Thursday, February 25, 2010

Holy Helicopters!

People who teach children with autism often get swept up into the mentality of building up discrete skills and executing them with rapid-fire precision. Like all of us, we are more than machines seeking to be more efficient. We crave sharing and understanding. If we are not careful, our day can be come a mindless, robotic performance of what is on our daily to-do list, right down to the RDI objective du jour. Today's delivery of meals of wheels spotlighted for me the joy of seeking meaning and connections.

In November 2008 when we started delivering meals, Pamela's role was to man the ice chest, while David and I married the hot tray with the cold food and carried the meals. When target houses were near each other, David would hit one house while I handled the other. We developed a fast-food system that handed out twenty meals in one hour or less.

When David started school last August, I expanded Pamela's role. After we collected the hot and cold food, she carried it while I scooted ahead to knock, open the screen door, and greet the person in the house. Since Pamela's social skills are more like that of a toddler, we do not split up at adjacent houses, which adds more time. Today, we delivered twenty-eight meals in an hour and twenty minutes. What really matters is that we shared one sweet moment after another that helped me appreciate how far she has come.

After we loaded up the car with ice chests and hot boxes, Pamela tried her verbal stims on me (right now, she talks about history and whether or not Julius Caesar used an oil lamp or a flashlight and works herself up to modern times with who had or did not have the conveniences we know and love). Rather than cold shoulder her desire to talk, I remained warm and responsive by making unexpected comments about what she said rather than playing along with her script. When she said that baby Jesus didn't have a nightlight, I added, "I bet he was a cute baby." She persisted in trying to coax me into her world and I continued to reply in ways that gently disrupted her agenda.

Of all things, a helicopter rescued me from the Pamela Express. We were delivering meals about a block from the hospital. While walking to an apartment, we noticed a blue-and-white, shiny helicopter getting lower and lower. Pamela had never seen one so close to the ground, so her eyes were riveted. I said, "I wonder where the helicopter is going," and she had no idea. After we handed out the five meals for that part of town, I took a one-block detour around the hospital to see where the helicopter had landed.

We saw something completely unexpected! A construction crew had fenced off one of the parking lots and a bulldozer was paving the way for a new foundation. Pamela commented on the mess and I said, "I wonder what they are building." She thought a house until we saw a sign depicted an architect's rendering of an upcoming expansion. Behind the bulldozer, we spotted the helicopter, so I said, "I wonder why it's there." Pamela suggested, "Crashed." I said, "But, the helicopter isn't broken." That triggered a new idea, and she said, "A broken arm." I responded, "You know you're right. Sometimes, helicopters taken injured people to bigger hospitals."

The next three houses went as planned. Then, another opportunity to share joint attention bobbed into view. In the yard next to our delivery, I spotted a dog and a white rooster that was unusually quiet. Rather than prompting Pamela for attention while I held the hot tray, I simply stared at the two animals. I did not say a word. I just stood there, rooted in place. After she grabbed the yogurt and coleslaw, Pamela noticed my rapt attention. She studied the scene to figure out why I was not heading to the house. It required a careful look for some bushes partially blocked our view.

Once she was sharing joint attention, I said something noncommittal like, "Whoa!" Suddenly, Pamela burst out into a giggle and said, "Chasing the rooster. Just like Along Came a Dog," referring to a book about the friendship between a homeless dog and an ostracized little red hen, which we read six years ago! Her connection delighted me for I had not thought about that book in ages.

We delivered three more meals and then hit a snag. The weather was windy, chilly, and, not at all pleasant, even in the sun. We walked up to a house, and I knocked on the door, "Meals on Wheels." Nothing happened. I put my ear to the door and listened for signs of occupation. I did not hear a thing.

Pamela: "I don't hear anything."
Me: "You're right." [Knock, knock, knock.] "MEALS ON WHEELS."
Pamela: "MEALS ON WHEELS . . . It's taking too long."
Me: "It is. I'm waiting a little longer."
Pamela: "It's too cold."
Me: "Brrr . . . it's chilly. Let's go."

