Monthly Archives: January 2014

Telling Stories

Sometimes I wonder whether this blog is a sort of something and nothing kind of creature.   It’s not wholly a parenting blog.  Neither is it wholly a teaching one.  It’s not totally devoted to the boy in the title, or to one particular ideology, or anything else really.   What it is is a reflection.  It’s a reflection of some of the things I’ve learned since my boy appeared in my, in our, lives.

I don’t feel that I can advise anyone on how to bring up their child, Down Syndrome or otherwise.  I can’t tell anyone how to teach, or what to teach.  The older I get, the less certain I become of myself, of what I thought I knew.  The more aware I am of the unending multitude of things I don’t know.

But what I can do is tell you my stories.  I’m always learning from them.  I learned from them at the time, and, through this blogging process, this reflection of our lives onto a computer screen, I learn again, perhaps even something different each time.

And what I learn I find that I can apply.  I can apply it in my private, personal life, and I can apply it in my working life.  When I started working in a school again, after my long absence, a good friend of mine, who is now a head teacher, told me that no prospective employer would be interested in what I have been up to, on my journey into motherhood.  They would only be interested in my classroom practise.  Well, I’m afraid I disagree.  My life cannot be compartmentalised into ‘home’ and ‘school’.  What I learn from one, I have no choice in taking through to the other.  I do not take off one person and put on another when i am in different situations.

So I tell you my stories, in my attempt to make sense of the world about me, to learn, and apply what I have learned from my experiences.  And I refuse to think that they are irrelevant, that the personal, the emotional, the different does not matter, isn’t relevant, doesn’t fit in to the Grand Scheme Of Things.  Thank you for reading them, thank you from the bottom of this uncertain heart, and take from them what you will.

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A-Zig-A-Zig-Ah

I’m really happy about the fact that Sam is in a Special School.  I am so impressed with it as a school.  It’s not just the fact that we, as parents, feel as if we are listened to and that our suggestions are taken on board, and our opinions are actively sought.  It’s not just that we have entered a world of support through information shared with us about holiday clubs, parent discussion groups, and opportunities to learn more about the various learning difficulties the children share at the school.

It’s not simply that my son has an enthusiastic teacher who has thought carefully about the education he actually needs, as opposed to the one the government feels he ought to have.  And it’s not wholly about the opportunities for school plays, clubs, sports or residentials that he has at this school that he just wouldn’t get in a larger, mainstream institution.

It’s hard to put my finger on exactly what makes it so great; maybe I ought to focus on the boy who is so happy to be there that three days after Christmas he was up, washed and dressed in his school uniform, keen to get up-and-at-‘em, so keen, in fact, that he refused to get re-dressed into his home clothes until shortly after lunch.  What makes him happy (generally) makes me happy.

But I wouldn’t be me if there wasn’t room for improvement.  It’s not that I’m hard to please (particularly); I’d just still like my family experience to get a little closer to that of ‘ordinary’ families.    I know, I know, every family is different, every family faces challenges, we are all in it together, yada, yada, yada; but there are unique challenges faced by families like mine, and we do need to talk about them.

Now, I don’t feel in any way that Sam has been hidden away, written off or excluded from society by our decision to send him to a special school.  I worked hard to put him into our community.  In the early days, as well as therapeutic playgroups, we went to the local mother and toddler group.  He has been a Sunday School (almost) regular for most of his life.  He was a member of the local football-with-Dan club for some years.  But it’s not only these things.  There is something particularly special about our little town.   Back in the mists of the Seventies, there was once a far-sighted school planner who OK’d a primary, secondary and a special school on one small campus.  When all the children from his mainstream primary class are going up the road to school, Sam is going too.

It’s not far from home, this most special of special schools.  It’s right in the heart of the community: well loved, well thought of by all.  When the LA tried to close it, the town was up in arms.  The MP got involved and the school was saved.  Not only that, but it got a multi-million pound rebuild and refit too.  And here’s the thing that, in typical me-like fashion, gets my goat.  Getting Sam To School is a total and utter pain in the arse.

