Wednesday, December 11, 2013

More science.

Following up my last post about STEM in the self-contained classroom, I wanted to post some pictures of a few reptile friends that visit us weekly.  Our friend Clay, an avid cyclist (and Race Across America racer/finisher), runner, and crazy nature guy brings creepy crawlers that he hand picks from the wild.  This guy volunteers his own time to spend with my class.  

When he isn't injured, he's running, jumping, and going gonzo with the students to encourage being active outside.  Clay also has this thing for critters.  He likes to catch them and bring them to the class.  Last week he brought in a coral snake (not pictured).  It was pretty cool to have the most poisonous snake in North America in my classroom.  The fact that Clay caught it himself makes it even more rad.  Yes, he left it in a sealed and locked container while in my class!

About two years ago, Clay brought some Chuckwalla's, a type of desert lizard native to Arizona, for us to have and keep as pets in the classroom.  Some of you may remember them as "Mr. Sir" and "Twitch".  We kept them for exactly one year, then released them back to the wild.

Thanks to our friend Clay for bringing the wild into our room and giving our students a chance to see science in action!

Friday, December 6, 2013

A self-contained, special education, STEM class.

I am now into my third year of this teaching thing.  I still love it!  Last school year was certainly one to remember!  I almost feel like I have to step up my game to top it, and I am not even a competitive person.  One of my goals was to develop a legitimate "STEM" classroom. STEM stands for "science, technology, engineering, and mathematics".  Google it if you are unaware.  A self-contained special education class that runs on a STEM approach to learning is unheard of.  Challenge accepted!

Exploring motion.
I have always incorporated science in some basic form.  If you keep up with this blog, you will already know that technology is a large aspect of my class as well.  Engineering, not so much.  Math is a given.  It is one of the simplest to teach because it so easily blends with other subjects and lends itself to using everyday objects as manipulatives.

So I already pretty much had this STEM thing in place, I just had to figure out ways to introduce engineering.  Engineering? For little kids with mild-moderate (and even a few severe) intellectual disabilities?  Yes!

Vroom! Vroom!
Even at such a basic level, students with intellectual disabilities (and any child, for that matter) can learn about engineering.  Simple-machines, and the very basic concept of "the wheel" are fantastic ways to introduce this.  I have mostly boys this year, and they all love to play with cars and trains.  Problem solved.  The race track was donated to us by another staff member and I bought the giant roller ramps from Lakeshore.  With both of these, we were able to explore motion by constructing tracks to propel objects down.  We added and subtracted multiple variables (such as force, direction, and angles) to decide what would make the objects move faster or slower.  We used different objects on each track such as rubber balls, foam balls, wooden balls, marbles, Hot Wheels, plastic cars, and yes, even trains.

This is really a no brainer! The students are playing, learning, sharing, and obviously having fun all at the same time.  Is that not what every kid should experience at school?  Future lessons will include skateboards, real cars, and motorcycles.  I just happen to know a few guys that know a thing or two about that sort of stuff.

Do not box these kids in!  They may not always be able to explain it, but when they choose the heavier car over the lighter one to race down the track, they have shown that they understand density and weight have an affect on force and propelling a moving object in a certain direction.  Welcome to my STEM class!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Bye daddy!

If you know me well enough or follow this blog at all, you'd know that my son, Judah, spent two years in a mainstream kindergarten class.  We really felt like that extra year gave him the solid academic foundation he needed.  Overall we are very pleased with the progress he made and felt like he was ready to move on to a mainstream first grade class.  Is he at the same academic level as his classmates? Absolutely not, but he is well adjusted to the school environment and loves the feeling of independence.

He started first grade this week.  He moved up with his second year kinder class, so he's mostly familiar with his classmates.  My baby (his little sister), Aveline, started kindergarten this week as well.  The problem I am having with the whole deal is that he is no longer next door to me, he's all the way on the other side of the school campus.  This was an extremely difficult transition for me, but one I knew we all needed to do for Judah's sake.  I firmly believe it is the best move for him.  Thankfully, I have Aveline next to me now; but she's so independent and social that I won't have to worry about her at all.

