “Astroturf” of faux grass-roots efforts.

Advocacy efforts include those in our schools, and involve administrators, educators, parents, and the students themselves. Sometimes teachers and parents worry about school accommodations because they fear it will leave the students unready for when they have to venture into the “real world”. Or, by misunderstanding the differences between equity, equality and need, teachers fear that giving accommodations “wouldn’t be fair” to the other students.

Parenting our students with learning difficulties is not easy – the traditional methods do not work, which is often why the students end up in “special” education. In turn, the students also get frustrated, and attempts to deal with the unmotivated student can sometimes create further problems. We also have to be careful to distinguish between challenging our students, and just making things more difficult for them. Distinguishing between cause and effect in misbehaviour is important – we need to address the causes to resolve problems.

The teaching end of things can also be rife with issues, and college professors can sometimes fall prey to pedagogical myths. Equally absurd is how learning difficulties are often not recognized until the student has been failing or near-failing for a while, thus allowing the student to get further behind and more entrenched in negative mind-sets. On the flip side, we identify exceptionality by contrasting it to what’s common for the group, or by how well a person functions. But what if our sampling group is far from average, or if the environment is less disabling?

Tutoring and teaching is another means of engaging in advocacy, and one of the best means I have is to share with my students the tools for how they can solve new kinds of problems in the future, for themselves and by themselves. It also gives me the opportunity to constantly learn from my students. During this co-educational process, we often need to figure out where in the learning process they are getting stuck, then come up with different ways of helping them learn new information, and different methods for studying. Sometimes the educational changes we make can be as simple as the way a test is typed up, making it more accessible to all the students. The way the audio-visual equipment is set up also makes a significant difference, including the kinds of computer monitors and lighting used. As a tool for engaging your students’ attention, novelty can be a big help. It can also backfire in unexpected ways…

On the more personal scale, I’m always seeking better ways of dealing with my own challenges of “Executive Functioning”, like dealing with all the stuff, stuff, stuff that piles up, losing something in the Dreaded Safe Place, coping with the inertia of task paralysis, or just getting “stuck” when the Plan B falls apart or I unexpectedly get engrossed in something. In worse cases, this means pulling myself out of an awful case of the Betweens, which condition you won’t find listed in any manual, but one that any ADD or autistic person will surely recognise. Regardless, it still helps to remember that strategies for compensating are just that – and that when there’s too much load on the system, those strategies won’t all succeed. That makes it difficult for me, but sometimes others’ lack of understanding is the greater problem.

When I sat and contemplated my place in the grand scheme of things, I found myself wondering just how it was that I could be “doing things the wrong way” and yet still be producing the right results. Were the processes really as important as the results? Doing things “normally” is very important to the general public. People with a wide variety of differences go to extreme effort trying to “pass for normal”, but this can be perilous. Some parents spend great effort to ensure their autistic children learn how to do “good eye contact”, but this may be a poor goal for some unexpected reasons. People can get hung up on developmental timetables, or they worry and wonder why their child likes to spend lots of time lining things up (it’s a good thing, really).

Adults can come up with some pretty off-the-wall assumptions about what is, or is not, going on in a child’s head; we cannot always assign mental processes to the results we see. Then there’s the situations that an earnest-yet-clueless ADHD or Aspie kid can find themselves in, such as failing to cheat. The really scary part is how these children who have difficulties socialising with their peers will fall prey to bullying and abuse, and general depression. Then we grow up into adults, and there’s the whole sticky territory of trying to make Small Talk, and the repercussions of just having a different sense of humor.

On the lighter end, a few posts are just for fun; about once a month there’s a “Recess”. Recess means we take a break and play – it’s important to do that once in a while. During dinner our family discusses why “resistance is fruitile, and how to be “underly pedantic”. Meanwhile, I have fun with repeating words, and enjoy taking photographs of improbable things.

My thanks to you for stopping by, and please to leave comments!


Special Tips for Life Sciences Students

Well, another semester is revving up, and I’m collecting tutees again. I tutor a variety of subjects, generally getting students taking introductory writing and biology classes. The number of tutees always increases right after they have sat their first exams, and discover that taking college classes is not just a shorter-school day version of taking high school classes. So for all you students out there who are facing your introductory Biology and so on, here are some friendly warnings.

A “survey” course means broad and shallow waters, so start paddling now or you will be left behind! Survey classes (100- level Biology, Botany, Microbiology etc.) cover a wide variety of material, but do not go in depth on anything in particular. The in-depth part comes in the next levels of courses about specific subjects. Because there is such a large quantity of material to cover in a limited number of weeks, the class will be going through roughly a chapter per class, depending upon how many chapters the text book is divided into, and the number of meeting days per week. This is not high school where you took a week or two (meeting four or five days a week) to go through a chapter. It’s not so much a question of “don’t get behind” but rather of “stay on top of things and look ahead”!

Vocabulary is going to be an integral part of studying, so find a way of memorization that works well for you. Although every field of study has its own terminology, the life sciences are positively riddled with new words to learn. Most of these words have Greek or Latin roots, so learning what those prefixes and suffixes mean is important, because then you can decode other new words.

Cramming doesn’t work well as a study method when taking identification classes. Students who try to cram do not do well on tests. There are certain subjects that have mostly vocabulary and identification, such as Anatomy (human or veterinary), Taxonomy (plant or animal), and courses like Woody Plant Materials. Don’t mistakenly think that these are “easy” just because “all you have to do is memorise stuff”. Learning hundreds of names, exact spellings, and how to identify hundreds of different birds, flowers, or micro-organisms takes repetition. Learning takes lots of repetition. Plan on studying daily. Be there during all the open-lab time going over models and specimens. Learn to recognise your organisms (or parts thereof) by generalising from several examples, otherwise you will only have learned to identify your particular Acer saccharum leaf, rather than any sugar maple tree anywhere.

When an instructor puts up a graph or diagram, don’t just sit there watching, but make notes about what is significant about the graph, and how that is determined. You will either have a copy of this illustration in your handouts, or else the instructor will refer to a graph on a particular page in your text. If the latter, be sure to write down both the page number and the name or number of the graph. Remember, you can re-draw the graph in your notes after class, but you should do so as soon as possible, while the details are still fresh in your mind.

Your job is to take notes on both aspects that being explained about the graph: firstly, what the significance of the graph is, and secondly, how we know that. For example, in ecology, the k-values of lines in a graph describe the mortality rates over time – that’s the “what” significance of the graph. But the “how we know that” part is related to the idea that the closer the slope of an individual line is to a value of 1 (a 45° angle), the more important is the particular mortality factor. When you get to the test, you will need to know not just that the graph describes mortality due to various factors, but also know the latter part and be able to tell which factor was the most important!

