Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Reindeer Games

As Christmas approaches in New York City, the seasonal festivities reach frenzied levels: Christmas music blares from speakers in stores, on the radio, in one's head of its own accord; the streets are lined with pop-up tree vendors, plying everything from the traditional balsam and Douglas firs to evergreen and pine; cafes and restaurants offer sweet, seasonal treats made from pumpkin and apple, cinnamon and spice; and primetime television stations air the annual roundup of holiday programs that they've been doing, certainly since my childhood, and probably even before that.

One such show, which I watched last week, is Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, created in the 1960s and voiced by Burl Ives as the narrator, Sam the Snowman.  It's one of those relics from my youth that both reminds me of the tenderness of being a kid at family holidays as well as how much time has passed since then and how much the world has changed since "claymation" was considered an acceptable form of entertainment.

The story chronicles the experiences of Rudolph, a young reindeer buck who was born with an unusual luminous red nose.  Mocked and excluded by the other young bucks because of this trait, Rudolph is initially shunned by the clan and sets out to find a place where he fits in, only to return after various trials and travails to save the proverbial day.

As I watched Rudolph for the umpteenth time, I was struck by the emphasis the show places on Rudolph's social rejection by his peers and his decision to run away from home.  His being different is initially intolerable to the other members of society including his parents who try unsuccessfully to hide his affliction.  Of course the truth is unveiled, and it is because of the group's intolerance to Rudolph's individuality that he decides to leave the village and find a place where he fits in.

Rudolph is accompanied by a similarly outcast elf named Hermey, whose dreams of becoming a dentist are mocked by the other elves.  Depressed about being discriminated against, they team up with the idea that they're both independent, and that they should be independent together.  Along the way, the duo meets Yukon Cornelius, a boisterous prospector whose one desire is to find silver and gold.

After run-ins with the Abominable Snow Monster and a stint on the Island of Misfit Toys (home to toys with multiple "defects," for example, a polka-dot elephant and a cowboy riding an ostrich), the trio ends up back in the village as wandering heroes.  They have tamed the monster and convinced Santa to find homes for all the misfit toys.  But suddenly, a huge blizzard comes and Santa asks Rudolph to guide his sleigh with his shiny red nose lighting the way.  Rudolph agrees and is finally treated better by his fellow reindeer for his heroism, due to his "defect."

A great story about how we are taught and expected to conform to social norms, as I watched Rudolph this year, I could not help but draw parallels to the Toa Nafasi kids back in Moshi.  Are they not each a Rudolph or a Hermey?  Trying to fit in, but perhaps with a quirk here or a foible there, something that makes them different?And are they not shunned, at least initially, if not outright ridiculed?  Teased and made to feel "other than"??  And might they not, if given the chance to showcase their quirks and foibles, prove themselves just as capable if not more so than their peers, the other reindeer bucks and elves-in-training....?  Toa Nafasi certainly thinks so.

Our whole ethos has always been about inclusion and how, although we are a grouping of diverse and dissimilar characters, we each carry within us something very special.  This Christmas seems like a perfect time to remember and even celebrate that each one of us is unique.  AND THAT IS A GOOD THING.  After all, if a scarlet-schnozzed reindeer and an elf with a dental desire can subdue the Abominable Snow Monster, liberate the Misfit Toys, and save Santa's bacon, I'm betting our kids with Toa Nafasi can do anything they want!  And Toa Nafasi will help them!!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

*That* Parent, *That* Teacher

I chuckle wryly kidogo as I post this blog entry because it touches a nerve that was just recently exposed, although in kind of a reverse order as in the article below.

I've been having a bit of an issue lately with some of the parents in Msaranga not wanting Toa Nafasi services for their children, feeling it differentiates them (Negatively?  Unfairly??  Or is it just bad enough to be "different"???), and it has been a real struggle to try to convince them that a.) their child does need extra support, b.) it's okay to need said extra support, and c.) said extra support will be provided at no additional effort or expense to them except to open their minds to the idea.

Rather than lackluster teachers and a broken system holding kids back (as described below), in our case it's stubborn parents unable to make the leap from what they know to what Toa Nafasi is introducing.  I get that it's new and slightly scary, but we've really gone out of our way with some of these parents to put their minds at ease that just because a child is working with Toa, it doesn't mean he's bad or shameful, he won't become any "worse" by playing with more severely impaired kids, and we really are trying to provide a service that, in addition to helping individual children, also benefits the community at large.

Now, no matter how often I have to make this little speech nor how many times this same issue arises, I will never become *that* teacher as the parents are described in the article: demanding, annoying, angry, unrealistic, unreasonable.  It's simply not productive in a community without our Western viewpoint of special needs (only recently acquired ourselves), but I did feel this story resonate with some recent emails back and forth between me and Tanzania this Fall.  Hopefully, when I return in a mere ten days, I can gather my forces and go back in, armed with as much information as possible.  Once informed, it will be up to the parents to have the final say in how the child proceeds in his studies.

Check out this article just posted on The Huffington Post blog by Early Childhood Development expert, Laurie Levy: "How School Systems Create *That* Parent for Children in Special Education."  As a strong believer in diversity and the rights of children with special needs, Levy seeks to empower parents and educators, and create caring and just communities.