That conversation blew me away. First, Pamela initiated each idea, appropriate to the situation. She did not monopolize the conversation, nor did I. Our sentences, all declarative in nature, stayed balanced in length. Pamela connected to her environment and shared what she observed. I just loved how she thoughtfully unfolded her rationale for going back to the warm car. But, that was not the highlight!

We delivered five more meals and made another new discovery. About a year ago, a house near one of our delivery sites burned down. In the months since, we have witnessed the blackened house with the yellow crime scene tape go from abandoned to plowed down and removed to grass slowly creeping over a big, bare spot. Today, we saw construction workers building a brand new house. Both of us gasped and smiled, but did not say a word. Some sweet moments are meant to be felt, not spoken. If you doubt me, try watching this wordless interaction between a toddler and her parents and NOT smile.

Then came the priceless moment I will forever treasure. I knocked on the door, and a chair-bound lady invited us inside. She pointed to the spot where she wanted her meal and, on her lap, was sitting the most marvelous thing in Pamela's mind: a big, old, yellow cassette tape recorder. Of all her electronic devices, Pamela prizes her tape recorder the most. The moment I saw it I knew Pamela would flip. Sure enough, she bolted out of that house to burn off the joy mounting inside her. We call that her victory lap.

When we got into the car, I tried to engage her in conversation because I knew how excited she was. I made a couple of noncommittal comments, but she was too full of rapture to speak! I waited and waited, but she said nothing. I was so glad I had stayed sensitive to the extreme emotion flooding her body and avoided bullying her into talking. Unexpectedly and on her timetable, Pamela blurted out her thoughts.

Pamela: "Did you see that?"
Me: "We saw great things."
Pamela: "Swell."
Me: "The rooster was swell, too."
Pamela: "A tape recorder!"
Me: "And we saw a helicopter."
Pamela: "New house."

In that short conversation, we reviewed the discoveries made in what could have been a routine delivery.

If this post sounds like fluff and cotton candy to you, read on. A new study by the University of Miami shows that some parenting styles foster the development of language in autistic children. Researchers found a connection between "sensitive parenting" in eighteen-month-old children at risk of developing autism and greater expressive language growth by age two to three years. They defined "sensitive" as the following:
  • Warm communication
  • Responsiveness to the child’s needs
  • Respect for his or her emerging independence
  • Positive regard for the child
  • Maternal structuring (the way in which a mother engages and teaches her child about the environment through declarative language)
That sounds a lot like RDI, now doesn't it?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

People Watching at the Post Office

Ever since I became a student of intersubjectivity, people who annoy me no longer hack me off . . . as much.

Inter-what, you ask? "Inter" as in "happening between people" and "subjectivity" as in "a person's unique thoughts, perceptions, feelings and memories."

Intersubjectivity is a shared thought-life and consensus which shape our ideas and relationships with other people. It goes on all the time, almost unseen until we observe and reflect about our social lives. My friend Kathy shared how a breakdown in intersubjectivity with an in-law helped her see how precious her children are to her, especially the two with autism. Another friend Nifferco pointed out how it helped prevent a meltdown with her daughter after dance class. Penny compared it to children's modes of thinking about numbers. Queen Mum describes how it helps her son better monitor his behavior whether they are out in the snow or at ChuckECheese's.

Today, I needed to mail some books for Paper Back Swap. I walked into the lobby of the Post Office about five minutes before they opened up for business. Two elderly men were waiting and chatting as I boldly strolled up to open the doors. I pulled hard and nothing happened! Then I realized that last November they changed the hours on me! (Where have I been?) We all laughed at my expense, and I joined in their conversation. Another woman showed up, surprised that it was closed. She entered the lively discussion, too.

The fifth person arrived. This elderly woman gave us hardly a glance and marched right up to the locked door and waited. Her body language stated clearly that SHE was FIRST in line. The rest of us exchanged knowing looks about her obvious violation of the unwritten rules of who goes first. Nobody said a word, and yet, we all knew what the others were thinking about the new arrival. I was not upset because I have seen Pamela unknowingly break this assumed code due to her delays in intersubjectivity.