Science courses are about understanding the principles and concepts particular to the specific discipline. “Understanding” is not the same thing as memorizing. The details of human understanding of events and processes change over time, so there’s no point in memorizing everything in the text book. Instead, you need to learn what the concepts mean, and how things interact with each other, and then be able to apply your understanding to problems and to new situations.

One of my math teachers said that, “Life does not hand us a page of math problems to be solved. Real life more like word problems, where you have to create the equation and there are no answers in the back of the book.” We have to do the same thing with science in real life.

You may be shocked to discover that in college, multiple-choice (MC) exams are not automatically easy exams. You cannot rely on simply recognising the correct answer. Instead, you will have to take those new concepts you have learned, and apply them to new situations.

The reason that some people find science classes to be difficult is that not only does a person have to memorise material, but also to apply and analyse and evaluate the concepts, especially in lab experiments.

Speaking of taxonomy, the field of education has a system of classification as well: Bloom’s Taxonomy. This is a hierarchy of cognitive processes, often diagrammed as a pyramid. There are six categories with number 1 being the simplest level at the base of the pyramid, and number six being the highest. Each step builds upon the previous.

1. Knowledge – the ability to define, recall, identify, recognize, knowledge of methodology, principles, generalizations, trends, facts, terminology, theories, and structures.
2. Comprehension – translate, rephrase or restate, interpret, extrapolate
3. Application – apply, generalize, choose, organize, develop, use, classify
4. Analysis – analyse relationships; to deduce, compare, discriminate, categorize
5. Synthesis – derive or create a set of abstract relationships
6. Evaluation – to judge, assess, argue

What this means to you as a student is that basic survey courses (such as 100-level Biology) will be mostly at level 1 and 2, but the more specific junior and senior courses will be integrating the content from several basic courses and requiring you to operate at levels 4-6. This means that cramming and memorizing material won’t work. (Do you detect a trend here?)

Where’s My Shelf?

I was at one of those big chain-bookstores the other day, with a gift certificate burning a figurative hole in my wallet, just begging to be used. I’d even planned ahead for the inevitable “Error 404: File Not Found” of name retrieval, and written down a list of authors and titles of the dozen books for which I was looking. Not that I had really expected to find all of those books, but not that the gift certificate was that big anyway.After pausing to check out all the spiffy bookmarks (“Ooh, shiny!”) I wandered over to the rack between sociology and history.

“Women’s studies, Men’s studies,” (small section, that) “Gay/Lesbian studies, African-American studies, Latino studies, Hawaiian Islander studies,” (wow, we’re no where near the Pacific) “Native American studies … History of Ancient Egypt.”

Wait a minute, missed it. Given my profound ability to be “nose-blind” and miss seeing something right under my nose, I back-tracked and started over. Nope. Okay, maybe the books I’m looking for are filed under some other category. Just because something makes sense to me doesn’t mean it’s true – after all, the grocery keeps the baked beans by the tins of luncheon meat rather than with the tins of vegetables where I would expect to find them …

After duly waiting in the Information queue, I hand my list to the clerk who patiently pecks the names through the store’s search engine. By the time she has reached the end of my list, she is frowning in sympathetic frustration, and informs me that they only have one of the books, which has to be ordered from some distant warehouse. I politely decline, realizing that instant gratification is simply not going to be had, and decide to do my own search-engine pecking with the county library system.

What I found odd was not that they did not have the particular books for which I was searching – I tend to read offbeat stuff, not the latest poolside romance. Rather, what I found odd was that there were not any books on disability studies to be had at all. The section simply did not exist anywhere in the store, not between sociology and history like the other group-studies, not in the psychology or the special education or the history sections.

You want to hear some interesting numbers?

In the United Kingdom there are 9.8 million people with some sort of disability, about 1 in 7.
In Canada there are 3.6 million people with some sort of disability, about 1 in 8.
In the United States there are 49.7 million people with some sort of disability, about 1 in 5.
(As with any epidemiological information, census definitions may differ slightly.)

Either way, that’s a LOT of people; the largest minority within most populations. So how the hell do people go about referring to “them” like they’re rara avis, some minor, marginal sector of sub-humanity? Everyone must know several people with disabilities, whether they realise it or not.

So why are disabled people so invisible and neglected by history? The answers are complex. Part of this is due to the fact that the largest minority is also the most diverse: disabled people include babies, the elderly, people with sensory differences such as the Deaf or blind, people with learning disabilities, people with cognitive processing differences such as autistics or the faceblind, people with developmental or acquired physical differences such as cerebral palsy, people with chronic health problems … Some disabilities are highly visible, and many are invisible.

Another part of the issue is that disability is something feared, shunned, and to be avoided. It is seen as abnormal, defective, deviant and pathological. Disabled people until very recently were shut away in institutions (and often still are), were not schooled (and often still are not) or were segregated in separate schools (and often still are), and no matter what the disability were seen as imbeciles and therefore not deserving or needing status as full citizens capable of making their own decisions (and often still are). The disabled are considered only as, and are seen only as patients and clients. They weren’t people to be considered as a positive and common group, or a social force.

But just as one can now find histories and university programs and shelves of books about Women’s Studies, and find histories and university programs and shelves of books about Gay & Lesbian Studies, we can now find find histories and university programs and –

– well, histories and a few university programs about Disability Studies.

I’m going to buy myself another bookcase. I need more shelves.

Rush Hour Traffic

No one likes rush hour traffic. But the reason it exists is because thousands of people feel that they have to take the same road at the same time. Then they get upset because they can’t all do it fast.

Rush hour traffic is highly over-rated. So are developmental time-tables.

One of the important points is that a lot of the “developmental disorder” end of things is developmental slowness or unevenness – it takes longer to get certain skills, and they may not necessarily be reached in the same manner as most. Comparing a child with such to the standard developmental timetables may only serve to increase stress at the seeming brokenness.

So many schools are trying to fast-foward children, expecting kindergarten social, cognitive and physical skills from preschoolers, and gradeschool social, cognitive and physical skills from kindergarteners.

Children between the ages of 2 and 6 are integrating a humongous amount of information in a variety of spheres, including receptive and expressive language, physical skills ranging from gross and fine motor to bodily functions, single-interpersonal skills, group interpersonal skills, acquiring subject knowledge in concrete things in their lives, cause-and-effect stuff, abstract stuff like numbers and reading and time (seasons, special events etc), and a bunch of other stuff that’s not even coming to mind right now.

