Hey parents! What do you do with all that stuff that the school sends home on the last week of school?
I’ve got books, journals (with literal scribbles, no words), various reading guides, and all kinds of other paperwork including a “Top Five Moments of 2016-2017” montage: Exploratorium, Music with Lisa Z., Girls Basketball, Adventure Playground, Tilden Little Farm.
In Dar’s case, he truly wouldn’t mind if I threw it all away. He doesn’t even take a second glance at photos of himself. (Yet he does love staring in the mirror.) How do we harness Dar’s unusual perspective for good in the world, anyway?
And what do I do with all this stuff?
There’s also a report card, which is abominable, unless you count the fact that it keeps him qualified for services.
I choose to grade Dar’s year of First Grade by my own metrics.
Close readers will remember that he went through three aides in the first three weeks of the school year. Each one, in turn, reassured me that the staffing problems were now over. Funny, that.
The district had contracted with some kind of caregiver organization based in Vacaville, and their employees were driving 90 minutes in the morning only to learn they’d have to change Dar’s diapers. Not a formula for success.
So the district hired a person about a week before Dar’s 7th birthday in October. We loved our aide, and the good news is that she remained Dar’s one-on-one aide all the way through the end of the school year last week. She and I finally hugged when we said goodbye for the summer (and presumably forever), but I got the feeling we could have been hugging earlier in the year. She was always super-nice.
Our aide represents both the greatness and the problem with the district’s approach to Dar. On the one hand, she’s awesome. On the other hand, she’s not trained in special-needs instruction. She certainly taught Dar things. He seems to know far more animals and modes of transport than he knew at this time last year. Dar has acquired new vocabulary words and new fluency with his iPad/talker. But it’s always hard to know if Dar would have learned more things in an environment more targeted to his deficiencies.
I spent time this year visiting some of the other options. Those visits didn’t exactly clarify the situation.
So, anyway, what was Dar’s first grade like?
His class had two teachers, neither of which was full-time. That seemed odd to me, perhaps more evidence of the district’s reluctance to hire full-time people despite its full-time needs. (My so-called professional career is a testament to this problem on the college level.) There was also a rotating cast of aides, one of whom took over the class for a week while the two part-time teachers were out of class on training. When I popped by at random, I would sometimes find the aide helping other students, which always slightly bothered me: she’s Dar’s aide. We fought for her.
Every morning at Thousand Oaks, kids queue up in the large outdoor blacktop just before the 8:00 bell. Every morning, I noticed that all the other rooms’ kids seem to queue up just fine, but Dar’s room, Room 5, never bothered. I feel that somehow related to kids/parents not taking that room’s teachers seriously.
If we remember nothing else about 2017, we’ll probably remember Dar’s success at the first stage of potty-training. But that was neither pioneered by nor replicated at school. We brought them a toilet seat, showed them how to do at school what we did at home. But nothing.
Our aide kept a journal of other things. Dar went through a few phases of bad behavior, including some hitting (usually self-hitting). None of this has come close to the sort of antecedent that would lead to Dar being transferred to another school, but it’s still worth noting.
Last week, for the first time, I saw Dar place his backpack in his cubby perfectly, trying a second and then a third time without having to be told. Yay, I thought. He’s finally got that down. On the last week of school.
Maybe Dar’s ability to sit and listen to stories/instructions has slightly improved since the beginning of the school year, maybe it hasn’t. On some level it barely matters, because he certainly can’t do anything like two-step or three-step instructions (“go to the sink, then clean out your bowl, then wash your hands”) without constant assistance.
One highlight of the year was a “Flat Stanley” project where every kid was importuned to write to a relative who lives outside Northern California to, per the “Flat Stanley” book, take pictures that show the “travels” of a “flat” representation of the kid. Well, I was smart enough to write to my awesome cousin Maureen, who absolutely rocked pictures of “Flat Darwin” in D.C. and St. Louis. Not that Dar noticed, but I believe Maureen’s presentations were the hit of the class!
That’s the thing…when we hear about Dar’s progress, it’s often framed in terms of his success with the class, or not. He’s getting along with peers, or not. He’s jumping up and walking around during project time, or not.
These metrics make sense for other students because that’s how they’ll be judged later in life. I wonder if they really make sense for Dar. He’ll never really get along with peers in any conventional way. He’ll very rarely be on-task while everyone else is on-task. So why judge him by metrics that future employers will have no use for?
But…maybe they will.
Dar has no personal investment in most of what happens in a classroom. As much as that sounds like a weakness, I could imagine it re-framed as a strength. For example, the fact that Dar doesn’t care who’s first or last in line might be used to maintain his focus on something, or to approach a problem in a less linear way. This is where perhaps, maybe, the public school setting could yield better results than a special-needs classroom. It could perhaps, maybe, unlock a part of Dar that would prove useful to the rest of the world.
But if you know Dar, you’ll know those odds are long.
This year, Dar lost his speech therapist, who had been an incredible advocate and wise lesson-planner for Dar. He’s also losing his aide as well as the school’s special-needs coordinator. When he gets back from summer break (where he’s spending five hours a day on ABA), the school will no doubt blame the summer for his partial regression. What the school won’t do is say: “it doesn’t help that Dar has had to adjust to an entire new team.”
If he were in a special-needs class/school, that wouldn’t happen nearly as often.
But I continue to believe that the district is doing the best it can, and that the best it can is often…good. We’re treading water, but sometimes the ocean seems to be moving us toward a distant, harmonious shore, kind of like it did for that kid in “Life of Pi.”
Next year was supposed to offer some relief: Dar in a class taught by my old friend, Dar’s brother in the same school in a bilingual classroom. Those things are now up in the air, so…we’ll see. I just hope our raft gets to Mexico before this tiger eats us.
Sorry, but I don’t have a ribbon with which to tie up this entry. Instead I have an avalanche’s worth of papers, books, drawings, journals, folders, songbooks, poetry books, and other first-grade effluvia.