I have a special needs aunt and she has had the greatest influence on my teaching abilities. My aunt has taught me skills that are valuable to any content area and profession. What has she taught me? How can you apply what she has taught me? I share with you in hope that you too will be inspired by her.
I am not a special education teacher and have not studied to become one. What I have learned is based upon my personal experiences. I am a trained teacher with a master’s degree and have learned much from the formal class settings over the years. Although this may be, my special needs aunt has been one of my greatest teachers in affecting how I view instructional models, design content and in implementing instruction to students. I am often asked how do I think up the ideas I come up with and where have I learned how to do certain things. I am well-trained, so I don’t want this to sound like I’m not. However, regardless of content area that I have taught I am consistent in my abilities to think up ideas for teaching students to learn effectively. What does this mean?
When I teach, I don’t just teach…When I create materials, I don’t just create materials…When I plan, I don’t just plan…When I adapt curriculum, I just don’t adapt curriculum…I use my aunts strengths and abilities as a mental guide to help direct me in what I need to do to accomplish the task of my work to be the utmost student friendly whether it be teaching, creating materials, planning, adapting curriculum, ect.
I don’t know if there is even a specific disability to call what my aunt has. All I can tell you is that she has special needs and is unique in her abilities. She is not autistic, but some characteristics she has are very similar to autism. She does have physical disabilities which limit some of her motor skills. She does have mental disabilities which limit her cognitive abilities. I can’t even say which grade level her mental abilities are par to. I can say that she is smart in her own right and she shines in what she can do. This is who she is.
Her physical limitations have greatly inspired my teaching techniques. I grew up watching my aunt move around and about. I watched her with intricate detail, observing how she manages to do things. She does have limitations with her legs in motor movement. She is able to walk but must have help with a cane. She is somewhat impaired in her legs but manages. She has limitations and crippling in some of her fingers- one hand more than the other. One hand is mostly stiff. Despite these physical limitations, she has learned to compensate and overcome.
Often in my childhood, my siblings and I would go bowling with my aunt. This was part of her physical therapy. Boy, could she bowl. She would do better than any of the rest of us.
Later on in her adulthood my aunt began to pick up playing the keyboard and piano. She had never been taught. The musical gift does stem deep within my families’ traditions, so in some ways it was no surprise to any of us that she acquired the family music gifting. After all, it is in her blood. She began playing by ear and has continued since. She is good and conquers the limitations of her hands. She may not be able to play Chopin, but she can play melodies and chords at the same time with both hands. She picks up tunes by ear and masters what she can do. She is genius in her own right! I am in awe of her abilities when I see them. For years, while I was growing up she couldn’t do this. My family thinks it’s from years of hearing and watching the music in the family around her. Regardless of this, my aunt picked it up herself and she does very well.
My aunt has many mental limitations. I cannot say what her true mental ability is, but what I can say is that it is probably somewhere on an elementary level equivalency. She is smart with music playing. She enjoys taking photos and does very well with that. She loves to clean house and help. She is very social and talkative once she gets started. She can write some but not very well. I don’t think she can read. She is in a group home environment where she has roommates. There are nurses there 24 hours a day though to help make sure she is taken care of. She helps in what she can and has a very happy social life.
What have I learned from my aunt?
- My aunt has taught me to be patient and compassionate for all students.
- She has taught me to put myself in my students’ shoes. I make myself think like my students. I am not my students, so I can’t obviously completely think like them. What I mean is, I think what I would do if I had their limitations. I think, observe and brainstorm what would help me if I had a particular limitation my student has. I don’t think like I am the teacher thinking of what would help the student. I think, “If I am the student, what would help me most?” Sometimes I have acted out limitations my students have to brainstorm ideas for materials, adaptations, and lessons that will help them most. When I say limitation, it could be a physical or mental limitation, but can also be an area where a student of average intelligence is struggling with a particular concept. When I do this, it is not just for my special needs students.
I had a blind student once and so I closed my eyes to see what it was like. I created materials that would help this student. I then closed my eyes and interacted with the materials before I decided that the materials would be effective. I had a student that was missing some fingers but wanted to play an instrument. I pretended I didn’t have fingers to brainstorm solutions on what instruments this student could play with the limbs he did have. I had special needs students who did not have enough motor ability to use their hands to play instruments in music class. I acted out what it was like not to have hand movements and tried to act out and figure out what limbs and muscles these students were able to use. I then created adaptive mallets and drumming techniques to modify music playing for these students. I’ve had students with learning limitations as well where I have thought as if I had those limitations and what would work best for me to overcome the limitation and facilitate learning.