Because, right when most parents are heaving a sigh of relief that they no longer have to escort their beloved progeny backwards and forwards to school, avoiding the dog mess and walking along as many walls as possible, I can’t.  Instead, I have the unenviable task of being at two schools at the same time.  It has been, for me, a cause of undeniable stress and heartache. I have had to beg, plead, and pay for help.  I have had to change my working hours, which, while benefitting my children because they no longer have to go to the childminder, leave me stressed and exhausted by 8:30, and that’s even before I’ve set off for work.

You see, in my naivety and inexperience, I thought that it was a no-brainer that my eldest boy would qualify for help in getting to school.  I, rather foolishly perhaps, left it a bit late to apply for help from the LA.  Maybe I was putting off the realisation that the Boy was leaving primary school, that an era was at an end, so it was somewhat late in the day that I found out that children with SEN who live in my area only get help getting to school if they live beyond a certain distance from their school.  We don’t.

I believe that it is important for kids to go to school in the community in which they live.  To be educated and grow up with their friends and neighbours.  To ride bikes, scoot, or walk to school.  Even more so for kids like Sam.  If we are to work towards a truly inclusive society, then they need to be in it, don’t they?  How can he be part of a community if he isn’t in it?  But here we have it.  What is good for Sam, what is good for the environment, what is good for the wider community, what is good for those lovely kids who accepted him into their hearts and, despite being on the cusp of teenager-hood, are still happy for him to give them a hug in the street when they meet, is not necessarily good for me.

I can’t allow Sam to take himself to school.  The journey, though not far, is far too full of potential dangers.  There are many, many children in our town who do not know my Boy.  Do I trust them all to treat him with kindness and respect?  Frankly, no.  The school is up by the motorway junction and the traffic is heavy.  Do I trust Sam to cross the road safely?  Hell, no.  Do I know that Sam is in one of society’s most vulnerable groups and accept that there are adults out there who do not have his best interests at heart?  Sadly, yes.  And what about my younger children?  A may be getting used to taking himself up and down the road on his own, he is in Y6 after all, but L? She is only 7, only in Y3.  They need me too.

So I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want.  I really want someone to help me get my son to school.  I love the young sixth formers who ‘baby-sit’ him up the road every morning.  But one day soon they will leave, and I don’t want my younger son to have to step into the role.  He shouldn’t have to see his big brother to the school gate, and bring him home again, even if I know that he is thinking along those lines himself.  He has his own life, his own needs, and being a carer for his older brother when he is only little himself isn’t one of them.

Maybe I’m being unnecessarily gloomy.  Maybe I’m seeing potential problems when there aren’t any.  Maybe I need to take my own advice and let the future stay unknown, unwritten, unconcerned.  Maybe that’s what I really want, after all.

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An Open Letter to Mr Tristram Hunt, Shadow Education Secretary.

An Open Letter to Mr Tristram Hunt, Shadow Education Secretary.

 

Dear Mr Hunt,

I am not much given to writing letters to politicians.  This is not to say that I am uninterested in politics, very much to the contrary; it is just that I have tended to express my politics through discussion, rather than letter writing, the personal rather than the public.  In fact, rather to my shame, I have only ever before written to one politician.  I wrote that letter in a spirit of hope that Things Might Change (or even actually get better) back in 1997.  I wrote then, as I do now, to the Labour Party politician responsible for Education.  Only back then, he was the new minister, rather than the Shadow Man, equally keen to make his mark, to make the headlines.

In those days I was a young, inexperienced teacher who had yet to find her first permanent job.  Now I am anything but: I am old(er), I have taught children for a long time, and, more than that, I have babies of my own, babies who are, right this minute, going through our school system.  Babies for whom I want the very best.  But even though I hardly recognise myself when I compare the 1997 me to the now me, there are some things I believe about education that haven’t changed, and two things in particular that I want to communicate to you.

As a young teacher I was very much struck by the power of praise.  I witnessed children change from listless, uncooperative and unwilling little beings to the kind who sat up straight, listened carefully and gave it their best shot – all because someone, their teacher, had encouraged them.  With a consistent message of bigging up the good, acknowledging the bad, but not making it their defining characteristic, these children, the sort that were bowed down with constant difficulty and overwhelming challenge, changed, and it seemed to me that the education minister could learn something from this revelation.

Now, as an older teacher, someone who has seen a bit more of life, someone with children of her own, I do not simply ask you to recognise and celebrate the teaching profession for what it is: hard working, dedicated, selfless.  I want to ask you to look again at the children.