Finally, a sixth man who seemed a bit clueless arrived right before the mail clerk unlocked the doors.

I hesitated partly out of curiosity to see how the jockeying for position would turn out. Clearly, the two men who arrived first ought to go before me. One scooted ahead, but the other was a retiree with plenty of time on his hands. He graciously let all five of us get in line first.

The line-cutter headed straight to the window, completely bypassing the official line, before you could say, "Next please." The gentleman who had every right to go first was second. He had the class to go through the motions of walking through the official line.

Third in line was the clueless man, who was so close on the heels of the gentleman that he missed the sign showing the beginning of the waiting line. The clerk waved him off and pointed to the sign. The man stood there even after the clerk told him where to stand. Then, I realized he could not understand English. He turned in my direction and could only see the blank side of a sign that he couldn't read anyway. I smiled, motioned to him where to stand, and said, "Here." (I probably should have said, "Aquí.") After than, proper line etiquette was restored.

These two rule breakers failed to peeve me because they were great examples of intersubjectivity in action in the real world. Instead of feeling my blood pressure rise, I thought, "What a great way to start off a blog post!"

Yesterday, two sweet moments happened as a result of Pamela's greater understanding of intersubjectivity.

The printer ran out of ink. I really did not intend to show Pamela how to change a cartridge. I just wanted to present an opportunity for sharing an experience, which is how we build intersubjectivity. I slowed down each step of changing the cartridge and looked at Pamela. She sat on the couch and watched my every movement. Suddenly, she began to narrate my actions while she supplemented her words with nice facial expressions. "Uh-oh . . . change it . . . put it in the trash . . . rip . . . all done."

We were waiting in the car for David's band practice to end--he just joined the drum line this week! Pamela rifled through my purse and found my cell phone. She opened it up and pretended to talk to someone, "Tammy's not here right now!" When she finished, I took the phone, "I'm sorry David's at band practice." I handed it back to her and she said, "Steve's not coming home today." He was, and she was only pretending. Then she talked a little more. She handed it to me and I said, "No thanks. We're not interested." She cracked up because she did not expect me to be talking to a telemarketer on a cell phone!

In both scenarios, the highlight was how beautifully she shared joint attention. She paid attention to my every move and added her own ideas to the interaction.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Another Amazing Day in Watercolor Class

Because of her autism and aphasia, Pamela has always struggled in community settings. When she was little, everything overwhelmed her: fluorescent lights, air conditioners, change, transitions, etc. On field trips, I vigilantly kept my eyes peeled for anything that might set her off: escalators, elevators, loud machines, etc. Through diet and sensory integration techniques, she learned to stay regulated when we were out and about.

Pamela still struggled with groups. In co-ops, YMCA classes, library activities, nature center activities, etc., I concentrated on what the teacher did and then I showed her what to do. She had so little awareness of other people that she had no idea of whom she should pay attention to, when should she take an action, when should she do what others did, when should she do her own thing, etc.

We took a break for three-years to work on social milestones of infancy and toddler years through RDI and our fantastic consultant and now we are finally seeing a pay-off, bordering on miracle. Keep in mind when you watch the videos of Pamela's fourth class that, when she was little, she tantrummed, threw herself on the floor, cried, let out piercing screams, kicked her feet, etc. because group settings overwhelmed her.

Steve came to watch the artist at work, and he was VERY impressed. His presence did not throw off Pamela at all because he sat on the couch behind us. Working with David Monday made a tremendous difference (he deserves a sibling of the year award for his patience). I made sure Pamela was sitting next to the fifth grader because Pamela seems to reference her well.

The teacher demonstrated frisket first and practiced drawing shapes before starting the barn. Classes last only an hour now, but, by the time the class was ready for the barn, Pamela was tired. We will start the barn for homework, and the class will finish it next Tuesday.