Demanding.  Annoying.  Angry.  Unrealistic.  Unreasonable.  Every teacher, principal, and school district administrator knows *that* parent.  In special education, there are much greater numbers of *that* parent, and I'm sure school systems feel irritated and challenged by the threats of law suits and seemingly endless fights over Individualized Education Plan (IEP) goals.  But do they realize their role in creating *that* parent?

In an earlier post, I begged teachers not to force parents to become *that* parent, explaining that all parents, and especially those of children with special needs, want to be liked and work in partnership with their children's teachers.  The incident I cited was the failure of a special education teacher to communicate with the parents of a non-verbal child, or even to answer their emails asking about the child spending time in a "quiet room" and the lack of a behavior plan for its use.

After five emails, the teacher responded and offered to meet.  The meeting consisted of her pulling the child's mother aside during pick up time to reassure her that the room was actually more of a closet with a door that didn't lock, that the child chose to go to the room, and that it helped to regulate his behavior. 

These parents are so polite and accommodating that they accepted the explanation and decided to wait a few days before requesting a more formal meeting.  They had arranged for a visit from a specialist in teaching reading to non-verbal children, and she was coming that week to train the special education classroom teacher.  These trainings were part of the child's IEP.  Except the training didn't happen because the school failed to arrange for a sub.  Instead, the school district special education department suggested a classroom aide could be trained.  But it is not legal for anyone other then a special education teacher to carry out the instructional minutes mandated by the IEP.  So no, that didn't happen.

Now the parents transitioned from being nice to being extremely angry and frustrated.  Now they became *that* parent.  Yes, they admit their child can be difficult and they are aware of his behavioral challenges.  But they also know their child is capable of learning and can actually read.  His capacity to learn is demonstrated in private therapy and at home.  Just not at school.  In short, he has been deprived of years of education by a school system mainly focused on his behavior and managing it.

In her blog Let's Be Blunt: The Illusion of Inclusion, Karen Copeland writes about how parents of children receiving special education services evolve into angry parents:

"We are told we need to stay calm and polite in meetings in order to be respectful.  The challenge is that these very systems have set us up and created us to be these angry parents by virtue of the fact that we have had to fight so long and so hard to get our children and families even a fraction of the accommodations and support we need."

Copeland shares the journey of many parents of children with special needs in our public schools:

  • The frustration of not being informed about or consulted when important decisions are made for their children, despite assurances at IEP meetings that they are valuable partners.
  • The need to advocate constantly for the extra support their children require, the support promised to them by law under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
  • The isolation their families experience in the school setting as parents of typically developing children ignore them and complain that their children are taking too much teacher time and too many resources.
  • The lack of appropriate support and learning adaptations for children placed in general education classrooms without access to resource rooms and specialized teaching.

Like all parents, those of children with special needs want their kids to succeed and live up to their potential.  They also have dreams for their children and believe their children are capable of learning at their own pace.  Like the parents of the child spending time in the "quiet room" closet and being denied appropriate educational interventions, they try to supplement what the schools fail to provide.

Copeland reminds us that schools should never give up on a child regardless of age.  "How many people would write off their own child if he/she was different?"

A school psychologist commented on my earlier blog, "Please be *that* parent.  Your child deserves no less, and your special education team needs the feedback to support your child's success."  Speaking on behalf of all parents of children receiving special education services, I am asking school districts to collaborate, communicate, and consult rather than evade, fight, and blame.  Try it.  I'm sure fewer folks will become *that* parent.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Like Whoa

Hello, friends, and welcome to Winter!  It's now December on the East Coast of the United States and the temperatures are showing it.  As per usual, the first signs of chill and frost and my patriated African blood can't take it - I'm sick!!  Fortunately, it's post- most of the important events of 2015 like the Toa Nafasi Friend-raiser and most other Toa tasks, so I can afford to take a few extra days rest and park it on the couch a hot minute.

Speaking of the annual Friend-raiser, we held it last week in Washington at the home of my parents.  It was a smaller gathering than in previous years, but it was a nice turnout with lots of friendly and familial faces to buoy our spirits.... and fill our pockets!

But because I'm feeling under, I'm gonna let the photos do the talking and just caption the whole damn bloggo, "Like Whoa," for Black Rob's eponymous song about all that is awe-inspiring and amazeballs.

As in Stacking dough in DC is like whoa....


Guests in the living room.

 My dad standing behind longtime Toa supporter, Lee Lockwood.

 More guests.

 The guy on the right is my GE hookup.  Love him!

 That's me.  Blathering on.

 Blather, blather, blather.

 My Momager running the projector.

 Board member Romana Li says a few words over the shoulder
of one of my besties, Nia-Malika Henderson, of CNN fame.

Mugendi Andrew Zoka from the Embassy of the United Republic of Tanzania repped his country.

Coincidentally, Zoka is good friends with one of my good friends
in Moshi, Noel!  Zoka brought his wife Winnie to the party
and my childhood bestie, Lesley Devrouax, attended as well.
Lesley visited me in TZ in 2009 well before I started Toa but when she was there, she met Noel, so all four of us thought it would be a hoot to take a selfie and send it back to him in Moshi!
Zoka gets the last word.
It may have been a little overwhelming
for his first Rosenbloom shindig, but I think Zoka was impressed.  He ended the night's remarks with a short speech
about the new President and how perhaps his inauguration
might usher in a new age of inspiration and action.
Amen to that!