Monday, July 4, 2016


I have been reflecting a bit on the last few years. I have a hard time believing all the changes that have taken place in three years.

Three years ago, I was living in Kazakhstan as the only expat working for my company and dealing with the grief of a friend and co-worker in the end stages of cancer. I was worn down and struggling to survive, let alone thrive. At work, I was looking at how to best support families of children with disabilities in Taraz. It seemed all I could do was cling to God and trust that He would guide me through this difficult time.

Two years ago, I was saying goodbye to friends in Kazakhstan in order to return to the States. I had no idea what my future held. I didn't know if my future included living in Kazakhstan or the USA. I was looking forward to seeing friends and family, but also dreading leaving behind others. I was uncertain as to the future, but chose to cling to the promise that God would guide me.

One year ago, I was preparing to be a first year teacher for the second time. In the intervening year, I had moved back to Muncie, had my first (and hopefully last) kidney stone, graduated with my Masters in Special Education, and purchased a house. The details fell together in such a way that I have not doubted God's guidance in these decisions.

This summer, I find myself resting after a busy first year teaching at Southside Middle School.  I loved my class, although it was an exhausting and challenging year. I enjoy building into my neighborhood and am slowly getting to know some of my neighbors. I have become more involved in my church, including getting to spend a week in Nicaragua with a group of friends from church. I am working on house projects and spending time with friends as I take advantage of the two months I have off this summer.  I will get to visit family in Montana before settling back into the routine of school.

At church today, I was struck by the reality of where God has brought me during the last three years. Today, as we sang the words "when my heart is torn asunder and my world just falls apart" I found myself fighting back tears. However, they were tears of joy mingled with tears of sadness. I remembered the days, only a few years ago, when I could barely make it through the song due to feeling like my world was falling apart. I hurt for the people around me who are currently living the reality of those words. I thanked God that at the moment those words are a memory for me. Yet, I also cling to the reminder that I have learned to trust God more as a result, and will continue to grow the next time I face circumstances that make these words a reality. For now, I live the words later in the same song stating "there is hope beyond the suffering, joy beyond the tears."

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Independence - Shoe Tying

This year we have been working on tying our shoes. This may not seem like a big deal, but once you get to middle school, it is awfully difficult for parents to find velcro shoes in big enough sizes. As a result, either parents and teachers tie shoes multiple times every day or we learn to tie our own shoes.

At the beginning of the year, none of my students were able to tie their own shoes.  Some of them struggle with the fine motor skills needed to tie a shoe. Others had just never figured out the complex steps.

Last year when I was doing my practicum, I found a method for tying shoes that doesn't require complex coordinated movement with two hands at once. As a result, it is much easier for those students who have more difficulty with fine motor tasks. It is also easy to break down into distinct steps. We started working on tying our shoes after Christmas break and three students are able to complete all the steps. Two others are a couple steps away from being able to do it without assistance.

Personally, I keep learning how important it is to lay out information in very specific steps for my students. I have to be very careful how I first introduce information because my students will follow a routine very rigidly once they have learned that routine. If they learn it wrong the first time, it is hard to reteach new routines. Also, too many instructions at once only serve to confuse my students. I am learning to break tasks up into their simplest components. It is so much fun to celebrate the small (yet big) successes and watch my students become more independent!

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Communication is Power

I thought you might enjoy a specific story about a student in my class.  For the sake of this post, we will call this student Dan.

Dan transitioned to middle school this year and ended up in my class. I had met Dan last year while doing my practicum. The very first day of practicum, while we were having free time, he walked over, grabbed my hand, walked me over to the CD player, and handed me a CD. Despite his clear intelligence, he tended to refuse to do any work.

His favorite things are anything to do with music (tapping a rhythm, clapping, playing the keyboard, etc.).  He also loves going on bike rides, swinging, and chewing on things.  Last year, his mom purchased an app on his iPad to try to encourage him to begin conversing, as he has no functional communication.  Despite lots of work, he did not really seem to grasp the power of communication last year.

Midway through the first semester I had a practicum student in my class. As she started thinking about a project to complete, we decided to give Dan another chance to try using a communication device. We tried a different app on his iPad (LAMP Words for Life). My practicum student spent four weeks working to teach Dan nine different words using LAMP. Over this time, he was able to go from no functional communication to being able to request several things on his iPad (bike, walk, toy, chewy, finished, etc).