At the end of last school year Judah had gotten fairly comfortable with wandering over to my room on far too many occasions.  Of course I allowed it because let's face it, I'd be his teacher if I could.  I want him with me every second of the day.  It's just not what's best for him.  So I decided to start this year letting him go completely.  To my surprise, he took right to it and loved going off on his own.

On the first day, he knew exactly what to do and where to go.  I left him alone and didn't even peek in on him the whole day.  Of course there were some issues with his behavior in the classroom and I've had to give his teacher some suggestions and ideas on how to teach, encourage, and discipline Judah.  I expected that.  What I didn't expect was how easily Judah let ME go.  After lunch on the first day he was confused about which playground to go to for recess so he made his way to the kinder playground where he had gone for the past two years.  I quickly redirected him and told him where to go.  Once it clicked in his mind what he needed to do he said "BYE DA-EE! LUH YOU!", turned around and took off.  I happened to snap a picture of him as he darted away....

This was the most difficult experience for me so far with him.  I choked up and through swallowed tears I said: "Bye buddy! Be a good boy! I love you too!"

That moment is what all of the hard work has been about!  It is so easy to baby our special little guys and shield them from the harsh reality that is society.  They are people first, and the more we treat them like a person and not their disability, the more progress we will see.  It's very hard to let go, but I'm still at the same school, and I've got my baby girl next to me this year.

My little shadow is growing and slowly learning to navigate a small part of life without me.  Unfortunately, just like Peter Pan, I can't just sew my shadow back on.  He needs his independence.  He deserves it.  They all do.

I love you pal!  

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Teach. Advocate. Include.

Tomorrow begins the first day of a new school year.  It will be my third year as a teacher and special educator.  I am still at the same school and in the same classroom.  There is only one student remaining from my first year.  I’ve got a few others returning from last year plus five new students.  This is also the first year that I do not have any students with Down syndrome, at least not yet; but I am already at the limit for my class.  This school year will be my largest class roster thus far, with a total of nine students.  For a self-contained classroom serving kids with mild-moderate intellectual and other disabilities, that’s a heavy load.  Honestly though, I wouldn’t have it any other way.  I work best under pressure and welcome a busy school year.  It keeps me fresh and prepared. 

When I began my journey to become a teacher it was more of a goal I had in mind.  Now that I’m a few years into it, it’s really setting in that this is my purpose in life.  When I was going through the nomination process for Teacher of the Year, I adopted the words “Teach. Advocate. Include.” because it sums up the mentality I carry as a special educator. 

The beginning of the school year gives me lots of time (as I am preparing/planning) to reflect on the past (as a teacher).  As in, what worked and what didn’t.  The main thing that has worked for me is advocacy.  I consider myself an advocate for people with special needs first.  It’s with that mindset (as well as being a parent) that I teach from.  I also believe that mindset is what made people pay attention to what’s going on in Room N.  I never sought after any sort of recognition. I honestly just pulled and pushed for my son and my students to be respected and treated fairly.  I just want them to have a shot at an appropriate education and never comfortable with being holed up in a self-contained classroom.  While my class is necessary and it does serve my students well, there is a stigma attached to “the special ed class”.  I want to help change the way special education is taught, and looked at from the outside.  Some people think that’s pretty cool, others don’t.  Regardless, the powers that be paid attention, took note, and gave me some rad stuff because of it.  But I’d be a fool to hoard any attention or grandeur for myself.

With that said, the last update on this blog was about Teacher of the Year back in April.  When I won Yuma County Teacher of the Year I began to brainstorm what I could do with such a title.  I realized during the nomination process that I could use it as a platform to advocate not only for students with special needs, but also for those of us that love, work with, and serve them.  No doubt I was thrilled and grateful to be honored.  I’m definitely looking forward to taking my lovely wife to Hawaii (one of the rewards), but there are much larger things happening; things that are beyond me and not about me, but others.   Here is a list of some doors that have opened for my self, my students, and the community:

1)   I am now on the board of directors for The Saguaro Foundation.
2)   I am a volunteer and coach for the Special Olympics (finally, on my part) and in the classroom with Young Athletes. 
3)   Additionally, I am now on the Leadership Advisory Council for the Special Olympics Arizona, River Area.
4)   I begin serving in September on the grant application committee for The Yuma Community Foundation.
5)    A new playground is in the works courtesy of Fort Yuma Rotary Club.  This will be an inclusive playground for my students, another self-contained class, and three kindergarten classes at my school.
6)   I’ve also been given a few speaking engagements.

