Thursday, January 28, 2010

Connecting with the Classroom

This post written by Dianne Ward, Woodstock, ON.

Excerpt from "The Ideal Way to Cook: Food for Thought".

Allow me to introduce myself: My name is Dianne Ward and I am a literacy instructor for the Thames Valley District School Board in Woodstock. Throughout the years I have taught many different students with intellectual and physical disabilities. Each time a student walks through my door, I know there is a challenge for me as a teacher; overcoming these challenges is always a new adventure.

A lot of my students have a desire to learn and were never successful in a mainstream program. They were teased and told they couldn't do things that a normal person could do. The result is they have lower reading and math skills, as well as low self-esteem. Fortunately, I struggled through school myself and later realized that there are many different ways of learning. One of the ways I embrace this in my classroom is through creative projects, which allows my students to utilize skills that are taught in daily lessons.

A project that I would like to share with you that my class worked on was writing about a role model in their lives. All of the students had to think of somebody in the community which they found to be influential. After each student decided on a person, we began writing poems to thank and honour them. When the poems were completed, invitations were sent out to the role models, inviting them to an afternoon where each student read and presented a copy of their poems and a rose to them. Some of the role models that were written about included: a bus driver, a cleaning lady, a store clerk, a bowling alley manager, a minister, and a counselor, just to name a few. Listening to each story brought tears to my eyes as my students were able to convey not only genuine feelings but words that thanked their mentors for being supportive and being role models in their lives. All of the mentors treasured their poems. So many people from the comunity left our event feeling proud and honoured and said they will always cherish their personalized poem. One lady said it was the nicest gift that she had ever received.

Everyone can learn no matter what age or what disability you have; the key is if you want to.

My program relies on one-on-one teaching and volunteer instructors. Our materials are relevant to the students' lives and their everyday living. Learning is a difficult process and when it is compounded with intellectual disabilities, it is amazing what my students can do. Through the years we have had many highlights and every day brings a new situation. This is one of the many heartwarming stories that I have experienced through my 15 years of teaching and I know the years to come will bring me many more.

Photo: Chicago 2016 Photos


Thursday, January 21, 2010

We Got Lost on the Detour, Part III

Part III of last week's post, We Got Lost on the Detour, Pt. II.
This post written by Sandra and Murray MacDonald.
Excerpt from "The Ideal Way to Cook: Food for Thought".

The Nature vs Nurture detour, on the other hand, was extremely gratifying and I believe, highly successful! I sincerely believe we cheated Nature (somewhat at least) and found that overloading on Nurture produced wonderfully educated, socially adept, very interesting and self-confident kids, not to mention many memorable family experiences. We have literally taken the kids everywhere and done everything while we were there. We spent summers doing eight-week road trips in a tiny VW camper, cruising throughout Canada and the U.S., from Florida to Alaska and from New England to Vancouver Island. We've poked our way through the Caribbean, Mexico and New Zealand. The kids have hiked into the inside of a glacier, canoed and portaged through God's country, trekked up mountains to see spectacular views, dug dinosaur bones in the Badlands, fished for salmon downstream from Kodiaks, floated next to big whales, panned for gold, spent hundreds of hours in museums and aquariums of every kind, watched sunsets over oceans, lakes and valleys, roasted a million marshmallows in campfires, swam with manta rays and sharks (the ones with small teeth!), cycled through national parks, swam in clean, clear, sparkling rivers and waterfalls, watched local history and stories unfold in interactive theatre, caught all kinds of critters in their dip nets, and met many strange and wonderful people along the way.

As a result, all our children, and especially Neil, have such a rich and varied general knowledge of geography, history, science and nature. Neil can understand and relate to a huge variety of subjects and topics, mainly because....he's been there and done that! He has loads of material to converse to others about and people marvel at all the tidbits of trivia he is able to discuss. Being able to have a decent conversation with others is a valuable skill when you are mentally handicapped.

In another effort to overload on Nurture, we got all the kids involved in many sports. We had no way of knowing how absolutely crucial to Neil's development this detour would turn out to be. In the last 20 years, he has played in hundreds of regular and Special Olympic games and competitions in soccer, baseball, floor hockey, as well as powerlifting, curling and downhill skiing. He's competed at provincial and national levels and been very successful. This has served to give him an enormous well of self-confidence. He is almost too confident!

