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

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

Unlike the countless other memoirs written and published about raising a child with Down syndrome – woman give 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 McElwees recounts her determination to see her son Sean, an only child, fully included in general education classrooms.  A tenacious advocate, McElwees 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 last week 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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Children of the Core by Kris Nielsen

51b3onsmfnl-_sy300_-1 Children of the Core
by Kris Nielsen

If you’re a parent of school-aged children in the U.S., you’ve probably heard of Common Core by now.  What is Common Core, and why is it so controversial?

Common Core is a set of educational standards for grades K – 12 that has thus far been adopted by forty-four U.S. states.  The Common Core Standards Initiative (CCSI) sets forth what children across America should learn at each grade level in mathematics and English/language arts, with the end goal of ensuring that every child in the country graduates from high school “college and career ready.”

It sounds really good on the surface.  But there are many problems with Common Core and the associated standardized testing, and there is a growing body of educators and parents who see Common Core as a very bad thing for kids, schools, and teachers.  There are many people who believe that anything will be better than No Child Left Behind – an initiative that has resulted in “drill and kill” teaching, teaching to the test, and students who memorize facts only to do well on the standardized tests they are pressured to perform well on because their teachers’ jobs and the future of their schools depend on their test scores.  There are others who see CCSI as NCLB on steroids.

Kris Nielsen is a former teacher whose letter of resignation to his school district went viral in 2012.  Nielsen is intimately familiar with Common Core from an educator’s perspective, and has written this book, Children of the Core, to caution parents and offer advice on how a peaceful resistance can be staged in order to prevent Common Core from taking over the U.S. education system before it’s too late.

It sounds alarmist and the stuff of conspiracy theorists, but there actually are some truths about Common Core that every parent should question and be concerned about.  Children of the Core is very eye-opening, and I’ll be using it to provide some talking points when I meet with my school district’s superintendent next week to discuss Common Core in our district.

 


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Mating For Life by Marissa Stapley

Mating-for-Life-by-Marissa-Stapley Mating for Life: A Novel
by Marissa Stapley

I received an advance copy of this novel, slated to be released this summer, from bookbrowse.com.

Set in Canada, at the heart of the story are four women: Helen and her three daughters, Fiona, Ilsa, and Liane, each fathered by a different man.

Helen is an aging former folksinger who became well-known not only for her music, but for her insistence that she didn’t need any man.  She has moved in and out of relationships throughout her life seemingly as cavalierly as playground relationships.  Now that she is in her sunset years, she finds herself suddenly grappling with a longing for a more permanent companion.

Fiona, Helen’s oldest daughter, projects the image of the perfect mother and wife, living the perfect life.  It’s a brittle facade, however.  Behind closed doors, everything is as far from perfect as she can imagine, and when her husband reveals a long-kept secret, Fiona’s world crumbles.

Ilsa is the beautiful middle daughter.  Married to a “staid” older man and the mother of two young children, Ilsa feels restless and suffocated by her life, and enters into a dangerous liaison that can only bring heartache.

Liane is the youngest of Helen’s daughters and unhappily engaged when a handsome writer enters her life.  Soon she breaks off her engagement and jumps headfirst into a new relationship, trying to navigate her role as girlfriend and “step-something” to his two daughters.

This novel is about couplings and uncouplings, and really doesn’t cover anything new.  Each chapter opens with a description of a different animal’s mating habits, and that animal then makes a cameo appearance somewhere in the chapter.  The story is told in alternating voices, but because it’s told not only in the voices of Helen and her three daughters, but also several other supporting characters, I felt that there were a few too many voices, and the story became a bit muddled.

Still, the writing is good, and it’s an enjoyable story, even if it’s forgettable and not deep or profound (although I think it tries to be?).  Chick-lit; good, light, beach reading.


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Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne

519QdZq5fjL Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History
by S.C. Gwynne

Wow.

This book, which I’ve been reading over the past week or so and just finished about thirty minutes ago with tears in my eyes, kind of blew me away.

My husband bought this book for me on a whim a while back (sweet man – he knows that the way to my heart is through books), and it sat on my to-read shelf gathering dust with a lot of other books until I recently read One Thousand White Women for my book club.  I found that book to be a pretty romanticized and often cheesy depiction of life with Indians in the untamed American west, and it left me very curious about what life was really like in that time and place.  Empire of the Summer Moon delivers.

Told in meticulous and beautiful detail, this historical account of the rise and fall of the Comanches, the most fierce and powerful Indian tribe America ever saw, is absolutely riveting – and in some ways turned my ideas about “how the west was won” upside down.  Despite the sanitized version of history I grew up with in school, there has always been the knowledge that the Indians were here first, and the white people came along and spread disease, enslaved Indians, and stole their land.  The truth, apparently, is more complicated than that.  While it is true that the white people did those things, it’s also true that long before white people came to America, the Indians were fighting each other, as well as Spaniards and Mexicans over land, and murdering and enslaving each other.  America has a bloody, bloody history dating back to the very beginning.

