Prom Inclusion - Is It Really Happening? How Often?

Prom inclusion; Removing the Stumbling Block

Have you seen this prom story? It's been making the rounds of the Internet and has been shared by many, including a number of disability inclusion advocates that I respect. It's a sweet story about friends going to the prom together. And everyone loves a feel good story, right? But this one actually frustrates the heck out of me. Why? Because it's not news, or at least it shouldn't be. 

You see, a boy made a promise to a friend in fourth grade to take her to prom. And he followed it through. That should actually be the story, but it's not, at least it’s not the whole story: "It's just another boy-meets-girl story, right? Hang on: There's more to it than that. Mary has Down syndrome, and Ben is the quarterback of his high school's football team." So what? This should be all about a sweet promise made by a fourth grade boy, but this story's "hook" is that the young friend who was asked to prom has Down Syndrome and the boy is now the captain of the football team. 

What's the message here? That football players don't date people with Down Syndrome? Ugh. 

Now to be fair, I love some of what I read: "Ben and Mary remain firm in their belief that there's nothing particularly noteworthy or extraordinary about their relationship. Ben sees the humanity in Mary (and vice versa), and the two are content to leave it at that." Good. That's the way it should be. That's inclusion at its best. And to be sure, I find no fault in the kids themselves. My frustration is, once again, in the way our media spins disability, for better or for worse.  

I realize that in some ways I'm playing with a double-edged sword. I want stories like this to just be...not as news headlines but simply a part of every day life. And yet, I realize that this is a big deal in places where inclusion isn't happening. And so if it's not talked about, how will others learn from such a lovely example. But still...

By the way, in my neck of the woods this is happening without the fanfare. A senior from my congregation (who happens to have autism) took a junior from the congregation (who happens to not have autism) to his prom. No extra fanfare, no media coverage...just two friends happily headed to prom together. Which leaves me feeling hopeful

This has to be happening more often, right?

Learning Disabilities and Second-Language Acquisition – Strategies for Educators

All children can learn Hebrew, Removing the Stumbling Block

There is very little research on the impact of second language learning for students with learning disabilities (LD). It could certainly stand to reason that students who struggle to learn English (their native language) would also struggle to learn a second, symbol-based language such as Hebrew.

And yet, this is not always the case. While some find it extremely difficult to differentiate the shapes and sounds of the letters and the patterns of the vowels, there are those students with learning disabilities that excel in Hebrew, particularly because it is symbol-based.

Generalization about Hebrew language acquisition for students with learning disabilities can be tricky. The way in which any particular child’s abilities will impact second-language learning varies tremendously as there are many different forms of LD. As an advocate for inclusion, I am uniquely attuned to the fact that each of us has a unique learning style and that all children experience a variety of challenges in any educational setting.

What I find most salient to the work of Jewish Educators in supplemental religious schools is that the demands of language learning can actually lead to cases where previously undiagnosed learning disabilities are uncovered in the second-language classroom. Why? 

Some children have developed coping mechanisms that effectively mask problems in their native language, but the second language acts as a magnifying glass to expose more subtle difficulties. Basically, we can see children who have been able to “fake it” when working in their native language have trouble hiding these problems when working in a second language. So what does this mean for our once or twice-a-week Hebrew classes?

How do religious school educators handle being the front line when a child struggles? 

Establishing open lines of communication with parents is critical. An ability to share what is happening in the classroom and to welcome the advice and support of parents is essential in all educational settings. Such healthy relationships will enable you to speak to parents openly and honestly. You do not have to be trained in any special methodology to share your concerns in a kind, supportive manner.

How can teachers, who do not typically have backgrounds in special education and may not even have backgrounds in education, manage such responsibility? 

It is significant to recognize that we, as Jewish Educators and religious school teachers, are not qualified to diagnose or classify students (unless, of course, you happen to have such credentials). This does not mean that we can't share what we see or experience with our students. (I strongly suggest documenting patterns of behavior.) Quite the opposite. We MUST share what students are experiencing in our classrooms; we just need to choose our words carefully, especially when learning issues are emerging in our classrooms and have yet to be identified in other educational settings.

Don’t we need an expert?

It would be ideal to have someone on your faculty with a background, degree or certification in special education, but this is not always feasible. An alternative is to hire a consultant who can periodically observe students and/or meet with faculty to conduct trainings and provide support. Maybe you even have someone within your congregation with such a background who would be willing to volunteer their services in support of the school.

