Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Yes he can.

This little buddy is 7 years old and he surfs.  I get to see what kids with Down syndrome CAN do every single day and this still blows me away.  Never put our buddies in a box!

Surfing Casey!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Holiday cheer.

Each month and/or season/holiday I design a new bulletin board outside of my classroom that is somewhat related to the time of year.  My goal with each board is to showcase my students' work and promote advocacy for children with special needs.  I also want these bulletin boards to stir up a sense of happiness and joy for anyone that sees them.  I try to include an inspirational quote (this month's being very tongue-in-cheek, yet educationally appropriate too).  I'm especially happy with the December theme as you will see below.  

My school hosts a door decorating contest each December so I decided to carry the bulletin theme over to the door and windows.  My inspiration comes from what I would have liked as a child (and still do).  I've always enjoyed classic holiday cartoons (such as clay-mation, Charlie Brown, Dr. Seuss, etc.) and all of Grimm's fairy tales.  For December I went with the classic Grimm Fairy Tale The Gingerbread Man.

The theme starts on the right with the little house and moves to the left ending at the gingerbread house.  As you will notice, my students (plus Judah) are gingerbread kids and myself and the paraprofessionals are the various people/animals (little old lady, farmer/lumberjack, cow, and fox) chasing them. 

I worked construction for many years, I like to create and build stuff.  Obviously the transition to teaching was a huge gap and I don't get to build much as a teacher, so I have to create things like bulletin boards.  You're probably asking where I find the time to do this.  I have two great paraprofessionals and a class full of kids that like to color.  I make bulletin activities a whole class project.  As you have noticed, each student created their own gingerbread self.  Since taking these pictures each student has also designed ornaments to decorate the many Christmas trees. 

This week we're learning about the letter "G".  To wrap up the week's lessons on Friday we will be making gingerbread houses.  I love my job!  It beats digging ditches and I get to hang out, teach, and learn from the raddest little kids around.

Doing things like this reminds me of how fortunate and blessed I am.  Without kids I would have turned hard and angry.  Teaching keeps me young and tender at heart.  It also restores what little faith I have left in humanity.  Life is too short not to enjoy what we do for a living and we live in a country that gives us the opportunity to pursue those things.  Kids rule and keep me smiling every day.

Monday, November 21, 2011

One Life, One Chance.

I live my life by this mindset:  If you want something, go get it.  If you want something done, do it yourself.  If you live that way, you should never have anything to complain about.  I've never been the type of person to depend on others.  I've always tried to be self sufficient and when I do ask for help I do so expecting to learn from the person helping so that I don't ever have to ask again.  If there is something I need or want, I work at it until I get it.

With that said, I earned my Bachelor's degree back in May.  It took me about five years to do so, but I did it.  I did it while working full time (most of the time) and raising three kids.  I couldn't have done it without the support of a loving, selfless wife and an amazing scholarship.  Both my lady, and the scholarship I earnestly pursued to get and work(ed) diligently to keep.  I've been married for almost 10 years, we have absolutely no debts, and I graduated without owing anyone a single cent.  Some of you might think I've been handed what I have, but then you wouldn't really know me and that's okay.  I'm a go getter, but I'm also a team player and I know how to kick back and relax when I need to.  I don't complain (except to my wife... of course).  I make things happen and I have little patience for those who sit back and let life pass them by.  Don't mistake my words as arrogance, I'm simply building you up with my life experiences to prove my point.  Which is to make your own life happen within your capabilities, work hard when you need to and have fun as often as you can.  

I prefer to surround myself with people who have a positive mental attitude (PMA) and know how to get after it when it comes to taking care of business (TCB).  I'm terrible with money (that's no secret), so I married someone who is great with it.  My wife can rub two pennies together and get $500.  She is amazing and my proudest accomplishment, if you could call it that.  I say this to prove my point to those of you who make excuses instead of going after what you want.  

The United States offers equal opportunity to all citizens, but it's up to the citizen to take hold of those opportunities.  Some have to work harder than others, but no one has an excuse.  There is so much to grab a hold of in this country.  You can't change where you came from, but you can definitely change where you're going.  Personally, this can be applied to every area of my life.  I've made lots of mistakes, but I've learned from most of them and I'm happy with how my life as a grown man has taken shape.  So keeping to the point of this blog, I'll be relating the rest of this post to teaching.  Whew!

