Tina K. Russell

October 22, 2008

Learning

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Tina Russell @ 12:41 pm

Reaching an Autistic Teenager – NYTimes.com

Mmm, this article gives me the fuzzy lump in mah heart. I may or may not have mentioned this before, but I have Attention Deficit Disorder. (The jokes, by the way, aren’t funny. Okay, except for this one.) It’s not pleasant. I also just never fit in as a kid… or, well, ever.

I don’t like having ADD and being transsexual, but hey, it’s my lot in life. I’m also a middle-class, white American attending college, so I get a lot of privileges in my life that I’m very grateful for.

Anyway, this article (a feature for The New York Times Magazine, which I am a slut for) talks about a new school for teenagers with autism and related disorders, and it makes me a bit misty and wistful. They teach that you should follow the child, not vice versa, and see where they go. Build on what they say and do. Then, along the way, they’ll learn the skills that anyone needs for life. (It’s more complicated than that, but I’m paraphrasing.) Essentially, time wasted trying to get them to act “normal,” however valiant and understandable an effort, could be spent exploring and learning about their worlds, giving you an opening to teach just about anything… at their pace.

I’m skeptical in general about fads in alternative education because I’ve been to so many alternative schools in my life. (I often say I’ll write a book about it; any takers?) Often, the theory has been that if you simply surround the child with learning stuff, they will take it all in by osmosis. I find this abhorrent! I’m a gamer. I need goals, I need obstacles, I need positive and negative reinforcement. But yes, I need to learn at my own pace; I’ll forever be glad that in seventh grade, I studied exponents, the Middle Ages, and the Russian Revolution. (The last was an independent project; teachers suggested I’d like the Russian Revolution because I like political upheaval. They suggested either that or the Cuban Revolution, which is funny because my dad is a Russia expert and my mom is a Cuba expert.) I studied censorship and read Huckleberry Finn. I presented the case for and against Kevin Mitnick, whom the government was then trying to ruin publicly for the electronic equivalent of trespassing (and is now, as could have been predicted, a reformed, well-paid computer security consultant). That school was awful—as a gifted middle school, it was an Ivy League version of Lord of the Flies—but I’ll remember well the things I learned, and the lessons reinforced by teachers who were not going to stand by and simply hope I’ll take it all in. (Again, another post.)

So, I read about this school for teens with autism and other learning disabilities and think wistfully about what it would be like to be in a school where you could choose your own direction. I’m not, to any degree, an “unschooler”; left to my own devices, I regrettably waste away due to a lack of motivation (or rather, a strong motivation and lack of drive, a pitiable state that nonetheless one can grow during). But, given a strong and well-designed system of incentives and disincentives, I like to fantasize about what it would be like to have a school I could design around me, rather than have a school attempt the other way around.

I’d probably do art all day. Art, art, art! I’d have naked people of all shapes and sizes trapse into my studio and I’d practice, practice, practice until I have about a million styles down pat. At the end of the day, I’d read things like economics like economics and history, that I’m also interested in, as well as the news, and practice my math on a computer program of my own conception. (I say this often: give me a grant and a year, and I’ll come up with a much better way of teaching mathematics.)

That’s wonderful to think about. It’s too bad it’s all a fantasy.

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