Monday, October 29, 2012

The Feast

Earlier in the month, I alluded to an enrichment afternoon that our local Charlotte Mason study group has just launched. We are offering short lessons, learning together, sharing what we know, and deepening relationships to three classes of students: nursery, primary, and elementary. Right now, primary students are hearing and narrating passages from The Book of Virtues, learning to sew, and studying mapwork from a big picture point of view: the solar system first. Elementary students are doing mapwork of Europe and studying the Tarquin kings of Rome. The whole group gets to view early Genesis accounts through Michelangelo's work on the Sistine Chapel, learn South Carolina folk songs, study three states of matter, and read Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. What amazes me is how even the youngest students yearn to have parts in the bard's play!

Many Charlotte Mason bloggers have shared how they started their enrichment gatherings, so this post focuses on a completely different angle: guiding an adult with major developmental delays in that setting.

The first step for me was to view the schedule in light of my responsibilities and figure out roles for Pamela and me. Setting up social situations based upon roles is a big element of framing activities in a Relationship Development Intervention lifestyle. My friend Di illustrates this well in a blogpost about her plan for putting away oranges.
  • During our short opening time, I lead the group in learning South Carolina folk songs. Since she loves singing and already knows most of the music, she has no trouble knowing her role: sing along with other children.
  • Then, Pamela and I head out to help with the wee ones in the nursery (more on that later).
  • Since I teach citizenship, my primary responsibility is teaching the class, not Pamela. Right now, I need to focus on getting to know the other students while Pamela sits quietly and listens. Once I establish a solid rapport with her classmates, I can figure out how to guide her in the group while teaching the class.
  • Since another person teaches science, I can concentrate on being a good guide and help Pamela function as a competent member of the class.
  • Since I teach Shakespeare, my top priority is the class. Fortunately, the parents wanted to study a play that Pamela already loves. She has a leg up on the class because of her background knowledge. Guiding her in this class is much easier for that reason.

Nursery Time - Bonding with wee ones didn't seem promising when Pamela and I arrived in the nursery on our first enrichment day. One daddy was playing with his little girl. One mama was settling down her newborn who was reacting to the tears of a toddler crying for his mama. The little boy didn't know me well and I feared that picking him up would only add to his stress. I had to find a way to calm him before guiding an interaction between him and Pamela. Showing him stuffed animals made him cry louder. Pretending to play with trucks and tractors brought on more of the same.

I fell back on RDI principles and established a co-regulatory pattern (which Di also used) that served two purposes: help him feel more comfortable with us and get Pamela in a groove. I took a basket of Duplos and began to build a wall. After four blocks, I handed Pamela a block and she added to the wall. We continued that assembly-line pattern: mom picks a block and hands it to Pamela; Pamela places it on the wall. Over the course of a few minutes, watching our co-regulatory pattern quietened the boy and, when he looked like he wanted to join us, I said to Pamela, "Jacob wants a block." She handed the block to him and he added to the wall.

We stuck to this pattern far longer than I would have with Pamela alone. While she fell into the groove of having a third person quickly, Jacob looked a bit shaky. Whenever the wall wobbled, his lower lip trembled. I solved that problem by making the wall turn a corner until two corners stabilized it. As his confidence grew, he began to chatter. I joined him: I played match plus one, repeating what he said with an extra word or two. Match plus one prevents me from talking too much. I also threw in my unique comments, and he repeated them beautifully.

The point of establishing a co-regulatory pattern is to have a fall-back position when you add a variation that upsets a child. Interacting in such a rigid pattern can become mindless and robotic, empty of emotion. At this point, while Jacob and I were working on our rapport, Pamela was completely ignoring him. Since both seemed comfortable, I added a variation to encourage Pamela to become more dynamic. I picked up a waffle block and handed it to Pamela. She startled and handed it back to me, "That's the wrong one!"

I paused and waited for her to look at me. Then, I winked and explained, "We're going to trick Jacob!" Pamela accepted the block and handed it to Jacob. I watched his lower lip carefully and was ready to help him solve the problem if it trembled. He studied the block, studied the wall, and wondered. I said, "I wonder what we can do with this block." Very slowly, he placed the waffle block on a perfect spot on the wall. I continued handing Pamela "right" blocks and "wrong" blocks and she and Jacob continued their roles. Then, I gave her a foam block and this time she made no complaint. Giving her varied blocks kept Pamela on her toes, which prevented her from mindlessly playing her part.

At this point, our little friend made a crucial error. Fifteen minutes into our little game, he thought of more familiar faces and asked, "Where's my mama?" At that point, he burst into tears again and only her arrival soothed him.

