I watched Rock Star raise her hand for her new teacher in response to a general "What happened in the story we read this morning?" question. No visuals. No choices for answers. For a question about a book they'd read 4 hours ago.
She confidentially answered her teacher, explaining in her Rock Star way that Chrysanthemum was a book about a girl who felt sad and had not nice friends.
Four years ago when I first met Rock Star this is not the student I saw. I saw a child who never, ever talked. I saw a child who didn't follow simple one step directions with visuals. I saw a child who poked and hit her friends to get their attention. A child who did not recognize her name, the alphabet, or colors. She read books upside down. In fact, we were THRILLED when she sat and read the books and turned the pages even if they were upside down because that was massive progress. She cried. A lot. When you put a crayon or pencil in her hand she either scribbled wildly while staring into space or dropped it on the floor, letting it slip between her fingers as though she didn't recognize you'd even placed anything in her hand.
Over the years I've watched her grow. It's been slow growth, and different than your typically developing child, but growth none the less. And now- she is verbal and confident. She can answer open ended questions and she can remember what she learned and talk about it later. She can look at a book by herself and retell herself the story, or make up a story from the pictures. She recognizes some high frequency words. She is, as her name suggestions, a rock star.
This year I have a new group of children who remind me of Rock Star so long ago. Except, they didn't remind me of her right away. My first response was, "WOW. We can't do anything in here anymore. How are we going to learn to read if aren't holding the book in right direction, if we are poking our friends, if we are staring into space and we don't talk at all?" It wasn't a positive thought. Some may say it was a realistic thought, but not positive.
It took me listening to Rock Star participating in her class on Friday to realize the connection between her and my new friends. She made remarkable progress because we always thought she could. Not having any other experience with children with intellectual disabilities, her teachers and I just plowed ahead, trying our best and still teaching her to read and participate in school. And it worked. She learned. Not at the expense of her self help skills or independent life skills either. She learned it all together.
Now that I'm in an intellectual disabilities program it is somehow easier to think, "Wow, OK, well maybe we should just work on life skills". Because now I know that is an option. It's something people do. It's acceptable in these programs. And for some kids it may be the answer. But I can't let myself change my expectations for my new students because now I "know better". I need to hold them to the same expectations we held Rock Star, giving them the opportunity to learn and interact. It shocked me to realize that for a moment I had low expectations, but it was a good wake up call to realize that I have to always check myself and make sure I am truly "teaching up" and not simply giving high expectations lip service while limiting my students' growth.