Then we throw in things like developmental variability in sensory realms and proprioception and language processing and …

I couldn’t tie my shoes until I was in 3rd grade. Bike riding was even later. I didn’t know all of my multiplication tables until 8th grade. I required speech therapy in primary school, and that was back in the 60’s when most kids didn’t get anything.

Sometimes I think that too many people turn all these developmental timetables into bare minimums, when in fact they are simply averages, which means that some kids do things sooner, and some kids do things later. Given how uneven our kids are, they think that everything should be as advanced as our kids’ best skills. They also spend too much time evaluating how well children participate in herds, when in fact most toddlers and preschoolers really aren’t so much herd animals yet.

School is not about racing to the finish. Nor is it about everyone taking the same path to get there. Despite what people say.

But people get Terribly Concerned because their children are not learning things at the proscribed rates. They become afraid that their children won’t learn at all, that somehow they will be “stuck” at whatever stage they are in. So there are children who spend 40 hours a week in a variety of programs for speech, for movement, for scholastic tutoring, for mimicking social interaction …

Once upon a time, long ago in a galaxy far, far away … we didn’t have all these “programs” for things. Which is not to say that some kinds of programs might not have been helpful. It would have made 40+ years easier if people had known about my considerable Auditory Processing Disorder difficulties, instead of saying I “wasn’t paying attention” or was lazy or whatever.

But people get Terribly Concerned that their child “doesn’t know how to play”. This boggles the mind – how can a child “not know how to play”? But what people are really meaning is that their child is not playing the way they expect them to, i.e., not the “right way”. It’s pretty sad when children are graded on whether or not they play correctly. Play is a personal exploration of the world, for one’s own learning and delight.

One of the things commonly ascribed to autism is a “lack of imagination”, because autistic children don’t always play with the same toys that neurotypical children do, or don’t engage in make-believe games the same way that neurotypical children do. This is really ironic, because Hans Asperger himself said, “It seems that for success in science and art, a dash of autism is essential.” Hmn … And indeed, you’ll find autistic people in most every sphere of endeavour.

If the child doesn’t show an interest in typical toys, then they are simply not interested in them. Let them be available — they may later, or they may end up using them in different ways than other children. (Toy cars are for lining up, right? <grin>) It may be also that other things not generally considered to be toys will be more interesting to them.

For example most kids of all sorts find a manual eggbeater to be fascinating. But an eggbeater is not considered to be a “toy”. Nor is graph paper or a weight scale or a Latin dictionary or an Army Corps of Engineers building manual for national parks structures, although I found all of these fascinating as a child. I still do, and they gave me background useful for my degree in horticulture — you never know how those particular fascinations can be useful.

You may not see the same style of role-playing activities as more socially-oriented children engage in. Those are called “imaginative” play, and many people assume that a lack of engaging in them is a lack of imagination. Rather, it’s a lack of role-playing, and imagination can take many other forms. I played with dollhouses — but spent hours arranging the furniture, not acting out stories with the dolls themselves. To this day I can remember what the furniture looked like, but not the dolls that were supposed to go with it. I have a superlative mental “CAD” type program in my head for arranging and manipulating elements in space, and if I tell my husband that the sofa is six inches longer than the wall, by gum it is six inches longer than the wall. I can re-arrange stuff and pack more into a dishwasher or suitcase or packing box than anyone else.

Let your children have time to explore their worlds by giving them a wide range of experiences, and letting him take those in, in their own manner. Give them what they need by way of therapies to help him deal with things that make their lives difficult, but please, don’t fill their days with them. Children do develop, and some of them do so on different time tables.

It’s Not Easy Being Variegated

Alpinia zerumbet ‘Variegata’


“Why is she doing that – stop it! You’d better stop it right now or else!”

If I had a dollar for every time my mother had told me, “I don’t know why you’d want to do that,” I could buy a plane ticket to Helsinki. Mind you, she never asked why I wanted to do whatever the particular “that” was at the time. If it wasn’t important to her, then it wasn’t important at all. (This is so selfish and one-sided it slides into the realm of the pathological.)

All behaviour provides some kind of communicated message. The onus of burden on communication does not belong to either the autistic or to the people interacting with them. Rather, it belongs to both. Communication is a result. It takes two to tango, sender and receiver each way. Communication can happen in many ways. But unless both parties can find a way to share the message, and are willing to try, it won’t happen.

To make communication happen, we must be able to think outside of the usual verbal box. We have to really observe what is going on, and figure out why someone is doing what they are doing. A lot of people seem to have difficulty understanding the concept of cause and effect – they want to react to the effects, rather than figuring out the causes. It’s easier that way, I suppose; it doesn’t require any thinking.

Let me tell you a garden story as an analogy. In entomology we have a concept called the “pesticide treadmill,” where people find it easier to either spray pesticides on a calendar basis, rather than assessing the actual need for such and what is causing problems, or they wait until problems reach catastrophic levels and then spray. Both of these approaches are both a waste of time and money. Regularly scheduled “calendar spraying” increases pollution, and only pushes for greater pesticide resistance in the pest populations. Not surprisingly, waiting until the pest population blows out of proportion does not yield effective results either, either in terms of pest control or in benefit to the crop.

Sometimes people go around spraying insecticides on their plants, when what they really have is a fungus problem, or a nutrient problem, or an insufficiency of light. Amazingly, the insecticide doesn’t solve the problem! So, they keep on spraying … why? Because the first dose didn’t work. So they think they need more doses, and it should work if you keep giving enough doses. Hmn…

In much the same manner, some people want to do the equivalent thing with their clients or family members — treat symptoms with treatments, instead of figuring out what is causing the problem. Give them tranquilisers, or neuroleptics, or megadoses of vitamins, or chelation, whatever — some “treatments” are far worse than others, but it’s still trying to treat the symptoms rather than figuring out what is causing difficulty. (Amazingly, more doses don’t solve the problem!)

Or indeed, sometimes it’s easier to give “treatments” than to determine if there truly is a difficulty – not all different behaviours are problem behaviours.

“Help!” says a gardening class student, “my plant has yellow leaves! What’s wrong with it? Does it have bugs? Should I give it some Miracle Grower drops?”

“Um, ma’am, this is a variegated ginger. It has green and gold leaves. That’s the way it grows. It’s okay – it’s supposed to be like that.” Student looks dubious. “Your plant is just fine. Really. Enjoy it. There’s nothing wrong with it – it’s naturally variegated from its genes, and that’s what makes it different.”

