Thursday, October 30, 2008

Missing Ellie

Today would have been my sister Ellen's 48th birthday. She died one August day, twelve years ago, of Crohn's Disease.

According to Jewish custom, we're supposed to remember our loved ones on the anniversary of their death (their yahrzeit date). But we were on vacation when she died and I have trouble remembering the exact date. Besides, Ellie wasn't Jewish... so somehow remembering her on her birthday "works for me."

Ellie was seven years younger than I - in many ways, she was my "first child." I loved her, cared for her, changed her diaper, encouraged her to walk, taught her to say "Mama" and "Dada" -- and when the time came, took a deep breath and talked with her about the "facts of life." (One of the most awkward and uncomfortable discussions of my life! Poor Ellie, I'm sure I embarrassed her greatly!)

Her illness was a long and ugly one - we figured later she'd probably been sick for almost 20 years when she died. It deprived her of many experiences. But she was funny and clever and remarkably bright. The world is diminished by her absence.

She lived with us while I was pregnant with our second child and on total bedrest. Our son, who was two and a half at that time, loved his Aunt Ellie as only a young child can - with every fiber of his body. When our daughter was born, Aunt Ellie delighted in holding this newborn on her lap and quickly figured out how to make the baby stop crying. She never quite mastered the trick of changing diapers, though!

Some years, the remembering has been more difficult than in other years. This year, it's been hard. My mother is not well. The current economic crisis reminds me of my family's economic crisis around the time that Ellie was born, shortly after my father had lost his job. And even the weather this past week has been more typical of mid-state Wisconsin weather in late October than typical Maryland weather this time of year.

There is a reading from the Yizkor service which has always been a comfort to me.

At the rising of the sun and at its going down,
we remember them.

At the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter,
we remember them.

At the shining of the sun and in the warmth of summer,
we remember them.

At the rustling of the leaves and in the beauty of autumn,
we remember them.

At the beginning of the year and at its end,
we remember them.

As long as we live, they too will live;
for they are now a part of us,
as we remember them.

When we are weary and in need of strength,
we remember them.

When we are lost and sick at heart,
we remember them.

Where we have joy we crave to share,
we remember them.

When we have decisions that are difficult to make,
we remember them.

When we have achievements that are based on theirs,
we remember them.

At long as we live, they too will live;
for they are now a part of us,
as we remember them.

May her memory be for a blessing.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Maybe It's Not A Totally Lost Cause?

I may have blogged a little too quickly yesterday, about the two courses being cancelled due to under-enrollment.

In separate conversations with educators in both Virginia and Maryland, we were able to do some out-of-the-box thinking about other approaches that may work.

One colleague suggested front-loading the training next year, during school sessions. It would mean his teachers wouldn't necessarily have madrichim the first couple of weeks of school, but it would allow the participants to be trained during their already-committed time.

Another colleague suggested offering the course weekly during second semester, instead of spreading it out over the entire year. The compressed time might work easier for participants.

Another idea that surfaced was the possibility of a weekend retreat at the beginning, followed by intermittent "check-ins."

So maybe it's not a lost cause.... Sounds like a brainstorming session might be in the works for after our community-wide Education Day in early November.

I'm feeling better....

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A Major Disappointment

I blogged earlier (this summer) about the class for 11th and 12th graders that I was looking forward to teaching this year – the one for kids who thought they want to be religious school teachers. I had decided to change the structure of the class to one that would include a “lab” portion each week. I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent working up a Scope and Sequence, defining a Mission Statement and looking for materials that would work in the “lab.”

We had hoped to offer two sessions – one in Maryland and one in Virginia. Dates and times were chosen. The syllabus was finalized. A grant was applied for and received.

Unfortunately, neither location has had sufficient enrollment to allow us to offer the classes. I’m not quite sure why, but I suspect that we didn’t do an adequate job of marketing the programs and the recent sudden economic downturn has people apprehensive about spending additional monies. The ultimate reason, I know, could be that teens just aren’t interested. I’ll have to post the “official” cancellation notice tomorrow for both programs. ::sigh::

I still think it’s a good program; I still think there’s a community need for programs like this. It just may not be the right time.

I am very disappointed.

Friday, October 10, 2008

A New Insight

Sometimes, when I least expect it, I run into some information that causes me to re-examine what I thought I knew.

A SCENE FROM THE PAST: At a school I directed for a number of years, we had a high percentage of students who had a variety of learning disabilities. We also had several – eight to be exact – students who had either autism or asperger’s syndrome. We – the students, teachers, parents and I – worked to find ways to involve our students in authentic learning and community experiences. Sometimes we had more success than others.

There was an older student in our program, one who was bright, articulate, curious, fond of routines and a lover of predictability: a student who thrived when he knew exactly what to expect; and who was rattled when others couldn’t “see” what he “saw” in a discussion. Situations in which there was more than one right answer were difficult for him to cope with – or comprehend. As he entered seventh grade, we found the social piece was becoming increasingly difficult and causing pain to him, to his classmates, and to his teacher.

