Thursday, June 28, 2012

A lovely essay from my son's tutor

To those of you who have read my blogs recently, you may remember that I wrote about the wonderful neighbour who tutors my son each week. She is a former teacher, now retired, with no specific special education qualifications. But that doesn't stand in the way of her being a fabulous and rich addition to Michael's life. Each Saturday afternoon at a quarter to four, he rushes out the door, hops on his bike and rides over to Ann Lacey's house for his one hour tutoring session.

I'd like to share with you a short piece that Ann wrote about her experiences with Michael.
                                           *     *    *

Michael slips quietly in the door, holding a cellophane wrapped piece of carrot cake and a cold can of  Coke. He is early, as usual, by 10 minutes. There is a moment of confusion at the door as the musicians (who have been playing jazz tunes with my partner Dwight all afternoon) gather all their boots and clothes and instruments, and squeeze past him out the front door.
”Hi, Mike!”  they all say.

I catch Michael’s  eye and smile. We are glad to see each other, we like each other.

I am keenly aware that the mild chaos at the front door  is just the kind of confusion and overstimulation that I am not supposed to be providing for Michael when I tutor him. He needs quiet, predictable routine, clear goals; Michael has FASD (Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder, brain damage caused by the alcohol his mother drank while pregnant with him). Michael is now 25.
My friend Linda has asked me to tutor her son Michael, who dropped out of school in Grade 9. Michael has told her he’s  interested in passing his GED, and maybe even obtaining a high school diploma. I know little of his school history, but know it has been fraught, and that his learning disabilities are complicated. While I have taught a wide range of children, I have no special education qualifications and no understanding of FASD. But I am interested and willing to give it a try. I tell Linda yes, I will tutor Michael.

Within minutes of the confusion at the door, Michael and I have slipped into my tiny teaching room and are immersed in our book, The Hunger Games. It is a dark story set in a not-very-friendly future, but Michael likes it, and I follow his interests as best I can. I take notice of whatever attracts him, because it gives me clues as I try to understand what makes him tick. There is a great deal going on inside this young man. But expressing it is difficult for him.

We take turns reading out loud, a few pages at a time, trying to finish one chapter each week. We pass the book back and forth when we feel ready. His reading has improved in all ways, and in the most important of ways: he expects the text to make sense.This is an important transition for a reader, and serves as an anchor for further reading development. He used to read through the punctuation, and then get into a muddle of misunderstanding. Now he reads until he understands, sometimes going back over it  more carefully, finding the meaning.

We have read happily through a number of books, including a long and text heavy (not many illustrations) book of Native myths, the Story of Erik the Viking and numerous newspaper articles I have picked out for him. When we finish reading our chapter, we talk and make a quick list of a few words to remind ourselves what is happening, so we can dive in again next week. Sometimes we talk about the chapter or new words or things we didn’t understand, or I give him a short writing assignment that involves going back into the text or making inferences or dictionary work.

When he began with me Michael said he wouldn’t write, that I wouldn’t be able to read it. But I just said, “Well, you can read it to me”, and that was that. His very first writing was done after the tragic death of his dog, Bear. I knew Bear meant a lot to him, and I found an old children’s book, The Tenth Good Thing About Barney (a boy who loses his cat). When I finished I asked him to write 10 things about Bear. Here is what he wrote:

Bear was cute playful was always happy to se me funny loud excited soft cudely beutaful and stubern.

I was moved to tears, it was poetic! The way he listed all those positive attributes, then artfully chose the simple word ‘and’ to set apart the last, most troublesome descriptor of Bear -stubborn!

And what I learned through his simple response is that Michael has a great deal going on inside his head, but that it is difficult to express. When I ask him a question, there is  a space, a waiting, and then, maybe, nothing, or, a one word answer that is actually a profound observation. My first and clearest job was to help unlock the stalled place , to help develop some fluency of expression, some release of his knowledge and observations. This means starting every session with conversation.

Michael is away with his family this weekend, so our weekly session is cancelled. I miss him, I miss the stimulation of our sessions, where I am forced/urged as a teacher to really watch the learner for clues. What does he need next? Maybe I’ll try that game with him! My mind is ever churning with ideas. And, as MIchael continues to develop, new clues will emerge, and his needs will change. No teacher /student relationship should ever be static, but ever changing and responding to the world and others.

One teacher, one learner, facing each other.