Student still looks dubious, and says, “I don’t know … it looks sick to me. It’s just too weird – I want my plants to all look nice and green.”

“If you don’t like it, then take it to the office, or to church, or whatever. There are plenty of people who love special plants like this.”

But it takes extra time and effort to observe, monitor, and assess your plants for pest problems. A good IPM (Integrated Pest Management) program will save money in both reduced applications of pesticides, and increased value of your plants. But all this takes learning, observing, and thinking. Likewise, it takes learning, observing, and thinking to analyse the functional cause and effect of various behaviours.

Too often the child (or even adult) is perceived as being a problem, rather than as having a problem. Instead of figuring out what is causing the problem, the reaction is focused upon the effect that is the child’s behaviour. This has to be stopped right now; the child is being bad, children should not talk back, and children should not win arguments! (There’s a recipe for disaster; simply give orders without listening to others and taking their concerns seriously.)

Punishing the child for misbehaving should stop the behaviour, right? Possibly. Unless the child perceives that the punishment (such as an out-of-school suspension) is better than the problem that is distressing them (being bullied). Punishment can sometimes stop a behaviour (depending upon what’s going on), but it doesn’t often change the behaviour because it does not teach a person what to do instead. As long as the behaviour gains something for the person, it won’t go away. That “something” doesn’t always have to be an optimal result, merely a less-bad result. In other words, the behaviour serves some kind of function. When we’re untangling the problem, determining what that function is will be very important, because that’s the key to figuring out what is needed in the way of determining the true problem and a better solution.



“Who the hell are you to complain?”

While washing dishes I started off thinking about the things I was thankful for (the usual census: family, health, good weather, employment and so on), and then by the drying stage my thoughts had wandered off (as they are wont to do), and I realised that I had some things that were more on the Relief side of the bookkeeping, such as “I’m so relieved that my life isn’t full of bitter, angry, crazy-making people.” That wasn’t a very cheerful sort of relief, because it meant that my life used to be. There is also a sort of spiritual weariness that comes from being thankful for the bad things that aren’t happening to you.

Trying to figure out, “How does one get into those kinds of situations?” isn’t hard, because unfortunately, the world is chock-full of them. The blogoshere is rife with weary stories about people’s struggles. But later on while soaking in the philosophical font that is the bathtub, I realised once again that so many of these struggles revolve around the same faulty premises.

There is a pervasive myth of scarcity in our society. I’m not talking about physical resources, even though some of those truly are physically scarce, and many are actually badly shared. Rather, I’m talking about the myth of social scarcity. The fabric of the story line has these warp threads running through it, and given how obnoxious they are, we might call them Warped Threads:

There’s not enough caring to go around — if you get what you need, then I can’t get what I need.

Everyone is being judged, and if I can “prove” that my problems are “worse” than yours, then I win and will get the caring I need, and you lose and won’t get it.

If I don’t get the caring I need, then I can’t be held responsible for being upset, and acting out my frustrations by punishing others.

If I feel slighted because others won the contest, then I’m justified in doing what I feel I “have to” to get substitute needs met.

These lines are getting very childish sounding, aren’t they? And yet they form the foundation to a tremendous amount of infighting for resources or services, and blaming others for creating problems so they can be charged for restitution, and excusing abusive or murderous actions against innocent people.

Wow. There is in fact a deep level of social immaturity, selfishness, lack of empathy and pettiness to the whole scenario. I would call this a cultural immaturity, but it is hardly limited to one culture.

Indeed, these scenarios are widespread and are seen in every bureaucratic, legal, scholastic, and economic system. At these broad levels of pervasiveness, we don’t even notice the underlying errors so that they seem to be the natural order of things.

Underlying all of them is the wholly artificial concept of scarcity: There’s not enough to go around — it’s you or me.

This perceived scarcity even extends to assisting others. A strange virtue is sometimes seen in “guarding” the services-as-scarce-resources from people who would use them.

You’re not fit to judge what services you need, or whether or not you need the services.

We can’t give you these services because other people need them.

You’re not the worst off, so you don’t need them badly enough to get them.

You’re so badly off that you wouldn’t be able to really make good use of them, so they would be wasted on you.

You’re just being greedy, going around asking for services.

If you’re not failing, you’re obviously getting by okay.

Anyone who fails like that is just being lazy or noncompliant. We’re not giving you any services until we can see you putting forth enough effort.

(Bang head here.)

But it doesn’t do any good to whine and complain about how “unfair” things are, and how you “deserve” better. I’m not saying that you don’t deserve better, but rather that we all deserve better. The sad fact is that the people who are doing these things also deserve better. They perpetuate the problem because they don’t recognise the causes of it, and because they lack the tools to build something else.

Most importantly, we don’t want to punish people for having problems. This screwed-up social paradigm is certainly a great problem that besets us all. Instead of antagonism, we need to help each other. We need to quit staking out lines between Us and Them. We need to help by teaching each other how we can help each other. After all, the reason that humans are social animals is because we can work together to create solutions for problems that we cannot solve as individuals. We are all dependent upon each other for a multitude of things.

We don’t need better ways of “beating” the system, because we are all part of the system, and the beatings must stop. (They haven’t improved morale yet.) What we need are ways of overhauling the system by sidestepping these terrible games and introducing different ways of working together.

“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never allow us to bring about genuine change.” ~ Audre Lorde

Novel Ideas




Modern Times

Survey question: Ever been absolutely bored to tears in a class?

Of course you have! We get bored from things that are too easy, that seem too irrelevant, or that are so familiar and routine that they fail to hold our attention (especially those of us for whom attention is a slippery thing to begin with).

A little novelty can be a wonderful thing in teaching. It can catch and retain students’ attention to present them with new material. It can invigorate familiar subjects with new perspectives. Used judiciously, it can raise the challenge to a manageable level that makes students reach to stretch their boundaries, without being so high they run the risk of complete failure.

Novelty can affect educational difficulties in different ways. Educational difficulties are frequently described as “learning difficulties”, although not all of them are expressed in “learning”, the acquisition and integration of new knowledge. Rather, educational difficulties can result from mismatches in teaching methods or in environmental factors. When we run into environments with high levels of novelty, we can run into educational difficulties. Take for example, field trips …

Field trips are chock-full of novelty! New places, new things to see, perhaps to handle, smell and taste, and hopefully new things to do as well. Novelty can help a person more consistently retain attention, especially those people who have problems with varying levels of attention. Please note that “more consistent attention” does not necessarily mean that your AD/HD or autistic student will be “better behaved” on a field trip!