During the class, Pamela was very calm, comfortable, confident, carefully processing and thinking about what she was doing. She did SO WELL that I can imagine myself, sitting on a cozy chair with a large hot mocha, reading a book while they work. I don't know when that will happen, but I see it as a possibility.

Here are the highlights:
  • I asked the teacher a question about the brush size, and Pamela listened to the answer and acted on that almost immediately.
  • At first, I needed to make declarative statements about what the fifth grader was doing. Once Pamela realized she could reference her while the teacher was busy, everything went smoothly.
  • Most of the time, Pamela distinguished when she ought to reference her teacher, reference the other student, or do her own thing.
  • Occasionally, Pamela did not respond to my declarative comments, so I tried a nonverbal hint by putting out my hand and waiting for her to give me something.

My favorite moment was when they were drawing blocks. Pamela selected a cylinder and rectangular solid. Her fellow homeschooler chose a cube and rectangular solid. The teacher demonstrated how to draw a cube, and the fifth-grader copied her. Pamela did not draw a cube. She waited patiently for the teacher to draw a cylinder. Then, Pamela carefully drew her cylinder, peeked at the girl's drawing of a rectangular solid, and then copied that.

Stop and think how much dynamic thinking it took to do what Pamela did without any hints from me!

Pamela's thinking grew more scattered as she tired. She started getting behind in the color value study (which I plan to review during the week). She grabbed yellow and blue paint like her neighbor, not the color of her blocks. She took more time to think and react. When she asked to take a break, I consented. She had worked hard to process during the first two projects. She had earned her respite!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Tie-Dye Sky

Tomorrow is Pamela's fourth watercolor class. We did more homework this week than we did last week, so I am dedicating a separate post to our homework. Yes, OUR homework. I find room for improvement in every video I watch: ways in which I can be a better guide to Pamela and discoveries she can make as an apprentice. Homework provides a chance to make-up projects Pamela did not do during class, review things we both could be doing better, and preview new ideas to come. Last week, we painted a barn to prepare for a landscape with a barn that her teacher was considering teaching. Since Pamela processes new things more slowly, she will feel more competent tomorrow with one barn already under her belt.

Painting this apple accomplished several things. Pamela was too tired for a second project last week, so I painted an apple in class and she did hers as homework. I noticed that I had gotten away from making declarative comments and, in my efforts to help Pamela keep pace, was acting like Little Miss Socrates. While Pamela practiced watching for my starts and stops, I cut out the questions and fell back on spotlighting starts and stops through my non-verbal communication.

Today, we previewed a critical idea for Pamela. Last week, Pamela struggled to keep up for a couple of reasons. She watched her teacher very carefully and only started after her teacher did. Sometimes, Carrie would get a supply or assist a student and, if she had only given verbal instructions, Pamela would wait until she saw Carrie take the next step. Since Pamela was not sitting right next to anyone, she had nobody to reference. To rectify the situation and to give Pamela opportunities to practice referencing a classmate, her big brother helped us out.

I set up the table very deliberately. I put David between us, so that, when I be-bopped off to do the dishes, David was right next to her. I made sure that they had matching palettes, and that mine was the odd one out. Since Carrie gives new students extra verbal instruction to make up for what they missed, I did the same with David to simulate that scenario.

I timed my actions carefully. At first, I made sure Pamela was in the zone for following my lead. When I saw that she was comfortable with that, I shifted from working simultaneously to me taking an action (dabbing paint on my palette) to David copying me and finally Pamela copying him. Their identical palettes communicated their sameness non-verbally.

Not only did the pictures look great (Pamela's tie-dye look is above; mine is below on the right; David, below, left), but my plan also unfolded beautifully. After Pamela got in her groove, I got them going by getting a band of color started and running off to do the dishes. David handled his role as guide in absentia really well. Then, I gave him verbal instructions and Pamela followed his lead then too. My absolute favorite moment was when I was catching up from one of my stints doing the dishes. I was painting away when David decided to empty out his bowl to get clean water. Pamela watched him head to the sink. She looked at her dirty water and decided to do the same!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Bravo, Mr. Levy!

