Monday, August 10, 2009

Chim, Chiminea . . .

Last Friday, we learned that we would be hosting our nephew from El Salvador for twelve days until his dormitory opens. We planned to meet up with his father and brothers on Saturday and take him home--a five-hour round trip. When I let Pamela know about her cousin's visit, she bolted and Snoopy danced her way through the house. Later, she came up to me and said, "Tomorrow's an exciting day!"

Yesterday morning, Steve was sitting in bed with his laptop, and I was just beginning to wake up at about seven. Pamela walked in the room, moved to Steve's side of the bed, looked at him, and said, "Good morning." Then, she walked around to my side of the bed and greeted me good morning, too!

These two stories illustrate a point: Pamela knows how to share sweet moments without having a hidden agenda. She did not share her excitement as means to worm her way into a trip to the mall or her favorite restaurant. In fact, they ended up shopping for golf clubs and eating at Outback, a restaurant we have never tried (yes, I know they feature a gluten-free menu and yummy food). She did not greet us with good morning and then hit us up with questions like "What's for breakfast?" or "When are we leaving?" Sometimes, people talk simply to share what they are thinking!

Those who endorse teaching through positive reinforcements often point out that we all work for money, and, if left unpaid, we would quit our jobs. Abraham Lincoln made a great point about work, "My father taught me to work; he did not teach me to love it." If offered two jobs with the same pay, one boring and the other fulfilling, most people would choose the latter. If all of our income needs were met, would we still work? It depends upon the nature of the job. Work that has intrinsic meaning and fulfillment would still be worth pursuing for its own sake.

Why do people volunteer? Once or twice a month, rain, stifling heat, or freezing cold, the kids and I deliver meals on wheels. We are not paid for it. The weather makes it unpleasant sometimes. The people we are serving will probably never be able to return the favor for they are poor and elderly. We serve them out of gratitude for our blessings in hopes of brightening their day with food and a friendly face.

What motivates people to feed the birds or exceed expectations in lawn care like Mr. Pearl Fryar in Bishopville? Why do we read books like The Lord of the Rings that teach us nothing practical but touch the soul? Why do we drive to a special spot to watch the sunrise? Why do folks cook a delicious meal when something easy like a peanut butter and jelly on wheat sandwiches with carrot sticks and an apple will do?

For some inexplicable reason that has to do with the sacredness of personality, we find it irresistable. Charlotte Mason believed we could teach children without toying with their desires. She wrote, "But knowledge is delectable. We have all the 'satiable curtiosity' of Mr. Kipling's Elephant even when we content ourselves with the broken meats flung by the daily press. Knowledge is to us as our mother's milk, we grow thereby and in the act of sucking are admirably content" (Volume 6, page 89).

Some criticize RDI because it ignores "proven" behavior principles like reinforcement and motivation. Can children with autism learn for the sake of learning without these principles? In Pamela's case, yes! I snicker because one board-certified behavior therapist admits that RDI may help "some advanced and naturally vocal children"--a person with lifelong aphasia who is still mastering English as a first language at age twenty is not what I call naturally vocal.

How do we teach children with autism without behavior principles? The other day Pamela ran into the house to tell me the chiminea had fallen. The news was not all that surprising for the thing was cracked in several spots. I asked Pamela if she wanted to help me clean up and she agreed. First, I pulled over the big trash can, opened it up, and looked at the mess, acting as if I were thinking about what to do first. Pamela looked at the mess too, grabbed a piece of the pot, and tossed it into the can. Then, I did the same. We took turns picking up big pieces, sticks, and trash we had intented to burn.

At one point, Pamela stopped and said, "Wash your hands." I noted, "My hands are dirty too. I'm going to wait until I'm finished." Then, I kept working and she did the same. We got to the point in which the only thing left was ash and small bits of debris. I said, "I don't think we can pick that up with our hands," and walked over to the shed. We found two shovels, a snow shovel and a digging shovel. Pamela had never used a big shovel before so I demonstrated how to use it and then we took turns trying out both shovels as long as it seemed worth while.

Ash was all over that corner of the brick patio, so we grabbed the big broom from the garage. Pamela held the snow shovel on the grass, while I swept ash onto the shovel. When finished, she dumped it into the trash can. To remove all of the fine ash, we walked over to the hose. Pamela secured the spray nozzle to the hose, and I turned it on. Then, she sprayed the brick until she thought it looked good enough. When finished, we put everything away and washed our hands.

Collaborating to figure out a new task is an example of guided participation. I structured the activity through familiar interaction patterns: alternating and simultaneous. When Pamela was unsure of a step, she looked at me and I nodded to let her know she was on track. She struggled to stick the snow shovel under the debris, and I scaffolded with my hands over her hands. I guided the movement of the shovel to the trashcan and held my hands underneath the handle in case Pamela found it too heavy. She did so well the first time dumping ash into the can, I backed out and let her be. The only time I stepped back into assist on her turn was when she asked for help. When I made declarative comments, I was just making talk. The goal of narrating is to describe what we are doing, not to tell Pamela what to do. Directing her verbally would rob her of the opportunity to think.

Behaviorists do somthing similar with "a heavy emphasis on making learning enjoyable, and on engaging the learner in positive social interactions" (Dr. Gina Green). Why must they make learning more palatable? Once Pamela learned to embrace change and novelty, she began to feel competent about the constant variations and unexpected events of life, which increased her motivation to learn. Dr. Steve Gustein's description fits Pamela well, "Apprentices who routinely experience challenges as safe and successful develop a strong motivation to explore and expand their world, as well as a sense of general well being, competence and trust in themselves and their guides." Even though she had never cleaned up a broken chiminea nor handled a shovel, she felt competent enough to try something new.
"These principles are limited by the respect due to the personality of children, which must not be encroached upon whether by the direct use of fear or love, suggestion or influence, or by undue play upon any one natural desire." Charlotte Mason's Fourth Principle of Education.

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