This is because attention-switching can be more difficult when the novel thing has become a sudden, fascinating, all-absorbing interest. Thus, one has to “drag away” a girl from an exhibit on steam engines. Or, the novelty can be so overwhelming that the student hardly knows where to turn – everything in the Hall of Egypt is fascinating! This is the student that won’t dutifully follow the troop from one exhibit to the next in a quiet and linear manner. Instead, he is bouncing all over the place, “Hey, look at this cat wearing an earring! Wow, a real sarcophagus!” His attention is on the exhibit, but nearly all of it all at once. Either way, the teacher leading these “poky little puppies” or “bouncing kangaroos” despairs of keeping the class together, either in the literal sense or in the pedagogical sense when delivering explanations about the materials. (And that, O Best Beloved, is why teachers are always drafting additional adults to be chaperones.)

On the other hand, novel environments, or even familiar environments with highly novel activities, can be problematic for students whose coping strategies are dependent upon having a particular enabling environment, or dependent upon having particular way of approaching and processing work in different ways, either physically or cognitively. This can happen even if the concepts and methods being used are familiar. Sometimes (with strokes, other kinds of brain damage, pharmaceutical side effects, auditory or visual processing difficulties, or autism) students simply have certain processes that they won’t be able to access consistently, but those kinds of events will also happen when nothing has outwardly changed, which indicates that the difficulty is interior to the person.

But sometimes there is something so profoundly new in the system that it “throws a spanner into the works”. The mental gears come to a halt. Outwardly, it appears that the student is either being noncompliant, or else has forgotten what they learned earlier. But in the case of excessive novelty, no amount of cajoling, rebuking or of punishments & rewards is going to “make” the student comply.

In situations where the student gets profoundly stuck or shuts down, it helps to remember that everyone is an organism within an environmental system. Is there something different in the environment since the task was last accomplished? Is there something different in the methods being used? Is the instructor using a very different approach or verbiage? In cases like this, we want to go back and re-establish the previous situational parameters, and reinforce the abilities gained before. This may have to be done on another day; sometimes “stuckness” can be sticky for hours.

Having achieved the skill again, practice it with a single minor change. During the practices, modify the change in small increments, and do not try to introduce multiple changes. Don’t expect to make very many changes at once, either. Doing something differently three times may not be enough to cement it in, and when assaying the task again, it may take a few more tries to get things down thoroughly with all the new changes.


In situations like this, the difficulty can also be with generalising, or being able to apply familiar skills in unfamiliar situations. This isn’t the same problem of being unable to access the skills, but rather, of recognising that this new situation requires that particular set of skills.

Lest these problems seem absurd, and related only to students with cognitive disabilities, then think back to when you got an entirely new version of your computer’s operating system, or when you changed from one word-processing program to another. It’s not that you didn’t know how to use the “file cabinet” in Windows 3.1, or how to save files in WordStar, but rather that lurching into Windows 1996 or WordPerfect, and then later on lurching into Windows 2000 or Word, has changed all of your familiar cues and ways of doing things. You may have had the skills, but now you’re looking for the old things in new places, or using slightly different commands or names for things. Or if you’re a newbie to the world of computers, then think back to your second car, and having to switch on the windshield wipers or headlights with different controls, and of not having the radio buttons working in familiar ways. Somehow, even though it’s the same old thing you’ve been using competantly for a long time, it’s also all new, and every single task is fraught with a dozen little glitches to trap you. Or if you’ve traveled to other countries, consider the first time you stepped into a market and couldn’t automatically identify the packaged goods. The brands, label configurations, aisle locations, even what shapes of containers your items would be packaged in, are all different. It makes the head spin.

Such are the effects of excessive novelty: too much invigoration or too many inputs to sort. Think of it as “educational jetlag”.

P.S. Was the novelty of having the picture of Charlie Chaplin from his film “Modern Times” distracting when you were trying to read the blogpost?

IFs, ANDs or BUTs

When dealing with exceptional students, it’s all too easy to end up just focusing on their difficulties, to the exclusion of their strengths.  Sometimes even the strengths become seen as weaknesses (which is a whole ‘nother story – stay tuned).

You get statements like, “He’s a good writer, but he has major problems with spelling.”  That word but seems to overwhelm all the student’s compositional abilities.  It mentally halts the flow of positive qualities and of plans, not unlike when we say, “We were going on a weekend trip BUT I got sick.” “She could move up to pre-algebra BUT she doesn’t know how to do fractions.”

Sometimes the difficulties are problems that impede progress.  One needs to know how to handle fractions in order to work with algebraic processes.  In situations like that, “but” is an appropriate term.

On the other hand, we tend to become so overly focused upon problems that we end up using “but” way too often.  Thus, we inadvertently limit our understanding, we limit our plans for future work, we limit what we provide for the student in the way of accommodations or services, and ultimately we limit what we and the student expect that they can achieve.  In other words, it becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, a perceived limitation that becomes a semi-real one.

Try this on for size:  “He’s a good writer and he has major problems with spelling.”  By substituting an “and” for the “but”, we now have a student who remains a good writer, and also needs some kind of assistance with the spelling issue.  When we say “and” we do not lose sight of the problem, but we do not as easily run into the issue of false limitations.

“If” can also be a strong word.  That sounds strange, doesn’t it?  The most wishy-washy, uncertain, provisional word can actually be a strong thing.  It’s preconditional, meaning that something can be accomplished when something else is arranged first.  Millions of programmers know this to be true; the basic (er, BASIC) If-Then statement is one of the most important phrases around.  “If we give him a Palm Pilot with a detachable keyboard, then he can type his class notes and thus will be able to take more complete notes.”  This If-Then formula not only acknowledges the issue and the ability, but takes it even further to recommend how to move past the problems to stay focused on the abilities.

Small words don’t earn you very many points on a Scrabble (R) game board, but they can create a surprising amount of results in everyday life.  Try seeing how many times you can substitute an “and” for a “but” in everyday conversation.  It will seem awkward at first, given decades of saying but-this and but-that all the time.   Keep at it, as you remember at times.  If you give it a try with your family, your coworkers, your school people, then I think you’ll find a growing trickle of small changes, like the melting icicles of early spring.

The Perils of Passing

“Third Rock from the Sun” television show:
One of the human characters, Mary, was explaining to Dick (one of the aliens trying to impersonate humans), her reservations regarding dating him.

Mary: “It’s as if you were out of sync with every other person on this planet!”
Dick: “What do you mean? Every day I go out of my way to do things that appear normal!”

