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April 1, 2017
Vol. 74
No. 7

If You Show Up, They'll Surprise You

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Social-emotional learning
Classroom Management
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Ten years ago, I had the good fortune of taking a class on the importance of infusing the arts into education from Maxine Greene, the late educator and philosopher-in-residence at Lincoln Center in New York City. I remember her talking a lot about meaning-making, possibility, and direct experiences with the real—versus the virtual—world. She worried about the corrosion of community and human relationships and expressed a deep discontent with experiences like seeing people plugged into their iPods, isolated from fellow travelers on the subway.
The class met at her apartment because by that point, Greene was in her 90s and had mobility constraints. She taught from the reclining chair in her living room. We gathered on couches and folding chairs, exploring how different texts and works of art could shift our perspectives. Our class ventured to the Guggenheim Museum: Greene wanted us to experience paintings directly, to process them as a learning community, to engage the spark that's a natural consequence of sharing dialogue about a piece of art. She was dedicated to having us experience in a corporeal way what she meant by the power of meaning-making and integrating the arts.
One compelling facet of this extraordinary experience was the simple reality that Greene made herself so present and accessible. In her ninth decade of life, she was committed to seeing the world anew. Greene would share with us how, as a teacher, she'd graded papers every night at the dining room table right next to where we sat. The tactility of the experience was grounding, and the generosity of Greene's spirit was deeply affecting. The richest part of the learning experience, her example suggested, came from simply showing up.
This is what I ultimately want to do for my students, especially those with autism and similar challenges—to show up and connect. As I think about that class with Greene, my mind quickly moves to the role of intention, presence, and human connection in teaching. For me, showing up means a few things. It means staying with students as they change, grow, and demonstrate a need for new approaches. It means trusting students to show us what they need, patiently learning how to best scaffold their development. And it means maintaining an openness and allowing students to construct new meanings with us, much as Greene, teaching well into her 90s, never failed to show up, demonstrate the power of relationships, and learn with us.

Showing Up for Autistic Youth

For the past 18 years, I've worked in the field of special education, primarily with autistic youth. The lens of creativity guides my teaching and writing, and my understanding of creativity isn't confined to the arts. Creativity in its most constructive form, especially for teachers, means resourcefulness, a drive to see in students' qualities the possibilities for their further development, and an openness to revising learning goals.
One of the joys of being a special educator is getting to work with some of the same students year after year. This creates an ongoing relationship of mutual trust with students and their families, and allows me to collaborate with a vast number of other teachers. It helps all of us as a team build a shared history.
I share here some revelatory learning moments that I've participated in during my years of teaching and in my current role as a resource teacher at an elementary school in the Seattle School District, where I work with students in general education classrooms. Although not all of the students in these scenarios are on the autism spectrum, the scenarios are relevant to autistic youth because each story involves creating a sense of structure and routine, acknowledges learners' sensory or kinesthetic needs, and focuses on affirming deep interests—all elements important to autistic students' quality of life in school., Some anecdotes showcase structures and routines that support autistic students' learning and healthy development. (By healthy development, I mean that students can recognize positive aspects of themselves as readily as areas in which they struggle.) Others reveal how the right approach builds students' social development, a key challenge for autistic learners.
Each scenario demonstrates a successful match between a student and his or her environment or between an educator's teaching style and a student's needs. Each shows a learner finding ways to sustain interest in school, ignite new ideas, and make new connections—with both ideas and other people. These examples highlight how trust between human beings can catalyze and strengthen relationships, however slowly. The teachers portrayed here convey a clear message that they accept differences, remain open to possibilities, and value both emotional and intellectual development.

