Saturday, December 17, 2016

Memories- and why I think the history of Special Education is all about me

I started volunteering in high school in a school for special students. It was a way to relieve senoritis. One day of the school week I was allowed to miss classes (I had long ago met graduation requirements)  and walked down the block to an old wood frame house that was converted into a series of classrooms.

It was a school for students with emotional disabilities- mainly autism. I recall one young boy about  7 or 8  years old who ran passed as he got off the bus.  I was concerned about where he would go.  "Don’t worry," the teacher told me, you’ll find him at the map.  And there he was perched on a chair peering at the wall map of the world when I entered the room.  “Did I know the distance from Vienna Austria, to Madrid Spain?” 

“No?” 

He did.  And reported  what I could only assume was the accurate mileage.  Google Earth didn’t exist.  It was years until I could verify.

The curriculum in that school mostly consisted of surviving.  Everyone was on their own page, and no one expected anyone to return to some general education program, but no one knew what to teach differently either, so we colored pumpkins in October, Valentines in February and tried to begin the day with the pledge of Allegiance end it with the good-bye song and not got bitten in between. 

In college I majored in psychology. The University didn’t have an undergraduate education program.  And anyway I was way too cool to be an education major.  It was the 1970s, the women’s movement had happened, women who would have become teachers in the '50s and '60s became lawyers and doctors, women who would have become secretaries became teachers.  I was way too impressed with my intellect to aspire to be a teacher.  I worked in different projects for different professors.   I gave rats varying concentrations of artificial sweeteners and measured how often they pressed the a bar, I worked in the very first years of Raymond Romancyk’s  Child Institute and I worked in the Preschool Program run by the psychology department to generate data on sex roles- or at least provide an easily assessible population to study.  

I learned about education in all three. From the rats I learned that individuals  will do just about anything to receive a reward that is immediate, intermittent and sweet.  From the preschool program I learned that a stimulating, safe language rich environment, is really great place to learn things and I often wondered why that seemed to evaporate after early childhood.  And from the Child Institute I learned that there was no task that couldn’t be broken into component tasks, modeled, rewarded and learned.

I used all those lessons in my teaching career.

94-142 was just around the corner.  My experiences in  special education in high school and college were the prelude to the special education age.  The large pumpkin/valentine cutting school was on one end of the spectrum of educating the difficult to educate- we don’t actually know what to do so let’s do what the mainstream does and hope it helps.  The early years at the Romancyk Institute were the exact opposite.  At least in those years, there was nothing in the instruction that was like general education.  Every task was finely analyzed,  specifically taught and tons of data were collected and analyzed. 

If anything, over the last 40 years- I’ve watched special education instruction move in all different directions, but always struggle between that push and pull between adapting a program so it is,  or at least it is a close approximation of general education program, while realizing that the essence of special education is be definition special- something that has to be much more finely tuned than the throwing the general education spaghetti on the wall and seeing what sticks.

 I figured out after college that what I really wanted to be was a special education teacher and I attended Rutgers University for M.ed.  There I received some very fine, instruction in thoughtful, reflective practices of instruction for students with disabilities.  I worked in a program for students with a variety of disabilities in a preschool program located in public elementary school.  My first experience of special education located back in the community school.  I learned so much and left with a firm desire to be preschool special education teacher- I was fully convinced that was by far the place where special education had the most effect on a student's life.

I left New Jersey, returned to New York City and promptly got a job teaching middle school in the South Bronx. 

But that's a story for another entry.

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