There’s a lot of attention placed upon trying to make people with various differences appear to be “normal”, everything from in-the-ear hearing aids (that often are not as useful as behind-the-ear aids), to prostheses, to training autistics to mimic NT social behaviour. Not all of these are bad things necessarily. Given the current popularity of going around wearing a Bluetooth mobile phone on one’s ear like some kind of of cyborg, I can see hearing aids turning into equally high-tech decorative bits.

Unfortunately, emulation works against the overall health of the autistic, for a number of reasons.

Emulation is not a viable goal because it creates additional stress.

Spending extra energy to appear normal is stressful. Spending time trying to make eye contact and worrying if it is being done enough, and suppressing little mannerisms or tics adds to the work load of existing. Spending mental energy attending to these things means having less to devote to other activities, such as decoding speech or organizing and monitoring the visual environment.

Even if depression has a partly genetic basis, extra environmental stress worsens that.

Emulation is not a viable goal because even if the social rituals like eye-contact are performed, that does not mean the autistic will gain the same information from the activity.

Whether or not emotional perception on the part of the autistic is due to less eye contact and facial observation or vice versa, may be a chicken and egg question that will doubtless take more neurophysiological study to unravel. However, the result is the same, because even if the autistic attends to facial observation, that does not necessarily mean the same information will be perceived.

Emulation is not a viable goal because an impaired ability to do so results in ostracism from the community.

If it isn’t done well all the time, people feel fooled. Trying to normalize me or make me “indistinguishable from my peers” isn’t going to work. I don’t do it well. My little weirdnesses aren’t that noticeable at first, but they pile up like snowflakes obscuring the scenery. Then people get annoyed at me because they feel betrayed and fooled, thinking I was a one-of-them normal person.

Emulation is not a viable goal because it devalues the inherent qualities of the person.

Lack of acceptance for who or what one truly is leads to additional stress, depression, increases and/or aggravates the types of stress-related health problems. Lack of acceptance for who or what one truly is leads to increased self-esteem problems and increases the difficulties in social interaction.

My recommendation:

Quit trying to forcibly mold autistic children (and adults) to emulate neurotypical behaviors. Focus instead upon working with the person rather than against them. Work with their skills and aptitudes, work upon stress-reduction techniques, and work on methods for interacting with others that are natural for both the autistic and neurotypical people. Work beyond denial or tolerance toward acceptance and appreciation of diversity in schools, work places, medical care settings, and other arenas of social interaction.

Dividing We Stand

So there I was mulling over how to approach long division with one of my seventh-grade students. There are several difficulties involved in his learning of the process, and I’ve only identified a few of them. One thing I do know for sure is that he has a low frustration threshold, and that mathematics is neither an easy nor an interesting subject for him. (Last week he had a meltdown after just a few problems and wouldn’t do any work for the rest of the hour.)

I thought back to yesterday’s class. A large part of the problem is that he doesn’t have his multiplication facts memorized. This could be from problems with rote memorization, and it could be also from problems with retrieval of information he already knows. Either or both gives the same result behaviorally. I have to be able to sift through what I observe and what he says, to determine what’s happening. After watching him remember most of what we went over the previous day, and watching him have to stop and calculate 22 minus 18, I suspected that it’s probably more of a rote memorization issue than a recall problem.

He also needed a more efficient method of calculating. I showed him that instead of going through the whole rote process of subtracting 8 from 12 by borrowing the 1 from the tens column, he could count from 18 to 22, and (looking at his fingers) see that there’s a difference of four. That sped up his working pace and reduced the cognitive load. It also helped him see that subtracting is finding the distance between two amounts, rather than just cranking through stacks of numerals.

He can calculate his multiplication facts (every single time he needs one) because he understands them as adding by multiples, and he figures the product by adding, “4 …. 8 …. 12 … 16” with each group of four on one finger, then look at his fingers and know that 4 times 4 is 16. Doing all this arithmetic with every step (such as figuring out how many 6’s are close to 37 for the first value of the quotient) places heavy demands upon working memory, and thus reduces his ability to learn and recall the larger process. All that work makes it hard to keep the data in short-term memory, and without that, it never makes it to long-term memory.

So a couple of days ago I brought out a multiplication table, but he didn’t understand it. Time to backtrack and get a better grip on multiplication! I got some manipulative cubes, and we built up a partial table, setting up 2 sets of 3. He counted each cube, “That makes six,” and then 3 sets of 2, “That also makes six,” and he wrote 6’s in both squares. We went over 3×4 and 4×3, and he wrote 12’s in both squares. Ah-ha! The order you multiply doesn’t matter. “That’s called the Commutative Law,” I explained. “It doesn’t matter if you multiply 4×5 or 5×4, whatever order you multiply them, you still get 20. That means you only have to learn HALF of the multiplication table!” Then we went over 3×3 and 4×4 and 5×5 and learned why a number multiplied times itself is called a square – the blocks stacked up into squares. Finally he understood how the multiplication table is built and what he can do with it, so we decided to use it in his long division problems.

Sequencing is definitely a difficulty; he’s having problems remembering when he’s dividing and when he’s subtracting. He’s also getting confused on whether to put a number down as part of the quotient or as a product. That could also be a spatial processing issue. Some of our students have problems with their columns of numbers wandering about, which plays extra havoc when they get to decimals (I liken it to “getting decimated”), so I have them turn lined paper sideways and write their numbers in the columns between the lines.

One thing I had noticed yesterday was that he could describe the process to me verbally more easily than he could write the problem. He might very well be an auditory learner. This might also be a fine motor coördination issue (he writes his numeral 4 with three separate strokes) so we’ve been doing the problems with a whiteboard and marker. This makes it easier to write the problems down and also erase errors, in contrast to doing them with pencil and paper. The marker glides more easily, and the numerals are naturally larger. It’s also easier for me to see what he’s doing without breathing down his neck, which is more comfortable for both of us.

Today I started him out by asking him what his favorite sport is. Yes, that’s an odd way to start math class, and there was a few seconds of delay before he answered, “Baseball.” Tying the subject to his special interest makes it more interesting and relevant, and thus be more likely to “stick”. Starting with something that he likes also helps reduce his aversion to the subject. In this case, we needed to learn the names of the different parts of the division equation. Previously he’d been telling me to, “Put the 2 over the 3,” but knowing how to do one problem by rote process doesn’t always help when you get to a different kind of problem. He also needs to be able to understand that all the problems are built of the same types of pieces. So I explained that just as baseball teams all had the same kinds of positions (catchers, pitchers, basemen, outfielders and so on), so did division problems (divisor, dividend, quotient, product and remainder). Just as each team has different people playing those positions, different problems had different numbers playing different positions. Well, that made sense.

