Feb 20, 2013
Our Family Perspective
By Guest Blogger Claire Holmes
I am taking stock of things. Charlie just turned 14 and we are planning his transition to high school. From his perspective, high school seems exciting but is a long way off. After all, he won’t walk through those doors for six more months. But I have been mulling things over in my mind for a while; we have questioned other families with older children, toured the high school, sat in on classes, met teachers, learned about extracurricular opportunities, and the official IEP meeting to nail everything down is scheduled for this week. Our family’s top priorities for this process are facilitating Charlie’s smooth transition (emotionally, socially and logistically) and keeping his academic progress on track. Our goal since he was tiny has always been two-fold: first, that our son be a student alongside his cousins, friends and neighbors in our neighborhood schools. And second, that he participates meaningfully in the most rigorous academic program possible, with appropriate supports and modifications in place to encourage his success.
We are very close to fulfilling both of these goals. Charlie will attend our neighborhood high school and he will be enrolled in a traditional 9th grade academic program, with courses including algebraic math, biology, American government, English, and Spanish, along with some electives. This program will not be easy for Charlie, his teachers, or for us. But if each member of “Team Charlie,” as we have always called the wide circle of support which includes and surrounds our son, brings their enthusiasm, energy and skills, then we will succeed in helping Charlie build a solid academic foundation for himself. We believe that this academic foundation, along with his accumulating life experiences, is what will prepare Charlie for the fulfilling, meaningful and independent life he is destined to lead.
Inclusive education has been our family’s goal, and the goal of many of the educators who have joined our family on this journey. It has not been a smooth and steady path. Charlie has likely been the child with the most significant support needs in his school settings, so his presence has challenged some people over the years. As I think back over the last decade, there have been moments of jubilant success and periods of deep soul searching. But there have also been significant times of a gratifying status quo. Most of the time, we enjoy a fairly typical family experience: juggling a balance of school and work responsibilities, family obligations and leisure activities (in our case, these are usually sports-related). It is these uneventful times that I relish, the times for Charlie to “just be” rather than be the sum of his disability diagnosis labels, which is an inevitable element of “IEP season” as well as the times when we question things. It is safe to say that striving for inclusive best practices can be a messy process for all stakeholders: the student, the educators and the family. But we believe it is important to keep striving.
When I look at the young man into whom my son is maturing, though, I am convinced that our family’s path has been the right one for him even if it has not always been easy. Charlie’s greatest strengths are his natural gregariousness, his caring nature and his sense of humor. He finds it very easy to engage others, even while still working on improving his ability to sustain that communication. Being in a school setting with the kids he knows from the neighborhood keeps that communication progress going naturally.
Charlie is a sponge for new information, especially related to sports: he reads the Baltimore Sun sports page daily and follows players and teams closely. He follows several regional professional and college teams and has an extraordinary memory for detailed and statistical information. Sharing his sports knowledge is one of the ways Charlie engages others and builds his own self esteem. Charlie likes to read, and he favors non-fiction. In addition to sports topics, he loves history and geography. He consistently tells others that math is his favorite school subject, and this year he has shown a stronger interest in science, especially related to the chemistry portion of the 8th grade science curriculum. He loves to play board games of all types, particularly those that involve dice. Much to our surprise, he joined his school’s Chess Club this year and has thoroughly enjoyed learning the game. He is now teaching us to play, in order to have competent opponents at home. Charlie is not a competitive person, so he enjoys a team approach to games and is a very patient teacher. I wonder whether he would have been exposed to all these ideas, interests and information in a different school setting.
Similar to most teenagers, Charlie enjoys his “screen” time, and uses computers and handheld devices for games, news, weather and other information. He amazes us with his complete comfort in switching among platforms, operating systems and devices. Charlie is a very structured and routine oriented person; he is a planner, a list maker and he likes to be busy. He is quite involved in planning our family time, including weekly menus, outings and travel. He is increasingly interested (and skilled) in cooking. Charlie takes his household chores seriously, and consistently looks for opportunities to be productive and helpful around the house and in our neighborhood.
Even with the wonderful progress Charlie has made over the years, he continues to struggle with the issues related to his non-traditional learning styles, his inattention/impulsivity and his anxiety. Charlie is quite aware that his version of the academic world is different than that of his peers, even in their shared school setting. He is disappointed when his report card does not reflect the effort he puts forth, yet he enjoys doing homework and is proud of his schoolwork. We try to downplay testing of all types. Instead, we concentrate on a team approach to the learning which happens up to the point of (and continues after) assessment. Traditional assessment methods have never proven to be effective ways for Charlie to show what he has learned and what he knows. Assessment issues are enormous barriers to truly inclusive education, and, as parents, we have had to put those larger concerns aside as we help Charlie strive for success. In the past, Charlie has shown true enthusiasm as well as sustained motivation and interest in academic projects which have either been assigned or supplementary, so we know there are more authentic, more universal methods available. We look forward to a day when universally designed curricula and assessments are aligned in public schools and used for all students on a regular basis. Charlie would certainly not be the only student to benefit.
The fact that Charlie remains naturally curious, upbeat and positive is one of our primary indicators that inclusive educational opportunities have been successful for him. He is incredibly resilient. Charlie is increasingly able to use and transfer the strategies for learning, communication and self-regulation that either he has been taught or that he has devised for himself. He has made significant strides in his ability to articulate his needs and ask for support from others, when needed. These are the self-advocacy skills we value as he matures and gains independence. For us, it is clear: Charlie is learning more than the academics that we believe are so important. Among other things, he is learning how to be a friend, how to speak up, how to tackle challenges. So as I take stock, I am glad that he is learning to navigate the “typical” world alongside his friends. In their inclusive school, Charlie and his classmates are learning the beauty and value of difference with a wide array of abilities and voices represented.
In addition to being Charlie’s mom, Claire Holmes is an education librarian at Towson University’s Albert S. Cook Library, where she works with students and faculty in the departments of Early Childhood, Elementary and Special Education. She tweets @TUEdLibrarian. In their spare time, Charlie, Claire and David are avid sports fans; cheering for their beloved Orioles, Ravens and Towson Tigers is a top family priority.