Jonathan Levy, a specialist who works with children in the autism spectrum, wrote an awesome article called "Sometimes It Doesn't Matter What the Data Says." Now, don't get me wrong! As a statistician, I love data and playing with numbers rocks my world. Seriously.

I agree with Levy in saying that relationships trump data any day:
There is a something that is much greater than getting eye contact/interaction from a child with autism: building a relationship based on trust and predictability. It is from this relationship that eye contact, listening, communication, physical contact all emanate from.

What do I say to the person who believes that allowing children to avoid eye contact is training them to ignore people like the Special Ed teacher in the article?

If you do something worth paying attention to, even an autistic child will look over in your general direction. If you give them opportunities to learn that looking at another person's face helps you understand how they feel, where they are looking, whether or not they care about what you are saying, then ASD children will want to pay attention, especially if you avoid forcing compliance.

Sometimes, certain people are worth ignoring. When a teacher taught only what was in the book, I spent classtime writing letters or doodling--what old fogies like me did before cell phones were invented. When I took a stochastics class which had no book except for the lesson plans the teacher consulted for writing his notes on the board, I hung on his every word, spoken or written, and kept copious notes. When an opinionated person tells me there is only one way to do something, I bob my head mindlessly like a plastic Chihuahua in the back of the car. When Pamela is on one of her esoteric monologues, I ignore her, too. If we paid attention to everyone trying to get our attention, we'd go stark raving mad.

Aren't we supposed to teach our kids absolute compliance? No! What if a snot-nosed brat tells your daughter to lift her shirt, you want her to think for herself and ignore him. Rigid rules like obeying all people in authority because some people in authority ought not to be trusted. In fact, I think that an aide or teacher that forcibly turns my daughter's head falls into that category.

Yesterday, Pamela wanted brownies, but I had other things to do. So, I stalled and waited to see what she would do. When she noticed I was doing the dishes, she decided to get everything out for me: the mix, bowl, can opener, eggs. I ignored her and started folding clothes. She grabbed the scissors and cut open the bag. Every once in awhile, she glanced at me, so I smiled and encouraged her warmly. Occasionally, she needed a little help and I gave her a boost. She even put the glass pan into the preheated oven!

I did not tell her to bake brownies all by herself; I simply gave her the opportunity to think of it on her own. She could have waited for me, and I probably would have gotten to it a day or two later, giving her more time to think about baking for herself.

You may notice that she did not do the neatest job in pouring the batter into the pan. I try to strike a balance between giving Pamela opportunities and expecting her to do what is really important. The brownies were for us, so presentation was not a big deal. If we were baking it for company, I would have encouraged her to clean the sides of the pan. I decided her discovery that she can bake all by herself was more important than making everything worthy of Martha Stewart.

I found out recently that Pamela loves the children's bulletin at church. Last Sunday, Pamela stayed home from church. I brought home the bulletin and left it on her bed. She did not do a thing with it until Thursday. She filled out the whole thing and only needed help with unscrambling three words (companions, anything, astonished). Every time, she makes a choice about whether or not to do something that is truly optional, Pamela strengthens her sense of self, which, in addition to trust, is another important ingredient for relationships.

It is easy to forget the importance of relationship in focusing on objectives. Yesterday, in anticipation of a rare snowfall Friday night and of painting a landscape with a barn on Tuesday, I found a way to do a double preview: we painted a snow-covered barn based on a picture from Eric Sloane's The Seasons of America Past. We had two sweet moments I captured on film that have nothing to do with my objectives. They may seem like nothing, but anyone who has spent time with an autistic person trapped in monologues on topics that only interest them will appreciate how miraculous moments like this are!