With this base of understanding, we began reviewing the process he’d mastered yesterday. Because of his low frustration tolerance, I wanted to be especially sure of emphasizing his achievement. Then we did four problems together, with me correcting errors and also doing the scribing. Having refreshed the process, for the second quartet of problems I had him tell me what do write, and he was nearly soloing. For the third quartet I had him tell me what he’s doing, and he did the writing as well. Then after all that achievement, we looked at the two different ways of writing the same problem, with the bracket or the dotted sign.

Of course, the big questions are whether or not today’s understanding made it into his long-term memory (if he can retrieve that process after a day or a weekend or a month), and if he understood what it is actually about.

Tomorrow we’ll go over again what a division problem means. 295 divided by 36 describes, “How many sets of 36 can we make from 295? Do we have any left over, or does it come out even?” I’ll also have him describe to me the overall process of long division, which I will type up for him to keep. Having the student explain something in their own words requires a higher taxonomic level of learning than just shuffling around a bunch of numbers. Using verbal description also ties the learning to another part of the memory.

The problem with learning rote processes without conceptual understanding is that the students will then stumble in pre-algebra. They will need to use abstract reasoning to evaluate which method to use when. Part of that abstract reasoning simply comes from the maturation of the brain, and part of it comes from creating that deeper understanding of different methods.

I can sympathize with our students’ mathematical difficulties. It took me four years to learn my multiplication tables, and even in statistics and calculus I still have pauses in recall. (Calculus concepts are a breeze, but I can’t memorize a formula to save my life.) I had also flunked a number of math tests when attending this very same school building, and now here I was teaching it to students. (The irony!) But I take that understanding of the frustration with me every day, and express it as patience. I apply everything I have learned (and continue to learn) about cognition and learning, and everything I have learned about observing people, and put them together in my work as a paraprofessional and as a college tutor.

All told, this student successfully completed 13 long division problems today. The whole process is making much more sense, and he persevered with the work through most of the class period. I told him that since he’d stuck with it so well (even when he got a bit frustrated) he could take a break for the last ten minutes of class. He commented that it was kind of fun. “Yup,” I agreed, “Math is like games or puzzles once you understand the process!” This is a good sign. It may not last – one good day after unknown months of difficulties isn’t enough to turn around a student, but it is part of a good start with a new teaching relationship.


Mum-is-thinking tagged me to answer a book survey. My answers are a motley collection, and I think that motley collections are always the most interesting. I’m guessing that people like to read these kinds of meme-tag surveys because they either want to hear how others have loved the same books they have, or else want to hear about books they had not yet (or possibly would not have) encountered, but would also enjoy.

One book that changed my life
I’ll have to take this is “one of many” rather than as “the one with the greatest impact” because surely different books have had done this at different stages in my life. There are a lot of contenders for books that were the first (if not always the best) to open up my knowledge-base to completely new fields of understanding, such as those on AD/HD or autism. Those are valuable in that regard, but more important are the books that give a different kind of insight, looking behind social paradigms to critically analyse the how and why of human interaction.

For the way that humans interact with their environments, Donald A. Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things looks at the problems that bad design causes people, and how people assume that their difficulties are considered to be their fault, rather than bad design. He touches but lightly on the issues of handicap accessibility, and I don’t think he mentions Universal Design at all, but the central message is still the same. My inner geek adores good, useful, imaginative and æsthetic design, and it drives me nutz when tools, machines or environments are badly designed.

For the way that humans interact with medical & emotional health care providers, Paula Kamen’s All In My Head: An Epic Quest to Cure an Unrelenting, Totally Unreasonable, And Only Slightly Enlightening Headache that describes some of the problems with the medical models of psychology, such as being a problem patient rather than a person with a problem, or the need to find “cures” for everything when instead one can be helped and be healed without being cured.

Strong messages from both of these books.

One book that you’ve read more than once
Who doesn’t have a comfily-tattered set of J.R.R. Tolkien’s four-volume Middle Earth trilogy? (Yes, trilogy means three books, but The Hobbit is part of the Lord of the Rings, and science fiction & fantasy is rife with trilogies composed of more than three volumes.) For my favorite re-read when stuck abed with a nasty virus, I really enjoy Anne McCaffrey & S.M. Stirling’s The City Who Fought. It’s a fun piece of adult science fiction with the well-drawn characters and nitty-gritty techy details and swashbuckling action that make for a engaging read.

One book you’d want on a desert island
Most people like to pack either something really long, or else an extensive practical reference book. But I don’t think that I’d want to be stuck with some interminably long piece of fiction, no matter how well-written, and I’ve probably read enough references over the years that I could eventually solve any manner of functional issues. What I want would be a huge book of blank pages, so I could keep a journal of thoughts about various things. It’s often difficult for me to work out mental explorations without a written medium. I’ll remember or figure out the right knots for lashing together poles, but being able to compose my thoughts is integral to my equalibrium.

One book that made you laugh
Terry Pratchett’s Mort was the first Discworld novel I ever read, and Death is still my favorite character, possibly because he’s so practical and the human world doesn’t always make sense to him. Plus, he talks in ALL CAPS. Soul Music is damn funny, too. I love the puns and unexpected turns in Pratchett’s books.

One book that made you cry
Ebbing & Gammon’s General Chemistry (sixth edition). The authors of this uninspired, heavy tome had an interminable number of equations to solve. I made it through four semesters of chemistry and sweated through this volume for half of them.

One book you wish you had written
Actually, I’m still compiling thoughts for my next book. I don’t tend to dwell on wish-I-had’s.

One book you’re currently reading
I never read just one book at a time, which explains why it takes me so long to finish anything! I just finished Joseph P. Shapiro’s No Pity. I’m furthest into Majia Nadesan’s most interesting Constructing Autism, which I will finish as soon as I remember where the hell I left the book laying about.

Currently my bedside pile contains: Thomas Skrtic’s Behind Special Education, Alfie Kohn’s What Does It Mean to Be Educated?, Kegan & Lahey’s How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work, Marshall B. Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communications, Fisher & Shapiro’s beyond reason, and Walter Kauffmann’s translation of Basic Writings of Nietzsche (maybe after finishing the book I’ll be able to spell N’s name without looking it up every time). I had just started on Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene and then my daughter took it back with her to college; bad girl. By default I’m also reading Hardman, Drew & Egan’s Human Exceptionality: School, Community and Family because it’s my current textbook.