How Structure Fosters Healthy Development

Giving Freedom of Movement and Meeting Sensory Needs

It's 8:30 a.m. I walk into a 2nd grade classroom and notice that as students listen to a morning message on the carpet, Vanessa struggles to keep her hand from playfully yet incessantly tapping the classmate next to her. The tapping leads to a full turn of her body so that she faces her neighbor, a move that prompts his attention. They share whispers and laughter, which in turn spurs laughter from another corner of the rug.
Fortunately, we've developed strategies to help Vanessa focus. With a tap to the shoulder and a reminder to face forward and keep their hands to themselves, I refocus Vanessa and her neighbor's attention to the front of the carpet, where their teacher is going over the day's agenda. As I move across the room to help another cluster of students, I glance over at Vanessa. She has now stretched her entire body out on the carpet. She props herself up on her elbows, chin in hands, facing her teacher.
The following day, as the class meets on the carpet again, Vanessa stays at her desk. She draws elaborately with pencil on a piece of paper. She gets up to grab a one-legged stool, brings it to her desk and sits, which forces her to attend to her balance. When her teacher asks for students to contribute to a dialogue about a new school recycling program, Vanessa raises her hand and makes a comment about distinguishing between when to compost and when to recycle. She pauses only for a moment to register her classmates' and teacher's response, and then continues drawing.
About 10 minutes later, Vanessa gets up from her seat, goes to her backpack, and finds a snack. She takes it back to her seat and eats while she works on her morning writing assignment. As Vanessa works, she talks with her tablemates off and on, and when I check in on her, I see that she is completing her work—at a steady pace, on her own terms, yet within the limits and expectations of the classroom community.
Vanessa benefits from the freedom to move about as she needs and to multitask as a strategy for sustaining her attention. Her sensory and kinesthetic needs are addressed by using the balance stool, eating as she works, drawing, moving about, and stretching out on the rug. Supports—like verbal reminders and tapping on her shoulder—send her the message that although movement is acceptable, distracting others and taking attention away from the focal point of the lesson isn't a constructive way to meet her needs.

Making Time for Soapbox Moments

In a 1st grade classroom, a whole-class discussion about a volcanic eruption piques the interest of Emmett, a student on the autism spectrum who is fascinated with lava and volcanic rock. He comments on his collection of photographs of active volcanoes and begins listing all the mountains he can think of that are active volcanoes. He asks if he can retrieve his camera to show the others.
His teacher, Mr. Crandall, responds that Emmett is welcome to get his camera out at free time later, and then acknowledges that Emmett's knowledge is both vast and interesting. Noting that the students' attention is waning, Mr. Crandall asks the class whether they've been to any of the mountains Emmett mentioned, one of which is local. He asks whether anyone would like to add to Emmett's remarks or ask Emmett a question about volcanoes.
Providing positive feedback and a platform for Emmett to share his knowledge sends him a message that he—and his interests—are valued. By asking the class whether they have questions or ideas to add, Mr. Crandall puts a necessary limit on Emmett's soapbox moment, invites the collaboration of his peers, and attends to their waning attention. Skillfully navigating the situation, he demonstrates respect for each member of the class.

Giving Space and Being Direct

During math period, Nathan grunts as he does seatwork. The class is learning how to use number lines to make visual jumps as a strategy for breaking down three-digit addition problems. The strategy frustrates Nathan, who struggles to keep up with the example the class worked through just moments before.
I pull up a chair next to Nathan and ask if he'll show me his work so far. He balks. He shuts his book and says, "I quit. I can't do this!" As his anger mounts, he mumbles, "Please go away," so I do.
After working with other students for a while, I come back to Nathan, who's still sitting in his chair, although now he's doodling in his notebook. I ask how things are going. He glances away from me, and I tell him firmly, "Nathan, I cannot help you if you aren't willing to work with me." He raises his head and looks me in the eye. He turns slightly toward me, tells me what troubles him about the work, and we begin to tackle his math work.
Giving Nathan space allows him to process his emotions in his own time. Following up with him after some time sends him the message that his learning matters. Nathan responds well to a direct and intent tone, which prompts his respect and motivation to work.

Social Scaffolds

Although there are times when students want, need, or benefit from alone time, it's important, particularly for students with tendencies toward solitude, to support human connection. Educators can provide subtle scaffolds throughout the school day to help students who have various challenges, including autism, strengthen relationships with peers.