There's nothing he can't do (according to him!). Teaching him how to play different sports has been a double blessing. Not only has it given him a powerful platform from which to continually draw self-assurance, but it has, time and time again, proven to be the most important social leveler he has. In integrated settings, his peers look at his facial features, assume the worst, and write him off. He joins them in a game, or races past them on the ski hill, and in the male world of machoism, they suddenly are forced to readjust their opinion of him. They immediately accept him into their circle, and now they are open to interacting with him. I sit back and smile. Life can be sweet sometimes!

Sports also provided us with our own personal detour. We learned to be Special Olympics coaches. For 12 years now we both have coached soccer, baseball, curling and skiing, and we've learned so much from our athletes. They always, always try their hardest and they love you to pieces for giving them your time. What else can a coach ask for?

We also decided when he was young, that Neil had to be included in everything we wanted to do as a family. We were not going to not do something because Neil couldn't join us, nor were we willing to leave him behind. More Nurture work. Don't make excuses for him; teach him how to do it! His siblings learned to ride a bike in less than a week. Four years later, running alongside of him and experiencing many face plants in wet, dirty ditches or crash landings into hedges or telephone poles, and umpteen scraped knees and hands, Neil finally managed to stay upright on two wheels. I thought it would never happen! We've ridden our bikes together as a family on many exciting adventures in so many different places. I am so glad we persevered.

It was the same for skiing. When the kids were teens, we wanted to resume that sport we so enjoyed before the kids were born, but would Neil ever be able to learn it? The other two were wonderful skiers after just one season. It took three years of me cajoling, and skiing backwards, holding his tips together, and him screaming, "I can't do it!", but eventually he was able to ski on his own and not cream anybody on the slopes. Ten years later, he won three Silver medals in the advanced race division at the Winter Provincial Games. He skies with us in the East and in the Rockies, on blues and on blacks. He's poetry in motion on his skis.

So it's a funny thing about road trips. You can sometimes get onto some pretty rough roads. You often find yourself having to detour, and then you get lost. Too many detours and you really get lost! God never made a GPS for the road trip of life. Our crashed road trip didn't suddenly end in 1982 as we thought. We're still trying to find our way back, so in a way we are still lost. But it's been one heck of a trip, so far!


Thursday, January 14, 2010

We Got Lost on the Detour, Part II

Part II of last week's post, We Got Lost on the Detour, Pt. I.
This post written by Sandra and Murray MacDonald.
Excerpt from "The Ideal Way to Cook: Food for Thought".

As a teacher, I knew that while some students learn faster than others, all students learn best through doing...using as many of their five senses as possible. Book learning is good, but doing is better!

I finally made a very pivotal decision that was to become my beacon of guidance, the central pillar of my parenting style. I resolved to quit teaching and instead, focus all my energy and attention to providing my children with as many hands-on learning experiences as I could possibly cram into their lives. I would have to live with the cards that were dealt me, but I became utterly determined to stack the deck against Nature by loading the dice in favour of Nurture. That decision gave me enormous strength and determination, guiding all our future plans and road trips.

As we stumbled down the winding ADVOCACY road, we found ourselves doing things we previously never dreamed of and certainly were never a part of our original road trip. In 1982, Murray and I formed the first Down syndrome parent support group in Ontario. The only way to learn more about DS was to learn from the experiences of other parents. The only way to discharge our emotional burdens was to lean on others who really understood our frustrations, hopes and fears. Years later we were also the founding parents of the Ontario Down Syndrome Association, which was an attempt to help organize the strength of 23 other provincial parent groups into a more politically active group advocating for Down syndrome. In 1988 we were founding members of the new Canadian Down Syndrome Society with Murray serving as their Chairman for many years.

I organized the very first conference on Down syndrome in Canada, designing it after the three American conferences we had attended. I brought in medical specialists from the U.S. and Canada to do seminars and workshops for over 350 parents and professionals. I chose McMaster University hospital to host the venue because not only did it lend an air of respectability and professionalism to the event, but I was also nine months pregnant with our third child. She was due the week of the conference and I rationalized that if all the stress of 10 months of planning were to bring on an early baby, I could just walk upstairs to the neonatal unit and deliver!

We fought bitterly and unrelentingly against two school boards to have Neil fully integrated throughout his entire schooling career. When the head of Special Education at the high school publicly berated me with "Your dream of having your son in a regular classroom is just a fantasy", it still hurt even though we were hardened veterans to this attitude. This necessitated Murray doing many years of night courses to get new qualifications in special education, co-operative education and guidance qualifications because the only way to really make sure Neil got a useful education was to make changes from within the system itself.