This is only a brief list, as I am not able to go into detail about everything.  This list alone, even if it stops here, makes everything I’ve done as a special educator worth it.  This is what it’s all about to me.  Not for me, for the kids.  You can bet that I will use any attention I receive and turn it right back around to advocate for our kids.  I’m not writing about this to boast.  I’m a humble dude, but I’ve got no time for timid.  Especially when there are so many kids with special needs that do not have a voice and cannot speak for them selves.  I found my passion and I thank God everyday for the path He put me on.   I gladly stand up for them.  The whole world may not hear my voice, but you can bet my community sure will!  Now lets get on with the school year and teach some kids some stuff!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

2013 Yuma County Teacher of the Year

On Tuesday night I was awarded 2013 Yuma County Teacher of the Year.  I was first nominated by my peers and co-workers at GW Carver Elementary for the Special Area category.  There were about 150 nominees total in 5 different categories.  From there we were interviewed by a panel of local business men and woman from the area Rotary clubs.  From that interview I was chosen as a semi-finalist in my category.  There were a total of 15 semi-finalists.  We were to write an essay and submit a video, then go through a final interview with a larger panel of judges.  None of us were to know the finalists for each category or the Teacher of the Year until we were announced at the Banquet/Ceremony Tuesday night. Click on the link below to view the newspaper article on the event. Included with the online article is a video of my acceptance speech.

I've stayed mostly silent about this because I honestly never expected to win. I'm also not a self-promoter.  I didn't take it seriously at first either, because I assumed myself to be the most unlikely candidate.  However, I had a change of heart when I became a semi-finalist.  I quickly realized that this would be a tremendous platform for me to use as an advocate for students with special needs.  The running motto I held to throughout the process was:

"This is for the students, not me.  Be yourself. Don't change a thing. Don't boast, but be confident.  Step out of your comfort zone and make things happen for these kids." 

It worked, and I'm extremely grateful and honored.  Students with special needs deserve to be recognized and included.  I'm proud to have this honor to do so. I've already received a huge outpouring of support and encouragement! Some doors have begun to open for myself and my students. That makes the whole process worth it.

Please share this video that I submitted.  I tried to leave myself out of it as much as possible so that the viewer can see what my students CAN do.  My class is just one representation of students with disabilities who have shining potential just like any other kid.

Also, my co-workers at GW Carver Elementary, Briana Edgerton and Rudy Rodriguez, won their categories: "Outstanding First Year Teacher" and "Outstanding Intermediate Teacher" respectively.

For our school to dominate this incredible honor is a true testament to how amazing our school is and the support we have not only from our Principal, Ms. Drysdale, but also from each other.  I am proud to represent Carver and Yuma School District One.

I have three outstanding paraprofessionals (teacher aides) that take on many responsibilities.  They're the ones that get all of the dirty work and allow me to teach and take care of academic needs.  They get very little recognition and are often overlooked.  As much as I am awarded, they should be as well.  Thank you Mrs. Martinez, Mrs. Ramirez, and Mrs. Ryan (and Mrs. Castanos from last year).  This honor is for you too!  

I wish to thank the following professionals and agencies:

Yuma County Rotary Clubs
Yuma Investment Group Wealth Management
Yuma School District One (especially including Exceptional Student Services)
GW Carver Elementary
Desert Mesa Elementary
Castle Dome Middle School
Arizona Western College
Northern Arizona University - PRISE Program
Sharing Down Syndrome Arizona

Sunday, April 21, 2013


Much can be learned from my little dude and my students. The Lord knows I have. They all try twice as hard and many take twice as long to do everyday things. Most of them have been through twice as much too. If patience is a virtue, this is what it looks like. Having my son made me grow up fast. I would not be teaching his little buddies if it weren't for him. A whole new world opened up to me and I'm thankful everyday for them and the life I've been given.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Special Olympics Young Athletes Day

A few volunteers giving one of my students the extra encouragement he needed to finish the race.