Instead of thinking top-down in the lesson planning and creating process, my aunt has taught me to think from the bottom-up. In the top-down process the teacher thinks like a teacher. In some situations this is good, but this limits creative lesson planning and adapting materials to accommodate learning needs. Thinking from the bottom-up perspective enables the teacher to essentially be the student with the problems first, and then the teacher can be the teacher who creates the materials to help the student’s problems. Bottom-up thinking and lesson planning allows much more variation in adapting materials and lessons for all students. I’ve learned this technique from my special needs aunt. I have learned it by watching her and then trying to figure out how she does something with her limitations. My aunt has been my indirect teacher. She has made me a better educator.
The answer to where I come up with the ideas and solutions that I do, does not come from some master teaching college course. It comes from life experiences and observations of my special needs aunt. I have seen her overcome limitations. I have seen patient and compassionate people work with her and teach her. I have seen people never give up on her. She has always been believed in. Her parents (my grandparents) instilled that in her and in the rest of my family.
So, how can you practice bottom-up teaching?
- Get over the fact that you are the teacher, especially when lesson planning. Yes you are and yes you need to be in the authoritative role of teaching and facilitating students. If you see yourself as top-down then you cannot transform your teaching to bottom-up. You need to relax, open your mind and pretend you are a student. When it’s time to be the authoritative role, then let that kick in. But, let the student in you come out when you are planning.
- Don’t be so serious, relax and think like a student when you are lesson planning. This means stop thinking of serious adult-like boring lessons. Think as a student. Let the serious teacher come out when you need to. At other times relax and think what would be most fun to do in a class lesson if you were a student. Chances are if you pretend you are a student and you think the lesson will be boring, then it is boring. Don’t do it! If you plan a lesson and think as a student that “WOW” this lesson would excite you, then chances are it is exciting. Then do it in your lesson!
- Just because the adaptive materials I create looks like they would be for special needs students doesn’t mean they are and doesn’t mean they aren’t. I often do very tactile and kinesthetic activities in my lessons. I have been told, well that is a special education teaching strategy. Really!? Who says? If something I prepared for a lesson helps a student learn and meet learning objectives, regardless of who the student is, what they have or what they don’t have, it doesn’t matter. I learn best through tactile and kinesthetic lessons and I’m an adult. If I am this way, then obviously kids are more so.
- Stop being boring and use your imagination. Be creative. Put ideas abstractly together. Put ideas together that are different and unique. Instead of thinking of the whole picture, break the learning scenario apart. Deconstruct the goals and brainstorm effective ways to overcome learning difficulties. Use techniques, tools, objects, technology, etc. in ways that are nontraditional. Brainstorm creative ways that will help adapt learning materials for student success.
- Slow down in your planning. Yes, teachers are very busy. But, sometimes slowing down and just imagining, not even doing, just imagining helps bring creative vibes and solutions. After you take time to slow down, draw, map and write down creative solutions. Analyze and break apart ideas to see how they fit together with learning needs. Role play the ideas to see if they work.
- Believe in the impossible in students. Believe they can do it. Believe and set all learning goals, attitudes and outcomes to sparking this belief in them. No one ever thought my aunt would have the family music gift and play piano, but she did. Nothing is ever impossible. If you think something is impossible for a student, then you as an instructor are putting limitations on the student. Students are very observant and can see this in body language and speech. Monitor yourself, your beliefs, your actions, and speech to make sure they are aligned in believing the impossible for every student.
Bottom-up teaching is curriculum mapping and design from the student’s level and prospective. It is developing lessons and content from that level and building up to the instructional level where the learning objectives and mastery are. It is using adaptive design ideals and creation.
My aunt was a bottom-up teacher to me. I would not be the educator I am today without her teaching and inspiration. She has indirectly impacted many lives…my life, my colleagues who I share materials and ideas with, my students, and…now yours.
Who is your bottom-up teacher? Who has most inspired what you do?