Gentle Guidance

Gloria, a 2nd grader, shuffles her feet as she exits the building in a half-run, half-walk. She heads toward the parallel bars, where she begins doing a backward flip. She finishes, then glances over at Joy, a girl she knows from her class who is next to her on the parallel bars. Gloria continues to play alone, then lines up when the bell rings.
Later, I see the two girls in their classroom, where they share a table, and tell them that I noticed they both played on the parallel bars earlier. They smile and nod.
"Would it be fun to try the bars together next recess?" I ask.
Joy nods shyly, and Gloria says, "OK." The next recess, they play for a short while together on the bars before going their separate ways. For the next few weeks, the girls play together off and on at recess, and occasionally work together on class projects. I still often see Gloria playing alone, and when I approach her, she sometimes runs away. But I don't give up. When I see the two girls together even momentarily, I say hello, and comment on how great it is to see them playing.
Eventually, I notice Gloria and Joy playing together at recess with increasing regularity as well as sometimes working together in class. They have expanded to include another classmate, and the three often spend the entire recess together.
A subtle approach of checking in, reflecting with students, and giving positive feedback contributed to the expansion of Gloria's social network. Although she likes alone time, she has also learned to enjoy herself in the company of others, and has figured out that she can have some of each.

A Gradual Climb Toward Friends

During free-choice time in a 1st grade classroom, I approach Darrin. He hastens to finish a solitary spelling game, but not before showing me how it's played. Darrin then heads over to the keyboard the teacher has brought in for students to use. I chat with Darrin as he tests the keys, presses buttons to change the style of music, and adjusts the volume. Darrin doesn't know how to play piano, but loves technology and experimenting with sounds.
Darrin's classmate Megan arrives at the keyboard and bashfully sits next to him, waiting for her turn to play. Darrin seems to barely notice her.
"Hello, Megan!" I say. She says a quiet hello and looks at me as if to ask for permission to play.
"Darrin, let's give Megan a chance to play too, OK? Do you want to play something together or take turns?" He continues playing, not acknowledging my question, but stops when I prompt him more directly ("Please stop so Megan can have a turn.") Megan then hits a few keys. She seems fairly undeterred when Darrin jumps back in to play on the other end of the board.
The two continue sharing the keyboard in this parallel way until Lucinda arrives. Megan stops playing so Lucinda can have a turn, and Darrin momentarily stops as well. Lucinda begins skillfully playing a Beethoven piece. "Wow!" I exclaim. "You play beautifully, Lucinda." She gives me a quick look, then carries on, finishes her piece, and heads to do another activity elsewhere.
This isn't my first foray in encouraging Darrin. During recess, I've been working to support his movement away from me and toward other children. When I introduce Darrin to other children, he often stops talking and turns away, but in time, I notice that he begins using his favorite train to attempt connection with his peers. He speaks as if his train is saying the words and receives varying degrees of interest from others. One girl likes his approach, and one Monday the two play for a portion of recess. Over the next few weeks, I see Darrin gradually moving from the outskirts of the playground to the center, where he naturally engages with others. One day, watching him go down the slide again and again, I suggest that he ask Juan to race him down using the neighboring slide.
A few weeks later, I observe that Darrin now runs freely with several classmates during recess, including—consistently—Lucinda, the pianist. I'm joyfully surprised at this development, which I didn't see coming. I realize in that moment that children have ways of stretching their capacities that can surpass even our most thoughtful intentions.

Keep Trusting in Kids

Working with autistic students and students with a variety of emotional challenges, I'm reminded that I have every reason to keep trusting in kids. As I learned from my class with Maxine Greene years ago, when we keep showing up for our students, when we connect with them authentically and tune in to what kind of help they need in each moment, our students will both surprise us and teach us.
Author's note: Taking the lead from some autistic activists who view autism as an integral part of their identities, I prefer to use identity-first ("autistic students") rather than person-first ("students with autism") language. All student names are pseudonyms. The story of "Emmett" is a composite of interactions I've observed with several autistic students.
End Notes

1 Kedar, I. (2012). Ido in Autismland: Climbing out of autism's silent prison. Sharon Kedar.

2 Kedar, I. (2012). Ido in Autismland: Climbing out of autism's silent prison. Sharon Kedar.

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