This week we attended our first Special Olympics Young Athletes Day.  This was an excellent event!  It was well put together and full of enthusiastic volunteers.  This was not a competition where children receive awards for first, second, and third place; instead, it was more of a play day where everyone wins and receives ribbons for participation.  I'm not generally the type of person in favor of awarding every child.  Losing is a part of life and if children don't learn that lesson early on, they grow up with a warped view of society.  Even children with disabilities need to learn this important lesson.  However, Young Athletes Day is different.  I think it should be noted that this is not a competition but a day to encourage children with disabilities and those who work with them to get outside and be active.  Here is what the Special Olympics website says about it:

"Young Athletes™ is a unique sport and play program for children with intellectual disabilities. The focus is on fun activities that are important to mental and physical growth.
Children ages 2 1/2 to 7 enjoy games and activities that develop motor skills and hand-eye coordination. Young Athletes is an early introduction to sports and to the world of Special Olympics. The children learn new things, play and have lots of fun!
Parents say their children in Young Athletes also develop better social skills. The confidence boost makes it easier for them to play and talk with other children on the playground and elsewhere."

Judah is tossing a softball to an older student.  My little dude is not very active outdoors, so it was awesome to see him so involved and eager to play.

I'm helping one of my students who uses assistive devices for mobility.  We're not going to let that stop him from  knocking the skin off that ball! 

This is a great picture that I believe captures the spirit of Young Athletes volunteers.  I was very impressed by those who helped out.  For the most part, I noticed a genuine attitude of kindness and even gentleness from them.  If I'm not mistaken, I think they were all Marines. 

Another awesome aspect of the day was seeing other students from different schools.  I finally saw two former students of mine after almost a year.  In this picture, Judah is with one of his best friends from our Sharing Down Syndrome Arizona Advocacy Group.  They have been buddies since they were only a few months old.

There were so many activities.  We rarely had to wait, and all of the events focused on using gross motor skills to keep everyone moving.

Potato heads!

I'm not kidding, Judah would rather be on the computer or watching TV than play with a ball.  I encourage my three children in whatever their interests are, so I don't force him to be outside playing too much.  On average he gets about an  hour a day of active play.  That includes recess at school.  He likes to play on the fort/swing set and trampoline at home and that's about it.  So seeing him be so active at this event was very encouraging.

Involved parents make all the difference in the world!  If you're a parent, please don't allow the school to raise your kid.  Get in there and be a part of your child's education!

I'm not gonna lie, I had as much fun as they did!

Thanks to our districts amazing Physical Therapist, our students were no strangers to many of the activities.  Who doesn't like to hop around?

The only thing missing here is my bike!  I think I may start bringing mine to work so I can ride around our concrete jungle with these guys!

 Thanks to everyone involved with putting this event together and making it happen! From my class to you, we give you a huge applause and look forward to next year!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Room N.

Recently a photographer from the school district came to my class and snapped this pic. I now have written permission from my students' parents to include their pictures on this blog. Also, this can be seen on our districts website, so it's public now. Here you go, these are my little buddies! I have the privilege of teaching, having fun with, and learning from these rad kids every day! We're only missing one.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Still swinging.

This is one of the most inspiring videos I've seen about someone with Down syndrome. I completely agree with Garrett's dad in allowing him to become a fighter. People with Down syndrome are people first. It's no secret that I became a teacher because of Judah for the exact same reasons Garret's dad mentioned. To make sure NO ONE gets in his way of the same opportunities as any other kid.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Just Like You!

Today is World Down Syndrome Day!  To celebrate and advocate I want to share this video with you:

Be a friend, and at the very least, please be kind and patient with the awesome buddies who have Down syndrome that are in your life!

Monday, March 18, 2013


When I look at my students, I am reminded of the gift they are to their families and those of us who have the privilege of educating them. Each one has added to my life in a positive way. I am also reminded that many children are terminated in the womb when their families find out they may be born with disabilities. For every kid with Down syndrome that is granted the right to live there are ten more that were not.

I support a person’s right to choose. However, I personally feel that abortion is a horrible choice. We were given the option to abort Judah when we found out he would probably be born with Down syndrome. I am thankful every single day we chose to accept the son God gave us. Every time I hear his little voice, see his big smile, and get a huge hug from him I am reminded that we made the right choice.

