Capturing the Teachable Moment

We say it, but how many of us really do it? Capture the teachable moment that is.

We live busy lives, rushing from one thing to the next, but we know that slowing down and really listening to our children is essential. I am so thankful that last week's Passover seder gave me the opportunity to do just that.

The holiday of Passover is the celebration of the Jewish people’s freedom from slavery in Egypt and the typical way to celebrate is with a seder. Literally defined as ‘order’, seder refers to the ritual service and ceremonial dinner held on each of the first two nights of the holiday where we eat special, symbolic foods and retell the Passover story.

One unique (and highly anticipated) seder element is the search for the afikomen. This is where the seder leader hides half a piece of matzah (unleavened bread) somewhere in the house and all of the children in attendance engage in a search to find it. Traditionally, it is “sold” back to the service leader so that the seder can reach its conclusion. (In most families this “sale” is a prize for the winner.)

This year, at our first night’s seder, my eleven-year-old daughter declared her desire to find the afikomen. You see, she informed me; this would be her only chance. Read more

With thanks to Kveller for this opportunity to share my teachable moment.


Understanding Autism? A Review of The Reason I Jump

“True compassion is about not bruising the other person's self-respect.” ~ Naoki Higashida

Naoki Higashida is the author of the fascinating book The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism. This is a first-person account of living with autism, written through the use of assistive technology when Naoki was thirteen.

As you might expect, there are significant insights to be gleaned from this honest, thought-provoking account. And yet, as an educator who cares deeply about inclusion and our ability to value every learner, I find myself wanting to write a warning label.  

Without a doubt, this novel provides a window into the thoughts and feelings of a person with autism. Naoki openly shares his struggles and frustrations as a means to increase understanding of himself, his autism and autism in general, while he simultaneously implores the reader for support, care and acceptance. But it is so important to remember that when you have learned how one person thinks and feels, you have learned how one person thinks and feels. 

I caution those who wish to understand autism, other non-verbal disabilities, or any disability in general, to not generalize the insights learned here. It might be easy to experience Naoki's words as ‘aha moments’, but we must remember that each person with autism (or any other disability) is a unique individual; and while there may be similarities, others may or may not share similar feelings and experiences with Naoki.

Additionally, I am challenged by another aspect of this novel. The book is structured as Naoki's answers to a series of fifty-eight questions. It is unclear who has written and/or posed these questions that range from “Why do you echo questions back at the asker?” to “Why do you flap your fingers and hands in front of your face?” to “Why don't you make eye contact when you're talking?” And yet, as you read through all of these questions, you may notice that each and every one is written from an ableist perspective and has what I feel is a slightly negative connotation. Each one seeks to know “why do you do things differently from the rest of us” and the questions even go so far as to ask “Would you like to be ‘normal’?”  Asking such a question is presumptuous, and assumes that Naoki (or anyone with a disability) isn’t ‘normal’. Nowhere do we read, “What are your goals” or “What do you wish for in life” or even “What makes you happy?” Closest is the question, “Would you give us an example of something people with autism really enjoy?” Once again I will assert that such generalizations by one person with a disability on behalf of all who have that disability is unfair and undermines individuality. 

Nevertheless, Naoki answers the following question with what I feel to be the most profound statement in the book: “Do you find childish language easier to understand?” His response, “True compassion is about not bruising the other person's self-respect.” Why wasn’t this guiding principle used to set the tone of Naoki’s novel?

Have you read The Reason I Jump? What are your thoughts?

Journalists Reporting on Disabilities Need to Get it Right

Since this blog's inception a little more than a year ago, I notice inclusion, and the absence of inclusion, more and more. I find that I read blogs and news articles with a critical eye toward the author’s language choices in representing people with disabilities. I curate a collection of stories in special education and disabilities that I believe to be inspiring; and I initially sought to limit selections to only those stories where the authors & journalists “get it right” in language choice. Sadly, I realized that this might limit me in what I could choose.

