Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Slowly Learning

Who's the Slow Learner:  A Chronicle of Inclusion and Exclusion is Sandra Assimotos McElwee's story of her son, Sean's progress from pre-k through twelfth grade.  Sean has Down Syndrome, and it was important to McElwee that his opportunities for an educational experience not be limited by a diagnosis.  As McElwee explains, Who's the Slow Learner is not a "how to" book, but a book about how she and her family did it.

McElwee lives in California, and her district's practice was to put all children with Down Syndrome into special classrooms.  McElwee wanted Sean to be fully included with his age appropriate classmates, and was very successful through 6th grade.  Once Sean hit 7th grade, his experience changed, not because of the fabled mean middle school kids, but because of adult bullies who were slow to learn just what Sean was capable of achieving.  My district is struggling with the issue of inclusion now as well, with some parents wanting their children to be fully included, and others preferring a more segregated setting.  Every child is different, and every district is different,  but the lessons that McElwee learned could be meaningful anywhere.

Each chapter covers a grade for Sean, and begins with his IEP (Individualized Education Plan) goals for that year.  Because the goals are supposed to tailored for each child, Sean's goals may provide some ideas for parents and districts, but are not something that can be cut and pasted into another child's IEP.  McElwee also provides verbatim copies of letters to and from district staff members, which were very fact specific, but provide good examples of how to effectively communicate your point, even if you are furious.  The rest of each chapter talks about Sean's experiences during that year. 

McElwee is Sean's biggest advocate, and she works hard to be sure that Sean is included in extracurricular activities as well as the classroom.  Sean is in plays, participates in choir, takes dance lessons, attends school dances, runs for student office, and manages the baseball team, all during his high school years.  When he can't participate in school activities for one reason or another, McElwee finds a group outside of school where he can be involved.  He even finds time to date a tv star, Becky from Glee.  This is California, remember.

The parent support group that I am involved with (www.FriendsofDifferentLearners.org) does a lot of the things that McElwee recommends, like having a buddy program, showing our teachers our appreciation, and working together with other parents of different learners.  I agree with McElwee that it is important for parents of different learners to be sure that the district knows them, and that they be involved with activities that parents of typical students are, such as the PTA.  One idea that I liked that McElwee suggested was a "Cool Club" for teenage different learners and those in their early 20s.  McElwee got 15 families together, and divided up the calendar.  Each family was in charge of coordinating an activity for the kids, for one weekend night, three times a year.  This could be mini golf, movies, a picnic, or whatever.  That way the kids always had something to do each weekend, like their typical peers. 

Although I don't have a child with Down Syndrome, I could still relate to McElwee's story.  Who's the Slow Learner is a must read for parents of children with Down Syndrome who are struggling with inclusion, and a should read for parents of children with autism or cognitive impairments who are facing the same challenges. 

Another idea for parents of different learners is to tackle this summer's reading list in audio form.   SYNC is a FREE summer program that gives away 2 audiobook downloads each week for the summer starting May 15 and ending August 14. SYNC audiobook titles are given away in pairs--a Young Adult title is paired with a related Classic or required Summer Reading title.  Check out the complete title list, including James Patterson's CONFESSIONS OF A MURDER SUSPECT and its pair partner, Agatha Christie's THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE.  Visit www.audiobooksync.com to sign up for title alerts by email.

I received a free copy of Who's the Slow Learner from McElwee, and agreed to review it.  Other than that, no promises were made, and no payments were received.

Next Up:  American Woman by Susan Choi

Still Listening To:  The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

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