Life Through the Lens of a Special Educator

Monday, January 18, 2010

Uni-tasking Instead of Multi-tasking

Over the summer I developed a case of pneumonia which, just as the doctor said, took six weeks for a complete recovery. Without my usual amount of energy, I developed a greater appreciation for those who suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome. Each day I’d wake feeling like my old self, but it lasted only a short while and then I’d feel exhausted again. The doctor said not to push, but to listen to my body and rest whenever I was tired. That was a big adjustment, as were daytime naps, and heading to sleep long before the usual midnight.

One benefit was that I re-learned how to uni-task. Since I was conserving energy, I was unable to do the usual multi-tasking we’ve all become accustomed to. I found I only had enough energy to focus on one task and complete it before engaging in another. During the second two weeks of being ill, I had a summer class to teach. My schedule consisted of teaching in the morning, driving home, napping, and then updating lectures, PowerPoints, and class activities before climbing back to bed in the early evening.

In reality I didn’t miss the multi-tasking at all and discovered it is possible to focus on one task, complete it, and feel productive. I vowed to continue this once my health returned and have been only moderately successful. It's exceedingly difficult to establish and maintain new work habits. I am maintaining my resolve to work on projects in a more focused way, and respond to emails and phone messaged several times a day rather than as soon as it’s received. Change is never easy, especially when it involves changing behaviors that have become habitual. (See my Hebrew College blog on student behaviors at

Somehow it seems I'm often wrestling with creating a balance between work and life tasks and finding time to unwind. Uni-tasking seems to present some merit as a response. I'm interested in hearing from others about how you manage work, family, life tasks, and fun!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

Thanks to our flat screen high definition TV and much to our daughters’ surprise, we have joined the Boston Red Sox nation and now follow baseball. Attending a Red Sox game was on my summer “fun things to do” list so when my brother called with two tickets, we were delighted to join him and his son. I held my own understanding everything that was happening on the field with only a few “What just happened?” questions, mostly answered by my nephew. My brother and I reminisced about going to Yankee stadium as kids with our dad, back in the days of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Yogi Berra, and laughed about how we both became Red Sox fans – eventually

I hadn’t attended a game in quite a long while. Here are some of the things I learned:

1. Attending a game is not the same as watching it on TV. You might see more but you miss the smells and excitement. The amazing talent, strength and skill of the ball players isn't quite as apparent on TV. Watching David Ortiz hit a ball out of the park and seeing Jacoby Ellsbury steal a base makes you realize just how talented these men are. It gives you a greater appreciation for the concept of multiple intelligences, especially the bodily-kinesthetic intelligence.

2. If you are hyperactive, you’ll fit right in at a ball game. I was immediately struck by the movement in the stands – the whole stadium was in perpetual motion. Hawkers wandered up and down the aisles with food and drink. There were constantly people walking through the aisles, while others danced at their seats. Starting in the bleachers, everyone stood, raised their hands and screamed, creating a huge wave that went around the stands at least four times!

3. People like belonging to a group. And sometimes that means being labeled. Probably 75% of the people were wearing Red Sox clothing, mostly t-shirts and baseball caps. No one seemed to mind being labeled a Red Sox fan.

4. An upbeat mood is contagious. People wore smiles on their faces. Those who were lucky enough to catch a ball tossed it to the nearest young child to the cheers of those nearby. Even though it rained at the end of the game, everyone quietly stood in line waiting to get into the T stop – and no one complained or pushed!

5. There’s always something to learn, no matter where you are!

So this summer, take yourself out to the ball game!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Genetic Screening

Many years ago, when I was considering having a baby, I took a few precautions. I got tested to see if I ever had rubella. Knowledgeable about special needs, I knew having rubella when pregnant could affect the development of the fetus. Turns out I did not have antibodies and needed to get vaccinated.

Genetic testing was just beginning and the Jewish community had begun a serious campaign for people to be screened for Tay Sachs. I was eager to sign up. One of my college friend’s sisters had given birth to a baby with Tay Sachs so I knew about this disorder in a personal way. Both my husband and I were tested and neither of us were carriers. Years later, my husband’s daughter discovered before giving birth to her third child that she was a carrier for Canavan’s disease. Her husband was not. When our daughters were tested before becoming pregnant, we learned that one of them carries this gene as well. Her husband is not a carrier.

What would any of us have done had we and our spouses tested positive?
Luckily we weren’t faced with this dilemma. According to the Victor Center for Jewish Genetic Diseases in Philadelphia, “a number of genetic disorders occur more frequently in certain ethnic populations. In the Ashkenazi Jewish population (those of Eastern European descent), it has been estimated that one in four individuals is a carrier of one of several genetic conditions.” If both parents are carriers, the baby has a 25% chance of having the disease, a 50% chance of being a carrier and a 25% chance of not having the gene at all.

One of my daughter’s friends recently delivered a beautiful baby boy. Problems developed with feeding and weight gain. Then they noticed low muscle tone. They continued to have tests done and learned that their baby has Familial Dysautonomia, a genetic disease. About one in 30 Jews of Ashkenazic descent are carriers. When I asked my daughter if her friend had done genetic testing, she told me she had, but was told she wasn’t a carrier for any genetic diseases. Based on this information her husband never got tested. Obviously, both she and her husband are carriers of the gene, but the doctor’s office had failed to tell her this positive result, although it was contained within the report.

