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This is How You Sign 'I Love You'

A different look at the impact of special education.

I'm starting to resent the word "good."

Each afternoon I ask my third grader, "What did you do in school today?" I want details, but all I usually get is a mumbled, one-word answer:  "Good."

I know, typical pre-tween behavior. I should get ready for the slow-down in communication, sleeping-in until noon and an uptick in eye-rolls. So when he bounds off the bus and the opposite happens, it definitely takes me aback.

"Wanna see something totally cool, Mom?! This is how you say 'You're welcome' in sign language. And this means 'boy' and this means 'girl.' And this is how you sign all the names of everybody in class."

His excited, stream-of-consciousness recounting of the day's lesson overwhelms me with its energy, enthusiasm and joy.

Why is my hearing son learning sign language in his mainstream class at Cider Mill? He had the enviable good luck to be placed in a class with a teacher who is the universe's gift to teaching. This teacher has a concentration in sign language studies and she signs everything she teaches in the classroom, all day, every day.

But the other reason my boy won the lottery of class placements? There's a student in his class whose needs dictate that she have certain accommodations made to her learning plan within the school day. One of her primary ways of communication is through sign language.

My son calls this classmate his "second teacher." Why? She was the one who taught him how to sign "you're welcome" after their rousing game of "Rock, Paper, Scissors." Now he and every other child in the class are learning just how supremely lucky they are to be her classmate.

At some eventual point in the hot-button debate about budget cuts, someone treads over the 'politically correct' line to ask, "Hey, why aren't we making heavier cuts to the special education budget?" Figures get tossed around: only nine percent of the population gets served by special-ed funding, but it takes up 20% of the budget. 

It's a complicated topic that grows more thorny as there's less funding to go around. Wilton's Board of Education maintains a philosophy of trying to meet the individual needs of all learners in an integrated environment. With past budget reductions, school administrators have been forced to cut back on aides in all learning areas. Now, as class sizes grow, sometimes paraprofessionals who are supposed to be working with one identified student start to pitch in for all the learners in class, special needs or not.

What stands out to me, though, is seeing the kind of human being my son is learning how to be because he shares the classroom with all different types of learners. And it strengthens my view that this is one of the last areas of the budget that should be cut.

If the argument is made that so much spending benefits only a small part of the population, I would argue that making sure we do everything we can to meet the needs of this small population actually benefits everyone. In fact, research points to better academic and behavioral skills of the entire student population when students of different abilities and needs are placed in the same class.

My son is learning how to be compassionate and courteous. He sees how accommodations can be made that not only don't take away from his experience but enhance it. He sees that the differences which make us individuals are everyday, normal and mutually beneficial, not something to be feared, hated or ridiculed. We're educating the total child to be a human being. 

I hope my children's generation has been born or reared into not seeing the differences, not caring who walks a little differently, who learns with assistance, whose skin is paler, who loves who, or whose house is bigger. I hope they see that we all just…are. 

Knowing what's going on in his classroom this year, I realize that what they did in school today is good.

***

Special Note: The Board of Finance is holding two informational meetings about the town budget process.  This is the ideal place to let them know how important it is to maintain the highest possible levels of funding for the Wilton School Board budget.  The meetings are being held at the Wilton Library, on Thursday Dec. 9 at 10:30 A.M. and on Thursday Dec. 16 at 7:30 P.M. 

***

Countdown until the 2011-2012 Board of Education budget is decided:

42 Days left until the Wilton schools Superintendent presents his recommended budget (Jan. 20, 2011)

111 Days left until the Board of Finance holds its Public Hearing on the Education budget (March 30, 2011)

145 Days left until the Town Meeting (May 3, 2011)

Please help make sure our schools have the funding they need to keep educating our kids to the highest possible standards. Attend a Board of Finance meeting, a Board of Education meeting, let your elected officials know how you feel.

Robin Sherman December 09, 2010 at 06:29 PM
Our middle daughter was a very special little girl who lost her fight against a degenerative disease 9 years ago while a student at Middlebrook. From K-7 she had the most amazing, compassionate friends. I know she gave as much as she received from those classroom relationships. Her older sister is a new Kindergarten teacher in NYC and taking a sign language course. This story will surely inspire her to bring her new knowledge to the everyday classroom. Reading your story made my day! Thank you. Robin Sherman
Maryann Lombardi December 09, 2010 at 06:38 PM
What a great commentary. As parents this is our goal and best possible outcome for all our children with special needs. The opportunity to learn side by side creating meaningful relationships makes our town a great place to live. Maryann Lombardi
Karen Earls December 14, 2010 at 08:11 PM
As a mom of a hearing impaird 2 year old who will soon be in the Wilton Public school system, I greatly appreciate your taking the time to write this! Thanks, Heather! Karen Earls (mom to Henry and William)
Eric Cameron December 15, 2010 at 03:50 PM
Great article. My daughter is also in that class and we could not be happier. She is becoming quite fluent in sign language and has fun teaching the family what she has learned. As for the BOE budget, I agree we need to ensure that they get the funding they need. However I would like to know why the BOE decides to cut math teachers and increase class sizes yet decides to keep high school courses such as Jewelry Making, Crafts (yes there are 4 sections on how to make crafts), Ceramics, Sculpture, etc etc. I am not against the fine arts but not at the expense of math, science, and language (English as well as foreign) classes.
Brian Kesselman November 21, 2011 at 02:12 PM
Heather, I missed this article first time around. Glad you had a link to it today. It touched a couple personal (pleasant) nerves. 1) Many special needs kids grow up very caring and compassionate as a byproduct of their personal experience. 2) Often other kids who share classes or camp with special needs kids get their own new measure of compassion. 3) As a high school student I spent time working with deaf teens from NYC. Sign language has its own beauty and unique value. Whether it's "Sign With Your Baby", Pidgin Signed English (PSE) or American Sign Language (ASL), the combinations of movement, thought and language are powerful. Adding the personal pride I get from communicating with someone in their own language, and even helping someone who is considered disabled, I am driven to be somewhat evangelical and suggest that everyone try to learn at least a few key phrases. 4) Our schools are filled with many excellent teachers and resources. Budget issues aside, I hope everyone in town appreciates having youth that are growing up with a curriculum and environment that provides more than a straight book learning. And I believe those youth are becoming better people and citizens as a result. Thank you. Merci. Gracias. Todah. Shekerah. Shi Shi Yeh. Arigato. Shok'di'a. Spaciba. http://www.lifeprint.com/asl101/pages-signs/t/thankyou.htm

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