Here are three more examples of Pamela paying attention to me unprompted, without any demands that she interact with me, thanks to the hard work we have been doing in our RDI program:

  • The other day I was sitting with my laptop in my lap, watching a video of a flying lawnmower. It cracked me up. Pamela was out of visual range of the screen and heard me laughing. She was curious about what was so funny and she said, "What?" I said mysteriously and giggled, "A flying lawnmower!" I did not turn the laptop in her direction to give her the opportunity for her to decide to share joint attention with me. What did she do? Pamela walked over to the couch and watched the video with me.
  • My hard drive is overflowing, so today I burned some DVDs and deleted old video files. I rebooted the computer and checked out my free space. I gasped because I had recovered 4 GB of space! Pamela said, "Why are you gasping?" So, I explained to her why I was happy.
  • Steve asked me to water the plants earlier in the day. Pamela serenaded me with her favorite Beatles songs (snippets sung a capella) while I sat here blogging my heart out. Just now, I looked at one of the plants and remembered my promise. I said, "I need to water the plants." She stopped singing and asked, "What for?" I told her, "The plants are thirsty."

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Clase número tres

Homework (Monochromatic Landscape)
Pamela had several very lovely moments during her third watercolor class. As always, we did a little bit of homework to review last week (monochromatic landscapes) and preview this week (color landscapes). I downloaded a landscape photograph in color changed it into gray scale, and printed it out to give Pamela a concrete model. First, we did a color value study to study our shades of gray and labeled with the names of the things in the picture with the same shade: dark clouds (DC), grass (G), light clouds (LC), and trees (T). We practiced doing wet on wet, and Pamela watched me for starts and stops. We sprinkled it with salt for a misty effect, which fascinated Pamela. She struggled with relating the color study to the photograph, but, once we started painting, she was on a roll!

The Third Class (Colored Landscape)
Pamela loved this painting! She hummed while she painted and smiled several times. After she made her mountains (the wavy gray line in Part 2), Pamela gasped with joy. She loved the effect. Here are still shots of "watch and paint":

I scaffolded her more in the beginning (Part 1), when they were collecting and dabbing colors. A rainstorm mildly distracted her a little as did concerns over the power (the circuit breaker of an outlet popped).

Pamela referenced her teacher beautifully. She shifted between looking around the room and her teacher, waiting for Carrie to start. At one point, her instructor walked over to check the outlet, and Pamela shifted her attention and followed her movement. Pamela tuned out the chit-chat and knew to pay attention to instructions. At times, she waited at least 30 seconds for her teacher to paint and then Pamela would watch and paint. She rarely got ahead of her teacher, especially in Part 2.

I caught myself talking too much, especially in Part 1, and I was better at being quiet when Pamela relaxed and painted. I think my issue is the habit of making declarative comments which detract from spotlighting starts and stops. Plus, I sometimes get caught up in the product not the process. I need to loosen up.

At the end, Pamela is ready to quit. She waited for her classmates to finish talking and said, "Good! Wonderful!" Eventually, she told us she was finished.

Things to Do
Life got in the way of me doing as many painting lessons as I had planned last week. . .
  • Lead a lesson on painting a picture of a red barn that I found in The Seasons of America Past with David and Pamela. Give verbal instructions and turn away for a moment, while David verbally spotlights what he is doing to let Pamela see she can follow the cues of students, too.
  • Contrast two techniques: wet-on-dry for painting the barn with the idea of wet-on-wet for an apple--note to self: buy a hair dryer for drying colors and get an old toothbrush for splattering paint and a box for storing supplies.
  • Guide Pamela in placing each new color in different hole when doing a color value study.
  • Keep in mind during class that limiting my declarative comments to starting and stopping focus the spotlight on our current objective. In short, I TALK TOO MUCH!

Man Your Battle Stations!

Four more days until the bird count! Are you ready?

Photo credit to Cleve Dowell and article by Cathy Gilbert of the Manning Times (Page 3)

The Santee National Wildlife Refuge is proud to announce their participation in the 13th Annual Great Backyard Bird Count, Feb. 12-15. This annual bird count is organized by the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology as a way for people of all ages and levels of bird-watching experience to participate in observing birds in their backyard, off their balcony or at their local refuge!