While in college at Northern Arizona University almost all of my teaching courses were taught with the assumption that we would be utilizing technology in our classrooms to the fullest extent.  We had access to much of the latest technology available to educators and at the very least we were shown where to look if it wasn't available.  I'd say the one thing that stood out to me the most was the "smart board".  This is basically a 90" big screen with all the capabilities of an ipad.  You can connect just about anything up to it with proper cables, etc.  Within the classroom however, the computer is obviously the most used and suggested device.  The board is interactive so that the students are engaged to cooperate.  For example, the teacher can create anything they can on a computer, but they can also touch the screen with a "magic" pen to explore, create, browse, etc.  It's really quite amazing, and obviously ridiculously expensive.  

So after being able to use one throughout my college career, there was no way I could be satisfied teaching without one.  So what did I do?  I approached my supervisor within the first week of being hired and to make a long story short, I got one!  It took a few months to jump over all the hurdles and complete the necessary requirements, but I did it, and my Promethean Activboard was installed last week.  Check out my students in action just this morning:

Just look at the size of that thing!  I'm tempted to go to my classroom on the weekends and watch football!  I cannot even imagine having something like this when I was in elementary school.  If you look closely, notice the student (who has Down syndrome) is holding the "magic" wand and manipulating his way through a lesson.  We use this technology everyday, and just a month or so ago I also got an iPad for my classroom.

Some of you may be thinking I work in an affluent district at a school that has wealthy parents. You'd be wrong.  I work in a district that has suffered major budget cuts, in a city that has an extremely high unemployment rate.  The school I work at is a Title One school on the other side of the tracks (just the way I like it).  My classroom is in a building that is about 70 years old.  I'm a first year teacher, and I teach Special Education.  

If you want something, go get it.  If you want something done, do it yourself.   

With that said and this week being Thanksgiving; I'm thankful for my family, my career, my school, my students, coworkers, supervisors and the opportunities that I have been able to seize.  Carpe diem!  PMA all day!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Taking care of business.

My 1958 Chevrolet Apache 
This post is along the lines of the Twins post, just a bit more personal and in depth.  As a father and teacher I believe it is important to include my children and students in my interests.  I feel it's important to always be myself and encourage the little ones in my life to be as much a part of my hobbies as possible. This also sets a standard for behavior, how I expect them to act when they're out with me.

I've seen parents that want nothing to do with their child with Down syndrome in public.  I cannot relate to that.  I've always toted all three of my kids everywhere, including the one with Down syndrome.  Judah and I kind of prefer to hang out with each other all the time anyway.  I think he's rad and I guess he likes me a good deal too.  Doing so sets the expectations of how they should act in public, but more importantly it includes them in everyday life.  They get exposed to the outside world and parents can continue to enjoy their own interests and take care of business as usual.

I like skateboarding, punk rock, and old cars.  Many times I can include my kids in much of my own outings, as long as the volume's not too loud.  Being in a car club and having old rides allows me the opportunity to attend car shows, etc more than the average person I suppose.

Punk rock and car shows are two of my biggest hobbies and I include my family every chance I get.  We all have a blast and my kids know how to act appropriately in public, even Judah.  They're good kids, and it is possible to have a kid with Down syndrome that doesn't act like a wild animal.  I've seen it time and again with many buddies whose parents set high expectations for them.  I've also seen the opposite a few times.


Some seriously sensitive dudes.

Most of us in the car club have families who also enjoy playing and getting into mischief together.

Little Ghouls.  Notice my little grease monkey on the right.

I'm not saying I have it all figured out, but I am proud of the way my kids act in public most of the time.  As with most kids, they have their moments, but we have always set high expectations for them.  No parent wants to deal with an unruly kid; make it easier on yourself and knock out poor behavior in the early stages of life and hopefully you won't raise a spoiled brat.  Children with Down syndrome obviously have different needs than other kids, but they still require discipline and their expectations should be the same as any other kid.  Trust me, they are more than capable, it just takes work.

My little guy.