I recently read an article which immediately stood out as an example that gets it right: “Eye gaze technology gives a voice to non-verbal speaker”. In choosing this title, the author could have written, “Technology gives voice to non-verbal boy” or even “Non-verbal boy can “speak” with special technology”. While each conveys more or less the same concept, the subtle difference demonstrated in the published title is powerful; every one of us is a speaker, we just do not all necessarily communicate in the same way. The young man in this article is authentically celebrated and not in any way lessened by his use of technology to speak.

Unfortunately, far too few journalists “get it right”. Some, like this: “V-I-C-T-O-R-I-O-U-S: Girl wins spelling bee despite autism, cerebral palsy” get it blatantly wrong, while others write positive articles with a line or two that less inclusion-minded readers might simply miss or ignore. Here’s a perfect example: “Blind can ‘see’ with Israeli-developed camera system”. This article about a fantastic advancement includes the line, “For years, researchers have been trying to figure out ways to harness sensor technology to assist people suffering from blindness and acute vision impairment, perhaps the most debilitating and difficult physical disability in a society that relies chiefly on visual cues.” 

Did you catch it? I take issue with the choice to write “people suffering from blindness and acute vision impairment”. While the article appropriately points out that vision impairments can be particularly difficult in a predominantly visual society, I think that it is presumptuous to assume that people who are blind “suffer”. The same message could have been easily conveyed by writing “people who experience unique challenges associated with blindness and acute vision impairment...”.   

Now go back to the title I deemed “blatantly wrong”. Can you see why?

How many of you would have noticed or been bothered by those lines? This is not judgement, but rather a call for increased recognition of the power of our words. We must train ourselves to notice even subtle messages so that together we can create a fully inclusive society.

Finding the "I" in inclusion

I had the opportunity to learn about Israel education with my colleagues at the National Association of Temple Educators annual gathering. I felt fortunate to learn among friends who care so deeply about the future of Reform Jewish education and I eagerly sought new ideas and gleaned significant insights.

For me, one session had greater impact than the others. Rabbi Yehudit Werchow, the Director of Israel Engagement for the Union for Reform Judaism, led us in a conversation about what it can mean to find the "I" in Israel engagement. The focus of our dialogue was on what each of us brings to the conversation; our personal narratives, our personal journeys, the deeply personal stories that shape our understanding. Our discussion was rich and meaningful, and I was impressed by Yehudit’s choice to use poetry & music as the tool to explore our memories, experiences and connections to Israel.

Almost immediately I found myself wondering what it could mean to engage in a conversation about finding the "I" in inclusion. How do our personal stories and journeys inform the way that we feel about and teach about inclusion? How can these stories help us to shape our personal and professional practice?

Jewish and secular education professionals have long known that our work is built on relationships. It is critical to honor each other’s personal stories and experiences to make room in the process for every stakeholder. When we celebrate personal journeys, we acknowledge that each of us can make a valuable contribution to shaping and driving successful inclusive practice.  

To follow Yehudit’s lead, I'd like to share with you a poem by Scott Lentine, an autistic man. Scott approached me a few months back and asked me to share his poems. (Learn more: Ode to the Autistic Man (and other poems)) Here is Scott’s most recent poem:

Acceptance of Autism
Wanting to be free
Wanting to be me
Trying to make people see
And accept the real me

Some people think my voice is too loud
And that my mannerisms strike them as being odd
This perception of me by others keeps me feeling blue
But there are plenty of struggles in life that I must get through

I am determined to show my critics my true personality
Hoping that people move away from their narrow-minded mentalities
I want them to know that I am a bright young man
Who is willing to take on as many challenges in life as I can

I want to make new friends and create a new start
I like to develop new relationships with an open heart
I hope to be accepted for the person that I am
So people can understand a true autistic man

As you read Scott's poem, what resonated with you? 

In what ways can you connect your own personal story to Scott’s poem?

How do you find the “I” in inclusion?