When you make your decisions about future policy, rather than considering media-friendly soundbites, I want you to consider deeply the purpose of public education in our society.  Are we really competing in a global race, with our children the competitors?  And what kind of adults are we hoping for?  The kind who docilely fill in the forms, complete the tests, know the right answers?  Or the kind who can take those inspirational leaps, to innovate, to invent, just as their forbears did?

I have three children, each of whom is unimaginably different to each other.  My eldest, a boy, has significant learning difficulties.  He has Down Syndrome.  He has benefitted from support through a mainstream education and a transition to a fantastic special school where the staff are providing for him a personally tailored school life.  My younger two, despite their not having the added benefit of an extra chromosome, are equally deserving of an education that suits their needs. Children are not sausages, compliantly squeezed into uniform shapes, ready to do their duty for the nation, any more than teachers are automatons, mindlessly delivering Government Authorised Lessons.

 

When I started my first job I was taken under the wing of a hugely talented and experienced teacher.  She was keen to pass on to me some of her skills, and one of the things she told me has stayed with me all these years.  She said that one of the strengths of primary schooling in particular was the individuality of the teachers.  Not simply in that each teacher has a different style, a different way of being with children, but also that inside each teacher exists their own enthusiasms, the individual skills and passions that have such a part to play in the broad and balanced education of a child.

But today, we seem trapped in an ever decreasing circle of standardisation.  Our quest for fairness and accountability has led us up the garden path, on a fruitless search for categorisation, an endless search for the Truth About Teaching.  If only we could find it, we think, if only we could bottle it, then every child would receive an appropriate education.  But the real truth is there is no One Size Fits All model teacher, there is no One Size Fits All school, any more than there is a One Size child.

Mr Hunt, I don’t have any answers for how it should be organised.  I shall leave that to far more experienced school leaders than me.  For my part I’d like you to chase out corruption and sort out the bullies that bully our teachers and our children.  I’d like you to start the journey of change from hectoring and frowns to celebration and support.

Mr Hunt, one of the greatest things about working in schools is the sense of shared purpose we have.  We are not competing with each other. We are not motivated by money, or bonuses, league table points or lesson grades.  We share a common purpose in working to make the world a better place by educating our young, by helping them to reach their potential and joining in with forming them into the adults of tomorrow.  We are working together for the common good.  I would like to invite you to join the team.

  1. Praise our teachers.  You’ll be pleased with the results.
  2. Don’t ask us to all be the same.  We’re not, and neither are our children.

I look forward to reading your reply,

Yours etc,

Nancy.

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http://blogsync.edutronic.net/ thank you @edutronic_net for inspiring me.

Happy Birthday?

This cake rather made a rod for my back.
This cake rather made a rod for my back

Soon it will be Sam’s birthday. He has been in a state of high excitement for some time about it; we have been waiting for it for at least two weeks.  His teachers have seen a marked down turn in his behaviour, something that we have seen many times before at this time of year (one year he spent most of the day in the corridor), so it’s nothing new.  He has made lists of guests to invite to his party, and replied to the question of what he wants for his birthday with a charming lack of avarice (just a toy lorry will do nicely, thanks).  Soon, Sam will be a teenager.

Over the years, Sam has hosted, and attended, a large number of parties.  He has birthday-boy-ed the whole class party, the party at home, the video party, the football party (make sure you warn any girl attendees that it’s not really suitable for party dresses), and, most recently, the activity party.  He has been to soft plays, magic shows, a hair and nail party (this was not a great success), discos (not very keen, bit like his father), almost, in fact, any kind of party you care to imagine.  The invites slowed in recent years, for which my bank balance was eternally grateful.

His favourite sort, though, it has to be said, is the kind of old fashioned gathering of friends where there is musical statues (he likes operating the sound system and declaring winners), or any other sort of traditional parlour game where mummy is in charge (actually, I don’t think he is alone in this – the one time I attempted a Party-Without-Particular-Activities I was informed in no uncertain terms by one of my favourite guests that it wasn’t a proper party without any games).