Our teacher/student relationship is very much enriched by my collaboration and dialogue with his mother. If I were not able to report many of my experiences with and observations of MIchael with Linda, there would not be so much meat!! Together we ponder the meaning of developments, how we could help each other, and where to go next.

I don’t always know where to go next. Sometimes I try things with Michael, and they go nowhere. He lets me know when he isn’t interested. For instance, when I introduced practical word problems using math operations that we had been practicing (How many can I afford to buy? How much money was made at the sale?) Michael completed them, but was completely uninspired, and I dropped the activity. Many times I get discouraged and feel I don’t really know where I am going with him. And, what seems like progress can disappear the next week. Sometimes his reading seems markedly improved (reading with expression and for meaning), and then he may struggle some the following week.

I try to work with him where he is that day. What keeps me going is the simple fact that I like Michael, I enjoy his humour and interest, and that I  know that the story isn’t over yet.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Location, location, location? Nah. It’s motivation, motivation, motivation.

 I can’t count how many times people have said to me recently, “Your son’s woodcarvings are fantastic. He’s so talented, he should start up a little business.”

My response is always the same. “Yes, Michael’s woodcarvings are fantastic, and he is indeed talented.”  Then, I mumble under my breath (never in a mean way), ‘but you don’t have a clue.’

What these kind and well-meaning people are clueless about is that Michael doesn’t have motivation. Yes, he loves to carve boats and fish and three-dimensional reliefs of animals. He’s even won second and third place for pieces he entered in the Canadian Woodcarving Championships. And, not insignificantly, he feels great when he sells carvings, which he does. Like everyone else, Michael likes money.

So you’d think he’d be motivated to carve and carve and sell and sell. The possibilities are there for him to do so. He could start a little business, perhaps. Create a website to sell online. Try to get carvings into a shop. Go to craft fairs around the province, sell at flea markets and Christmas bazaars.

But it doesn’t happen. It doesn’t matter how talented he may be. Michael doesn’t have motivation. Drive, determination, vision, goal or ambition? I won’t say he doesn’t have any. I’ll just say he doesn’t have enough to motivate him. Ah, yes, motivation.

Michael has Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), brain damage caused by the alcohol his birthmother drank while pregnant with him.  Adopted at birth, he was diagnosed when he was six.  Now 25, little has changed (regarding motivation) since he was in public school when his teachers would say some version of  “Michael’s so smart. He just needs to try harder.”  “Michael can do a, b, or c, he just isn’t trying.”  Or, plain and simple, “He’s lazy.”

Not so simple, we’ve learned.

My husband and I have spent the last 20 years, at least, trying to motivate Michael, whether it’s to wash his dishes, shower, do homework, get exercise, and now, develop a steady routine of woodcarving. We’ve used rewards, bribes, consequences, encouragement and undying love. We, like the teachers, believed that he ‘just had to try harder.’ On some level, I think we still think that. We think we’re going to find the magic bullet, treatment, approach, words, reward or encouragement that’s going to make him try harder to do what he needs to do. To motivate him.

One of the symptoms for many people with FASD is low motivation.  Why exactly, I’m not sure, but clearly, it must have to do with brain development. I’ve come to believe over the years, from knowing many other people besides Michael who are considered ‘lazy,’ that perhaps there is no such thing as lazy. Perhaps what we think of lazy is, rather, some underlying problem with brain functioning or confidence, or ability to understand how the world works and navigate within it. Or, maybe these people are just missing the ‘motivation gene.’

It means we have to accept that Michael isn’t ever going to be entrepreneurial. With our help and support, we can encourage him to carve and help him to sell his pieces here and there. But we cannot expect him to start his own little business, set up a website, travel to far away places, place his work in shops.

However, what we can see is that Michael responds positively when people say nice things about his carvings. Encouragement encourages him.  Normally shy and withdrawn, he will actually participate in and even start a conversation about his work when people encourage him to talk about it. When our friends are visiting and they ask about his carvings, he’ll go into his room and bring them out to show. He’s building confidence through his carvings. It clearly makes him feel good about himself. And well it should.

Not surprisingly, it seems that the better he feels about himself, via the carvings, the more we can convince him to carve, sell and keep the positive cycle going.

But guess where all the motivation has to come from. Me. And my husband.  Get his work into stores? Online sales? Go to craft fairs? Sure, if we’re motivated.

As any parent of a child with FASD will tell you, it’s hard to keep the energy up.

I’m not sure where my ongoing motivation to help my son comes from. But I’ll take a guess.

Love. And, probably, my brain chemistry.