Please don't mistake my intent here.  My wife and I do not live vicariously through our children.  Our lives are interesting and exciting enough that we don't need to push our children to be "mini-me's" or the "sports star" that I never was.  As children grow they will develop their own interests.  If some of those are similar to mine, that's awesome.  If not, that's okay too.

My youngest, Aveline, posing in my '58.

My three favorite kids in the whole world.

We're kind of a big deal.    

My point is this, for you parents of children with Down syndrome, take your buddy with you everywhere you go!  Model and explain to them how you expect them to act.  Use positive and negative reinforcement as often as you need to.  I use many forms of discipline, including spankings, without apology.  Sometimes it is difficult for me to discipline my children.  The thing that helps me is to remind myself of some truly horrible kids and adults that don't comprehend what discipline and correction is.  As a parent, we do the whole world a favor by correcting our children.  If you don't support swats, find a method that works for you; there are plenty of others I use as well.

Ghouls Night Out 2011.

One last thing, don't be afraid that your buddy may be stared at or made fun of in public.  It's going to happen.  Suck it up and be an adult about it.  If you can use the situation to promote advocacy of people with disabilities, then everyone wins.  If not, take one situation at a time.  The world is full of cruel people.  Just remember open arms are better than a closed fist; but when the open arms don't work, knuckle up and swing away!

Ah, one of my other hobbies.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Street Justice.

Today I was thinking about advocacy and the importance of including students with disabilities with their same age peers.  It got me reminiscing about when I was in elementary school and my first exposure to other kids with significant disabilities.  I recall being in 4th or 5th grade and assisting a girl with cerebral palsy in PE.  She wore arm braces to help her walk.  She had an awkward gait and was super slow.  However, her speech and intelligibility was just fine and she had the confidence of a super model.

I remember at church youth camp one year a boy with some type of mild intellectual disability (in retrospect I'm sure he was autistic) was in our dorm and spent the week with us at every activity and function.  He even had a crush on my older sister and if I recall correctly she went to the banquet at the end of the week with him.  I think at the time we had just as much fun with him as he did with us and I’d like to think we never did anything to hurt his feelings or make fun.  However, he did crap his pants once.  No teenage boy, no matter their disability, can escape the ridicule that “mud butt” in public will.  I’m sorry Glen… but hey, we did quickly rush you back to the dorm and help you clean yourself up.  Thanks for the experience buddy!  I hope life has treated you well over the past 15 or so years since that summer.

My first career was working for UPS.  Before becoming a driver, I had to work my way up by starting at the bottom unloading semi-trailers full of boxes at 3:00 am for something like $8 an hour.  So I worked a second job in the afternoons for the YMCA after school program making minimum wage I believe.  It was at the YMCA that I got my first real experience of kids with Down syndrome and autism.  I was hooked, and even though it was for only a short time, those afternoons had a profound impact on my life.

In retrospect I can see the positive affect that all of these life experiences had on me.  Growing up I may not have put myself out so much to assist or advocate, but I was never the one to go overboard with making fun of or picking on someone with a disability.  I wish I could say that I didn’t occasionally tell a horrible joke or act “retarded”, but I did, just never to their face.  Obviously as I’ve gotten older I’ve learned that only douchebags make fun of and pick on those that are weaker than them or can’t speak for themselves. 

The point of this post is to encourage parents of children with disabilities not to be afraid of letting their child experience life outside of the special ed bubble.  Get them involved in activities with same age peers.  You never know the positive impact your child may have on someone else.  I wish I could say that they don’t get made fun of, but they do.  Just don’t let that keep you from including them.  As a parent of a child with Down syndrome who is mainstreamed I have had to deal with my son being picked on and made fun of already several times.  It’s heartbreaking and I can’t express the anger that wells up inside, but I know his mainstream experience is the best thing for him AND his peers.  I've even had the opportunity to share with my son's classmates who my son Judah is and why is the way he is.  I used this awesome coloring book that can be downloaded here:

The second point of this post is to encourage young people, students, and teachers who find themselves next to or teaching a child with significant disabilities.  Give them a chance, be patient, and remember that they are a person first.  Though they may not learn as you do, or even as quickly, they can learn something; and believe it or not you may learn from them as well.