Manning resident Tammy Glaser participated last year with her daughter, Pamela, who is autistic and homeschooled. "We do the Backyard Bird Count because we follow a form of homeschooling (Charlotte Mason) that involves nature study," Glaser explained. "Plus, birds are so fun to watch and sometimes you see some interesting things. And you learn a lot. If it's not freezing cold, maybe we will sit on the back porch rockers since Pamela has an idea of what to expect this year."

Each year, tens of thousands of people throughout the U.S. and Canada take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count. Each checklist will contribute valuable information for conservation, by submitting the data online. The information gathered through this bird count will help scientists understand how the distributions of birds are changing over time.

The Santee National Wildlife Refuge will host an early morning bird walk on Saturday, Feb. 13, starting at 7:30 a.m. as part of the Great Backyard Bird Count. Refuge staff hopes to observe wintering sandhill cranes as well as snow geese from the trail’s observation tower to add to the count tally. Ducks, geese and a variety of wintering songbirds may also be seen. Interested participants should meet at the visitor center.

"We are also encouraging visitors to the refuge to observe and keep track of all birds seen during the 4-day count period," said Susan Heisey, Park Ranger. "Individuals interested in participating can pick up a bird check list at the refuge’s visitor center or information kiosk at the Cuddo Unit and start counting. Not only is the count keeping track of different species seen but also numbers of each of those species."

"Once a person has completed their hike, drive, or bicycle ride around the refuge, they can return their checklist to the refuge visitor center, where staff will compile the sightings of all participants," Heisey said. Individuals must return their checklist to the visitor center no later than Feb. 15 for their count to be included. "If the visitor center is not open when you come by, the refuge will have a box on the front porch for folks to leave their checklists," she added. "Please make sure that participant names and contact information is included."

Santee National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1941 as a sanctuary for migratory birds. The refuge encompasses just over 12,400 acres of habitat along the banks of Lake Marion in four separate units. The refuge visitor center as well as the Santee Indian Mound and site of Fort Watson are located on the Bluff Unit, 8 miles south of Summerton on Hwy 15/301. Santee National Wildlife Refuge is one of 550 national wildlife refuges across the country that make up over 150 million acres of land and water for fish and wildlife conservation. The refuge system offers a variety of outdoor activities, including fishing, hunting, environmental education, wildlife observation and photography. Each year, about 40 million Americans discover the wonders of nature by visiting a wildlife refuge. There is at least one wildlife refuge in every state and one within an hour’s drive of most major cities.

For more information about the Great Backyard Bird Count and visitor opportunities at the Santee National Wildlife Refuge, contact Susan Heisey, Park Ranger, at 478-2217 or email

Monday, February 08, 2010

Mark Your Calendars!

It's that time of year again . . . next weekend is the Great Backyard Bird Count! Rather than repeat what I have blogged before, here are some posts to give you some perspective and advice:

The Value of Nature Study
Scaffolding Kids in the Bird Count
Day One of GBBC 2009
Final Day of GBBC 2009

At first, you might find it hard to identify birds. This one completely mystified me last year, and I kept thinking it was an American goldfinch. Every day, I watched it sample camellia fruit from a neighbor's yard. I could always tell the bird was there by the way one cluster of leaves would wave wildly and then I would see a flash of gold, followed by another cluster dancing around. One day I caught him (the flashy color gives his gender away) taking a bath. I snapped a photograph and emailed an Audobon Society representative in our area. It turned out my "finch" was really a juvenile Baltimore oriole. The drab orange made him look finch like from a distance. This year, he is sporting bold orange colors, leaving no doubt of his identity!

Bird-watching feels like a treasure hunt sometimes. This morning, I walked outside and heard the sweetest music imaginable. Perched in the three pecan and two oak trees in our yard were hundreds, maybe thousands of robins, making me believe that Punxsutawney Phil got it wrong this year, ignoring the Facebook photos of my friends in the D.C. area attacked by Snowzilla.

Last year, the kids and I startled at a huge thud against the window of the television room and had a rare opportunity to photograph and record our first headbanger bird. Last year, we spotted a gorgeous painted bunting, even during a rare snowfall. Even if we don't meet any new friends this year, we will enjoy seeing our faithful ones.

