Sunday, September 18, 2016

Go Baby Go

 On Saturday I had the privilege of spending the day at Marymount University, watching teams of volunteers put together cars for kids with disabilities. The day was like nothing else I've ever experienced before.

Just on the surface, this is an incredible initiative. Take those battery powered cars kids ride around in, adapt them so they can be operated by a simple push button, and then figure out how to best adapt the car so that a child with disabilities can safely sit in it and operate it independently.

By giving a child with a physical disability a motorized car, the team is giving them the independence to move themselves around without relying on someone else. For many of the kids this is the first time they have the power to run away from their parents. Suddenly their world is going to look different as they realize that they can move, and turn, and manipulate their environment through their motor planning. And unlike when they are in a motorized wheelchair, the cars are just cool. If you take one of these cars to the neighborhood bike-ride, the kid is immediately going to attract some peers, not because he is different, but because he has something other kids can relate to, or even want. A very cool car.

One of the participant's older four year old brother leaned over to me as he watched his brother's first solo drive and said, "Oh man, now my brother's car is so much cooler than mine." Yeah. Pretty much. I bet that doesn't happen very often.

Watching kids begin to realize that through the push of a button they could zip around the halls of Marymount choked all of us up. The children's unsure expressions quickly changed to smiles as they got farther away from their parents. Others were able to drive around their siblings in a two-seater jeep. I am sure the typical pattern in their households is for them to be depending on their siblings for access to toys, food, or play. The change in play-power brought many big smiles, both to the drivers of the cars, and their sibling passengers.

Beyond just how amazing this was on the surface, I was fascinated by the process. There is a lot we could learn from how the day went down. This is creativity and teamwork at its best.

A team trying out different seating options.
The morning started in a room full of cars, where volunteer teams were given a car, a tool kit, an iPad with instructions, and told to go at it. After the car was able to be drive through simply pushing the button, a team of physical therapists joined each car and started looking at the child's physical needs to determine how to fit the car to the child.

From there, the creativity started. Everyone had one task to achieve, and they could use any available material to make it happen. One wall of the "garage" was lined with a variety of PVC pipe, harnesses, pool noodles, foam, foam kick boards, decorations, and different seating options.

Every team had the task of looking at the child's needs and then using what was in the room, in any way possible, to make the car work for the kid. There was no choice but to problem solve until it was perfect. The car had to work for the child, no matter what. People stood over the cars, brainstorming, trying different things, re-purposing anything around, stripping down seats, cutting PVC pipe, trashing ideas that didn't work, and trying again.

There could not be any ego on any team so there just wasn't. It was not an option. There wasn't a "this is the best we could do so now we're going home." This wasn't about pleasing a boss or winning a contest. It was about the simple goal of safely making a child mobile.

Every car ended up being drastically different. I wish I'd had the opportunity to take pictures of each car, but I am sure the various news crews that were there captured them. The big buttons were placed anywhere in the car the child needed it to be placed, whether that was up at the child's head or by the child's hands. PVC pipe and pool noodles created structures to help a child sit safely in the car, and kick boards went behind seats to provide back support.

Planning the PVC pipe structure
The event took over the entire second floor of Marymount's Arlington campus, and included a playroom for kids to hang out, a room with therapy dogs, quiet, calm rooms where kids could go to get away from the noise, food, and of course the "garage" where the magic was happening.

I hope that today, the day after, there are twelve happy kids spending the afternoon zipping around their driveways, exploring what freedom and play can feel like. I hope there are shared laughs, children driving a little too fast, sibling fights over who gets to use the car, and just pure exhaustion from the new activities.

Kickboard back support with PVC pipes and a red pool noodle for additional side support.

One participant zips down the hallway, testing out his new wheels.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Parent's View of Responsive Classroom

I've written about Responsive Classroom often over the years. As a classroom teacher I lived and breathed Responsive Classroom. I read all the books, went to as many trainings as I could, and worked hard on making my classroom as RC as possible. I did this not because I was trying to be a groupy, but because through my teacher eyes I saw that it worked. If I followed RC then my life was easier. I was putting out less fires and I was teaching more.

But that was through my teaching lens.

My daughter just started a new preschool and she's ridiculously happy with life. The change in her at the end of the day is noticeable. She's calmer and yet has more energy than she did two weeks ago at her old preschool. We loved her old preschool, and so did she, so it seems strange that we would see this shift in her at the end of the day. As she described what she did in school one day I made comments to my husband that this new school was "Very RC". He of course has no idea what this means, so just nodded in agreement. Then I read her teacher notes from the day and felt this was all very familiar. I've taught this before... not in preschool, but this structure, this plan. I could almost tell you what was coming next. Yesterday morning I walked in to see the blue First Six Weeks of School book sitting on a table, tabbed and well-loved. When I asked her teacher about it she beamed. Yes, it's what she's been using, every year. She loves it. (Of course she does. Anyone who has used it loves it.)

For the first time I'm seeing Responsive Classroom through a parent's lens. I'm seeing how my daughter appreciates the slow, deliberate nature in how everything is introduced in her classroom. She knows what the rules are and what to expect on a daily basis. She has more energy at the end of the day because she hasn't spent her energy anxiously trying to interpret what is going on in the classroom and what will be expected of her. But it is a calm energy. She has the energy to re-count her day, tell me what she learned, model how to line up, and how to be a "good schoolmate". Before she had good days at school but she came home and crashed. She was exhausted from trying to teach herself the social curriculum.

While we loved her other school and her teachers, we did not know what the world could be with a little Responsive Classroom in place. I feel like I am re-discovering RC in a whole new light. I want to preach from the rooftops, yes, yes, yes! People, this doesn't just work because it is a trend or a program or something to do because the school system suggested it. It is a way to talk to kids to get them ready to learn. To help them feel secure and safe in their learning environment.