The third point of this post is to encourage those of you who make fun of others with disabilities.  Be careful who you wag your tongue or open your mouth to.  If you’re old enough to receive some old fashioned street justice you may just get dropped by someone bigger and stronger than you.  Imagine the person you’re making fun of as your sibling, or even your child.  If you’re too proud and mean to set yourself aside then I’ll say this, the world is better off without people like you and justice has a way of catching up eventually.  If you’re a comedian who earns a living making fun of those who can’t help their condition consider writing some original jokes about those who can.  There are enough jack asses in this world to make fun of who can help their condition… such as yourself.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


Today was twin day at work/school.  Judah and I obviously didn't have to try too hard.

Neither did some of my students.  I have some students that are capable of turning the day upside down in an instant.  This is where I think my parenting experience comes into play.

I consider myself to be a very loving yet firm father to all three of my children.  I don't have parenting figured out, but I'm making my way and I love the adventure.  I've learned some useful stuff so far too.  Especially with little buddies.  I have been able to apply much of what I've learned as a father to teaching and running a classroom. 

I may piss some people off in saying this and that's okay.  I feel like I have a valid opinion and opportunities/experience to back it up. Children with Down syndrome, when left alone or ignored, many times will act like wild animals.  I mean that in the literal sense.  Children with DS need constant and consistent structure and repetition.  If they are allowed to do whatever they want it's almost like they default to basic animal like instincts that most of us would never do.  Such as rummaging through a crapped diaper and smearing it all over kingdom come; yelling/shouting and spitting unintelligible words to communicate; and hitting and biting when upset.  

Some of you might be thinking "yeah but isn't that how every kid reacts when allowed to get their way".  My answer is yes, probably initially, but at some point typical kids will stop smearing poo on the walls because they think it's disgusting. 

My point is this.  When parenting a child with DS, set the same standards and expectations you do/would for your other children without DS.  They are children, not animals.  They are a child first.  They should be expected to behave, listen when spoken to, and respect others.  They should be disciplined when out of line and consistently reminded of and shown how to act.  Yes, children with DS have significant needs and delays and yes you should be mindful of those at all times.  Yes, they are cute and, yes it's very difficult to discipline them sometimes.

If you as the parent/caretaker motivate and encourage your child with DS and use proper reinforcement you will see exceptional results.  They are capable and CAN act like human beings.  If you don't... you are not only severely hindering your child from a successful life, you're also making it extra hard on yourself and anyone who is responsible for the well being of your child.  The older they get, the more it levels out.  Especially once they become self motivated.

So back to my class... I set high expectations from the get go.  My students learn and are expected to produce some kind of result no matter how small.  I have a couple of wild students in my class that, as I mentioned earlier, can be a real challenge.  The first one being to walk silently in a single file line.  I can proudly say that all of my students have demonstrated that they can do this.  They don't always follow through with it, but they DO know what is expected of them.  It's the little things, and as a teacher who sometimes will inherit problems parents don't want to deal with, it's those little things that keep me inspired.

The moral of this post is mostly for parents.  Please, if you have a child with DS, set their expectations high and follow through with encouragement and discipline. The results are rewarding.  Honestly, it just doesn't get much better than a well behaved buddy that brings joy and laughter to everyday life.  My little guy can be quite ornery, but there is no doubt that he knows exactly what is expected of him and he is stopped in his tracks when he crosses the line.  Proper expectations and discipline are good for everyone and even better for kids with DS.  Set the standard high.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

School pictures.

Yesterday was picture day at school and it was kind of a nightmare.  My students were actually fairly cooperative.  My son however was not.  It's very easy for me to lose my patience, especially with my own children.  I almost became a jerk just to get my buddy to sit still and smile.  I harnessed my emotions and opted to go with a picture that would be "good enough" for the year book.  I kept my check and decided not to order any.  

I think Judah always takes great candid photos.  Ask the kid to smile and pose... forget it.  He crosses his eyes and cocks his head to the side.  In light of a frustrating picture experience here's a great pic of me and my buddy recently at the zoo.  I think this picture captures our relationship really well.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Poopy pants.

Toilet training kids with Down syndrome is a real challenge.  I'd say for a new parent of a kid with DS, give your child at least a year to get the basics down.  Obviously there are exceptions to this, but from my experience, no matter how hard and consistent you work at it, it just takes a long time for little buddies to understand the concept.  For a kid with cognitive delay's it takes consistent repetition and strict scheduling.  Stick with it and I promise they'll catch on eventually.