Children with learning disabilities can absolutely learn Hebrew when the instruction is varied and individualized to their unique needs. Indeed, all will benefit from such an approach. For additional strategies on meeting the needs of varied learners in a Hebrew School classroom, please read: Special Education is Good Education.

Modifying Hebrew Lessons for Students with Disabilities

How to Modify Hebrew Lessons for Students With Disabilities: Removing the Stumbling Block

When we strive to make our religious schools and classrooms more inclusive, the sheer quantity of expectations, strategies and terminology can be overwhelming. So much so that many don't even know how to begin. More often than not, in conversations about religious school inclusion, I am asked to share specific strategies to adapt Hebrew lessons to include children of varying abilities.

A terrific starting point is to focus on the concepts of accommodation and modification and their use in academics for individuals with disabilities as there are distinct differences to their application in a classroom setting.

Here’s a terrific overview:
Accommodation vs. Modification

Accommodation is a strategy used to help a student with learning challenges progress through the same curriculum as his/her peers. Modification is used to help a student with significant learning needs experience the same curriculum as his/her peers.

Teachers in supplemental religious schools often feel untrained and ill-equipped to make this distinction, especially when it comes to Hebrew instruction.

I can already hear these teachers saying, "Ok, so I am teaching the Avot to my students. The Avot is the Avot. I can’t change the liturgy. How can I possibly meet the needs of a wide variety of learners?"

First, I need you to think about a different question: Why are your students learning the Avot? I’ll come back for your answer.

Let’s return to the graphic I shared above. Here’s a little more explanation. We accommodate our students’ learning needs when we allow them to use varying modalities and/or different strategies to meet the same goals as other students. We modify lessons for those students whose goals are different than the rest of the class.

Confused? Don’t be. Here are the examples. (Remember, you are working with the Avot, but you can do this with any prayer, text or Hebrew reading assignment).

Accommodations could include:
·        Providing extra time
·        Listening to a recording
·        Partner reading
·        Breaking the prayer into manageable sections

Modifications could include:
·        Identifying all of the alefs (or whatever letter(s) a student may be currently learning) in the Avot
·        Listening to a variety of prayers being read or chanted and the student identifies the Avot
·        Printing the lines of the Avot on strips of paper and the student arranges them in the correct order (either from memory or while looking at the complete prayer)
·        Finding the Avot each time it appears in your synagogue’s siddur (prayer book).

Before you suggest that any of those modifications won’t work or worse, that such modifications aren’t fair, let’s get back to my initial question: Why are your students learning the Avot?

I hope that your answer included: so that they become familiar with the liturgy, so that they become comfortable with worship, so that they can participate in worship services or so that they can lead part of a worship service. I would agree that those are all meaningful goals for teaching prayer in a supplemental religious school.

Now, look back at the modifications I suggest. Each one of them helps to meet those goals.

Students do not have to all be fluent Hebrew readers. Students do not all have to read & understand Hebrew perfectly. Some may not even read it at all. If our goal is to help our children to develop strong Jewish identities, pride in their heritage and a love of our traditions and faith, who is to say how that should be accomplished?

Go ahead, make accommodations. Modify your lessons. You will enable your students to develop deeper connections to their faith. You may even help to cement their place in the community that supports them.

No One Is Perfect

No One is Perfect, Removing the Stumbling Block

This week I am over at Matan with a dvar torah on tazria/m'tzora. A d’var Torah (a word of Torah) is a talk or essay based on the parsha (the weekly Torah portion).

This is one of those torah portions that you hope you don’t draw for your bat mitzvah. Yes, of course I know that there is no “bad” parsha. But nonetheless, when we reach tazria/m’tzora as we do this Shabbat, we find a parsha that speaks about ritual uncleanliness, skin disease and other such maladies. Woo hoo!

Tazria/m’tzora outlines myriad details about the ways Israelites can become ritually impure and specifies the rituals that they must perform in order to be brought back into normative relationship with their community.

But this is where I get stuck. Because if we are to take from this parsha a message that resonates with us today, I find myself struggling with this notion of “impure”. Is any one of us truly “pure”? I find myself drawing parallels from this notion of purity to the concept of perfection, even when we know that no one is perfect...READ MORE

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