Who’s the Slow Learner? A Chronicle of Inclusion and Exclusion by Sandra Assimotos McElwee

[Originally posted on April 21, 2014 here]

Unknown Who’s the Slow Learner? A Chronicle of Inclusion and Exclusion
by Sandra Assimotos McElwee

Unlike the countless other memoirs written and published about raising a child with Down syndrome – woman gives birth; woman learns baby has Down syndrome; woman weeps, rails, and wrings hands; woman discovers acceptance and joy in having a child with Down syndrome (I’m not poking fun – this is very much my own story) – Who’s the Slow Learner is a chronicle of the author’s son’s schooling from preschool through high school graduation. This is a sorely needed book in the landscape of disability and education.

Sandra McElwee recounts her determination to see her son Sean, an only child, fully included in general education classrooms. A tenacious advocate, McElwee found what a lot of us parents are finding: that inclusion is much easier to accomplish in elementary school than it is in junior high and high school. From kindergarten through sixth grade, Sean was accepted in his neighborhood public school, and battles for inclusion on his behalf were minimal. The benefits of inclusion were clear: self-esteem, peer modeling, a sense of community and belonging, and far more learning opportunities for Sean, and lessons in compassion, tolerance, and embracing diversity for the other kids and the teachers.

Once Sean entered seventh grade, however, it all changed. He entered a hostile environment of blatant prejudice and exclusion. It took such a toll on Sean’s behavior and self-esteem that his mother finagled for him to skip eighth grade just so he wouldn’t have to return to such an unwelcoming atmosphere for a second year. In high school Sean slowly found his footing and flourished in making a place for himself in the social structure of high school, but acceptance by the teaching staff was still largely difficult and often hostile.

I read this book with great interest in anticipation of my own son’s IEP meeting that would determine his kindergarten placement for the upcoming school year. We’ve already had such terrible battles with our school district concerning our son who has Down syndrome – it’s been emotionally and financially draining, to say the least. I was especially interested because the McElwees are fairly local to me, although not in the same school district, so I thought it would give me a pretty good glimpse of what the future might hold for us regarding Finn’s schooling.

Like I said, this book is different from all the other personal stories of Down syndrome out there, and it fills a gap in the Down syndrome/disability literary landscape that has very much needed filling.

However.

My only criticism – and it’s a big one – is that the writing is very much in need of professional editing. This is a self-published book, and unfortunately, it shows. There are too many inspirational quotes (and too many faith-based passages which tend to alienate readers who don’t share the same beliefs), too many typos, not enough formatting, and not enough polish. It really needs a professional hand – especially for the price (ten bucks for Kindle and eighteen bucks for paperback). I think this book fills such a needed space, but would have so much more impact – on parents and educators – with a major editorial overhaul.

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The Junkyard Wonders by Patricia Polacco

[Originally posted on October 20, 2011 here]

The Junkyard Wonders by Patricia Polacco

When I picked my second-grade twins up from school yesterday, their teacher (also a friend of mine), tearfully told me about this book she had just finished reading to the class, and she urged me to take it home and read it, so I did.

Young Trisha has a learning disability and is the target of teasing and bullying. She longs to go live with her dad and grandma in Michigan and make a fresh start, where nobody will know how dumb she is. In Michigan, however, she is bewildered and crushed to find herself in a “special” class, just like in California where she lived with her mom.

Enter Mrs. Peterson, the teacher of this class – known as The Junkyard for its misfits, oddballs, and seemingly discarded kids. Her introduction misleads the reader into thinking she is a harsh character, until she explains the definition of genius to her class:

“Genius is neither learned nor acquired.

It is knowing without experience
It is risking without fear of failure
It is perception without touch
It is understanding without research
It is certainty without proof
It is ability without practice
It is invention without limitations
It is imagination without boundaries
It is creativity without constraints
It is……extraordinary intelligence!”

… and tells them that this describes each of them.

And thus follows an uplifting narrative about how these kids find their own worth, and their own special genius.

This story, inspired by the author’s own true-life experiences, is a wonderful parable about diversity, tolerance, and the value of all people, no matter what their differences or limitations might be. I love that my kids’ teacher is sharing these principles in her classroom. A wonderful story for teachers and parents alike to share with elementary school- age children.