Sunday, February 17, 2013

Teaching Nightmare

I had a horrible nightmare last night.

I dreamed that my 18 month old daughter was a student in my class. And, just like everyone else in my class she was expected to be able to identify Virginia and Washington, DC on a map of America. So, I was sitting with her at the table where I do all my direct instruction. I had a map out and I was doing discrete trials over and over and over again until she was able to identify Virginia. Of course, being 18 months old, this was difficult for her. And ridiculous. In the dream she and I were both getting really frustrated. "Why can't she just point to the middle of the map on the east coast?" I wondered as she once again blindly smacked the map in the middle.

I woke up in a sweat. What was I doing? Why would I have a dream about torturing my daughter that way? She is 18 months old. Yes, when she is 5, 6, and 7 I will expect her to find VA on a map (well, I'll leave that up to her teacher because frankly, I don't see myself caring so much.)

Perhaps the dream came because I am simultaneously reading Mindset by Carol Dweck and How Children Succeed by Paul Tough (author of Whatever it Takes). In fact, right before I fell asleep I ordered my husband to take How Children Succeed out of my hands because otherwise I worried I'd read all night. Both books talk about the importance of how to fail and the development of non-cognitive skills- delayed gratification, putting in effort, the ability to set a plan and follow through, and the ability to persist through a difficult task.

On Friday I was chatting with one of my coworkers who is also a parent of a child with intellectual disabilities. "Why doesn't anyone ask me what I want my daughter to learn to be successful in life?" she asked. "I want her to be independent, able to care for herself, advocate for herself, and navigate shopping. I don't care if she can identify George Washington."

The thing is- I can teach the kids in my class to recognize Virginia on a map. I could probably teach my daughter too. The teaching part isn't hard when we do things that we know work for teaching kids with intellectual disabilities. It's the WHY. Unless I pair recognizing Virginia with these non-cognitive skills, unless I build up the ability for them to transfer the skill of recognizing Virginia in my classroom to recognizing Virginia on a map if they need to find their way home- the activity is useless. Yet I am being paid to teach them to recognize Virginia on a map. Your tax dollars are asking me to teach this information so that they can be tested on it later. Nowhere in my job description does it mention teaching non-cognitive skills- the very skills my students will desperately need to survive and be successfully independent.

So how do we bridge both skills? Making sure my students can do these rote skills while also giving them opportunities to develop delayed gratification, problem solving, and executive planning?

My dream left me with a sinking pit in my stomach, calling into question my pride on how my students are learning these repetitive state standards. I'm missing an important part of their education and it's time to start re-examining how I teach. (Sadly I'm not saying throw out the state standards- trust me, I will continue those facts- but I need to build in more problem solving and opportunities to learn and practice these non-cognitive skills)

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