This is not a political rant, just a reminder to everyone facing a potentially challenging pregnancy and possibly having a child with disabilities. It is not the end of the world. It is challenging, but it is those challenges that form us and mold us to become better human beings. I will always support your right to choose, but never your right to terminate a beautiful child just because they are not your idea of perfection. These kids are my life, this is where I belong, and this world is a better place because their parents chose to keep them.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Have a cry about it.

Judah has been doing great in school.  The benefit of teaching at the same school allows me to be completely immersed in his education.  I know where he's at and what he's doing at all times.  I also get to talk to his teachers on a daily basis if I need to.  Today his resource teacher sent me this video of my budge passing his first reading test.  He whispers many times when you ask him questions (and yells at many other inappropriate times... go figure).  In this video you can't really understand what he's saying, but he is sounding out letters the teacher is pointing to.  This is a giant step in readiness for reading.  He has been tracking left to right for a long time now and practicing his letter sounds. So this video is a huge encouragement for us involved in his life and education.

One of my hopes for Judah has always been proper communication.  I want him to talk and express himself.  I pray for it every night when I put him to bed.  Communication is something easily taken for granted.  Many people talk too much though and sometimes I wish the opposite were true.  But for my little dude, talking and expressing himself has not come easily.  Fortunately he loves books and technology.  So we use both to help him learn how to talk.

His resource teacher pointed something out to me today as I was sharing an incident.  The story is this: yesterday Judah crapped and pissed his pants in his classroom.  He hasn't done this in over a year.  This is the first time this school year.  I had to stay after school for a couple of hours to attend to planning, etc.  Judah comes to my class after school.  Usually he gets on a laptop or iPad.  I grounded him from technology for the remainder of the day because he shat his pants.  

He was obviously upset about it and kept asking me; "Da-ee! iPad? iPod? Cat? WewWee"" Translation: "Daddy can I use the iPad or iPod? How about Tom & Jerry? Can I watch that or another movie?"

To which I responded; "No, you pooped and peed your pants.  You are in trouble and cannot use the iPad or watch anything for the rest of the day,"

Not satisfied with this predicament, he continued for a while asking me the same questions.  Eventually he hovered behind me watching me working at my computer.  I told him to go find something to do like play with toys or read a book.  He slumped off and climbed up the loft in my classroom and quietly cried for a few minutes.  He eventually stopped crying, but he stayed up in the loft for the rest of the time, which had to have been at least another hour or so.

When we got home that evening, he told his mom and sisters: "Poopoo pants!" on his own accord.  Usually when we get home he knows to go poop and pee before he does anything else.  It's a schedule we follow.  Once he's taken care of business he can watch "Cat" (Tom & Jerry) or another "WewWee" (movie).  So he figured because he had already handled his toilet affairs in his pants earlier he might be able to go ahead and watch TV straight away at the house.  So of course he turns to me after delivering the news to the rest of the family and asks me "Daa-ee! Cat? WewWee?".  Of course he was told no and reminded again why.  It was almost his bedtime anyway.

So back to his resource teacher.  After sharing this story with her, she laughed and told me "Don't you see it!?  He's very intelligent. He was too occupied with the computer in his class to get up and go potty.  He knew what he was supposed to do but figured it was worth the risk to stay on the computer.  When you grounded him from technology he tried to find a soft spot or loop hole. His stubborn will pushed as far it could.  When he finally realized he wasn't going to get his way he had a good cry about it and sat up in the loft and processed the whole arrangement.  When he got home he reported the bad news to the rest of the family and tried one last time to see if you would give in and let him watch TV.  It's a hard life lesson for us as parents to follow through with, but it's one this little buddy fully understands.  Be encouraged!"

I am encouraged.  It's so nice to hear someone else's viewpoint because too often, as a parent, I get caught up in going through the motions and overlook the depth of what is really going on.  The point is this, my little dude is intelligent.  He's learning to communicate and express himself.  It's a slow process but thanks to his therapists and teachers we are seeing progress.  I just need to be reminded sometimes.  

Judah rules! And it's time for a haircut... 

Happy Saint Patrick's Day! We're Shipping Up To Boston!