One book you’ve been meaning to read
The future pile-by-my-bed: Daniel C. Dennett’s freedom evolves, John H. Holland’s Hidden Order: How Adaptation Builds Complexity, Douglas R. Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (I think that one may take a study-buddy to gain the most benefit), the Routledge Critical Thinker’s series editions about Gilles Deleuze, Jaques Derrida, and Michel Foucault, Eli Maor’s e: the Story of a Number, and David Darling’s Universal Book of Mathematics. Doubtless there’s more, but that’s what’s on that section of my bookcase.

Tag five other book lovers
Anna, Catana, David, Liam, and Whomever wishes they’d been tagged but felt like they needed some kind of “official” sanction to simply write and post a list!

Unreal World

“But what is he going to do once he gets to the Real World?”

I had to smile at my fellow paraprofessional, thinking to myself that having been out in the big, bad Real World, I was doing my darndest to get back into academia.

One of our students has dysgraphia problems, and gets a scribe when there are a lot of answers to write down on assignments.

“Then he’ll do what other people do:  type things on the computer, talk to people, make recordings, or do what people used to do – dictate stuff for a secretary!”

This is a not uncommon reaction when a scribe is suggested for a student because of their tortuously slow handwriting speed, and/or because the penmanship is outright difficult to read.  People are afraid that giving a student a scribe to write down assignment answers is going to mollycoddle them.

But really, we have to ask ourselves just what is being assessed.  Is this a test for penmanship, or are we trying to help the student get information and concepts cemented into the brain, or checking their understanding of such?  Because if the handwriting process is so laborious, then our student of question will not progress far into the assignment.  They will also get very frustrated from the effort, and likely not finish the lesson, especially if this is a student with a prior history of academic difficulties.  Naturally, both of these factors do not improve the learning process.

To be clear, a scribe is someone who takes dictation, not someone who does the lesson for a student.  Giving a student a scribe is a good example of changing the environment to fit what a student needs, rather than forcing them into a mold they don’t well fit.  When done correctly, providing this kind of help does not enable them to be lazy, but rather enables them to be more productive.

When we have students who are not being compliant or on task, it’s good to ask ourselves what the actual task is that’s not getting done, and what the end result is that is actually needed in the educational process.

“It wouldn’t be fair.”

Well, it’s that time of year again when I sign up for another class. Being that I’m taking this class at a different college, I have to once again go through the process of filing paperwork with the office that provides access services for students with disabilities. (I’ve long since learned to scan the diagnostic documents into pdf files so I can hand out copies, rather than risk losing or damaging the originals.)

Going through this process leaves me with mixed feelings. On one hand, I’m relieved that someone takes seriously my persistent difficulties with some processes. I’m glad to finally get the accommodations I need. On the other hand, this whole process of getting accommodations, and indeed the system of special education, is a tacit acknowledgement that the current educational system simply doesn’t work well enough for large numbers of students.

The absurd part is that I really don’t need anything extraordinary in the way of accommodations. The things I need aren’t expensive, nor do they require the instructors to do anything radically different in their instruction methods.

My accommodations are to give me “preferential seating” (I sit up front to better see and hear the professor and the board they are writing/projection upon); to have the captions displayed when videos are shown so I can understand all the narration (the students with hearing impairments or who do not have English as their primary language also benefit from the captions); to get copies of lecture notes or PowerPoints so I can be sure of understanding and not missing any of the material being presented, and to have 50% extra time to take tests.

What these do is to allow me to do is to acquire the information being presented, and to demonstrate my mastery of the subject material, at levels on par with my peers. These don’t give me a superior advantage over the other students, but rather help bring me up to the same level. (If many of the other students find they would also very much benefit from these things, then the instructional and evaluation methods need re-assessing – there’s a difference between challenging students and making things hard on them.)

Much of the resistance I have gotten from instructors has been on the issue of “fairness”.

I have failed – flunked – big red “F” on the page – more math tests than I care to remember. Suddenly I am getting A’s in College Algebra and Calculus! So, I am not innumerate. But what the hell happened? I got much better teachers who were able to teach with a variety of methods geared for different learning styles, and they let me take the time I need to finish the tests.

Then I get to a graduate-level statistics course, and talk to the professor at the beginning of the semester, explaining my particular difficulties with transcription errors and such, and ask if I might be able to have extra time if necessary so I can finish my exams. He refuses. He feels that would be “unfair” to the other students. “Everyone gets test anxiety; you will get faster with practice,” he says.

I sigh heavily at this familiar refrain, and throw myself into the subject. Like calculus, statistics lives in a theory world of its own, but I find that I understand the concepts. I read the textbook. I take excellent notes in class (people like to borrow my notes when they miss lectures). I do all the homework. I join a study-group. I do the programming projects and get A’s on them.

Then I get D’s on the first two tests. (Oh no, not again!) I go back and explain my problems once again to my professor – I did not even have time to finish one of the tests! I ask him again for extra time, which he refuses. Finally in high frustration, I end up discussing the situation with my grad school advisor, who pushes through a class Drop (even after the official last-drop date; amazingly, it can be done). I retake the class the next semester, this time with my official paperwork filed so I can have half as much more time to take the tests, and therefore will be able to finish them and be able to double-check my calculations for transpositions and such. I get a perfectly acceptable B grade. I just wanted to be tested on my understanding of the material, not my computational speed!

“It wouldn’t be fair,” said the professor. He missed the point.

Ann Welch* makes some excellent distinctions about the different concepts that are lumped together under sometimes misleading heading of “fairness”.
Equality is about treating everyone the same way because people have the same rights.
Equity is about recognizing and responding according to the amount of effort given by or achievement of a student. Equity can be best determined when everyone has the same equal opportunity.
The third of course is need. Not everyone needs the same things. (After all, no one complains that it’s “unfair” that I get to use bifocals when the rest of the students don’t.)

Highly competitive cultures place great value on equity; you get what you deserve. (The corollary being that you deserve what you get, and if taken to extremes, that if you’re somehow “substandard” you must have deserved it. It’s the old sin model of disability.)

It’s not that people aren’t terribly concerned with fairness. Indeed, children are almost obsessed with fairness, watching every last gram of sweets being doled out, or time and opportunity with entertainments being shared. That sort of fairness is about equality.

Fairness is not just about treating everyone the same; it’s also about giving people what they need.

* Ann B. Welch. 2000. “Responding to Student Concerns about Fairness.”  Teaching Exceptional Children, 33, (2) 36-40

« Older entries