Reflecting upon the framework, I can see room for improvement. Pamela was not "with us" as much as I would have liked. Admittedly, I was guiding two persons and I had to keep both Pamela and Jacob in their comfort zone. Next time, I will keep in mind Di's own self-talk, "Remember to pause! Remember to pause!" Why pause? The activity (building a wall) is only a prop. Building relationships is the real point of our activity. Pausing gives us time to share an emotion, savor a moment, think through the next step, etc. Forgetting to pause may prevent something beautiful from happening.

Hospitality - Because we were the host family, we arrived early. Pamela helped me push tables together so that everyone could gather around one large rectangle at snack time. I gave her roles in setting the table. She placed a plate and cup in front of each seat. During snack time, I dished out fruit while Pamela placed a brownie on each plate. Being tight on time with many folks to feed allowed few opportunities for experience sharing while we were serving. The slower pace of eating our treats fostered a neat interaction between Pamela and a fellow sojourner on the path of autism.

Although he is more than a decade younger than Pamela, Joseph speaks far better than Pamela. Thanks to RDI, she is far more flexible and patient than Joseph, who makes sure that the entire world knows when he is bored. Finicky in his food choices like many children in the spectrum, he voiced his frustration at the snack very loudly. Unsure of what to do, everyone quietly ignored his comments. Everyone except Pamela. She clearly recognized his anxiety, and having learned how to regulate her own anxieties to some extent, Pamela tried to encourage him. Whenever he complained, Pamela took him quite seriously and responded with all sorts of positive self-talk. "Don't be sad." "Cheer up!" "It's okay." "It's not the end of the world."

Shakespeare - Being responsible for guiding the class ruled out my ability to foster dynamic thinking for Pamela. I decided to set the entire class up for success because none of the students have ever read Shakespeare. I asked my friends for input on who could handle reading aloud longer parts and who needed short parts. I tried to give silent parts to the youngest to help them feel included. I emailed highlighted scripts to the families, so everyone could have a chance to become comfortable with reading their parts. It is the King's English after all!!

I set Pamela up for success by giving her the role of the soothsayer, who, as faithful blog readers know, says Pamela's favorite lines. We followed the same process we have used at home: we watch a segment from the BBC version of the play and then we read the script. When it came time to read aloud her scene, the soothsayer stood up with Anthony, Caesar, and the crowd, followed the reading of the script, and said her lines without any prompting from me. I was so thrilled to see her participate in a group activity and succeed on her own. While the setting is quite static, falling short of the aims of what we frame in RDI, sometimes you have to be realistic. My ultimate responsibility was teaching the class, which made relying on her static abilities a necessity.

Science - The first science class was probably one of the more challenging scenarios for a person with autism. A bunch of excited children in a long, narrow classroom with four stations for freely exploring three states of matter. They all gravitated to the more active stations (liquids and gases): blowing up balloons with seltzer tablets, mixing oil and water, playing with a bottle with honey, feeling zip-bags filled with squishy jello, putting things in an ice chest, etc. Boring, old solids (blocks, sticks, and a rubber duckie) didn't seem to capture anyone's hearts, so that is where Pamela and I headed with her science journal. Once the excitement died down, she was able to explore other stations and draw pictures in her notebook.

Then, God showed off for us. I peeked out the window and noticed movement in the recently plowed corn fields. Grackles (very greedy black birds) were gleaning for food. Not just a small flock. Thousands and thousands of grackles were right next to the church. Of course, we couldn't pass up such an opportunity for nature study. We quietened the children and headed them outdoors. Pamela said, "Just like the New Testament. Birds eating the seed." Another child exclaimed, "It reminds me of the time God dropped quail from the sky for the people in the desert." The sheer massive numbers of birds made them quite bold, and eventually the kids figured that out. Then, they all started yelling and shouting to see if the birds even noticed. The birds ignored the noise at first, and then they slowly moved to more promising fields.

Our second day of science gave me another opportunity to consider roles. We headed outside, and the teacher began by explaining how gas molecules behave and directed the students to act it out. They ran around in the field and had so much space they hardly bumped into one another. Pamela doesn't tend to get into this sort of thing, so I gave her the science journal and she drew simple diagrams of the children's action. The teacher reigned the children into a small circle bounded by the driveway and directed them to behave like liquid molecules. Finally, she had them bunch up together to act like a solid. Pamela watched and drew pictures.


Annie Eskeldson said...

Awesome, Tammy! Love reading your blogs.

Annie Eskeldson said...

Love your blog, Tammy!