As of today, I’ve completed my first school speech therapy assignment, with children aged 3 to 5 years old in an inner city public school. My caseload included 28 children, and I had one month left in the school year. From the first day, it felt like a race to get acquainted, connect with, and help each one of them. It’s harder at the end of a school year to find children, with so many practicing the “moving up ceremony” (graduation to kindergarten), a school-wide field trip, and miscellaneous absences. When I greeted the children, each get his or her own “Hello Hand,” a large hand-shaped clapper noisemaker. At the same time a reminder, a hall pass of sorts, and a greeting, the typical children in the classroom each wanted to clap the hand, too, so they would help me find my student in the classroom or on the playground when they saw me. Within a couple of weeks, the students on my caseload knew and came to me or went without fuss.
The school was being closed probably forever (with every sort of hazardous substance somewhere within its centenarian walls). As soon as we’d met each other, the school evidenced increasing facts of moving. Circle time and floor time lost their rugs and couches, and each day more bookcases lost their toy bins, puppets, or books. I already was carrying my own toys and tools with me (which I had made or bought) in large beach bags, but now I could only count on those. Boxes stacked higher; I left nothing in a classroom lest it be packed up.
The toys and materials we used were mine.Materials are not everything, but I was eager to capture their imaginations and attention. The children soon came to speech to “play” and had favorite activities. I love it when a child is unaware that he is learning important words and trying harder than he had been. Within a couple of weeks, some cried out that they wanted “ants,” my interactive version of Ants Everywhere, and UNDER and ON printable book. My homemade set of Boardmaker symbols and pictures, with IKEA finger puppets, for the classic Brown Bear Brown Bear by E. Carle, I was told, resembled a set the special education teacher had purchased for $30. The children could see my picture of what was coming on the next page and start to recognize that the words had meanings, too. The resource teacher owned a commercially-made set of figurines and cards for following directions. Keen to be different, my direction-following set consisted of tiny cars, a blueberry crate “garage,” and DollarTree skateboards, cones, and signs. My baby doll direction-following set (assembled for an average unit per piece of under $1) was less of a hit among my students (almost all male. )
I wanted to mirror what the teachers were teaching, too. The year’s curriculum closed with several units on “Buildings,” which struck me as odd for small children until I realized “house,” “school,” “store,” and “grandma’s” count as “buildings,” and children learn what a room is, not what style of roof is over it. So I made a play mat with two-lane roads, stop lights, bus stops, and pictures of places around the city. Since most children were getting “group” speech sessions, I finally found several identical (important!) school buses, since school buses are intriguing and mysterious for this age. The children really enjoyed playing bus.” The bus followed traffic signs, broke down and went to “the repair shop,” and stopped at stops for people to get on. The children independently recognized the bus stops and fast food signs, but they didn’t yet know what a restaurant or store is. The only clear photo I found of a local school was of the high school, alongside an article about a 62-year old high school teacher being stabbed by a student.
The students didn’t recognize the landmarks I had included of their own de-industrialized city, the bridge and National Historical Park. The city was founded by an industrial organization created by “Founding Father” Alexander Hamilton of the $10 bill. His story is not history; it won 10 Tony awards last week, and his cast album debuted top of the rap chart. True Broadway hip-hop.
Largely self-taught and Caribbean-born, the lyrics accurately say he was the “immigrant bastard son of an whore and a Scotsman,”who went to what had been “Kings College” and is now Columbia, and then practiced law. (“My name is Alexander Hamilton, and there is so much I haven’t done, just you wait, just you wait.”) I hope that the children I worked with this spring learn their letters and more, and stay on to the High School and beyond.