Temple’s journey is marked by shared concern and shared expertise. There was nothing more important than consistency between school and home.
– Eustacia Cutler, speaking about her daughter, Temple Grandin
From the moment that Brooke began receiving special education services at age three, we started a daily correspondence routine with her team. We have been in contact with the ever-changing team of people who support her every single day since.
From preschool until second grade, we relied entirely on the teachers, therapists and aides to tell us what had happened during the day. Heck, a three-ring circus might have performed at school on a given day, elephants and all, but if they didn’t tell us, we had no way to know.
We had templates made up for each day’s communication. There was one for the school staff to fill out to tell us about Brooke’s day and another for us to fill out to tell them about her night.
An early template – Sorry it’s tough to read; you can click to enlarge
We were, and are, convinced that consistent, open, and honest communication between home and school is absolutely vital to Brooke’s success.
In second grade, Brooke’s aide suggested a change to the communication log. One that might have seemed inconsequential, but which was anything but. She wanted to add a section for Brooke to tell us about her day.
Now, I’m going to be honest. If someone had simply said, “Let’s give Brooke a section of the sheet to talk about her day,” I wouldn’t have had the slightest idea how to go about it. Thankfully, Ms K had it covered. She put a set of five Boardmaker emoticons on the sheet, representing five different feelings. Brooke’s job was to circle one that represented how she felt at some point during the day. It was not only utterly brilliant, it was the beginning of a paradigm shift for all of us. Ms K had shown us that there was a way to include Brooke in the process. To let HER tell us about herself. We would never look at anything the same way again.
Not the actual eggheads we used, but close enough for illustration.
As I recall, we had Happy, Sad, Frustrated, Excited and one other that is stuck somewhere in the recesses of my brain.
At the time (and to this day) there was a picture- and voice-supported computer writing program called Pixwriter that Brooke absolutely loved. It was such a treat for her to use it at school that we got it at home too. It allowed her to begin to write.
A “shopping chart” that Brooke recently wrote using Pixwriter. Looks like we’d better get to the market.
In third grade, Brooke’s then-new aide added another dimension to the communication log. Brooke was now using Pixwriter to tell us when she felt the emotion that she had circled. For example, she would write, Dear Katie, I felt happy when I was in Art or Dear Winston, I felt frustrated when I was doing work. Yes, she sometimes wrote to the dog, and yes, it was incredible stuff. Not only did it help her work on understanding, identifying and communicating her emotions (which has always been a priority for us, as we believe it is the foundation of self-advocacy), it also allowed her to tell us how she was feeling, what mattered to her, what stood out for her during the day. We cherished the single lines on those printed sheets. They gave us our first glimpse into our girl’s life at school from her perspective.
Over the course of third and fourth grades, the eggheads fell away and Pixwriter took over completely. The notes expanded a bit with some prompting from Ms J. Ms J. would urge Brooke to include a little more detail, to explain things that we might not understand. She might remind her when she wrote “I was happy when we did the class cry in art,” that “They don’t know about the class cry; can you tell them what it is?”
And then, at the beginning of this year, everything changed again. Ms J had an idea. Would we be willing, she asked, to set up an email account for Brooke? Since it’s become an almost universal method of communication, she said, it would make sense for her to learn how to use it. It would also be a fabulous opportunity to work on, well, just about everything – emotional identification and communication, reading, writing, perspective taking, social skills, creating and expanding narrative, etc, etc, etc. I couldn’t do it fast enough. I set up an email for Brooke and, with her input, entered in five contacts: Mama, Daddy, Katie, Papa and Grammy. (Sadly, the dogs don’t have email.) She was ready to go.
In the beginning, Ms J did a fair amount of prompting, pushing Brooke beyond the one or two lines that she initially wanted to write. She asked her to flesh out her writing with details, to lengthen her narrative with just a little bit more of the story. She helped her with syntax and punctuation.
On September 13th, we got our very first email. Although it’s clear that Ms J had a heavy hand in facilitating it, it’s also clear that the ideas are all Brooke’s.
Hi Mama, Daddy, and Katie,
Lots of things happened at school today. Some were surprising, some were nice and some were scary. I’m gonna tell you about 2 of them. The first one was scary. It was the fire alarm. I was in my classroom and all of a sudden the fire alarm went off. I felt a little bit scared but I rocked it. I took a deep breathe and went outside with the class. I stayed calm and felt proud because I didn’t cry. Another thing was when we were in science. During science I made a boat out of tin foil and got to put it in the water to see if it can float with 25 pennies. My vessel had a little bit of water but it didn’t sink. I was happy that it floated. My favorite part of my day was floating the boats in science. Talk to you soon.
Over time, Ms J and Brooke have created a formula for the emails. They now always include an emotion, an event related to the emotion, and a question or comment about the recipient. The rest is left to Brooke. Ms J still prompts her to add detail and helps with punctuation, but the words are always Brooke’s. In fact, yesterday’s email was, as per Ms J’s attached note, completely independent. Or, as she put it, “Completely independent!!!!!!”
Hi MamaI had chorus today. During chorus some people were talking. It made Ms. S unhappy. How is your day? I was really happy when I was at recess because I liked building a snowman with my friends M, G, and L. Talk to you later.XOXOXOXOXOXO,Brooke
Oh, and, for the record, receiving them is ALWAYS my favorite part of the day.
Note: emails shared with Brooke’s permission