What would she and her husband have done? Who knows, but she and her husband had the right to be armed with information – to think through the implications of both being carriers of this gene – to consider their options – to decide together what they were ready to face. That’s why one undergoes genetic screening – to have information to make very difficult decisions when faced with very difficult results.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

President Obama Inauguration

I was attending the Ravsak conference for administrators and lay leaders of community day schools during the time of the inauguration. Since the conference was held in San Francisco, the ceremony was at 9am on Tuesday, January 20th; conference organizers arranged to show the event in real time in the ballroom on a large screen. Luckily, the technology all worked, enabling us to see everything from the entrance of the main dignitaries to the final benediction. Sharing this event with over 300 other educators was quite moving – we laughed, cried, cheered and applauded – joined as a community in this historic moment.

We were struck by the sea of people of all colors proudly waving American flags, a show of patriotism not frequently seen, especially in recent years. Many of us shared stories: of our work in inner city schools, of our role in the civil rights movement, of remembrances of assassinations and murders of blacks and whites, of first hand experiences with public bathrooms and water fountains marked “colored” and “white,” of segregated restaurants and schools. How far we have come; how much further we have to go.

Rabbi Harold Kushner provides this commentary in Etz Hayim on the Torah section of Mishpatim: “The decency of a society is measured by how it cares for its least powerful members.” Our society will be remembered for how we treat our most marginalized people – those who are poor, who are immigrants, who are different races or religions, who are gay, lesbian or transgendered, or who have dis/abilities.

Perhaps the power of President Obama’s inauguration will be an inspiration to create more inclusive American moments.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Seeing Specialists with your Child

My younger daughter gave birth on Nov. 6th to a little girl. So just 7 months after becoming a grandmother, I’ve been blessed again. Now six weeks old, little Vered is already beginning to smile and hold her head up. Suddenly, Orly at 8 months seems so much more grown up. She is babbling, picking up Cheerios to eat, and pulling up to standing. I am amazed to see how quickly babies grow and learn, so obvious on those rare occasions when we get to see them together!

Things weren’t so smooth at the beginning. Vered developed an infection from a blocked tear duct within the first two weeks. Off went the parents to a pediatric ophthalmologist who suggested they could try to massage the area and use a warm compress, but scheduled an appointment for surgery. My daughter commented to me, “She’s barely two weeks old and I already had to take her to a specialist!”

This comment resonated with me – so many parents whose children I taught had talked to me of the difficulties involved with the logistical and psychological difficulties of having to take their young children to specialists. The problems they faced seemed so much worse when their own pediatrician referred them to a specialist. How were these parents supposed to handle their child on a minute to minute, day to day basis when even their pediatrician wasn’t able to handle the baby’s problem? They told me it made them feel less competent as parents when they had to take their child to appointments with various specialists (e.g., neurologists, occupational therapists, speech and language pathologists).

Luckily the massaging and warm compresses did the trick on Vered’s eye and the surgery was avoided, much to the surprise of the ophthalmologist!

Let’s hope we can help empower parents of ALL children to have the competence and confidence to support their children as they develop. What kinds of experiences have you had with specialists?

Monday, November 24, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite American holidays. Unlike Halloween, Christmas and Easter, there are no overtones of a religious holiday. Thanksgiving commemorates the Pilgrims sharing an autumn harvest festival with the Wampanoag Indians. Today it's mostly celebrated by a turkey dinner shared by family and friends.

This year, the holiday arrives just as we face the worst financial situation in the US in 75 years. Thanksgiving asks us to pause and give thanks in gratitude for all we have. Is the glass half full or half empty?

Isn't this what we ask of parents, family, friends, and teachers of children with special needs? Don't we ask the adults to see the child's strengths rather than his/her weaknesses? Now we see it's not so easy to do. It's something we have to learn - to see the little positives, the small changes that mark progress, to see the smile or other nonverbal expressions of success. But it's that smile that makes it all worthwhile and rewarding. Now we have to see those same small positive changes in our country, our economy, our own lives. We have much to learn from those who live with special health, cognitive, language, and emotional needs.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, October 27, 2008

New Beginnings

It always amazes me that very close to, or this year coinciding with, the time when the leaves change color, our Jewish calendar starts a new year. Beginnings are good – a clean slate and a new start. A new year offers us an opportunity for changing, for setting priorities, for trying to do things better this time around.

The problem is that we often revert right back to our old ways – over/under-eating, over/under-exercising, watching too much tv, ignoring our promise to ourselves to better balance work, family/friends, and fun. Still, even though we know it will be difficult, we tell ourselves this time will be different and we’ll be more successful!

It’s something we should remember about our students. They, too, want a new start – to shed their old labels, to begin anew and try to do better. This time they will hand in their homework; they will complete projects on time; they will pay attention in class. Even though it’s hard to change, they will attempt to live up to their own promises.

Teachers and students may not have difficulty with the same behaviors. Usually, teachers had positive experiences in school – otherwise why would they choose to spend their working days in schools? So teachers tend to be good readers. We like to learn. We are at least fairly well organized. But these are important school behaviors that many students, especially those with special needs, find difficult. Disorganization is a common issue for students with learning disabilities, AD/HD, or executive functioning issues.

As teachers, we must remember how difficult it is to change one’s behavior. Then we should give our students the positive reinforcement and encouragement they need to change their own behavior. No matter how small a change, it could be first step towards school success.