You don't need much to get started. Birds need food and water. We have the bird bath stationed right next to the food supplies: suet in a suet cage, seeds in a feeder, and a bag of thistle. Some birds use both, but others feed on what's wild in the yard: robins and their worms, chipping sparrows and their pecans, orioles and their fruit.

We also have bird books and a notebook with clear pictures of birds we typically see in our yard. I usually take pictures first and then look things up because cropping and zooming in on specific features helps me nail an identification.

Really, other than the set up, it doesn't take much time. You only need to spend fifteen minutes, counting, and a few more of entering data. It is really cool to be part of a nation-wide scientific study! Join us!

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Watching for Starts and Stops in Painting Class

Pamela's Home Work
During the week, Pamela and I did homework. We did make-up work from the previous week (the blue value study), redid the block study so she could understand the ideas of light and shadow in the context of value study (red block), and painted the projects she missed in class last week (apple and sunrise). During our short lessons, we went at Pamela's pace to giver her time to process the ideas rather than rush through technique. I also focused on Pamela's new objective: look before you leap, which means Pamela learning to watch for my starts and stops and wait before starting if I have paused for some reason.

Pamela's Second
Watercolor Class

Pamela did two of three projects from Tuesday's class: the black value study and the rainy landscape. She showed the same pattern from last week, requiring very little scaffolding with a familiar process (the blocks) and more direct guidance with a new process (the landscape). I noticed that Pamela carefully monitored her teacher, who directed her attention to the new students in the class. While the other students started working after hearing the verbal instructions, Pamela, in her "watch for starts and stops" mode, usually waited until her teacher painted. I noticed that Pamela did not like water dripping off her brush and had a hard time making gray. Overall, she was very relaxed for the color value study and lagged because she was only referencing the teacher and not the other students. I think I struggled more than she did because I shifted my attention between Pamela, the teacher, and the lady on my right, who was a new student. Talk about a three-ring circus!

Because this project was unfamiliar and more vague, I gave Pamela Pamela more support. I tried really hard to help her focus her attention on something and encourage her to look and think rather than telling her what to do. Several times, she did not understand and headed in the wrong direction. I stayed calm and neutral and got her back on track. At the end of the video, Pamela very clearly let me know when she was tired and I respected her request to stop.

My Lesson Learned
I cannot believe I missed a golden opportunity (pardon the pun). One of the most important things about RDI and Charlotte Mason homeschooling is to focus on process, not product--the sweet moments, not the end result. I was so absorbed in helping Pamela keep up that I ignored the chance to spotlight the funny moment when the teacher found a golden raisin stuck to her papers. Falling into a mechanical plodding through the steps, an unmindful going through the motions, is the polar opposite of experience sharing.

Since Pamela did not feel up to painting a camellia, I tried my hand at it. I realized a mistake we had made in the color value study: I should have had Pamela place each color in a separate hole in her palette. I did that for my flower and found painting it much easier. About halfway through painting the camellia, a friend popped into the gallery. We fell into a lovely conversation, and I began to relax and not really pay much attention to what I was doing. Watercolors are very snarky, unpredictable things that are very hard to control. Letting my mind focus on something else allowed me to go with the flow.

Things to Do
  • I plan to lead a lesson on painting a camellia with David and Pamela over the weekend. I will give verbal instructions and turn away for a moment. David can verbally spotlight what he is doing so that Pamela can learn that she can follow the cues of other people too.
  • I address Pamela's issue with adding water. I will find a better set up that works for Pamela and model a calm and neutral attitude about the dripping paint.
  • We do some shaded landscapes (two based on black-and-white pictures and one from our ideas) since next week the class will be doing colored landscapes.
  • I will contrast the idea of wet on dry for the flower with the idea of wet on wet for the landscape
  • The teacher forgot to bring salt for a misty effect in the sky. We will try that on the landscape pictures in case she brings some on another day.
  • When we do color value studies, I plan to guide Pamela in place each new color in different hole.