Of Empowering Stories and Assertive Squirrels

I woke up early this cold morning, shivering as thoughts surged around in my head. Reflecting on my late-night reading, I could not get Parvana, from Deborah Ellis’s The Breadwinner, out of my mind. Although her dreams were brutally crushed, this young Afghan girl found hope enough to rise above the ashes. Parvana’s story forces me to ask the question, What is it that makes the human spirit so resilient?

Walking to my window, I am drawn into the world of winter creatures fighting for survival. Our new feeder, mounted on two wires between the chopped off “Dr. Seuss trees,” is strategically placed far from foraging squirrels, but apparently, not far enough. Without realizing it, I am pulled into the action of a story that has begun to unfold before me. One creative squirrel balances herself like a trapeze artist along the wire, then jumps onto the bird feeder before sliding in neatly for a feeding.

Wanting to protect the birds’ pantry, I run outside in my knit slippers and grab some rotten apples. Soon the apples are sailing through the air alongside my blood-curdling screams. At this, the squirrel beats a hasty retreat, but I know I must strategize to avoid further pillaging. My next method involves hanging records across the squirrel wire (yes, my husband found some old Beatles and Bob Dylan LP’s stored away) to block access. Only time will tell whether my methods prove effective, and so goes the story of backyard survival. Backyard, front yard, living room and classroom—everything unfolding around you is a story. You are a story, and your students are stories, each different from the next.

What if we considered learning disabilities in terms of story? Working for many years with students who have learning disabilities has taught me that one essential element in helping students claim their story is building self-esteem. There are no magic formulas for teaching special education—one just has to be ready to sprinkle stars of hope into the frustrated minds of those struggling to learn.

If a student comes to school upset about something that happened at home, or with anxiety about what might happen on the playground that day, we need to understand and listen before teaching the lesson that was planned. The indomitable spirit of the squirrel, who will likely bound over the records in one flying leap, reminds me of the tenaciousness of many of our students with learning disabilities. When we educators build on our students’ strengths, we inspire hope and confidence within them. With confidence, students tap into their God-given ability to overcome the obstacles presented to them inside and outside of the classroom. Their stories transform from stories of disability to stories of ability.

One way for teachers, parents, and peers to understand the multiple perspectives of the differently-abled population is to read about them. Through literature, we can enter into the lives of those who have faced, understood, and sometimes even overcome their challenges. Who is not inspired by the classic story of Helen Keller? More current, perhaps, is the story of Temple Grandin, who very aptly notes that autistic children are “very creative, and need to be challenged with their strengths” (Calvin College, January Series, January 10, 2011). Grandin’s redemptive story of her life and career as a person with autism inspires readers and viewers alike through both books and film.

Below are short reviews of excellent fiction novels that have really touched me. For younger students, picture books are an excellent way to deal with learning differences in the classroom simply by creating awareness. By creating awareness, you include all students in your classroom “story.”

Recommended Fiction Books

House Rules by Jodi Picoult

This is good for summer reading, as once you start, you can’t put it down. Picoult decided to write about autism because so many children are now diagnosed on that spectrum. Jacob Hunt, a teenage boy with Asperger’s Syndrome who struggles with reading social cues, is extremely focused on forensic analysis, and as a result finds himself accused of murder. Picoult gives a glimpse into the world of Asperger’s and into the huge effect this has on family life. You won’t forget it!

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

This popular book, which came out in 2003, is a “must-read.” It is funny, serious, creative, and enlightening. Protagonist Christopher John Francis Boone is very endearing, and by the end of the story, you’ll never forget him, his fantastic memory, and his inability to understand feelings. I read it twice and couldn’t put it down the second time, either. Good for young and old alike.

Looking for X by Deborah Ellis (children’s fiction)

Khyber is a young girl with twin brothers who are autistic. The story focuses on their family life, the lack of understanding surrounding autism, and Khyber’s special relationship with, and desperate search for, her friend X. This is a book that reflects on friendship and accepting differences.

The movie Temple Grandin reflects on Grandin’s life and her struggle to overcome the challenges of autism. This is a “must see!” The book Thinking in Pictures, by Temple Grandin, is also enlightening. She opens with these words: “I think in pictures. Words are like a second language to me. I translate both spoken and written words into full-color movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR tape in my head.”

Picture Books

  • My Brother Sammy by Becky Edwards and David Armitage
  • My Brother Charlie by Holly R. Peete and Ryan E. Peete (written by Charlie’s mother and twin sister)
  • What’s Wrong With Timmy by Maria Shriver
  • I Can’t Sit Still: Living with ADHD by Pam Pollack and Meg Belviso

You may also visit www.teachervision.fen.com/learning-disabilities/reading/5316.html or www.monroe.lib.in.us/childrens/booklists/disabilitybib.html for annotated lists of recommended books.