As a teacher of students with DS only half of my students are completely toilet trained.  Instead of letting us know they need to go, sometimes they'll just lay on the ground and kick back, all stoked to get cleaned up.  I suppose if someone was willing to "baby wipe" me after a pants dump, I'd be hesitant to go on my own too!

So with Judah, my wife and I knew early on that we wanted him to be mainstreamed as much as possible.  With that mindset our biggest goal/obstacle was to make sure he was out of diapers and totally toilet trained before he started kindergarten.  We began the process a few months before he turned four.  It was at that age we knew he was ready.  There comes a point in every child's life when you as the parent will figure out exactly when your kid is ready to start going on their own.  Honestly much of parenting just takes a bit of common sense, it's really not much different parenting a kid with Down syndrome... just more challenging and requires more patience.

It was a slow, arduous process with Judah and when he started kindergarten back in August he was about 90% trained.  In other words, he was no longer in diapers.  He was capable of peeing and pooping on his own.  He just needed to be reminded when to go and required assistance with wiping.  He'd just hold it until someone told him to go to the restroom.

Now that we're two months into his kindergarten year he goes on his own and will let someone know when it's time...

EXCEPT when he has diarrhea...

he... just.. can't... quite... hold... it...

Especially after eating some of the school lunches he has to put down!  "Tostada boats"?

So he's had two accidents in his mainstream class.  Both times were full on blowouts and both were after lunch towards the end of the day.  The first stayed fairly well concealed in his britches.  My class is next to his so I was able to intercept him and basically give him a bath in the restroom sink.  The crazy thing is that three of my students with DS also had similar explosions around the same time, all within 15-30 minutes of each other.

The second accident was yesterday... on his 6th birthday and just before mom arrived in the afternoon with homemade cupcakes for his class party!  This second time it did not stay well concealed.  His classmates got to enjoy it all over their nice "circle time" rug and he left a trail of wrecked "tostada boat" from his class to mine!

So just when we thought we were in the clear on toilet training Judah, he throws us a curve ball.  Such is life with many kids, but especially those with DS.  The moral of this story is = Refried beans may taste awesome, especially when cradled within a crunchy taco shell that resembles an old timey river raft, but unless you want your kid floating in class, skip the school lunch that day.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Happy 6th Birthday Judah!!

Well it's past midnight and I'm still up.  My son Judah is now officially 6 years old today. 
My little man at 2 years old.

The day he was born (Oct 19, 2005) I was reading the Fort Worth Star Telegram in the lobby at North Hills Hospital. I found an article in the sports section about a Keller High School senior with Down syndrome named Lyndon Laplante. The article was about this young man's dream to score a touchdown for his high school football team and how it became a reality by way of a 99 yard run. 

I was really having a hard time with life/faith, etc and this story gave me hope and encouragement in what was a dark hour of my life.

I'm posting this in honor of Down syndrome awareness month and the incredible positive impact having a child with DS has had on me personally. I'm the fortunate one!

Happy birthday Judah! You have brought so much love and joy to our lives!  I love you more than ever!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Velcro shoes.

Check out Judah's awesome velcro shoes!

I have to say, teaching children with Down syndrome takes a ton of patience.  In my classroom we spend at least as much time practicing proper hygiene and life skills as we do on academics.  There is never enough time in a day, especially for tying shoes.  

If you have a kid with cognitive delays, get them some velcro shoes!  It just makes the world a lot better of a place when the teacher and paraprofessionals don't have to stop and tie shoes every 10 minutes.  I'm a realist.  Kids with Down syndrome generally have a rough time nailing down basic fine motor skills, let alone "chasing a rabbit around a tree and through some hoops" or "down a hole" or however that shoe-tying deal goes.  

Shoes serve a basic function and nowadays they come in a myriad of options, many of which include VELCRO instead of laces.  Jump on the velcro train and allow your kids' teacher and paraprofessionals to focus more on teaching instead of making "rabbit ears".  I even wear velcro shoes sometimes.

Judah and I proudly sporting velcro shoes!