We haven’t always made a big deal over Sam’s birthday, however.  When he was very small his birthday was a funny old day, and not one we particularly felt like celebrating.  It’s partly the time of year, it has to be said.  A January birthday meant a January annual check-up at the local hospital.  It took me a couple of years to make the link between that and the annual January visit of winter vomiting that hurtled first through Sam, then me and finally Daddy.  His first birthday left me feeling especially wrecked.

Not that I was particularly in the mood to celebrate, even if I had been able to, to be perfectly honest.  There is that quality to anniversaries that has the effect of making me pause to reflect, to remember, that left me feeling melancholy, disturbed.  Being surrounded by long faces instead of balloons and congratulations upon the birth of your baby doesn’t really make you feel much like celebrating.

Not that Sam’s first birthday went ignored, mind you.  On it I was interviewed by the legendary John Peel for his Radio 4 programme ‘Home Truths’.  Now that was a surreal experience.  I sat it a very brown-ly decorated studio at our local radio station (must have been set up in the Eighties) with an enormous pair of headphones on, ignored the churning of my stomach and the lightheadedness-from-lack-of-sleep (I’d been up with my head in the toilet for most of the night) and chatted away as if I was talking to an old friend.  It’s a shame that I have misplaced the recording we made of the broadcast because I can’t remember much of what I said over the space of that hour; I mostly recall the sense that I was answering questions that offered no judgement, just the sort that allowed me to tell my stories.

I can’t really remember Sam’s second birthday at all.  We probably went to a party for one of his friends, seeing as they were all born at the same time it seems likely, but we certainly didn’t have one at our house.  Judging by my younger children, had Sam been the baby of the family I doubt we would have been able to get away with it for as long as we did.  L spends months discussing what kind of party she would like to have (it tends to be highly dependent on the last one she attended), and after the omission of a Birthday Badge, followed by One She Didn’t Like, she has become quite assertive about her wishes.  And if you have a birthday on the day you visit our house, please don’t expect not to receive a fiery creation, regardless of the ruination of your waistline.

By the time Sam was three I was starting to feel a bit guilty about the lack of cake and candles.  It wasn’t as if Sam was aware that it was his birthday, but we knew. We couldn’t ignore it any longer.  It was time to beat those bad memories into submission; time to make his birthday into something about him, not us.  We’ve never regretted his appearance in our lives, after all.

Maybe that’s why Sam’s parties have always been rather splendid affairs.  Maybe I was trying to make up for that early un-celebration.  And once you get started on these things, and you have three children, they kind of take on a life of their own.  I also, it has to be said, wanted to do something to reciprocate the invitations Sam had had over the years, to say thank you for other people’s generosity.  Not for Sam the label of Never Being Invited To Parties.

And that’s why, even now, even when he is turning thirteen and we really ought to be saying, ‘you know what, son, you’re getting a bit big for parties, how about we go out for a nice meal with the family instead?’ and lowering some of his expectations, we are still getting ready with the cake and candles, party bags and balloons.  Because now that Sam is in Special Education, now that he is just one of the lads and not the Odd One Out, I am aware (not that I’ve ever asked, sometimes it is better not to ask) that quite a few of these kids, even if they turn them down, don’t get those precious party envelopes.  And, if I don’t invite them, who else will?

cake debris

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Slow Down. Wait. Watch.

I thought I’d start by telling you about a wonderful person who entered my life when Sam was about four months old.  I didn’t invite her round.  I can’t even remember how exactly she came to be there.  Somehow she ended up on my sofa, drinking my tea, and Sam and I ended up on her caseload.  Now, today, she is my firm friend.  Then, she was our Portage Worker.

Back then, when everything around me seemed out of control, Portage, and the gift of that friendship, was one of the many things that helped me regain equilibrium, to be the mother that my boy needed me to be.  Back when he was four months old, there wasn’t much more to be doing for him other than the feeding, sleeping, changing thing, but that meeting gave me something all teachers love.  It gave me a list, somewhere to aim for and a way to get there.  It also introduced me to a set of educators who saw no reason why any child should not achieve, or even exceed their supposed potential, and they had the kit to do the job.

And these wonder tools?

Toys.

From that moment I never bought or borrowed any toy that didn’t serve a dual purpose.  Whatever it was we were working on, or working towards, we had a toy to match.  As my first-born, Sam didn’t have to compete with anyone else for my attention; I Portaged his little socks off.