After one particularly distressing day, Mom and I spoke about possible alternatives. We had an existing HomeSchool program at that time and Mom requested that he be allowed to participate in the HomeSchooling program. Social interactions, she pointed out, were a stumbling block for him across the board, in every setting he found himself. He wanted to learn – was eager to pursue advanced studies. We’d tried, she said, to make the traditional setting work. Maybe it was time to try something else.

After discussion with the student, with Mom, with the teacher and the Rabbi, we all agreed it was a viable alternative. I agreed to work up an accelerated course of study designed to challenge him well beyond what we were able to do in class. I spent time in transition discussions with both the family and the class he was leaving behind.

HomeSchooling worked – for about three weeks.

Then Mom called and asked if I could meet with her and the student. The student told me he was learning a lot, but that there was something missing: a learning community. Even though he’d had problems in class and with the other students, he missed being with them and hearing their ideas. He asked if he could come back to class. I reminded him that the class wouldn’t be able to move at the accelerated pace – he understood that. And that there were going to be times when he disagreed with others – and I expected him to remain in control of his temper. He agreed to do that.

So I began to do some scripting, both with him individually and with the class collectively. I told them how I expected them to greet each other; what words they could use to disagree (respectfully) with each other; and specifically how to stop pushing each other’s buttons. We also provided a couple of safety nets for the more volatile participants.

As things settled in, the Rabbi and I conferred. I expressed how incredulous I’d felt when the student said he missed being with the class, even though it was hard for him. I remember saying, “All the literature tells us that Asperger’s kids prefer to work along – they don’t want to be in groups working.” The Rabbi listened. “Perhaps,” he said, “the literature is wrong. And maybe these kids fit in when the community can accept them.”

FAST FORWARD: Last week, rushing through the grocery store, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a book: Look Me in The Eye (John Elder Robison). I stopped in my tracks.

How often had I said that to students, until I learned that for some students, eye contact makes it impossible for them to share their thoughts?

I reached for the book and read the subtitle: “My life with Asperger’s.” I read it through in two days, unable to put it down.

On page 211, John Elder Robison writes:

Many discriptions of autism and Asperger’s describe people like me as “not wanting contact with others” or “preferring to play alone.” I can’t speak for other kids, but I’d like to be very clear about my own feelings: I did not ever want to be alone. And all those child psychologists who said “John prefers to play by himself” were dead wrong. I played by myself because I was a failure at playing with others. I was alone as a result of my own limitations, and being alone was one of the bitterest disappointments of my young life.

I am very grateful that my former student felt safe enough to approach his Mom and me about re-entering the classroom. I am very grateful that I had the sense to LISTEN to what he was saying. I am very grateful that I was able to pull out specific words and phrases to teach this group of young men and women not only what to say, but how to say it. I am very grateful to the other students in the class who were able to rise to the occasion. And, I'm very grateful that I was able to discount what "all the literature said" and regard my student as a unique individual.

It ended up being a good year.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Change: Noun or Verb?

I'm taking a class, with a group of other Jewish communal workers - we meet monthly and discuss a variety of topics. It's an eclectic group and so we often get a variety of viewpoints.

One of the topics that arose last week was the subject of "change." The instructor asked, "How do you feel about change?" Being the forward-minded people we are, we all agreed that while others might have problems with change - we don't.

Pretty pat answer.

But the question's been echoing in my mind all week. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the start of the New Year (5769) this past Monday at sundown.

After a while of turning the question around and examining it from different perspectives, it occurred to me that what we'd done, as a group, was to treat "change" as one word - without distinguishing between the verb change (which refers to a process) and the noun change (which is the outcome or product).

I maintained in class that I don't necessarily have a problem with change-the-noun. After all, I'm all about change - my life is vastly different than I ever could have envisioned, growing up in a German-Catholic-Lutheran farming community of 5,000 people. I learned a long time ago that "5-year plans" weren't part of my makeup.... "Seize the moment" or "the road less traveled" was more typically my style.

And yet.... and yet, it's not quite that simple.

I hate change-the-verb.... I hate feeling disoriented... the unpredictability that occasionally catches me unaware and makes me scramble to regain my equilibrium. I hate having to be oh-so-very-mindful until new patterns become routines.

We did a lot of moving when I was growing up -- I always felt at a loss until our new house became a "home." And that generally seemed to happen around the time I would enter a dark room and automatically hit the light switch on the first time.

I like routines.... I like grabbing my briefcase and knowing that all the materials I'll need for a specific class are there: pencils, glue sticks, books, notes, stapler, markers, tzedakah box. Since I teach different classes in different settings, I have separate bags for each -- I can just "grab and go" and not think about all the discrete items I need.

I like routines.... when I get up each morning, I grab a cup of coffee and sit at the computer. I check my email accounts, log on to Facebook, read the comics, peruse the headlines, and follow some blogs (in the same order every morning). Only after that routine is completed, can I go on to something new.

Any yet, if I'm totally honest, despite my discomfort at the process, I look back over the intentional changes I've made - and I would make them all over again: moving East, leaving my career path, meeting my husband, converting to Judaism, having children, becoming a Jewish educator, engaging in volunteer work (Judaic and secular). How different my life would have been if I'd not been willing to engage in that process!

May the year ahead hold sweetness, good health, and sufficient challenges to keep life interesting - but not overwhelming. L'shanah tovah!