Here's a good tip: Vans and Converse!  If those are too pricey for you, Wal Mart, Target and Payless offer the latest cartoon characters in velcro and you can never go wrong with the old Silver Series stand by.  

Even the girls are drawn to a boy with a nice pair of velcro's.

What I'm saying is, most of my students roll in to my class everyday with triple knotted up shoe laces.  During circle time they manage to Houdini their way out of the foot fortress their parents wrapped them up in and then myself or my aides spend the better part of a few minutes untangling a rats nest of laces.  Simple solution=VELCRO!!!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Not just a father.

Welcome to my blog.  I don't anticipate many visits because I am not really going to put myself out there for the whole world to see.  I'm not trying to sell anything and I'm certainly not about shameless self promotion.  If there's one thing I've learned in my 32 years it's that life is definitely NOT about me.

However, I do feel like I have a unique perspective when it comes to people with Down syndrome.  I am a father and teacher of children with DS.  My son, Judah, who will be 6 years old soon has Down syndrome.  Not so rare you might think for a parent to blog about their life raising a kid with DS.  I've seen many and enjoy reading about other parents' adventures with their own little buddies.  I am also a first year teacher.  My class is for students with moderate intellectual disabilities (mental retardation) grades kindergarten through 3rd grade.  I have 7 students in my class, 4 of which have Down syndrome.

My little buddy, Judah.

I've lived a fairly exciting life even before my son was born, but especially over the past 6 years.  I've been married for almost 10 years and along with Judah, my wife and I have two beautiful girls, one older, and one younger than him.  I've always done my own thing and been a bit of an outsider, not by force, but by choice.  "I'm a loner Dottie... a rebel." I can't say that I really like to stand out so much as I'm just not a follower. I never have been.  So when my wife and I found out we were to have a child with Down syndrome, I can't say that I was surprised.  It just made sense.  We struggled a bit with life and faith as you might imagine and just a few months after Judah was born we decided the best thing for our family would be to move from my hometown of Fort Worth, Texas to my wife's hometown in the vast desert of Arizona.

After Judah was born I began thinking seriously about returning to college to become a special ed teacher.  I went to Dallas Baptist University for a few semesters right after I graduated from high school in 1997.  At the time, it just wasn't for me.  I had other interests and plans and dropped out after a year and a half.  I went on to live my life, get married, start a family, etc.  I had a couple of careers, first as a UPS driver and then as an electrician.  With the arrival of my new little buddy I returned to college in January 2006 when he was only 3 months old.  I graduated with honors in May 2011 with a dual major in elementary and special education.  I also obtained a structured English immersion certificate from Northern Arizona University.

If you knew me in Jr. and High school that may come as a surprise to you.  When I was younger all I cared about was skateboarding and punk rock.  I hated school.  I had no idea that I was capable of getting A's, or even honor's for that matter.  It's amazing what responsibility and life will do to you.

Judah with his little sister Aveline at a car show.

I just began my teaching career and Judah just began grade school this August.  I teach his friends in the special ed class and he goes to a general education kindergarten class that just so happens to be right next door to mine.  Yes, Judah is totally mainstreamed.  No, he is not some super Down syndrome whiz kid either.  Let me explain.

I became a teacher for Judah, so that I could be the best father for him.  It's really that simple.  I would not be a teacher if Judah did not exist.  He changed my life and in turn I have chosen a career that will change his and hopefully help the lives of others like him.

The more I learned the more I fell in love with people with Down syndrome (I like to call them "buddies") and the more I came to grips with the fact that the best thing for Judah may NOT be for me to be his teacher.  So we're just taking the mainstream deal one year at a time.

We are coming up on the first grading period of the school year, Judah's 6th birthday and it just so happens to be October, Down syndrome awareness month.  Which is why I started this blog.  I love my career!  I love teaching students with disabilities, especially buddies.  I already have a grip of stories to tell and the school year is just barely getting started.  I hope you can be encouraged by my adventures with my own little buddy and my students.

About the name of this blog: JUST LISTEN HARDER.  While in college a young lady about 27 years old with Down syndrome spoke to one of my education classes.  While taking questions, I asked her "As a father of a child with Down syndrome what is the best advice you can give me?" She replied "Just listen.  If you don't understand what he's saying just listen harder."