We showed many, many fearful teachers and administrators that integration was a bonus to all students involved, if it was structured properly and given a chance. The education advocacy road was an especially difficult one to travel down. It was 17 years too long, very lonely, and highly stressful, always going steeply uphill and constantly littered with formidable road blocks.

Photo: Neil MacDonald and his father, Murray MacDonald, standing in front of Neil's photograph, which was exhibited at the Varley Gallery (2009 Ideal-Way Art Show). Neil was 2nd place in the People's Choice Awards.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

We Got Lost on the Detour, Part I

This post written by Sandra & Murray MacDonald. Excerpt from "The Ideal Way to Cook: Food for Thought".

Have you ever been on a road trip where you sort of have a planned destination? Oh, you know you'll get there, but in the process of connecting the dots from start to finish you can choose several different routes. You know that depending on which road you do down, your trip can end up being wonderfully exciting and memorable or if you choose badly, it could be the road trip from...well, that place where it's very hot! But the one thing that is true for all long road trips, is that they are unpredictable...anything can happen at any time. Detours due to road construction, washed out bridges, bad weather ahead, etc., always wreak havoc with well laid plans.

When my husband, Murray, and I got married, we started planning and connecting the dots to map out an exciting route to live our new life together. Our final destination was retiring before 60 to live on beautiful Vancouver Island and traveling all around the world doing exciting things like skiing, sailing, canoeing, trekking, etc., etc. En route we would have fulfilling careers and four children. Our starting point was being unemployed teachers, but a couple of alternate routes eventually landed us jobs and our first new home.

The first major detour came with the conversation, "I'm going to be 30 soon and we haven't any children yet!" That detour was very bumpy but short and soon we were back on track with son number one in tow. The biological clock was still ticking loudly so another detour quickly developed with son number two arriving 18 months later. My second pregancy was uneventful as were the first four days of our new baby's life; he nursed well and was a happy and attentive baby. I was looking forward to returning back to teaching.

But on day five, our little family unexpectedly got rerouted onto a sudden detour. Actually, totally derailed would more aptly describe it! A doctor I had never met before walked into my hospital room and without introducing himself, matter of factly said, "We think your baby is a mongoloid" and promptly left the room, never to be seen again! I didn't know it at the time, but our road trip was now detouring down a very long, dark tunnel, with no light at the end. As each day passed, we got more and more lost on this detour. The road trip had crashed to a sudden halt, or so we thought. The next few weeks passed by in a blur of despair, guilt, profound sadness, fear, grief and an overwhelming sense of being lost and helpless. Well-meaning people would "console" us with "God gives special kids to special people" or "Just take him home and love him". My father's words when I told hm the baby had Down syndrome still ring cruelly in my ears..."He'll always be a stone around your neck."

Our family doctor could tell us nothing about a future prognosis. I hoped to get information from the McMaster Hospital medical library (no internet in the 80s). But the only three books they had were hopelessly dismal accounts about individuals in the 1940s who had lived in institutions their entire lives. Those books were the only information that training new doctors and nurses would get their information about Down syndrome from. I cried as I tossed them into a roaring fire in my fireplace. There were no recently written books to buy anywhere. My baby was mentally handicapped and I couldn't find any information to teach me to help him. A fog of fear, uncertainty, and hopelessness continued to cloud our route. As the weeks slowly stumbled into months, it often felt like we were riding an out-of-control roller coaster in that same dark tunnel.

Thankfully, I did not know that we would be detouring on that emotional roller coaster for the next 25 years.

A tiny ray of sunshine broke when our son was seven months old. We attended a three-day conference on Down syndrome in Chicago. We were absolutely overwhelmed when we walked into a meeting room to see 2,500 parents who all had children with Down syndrome! We were not alone on our detour. We attended workshops, seminars, lectures, presentations and social events, literally soaking up what felt like tons and tons of information and...hope!

There was so much we could do to help our son, Neil, to learn. That conference was a wonderful bridge, which helped us cross over troubled waters and find another detour down a brand new road called ADVOCACY. As we were to find out, that road was constantly littered with huge potholes, missing road signs, switchback turns, and sudden descents, but ultimately it took us, and continues to take us, higher and closer to our original road trip route.

Photo: xerezh

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