This is not to say that I didn’t leave Sam to his own devices at all.  I am a firm believer in kids being able to entertain themselves (in particular, so that mummy can do things like the ironing and cook the tea); as a teacher I like children who can get on with what they are supposed to be doing without following me around like a row of little ducklings after mother duck.  And anyway, playing independently was on the check list.

As a baby, Sam liked nothing better than to wave things about, and the more noise they made the better.  A survival blanket proved to be just the thing that meant I could eat my tea in peace, and he could exercise those little arms and legs, soft and flexible thanks to his low muscle tone.  Later, a far better deployment of stacking cups was banging them together – or throwing them around my tiny hallway where, with all the doors shut, they bounced and clattered to great effect.

I taught Sam all sorts of things by playing with him.  He learned all about putting things into containers and taking them out.  He learned all about matching the shape to the hole, developing the sort of fine motor control that made posting possible.  Singing nursery rhymes with him provided me with the ideal opportunity to indulge in a bit of physio, as well as turn taking, counting, rhyming and signing; all those other things that children learn when they sing ‘Wind the Bobbin’ or ‘Five Currant Buns in a Baker’s Shop’.

One of the most successful things, for both me and for Sam, was the way that she encouraged me to interweave our play with the things we would ordinarily be doing.  I might have raised my eyebrows at the thought of getting him to find pairs of matching socks when we were thinking about the concepts of ‘same’ and ‘different’ because I wanted to get a job done, but the principle remained.  I don’t like messy play – but I was happy for Sam to splat his way through meal times.  I wasn’t having no truck with a tray and jugs and ‘pouring activities’, but the tea set went in the bath and I have ‘drunk’ cup after cup of ‘tea’ in matching cups and saucers.

I suppose it’s partly because I like there to be ‘purpose’ behind what I do with children.  I’ve never really done play-doh, but I love baking.  I find art activities with very young children difficult because it’s all about the process, rather than the product.  After Sam merrily painted the paper, and then the table, the chairs and part of the wall, I rather lost my enthusiasm for easels in the house.  He could do that at nursery.

But it turns out that he didn’t do a great deal of painting at nursery.  I was surprised, because I remember my childhood home plastered with the creations of my sister and I, but mark making was never really Sam’s bag.  There was my kitchen wall, all empty and waiting to proudly display…and it’s still waiting.  Sam is not a particularly creative type, you see.  He’s not especially active, in the curiosity stakes, either.  He’s much more passive.  He’s a waiter.  A watcher.

One of the greatest, and most frustrating things about Sam is that he demands I slow down.  I am not a slower-downer.  I’m a rusher.  Once I decide I’m going to do something I want to get on with it straight away.  But he shows me that there is value in taking things one step at a time.  I probably knew it, on a superficial level, before he arrived in my life, but now I know it for sure.

I know that my disquiet when teachers provide children with ready cut pieces of paper for their Science experiment, so that they can Get On With The Learning, when we present them with a ready-made Maths game so that they can practice their adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing, when we abandon the development of handwriting because everything is on computer, when we rush them on with progress, progress, progress, we are missing a trick.  We don’t need a separate activity to develop fine motor control.  We just need to do cutting, sticking, glittering – all those old fashioned traditional activities I never for a moment thought I would have to justify.  Now that I’m back in the classroom I understand why Sam was presented with a Pindora’s Box.  I’m sorry.  We never did any of it at home.  I just bought him Playmobil and let him ‘help’ me peg out the washing.

And thanks to him, and her, I understand a whole lot more about learning.  I was always keen to tick off each item on the list, to zip on to the next level.  She wouldn’t let me.  She gently and kindly pointed out that what Sam could do, when I was holding the toy for him, nodding and smiling, cheering and applauding, was totally different to what he could do when he sloped off on his own to play unobserved.  I may have shown him how a zip worked, but it is only recently that he has finally conceded to the request to do his coat up.  It’s not unlike classrooms.  What they can do there, under the watchful and supportive gaze of their teacher, the heights of description, the feats of knowledge, the capital letters, the full stops, the different levels of punctuation, is a different kettle of fish altogether to a thank you letter.

Slow down. Wait. Watch.

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