He even started using the phrases on his device for new meaning. For example, he had learned to use finished when he was done riding the bike. However, he started using the word finished to let us know that he was done communicating and wanted to go back to playing his favorite game on the iPad. Just this week he has learned how to navigate in and out of apps by himself to go between communicating and playing his games.

Initially, I didn't think he would get past 84 possible words to use for communication.  I honestly wasn't sure he would succeed in 4-5 words. However, when it became obvious that he learned words quickly, I had to do some reconfiguring of his device. He now has to tap up to three different icons in order to have the device say a word (instead of just one).  Although this is harder for him than what he originally did, he is already starting to learn how to do this (we have only been doing this since coming back from Christmas break). We have also added additional words to his vocabulary (swing, upstairs, downstairs, etc).

This has all been a major reminder to me of how important it is to give students a new chance at learning over and over again. Last year, he wasn't ready to communicate, but it seems like something has clicked this year and he is learning that his words have power. It will be fun to see how Dan continues to increase in communication skills as the year progresses. Our biggest challenge now is keeping Dan busy as he is no longer content to sit at his desk. He wants to go on bike rides, play with his iPad, take a walk, etc. I guess this is a good problems to have!

Thursday, January 14, 2016

A Reason to Communicate

It has been a long time since I last posted. I will likely be able to update more regularly now. My first semester was a struggle. It took all my energy to get to know my students and get everything planned for the next day. I felt like I was treading water.

Christmas break was wonderful. I had a great time with my family in Montana. I also did some planning and was able to make some changes to my daily schedule. Even though we haven't been able to implement that schedule very often due to the recent bad weather as well as standardized testing, it seems to be working well.  I thought I'd take this moment (now that I have some extra energy) to share some fun success stories from my class. I'll probably do several longer posts in the near future to give more details on some of these.

  • One student has learned to tie his shoes and another is close
  • One student has been attending art class and another just started science class today
  • Two students have learned to zip their coats
  • One student has memorized his lunch number and now enters it independently in the cafeteria
  • One student has moved from a communication device that had 84 choices to one that has over 500,000 options.
  • Four of my students can now add single digit numbers
  • One of my students has moved from no functional communication to being able to express 9 or 10 words using a communication device. 
  • One student has learned how to shred paper, including independently going and getting the paper that needs to be shredded. 
  • All my students have participated in a low ropes course multiple times
  • One of my students hugged another student today (this is huge for a child with autism)
  • One of my students has gone from being able to read zero words to being able to read over forty words and write sentences using his words. 
  • One of my students is able to clean the tables in the cafeteria after breakfast
I'm sure there are some I am missing, but we have been working hard. I am so proud of my students and how far they have already come. We still have a lot to work on. I thoroughly enjoy going to school every day and am thankful for the other staff in our school, especially my aides. I am also thankful for my students and their parents. We have a lot of fun each day even though we are working hard. I am looking forward to seeing what the rest of the school year will hold.  

Monday, October 19, 2015

Positive Peer Pressure

So often we hear about peer pressure in a negative context. However, I have had the opportunity recently to see it played out in a positive way in my classroom. I am thoroughly enjoying being a teacher at Southside Middle School in Muncie. I enjoy the challenges and rewards each new day brings.

We have been focusing on positive reinforcement in my class. My students are able to earn dollars each day, which they can use to pay me at the end of each day for some free time. If they don't have enough money for free time, they don't get to play with my toys and have to do work instead. If all the students in the class get free time on any given day we cross off a letter from the acronym SWAGGER (students who achieve good grades earn respect). SWAGGER is a school wide initiative encouraging our students to get good grades. Once we have marked off all the letters, we get to go somewhere special. The first time, we went to McDonalds for a quick afternoon snack. The second time, we went to Fazolis for lunch and the park.

Although the entire system encouraged positive peer pressure, our time at the park allowed me to experience how helpful peer pressure can be in the right context. One of my students tends to not like changes in lighting. This presented a problem when he attempted to go down a slide that had a cover over it. He spent about 20 minutes standing on the stairs and reaching one foot up to the slide. Anytime any of the adults would encourage him he would back away and start again. If other students came up behind him, he would back down in a slight panic and let them go. Finally, he gave up and went to another part of the park. This was when one of my other students stepped up and said "let's go down the slide, come on" and took of running towards the slide. The other student followed him up the stairs, under the cover, and down the slide. All it took was an encouraging friend who showed him how to do it and made sure he knew it was okay. I was so thankful that one of my students took the time to encourage his friend to give it another try.

I'm hoping I see many more examples of positive peer pressure in my classroom this year!