Central to this historical account of the Comanches are the stories of Cynthia Ann Parker and her son, Quanah.  In the 1830s whites began settling in Texas – at the time, a desolate land isolated from civilization.  The land was virtually free for the taking, but whites venturing there were takingimages their lives into their own hands, as the Indian presence was a grave menace.  The Parker family was one such family that, despite terrible danger, decided to settle in the southern part of Texas.  They built a fort to protect themselves against enemy Indians – a collection of log cabins to house the extensive family, a main fort, all fenced in by razor-sharp cedar posts and a reinforced, bullet-proof gate.  On a fateful day in 1836, however, the gate was left open, and the fort was raided by Indians.  Many Parker family members were killed, and a handful taken prisoner by the Comanches – among them, nine-year old, blonde, blue-eyed Cynthia Ann.  While the other prisoners were eventually killed or ransomed back to their white kinsfolk, Cynthia Ann was adopted by the Comanches and fully assimilated into the tribe – so much so that future attempts by whites to buy her back from the Comanches failed – she flat out refused to leave her Indian family.  She married and had three children and spent twenty-five years as a full-fledged Comanche Indian squaw.  Eventually, she was captured by whites and returned, against her will, to her white relatives, where she spent several miserable, despondent years until her death.  Cynthia Ann’s story is heart-wrenching, and raises ethical and humanitarian questions that are impossible to answer.

smallOne of her children was Quanah, twelve years old at the time of his mother’s re-capture by white men.  Quanah went on to become a great Comanche warrior and war chief, and was one of the last hold-outs of the Comanche nation against the whites.  Eventually the Comanches numbers dwindled thanks to buffalo hunters that virtually wiped out the Indians’ food supply over a period of years, to white man’s diseases, and actual combat between whites and Indians, and the last of the Comanches, led by Quanah, surrendered and began the demoralization of reservation life.  Somehow Quanah assimilated well into the white man’s world, refusing to look back, and he became a highly respected and prosperous man.  Quanah never forgot his mother, Cynthia Ann, and his search for her grave and insistence on being buried next to her were extremely moving.

This frank history is not for the faint of heart; it is filled with graphic accounts of horrific, almost unimaginable atrocities Indians perpetrated on whites, on other Indians, and which whites committed against Indians.  There were parts that actually gave me bad dreams.  Nonetheless, it’s a necessary read, I think, for anyone who wants to understand the true history of America – or at least an integral portion of that history.

Despite the heinous, bloody crimes of the Comanches, I was left at the end feeling a great sense of loss for the majestic days when the Indians roamed free and wild.

A truly breathtaking book.

 


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Growing Up Godless: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Kids Without Religion by Deborah Mitchell

Unknown Growing Up Godless: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Kids Without Religion
by Deborah Mitchell

My initial introduction to Deborah Mitchell came a little over a year ago by way of an article she wrote for CNN iReports entitled Why I Raise My Kids Without God.  The title of the article alone spoke to me; I was curious to see what another parent had to say on a subject that has been fact in our house for years.  As it turned out, Debbie’s article went viral and, I believe, remains the most viewed and shared iReports article on CNN of all time.  I was so impressed by her article, and appreciated and agreed so much with what she wrote that I did a little digging and found that she also has a blog, Raising Kids Without Religion, of which I’ve become a loyal reader over the last year.  I’ve also had the privilege of corresponding with Debbie privately and getting to know her on a personal level.  Imagine my surprise when she contacted me and asked if I would be interested in making a contribution to her forthcoming book that would be coming out in the spring of 2014!

Growing Up Godless is that book . . .

Read the rest of my review, and enter to win a free copy of Growing Up Godless here.


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The Anti-Romantic Child by Priscilla Gilman

9780061690273 The Anti-Romantic Child: A Story of Unexpected Joy
by Priscilla Gilman

Where to start?

I honestly can’t decide if I loved this book or disliked it.  I suppose both.

In this memoir, Gilman tells of her idyllic childhood and the pain that was wrought by her parents’ split when she was ten.  Always a pleaser, she spent much of the next couple of decades trying to fulfill the wishes and expectations placed on her by her family and teachers, pursuing a life of academia.  Through it all, she pines for the romanticized version of her early childhood and longs to replicate it with children of her own.

When her first child is born, he is different from what she had expected from the beginning: he is “floppy” and not the cuddly child she had envisioned.  In fact, he resists most forms of physical contact and in many ways appears an island.  As Benj progresses into toddlerhood, he remains distant, he is clumsy and slow to meet gross motor milestones, and is plagued by inexplicable anxieties and tics.  At the same time, he begins reading fluently by age two and shows a remarkable capacity for memorization, and an obsession with letters, numbers, and lining up and ordering things.

“Part of what made my dawning realizations about Benj so disconcerting and devastating was that I had thought I knew him so well.  After the initial sense of alienation and despite my continued sense of a fundamental difference or distance between us, Benj, with all his quirks, had become utterly familiar to me.  There had been no one more familiar to me than my son.  I had considered myself totally tuned in to his needs and had accepted him on his own terms.  In fact, I had embraced him for what he was, because I still wanted to be the devoted mother of the romantic child I’d imagined; even if (or especially because) the child didn’t match the ideal, my love for him would.  But now I wondered: was this acceptance instead based on a ‘fond illusion of my heart’ (Wordsworth, ‘Peele Castle’)?  Was it a kind of denial, a refusal to help or even accurately perceive him?  To question your grasp of your child is to suffer a great loss.”

Every aspect of Gilman’s life is informed by the poetry of William Wordsworth, of which she is both a student and a professor, and her book is liberally peppered with Wordsworth poetry that acted as both knife and balm to her mother’s heart.

Around the age of two and a half, Benj’s issues become troubling enough that Gilman decides to begin the process of having him evaluated.  Certain aspects of her story resonated so strongly with me with regard to my own child who has Down syndrome:

“Now, with the outside world’s judgments and prescriptions infecting our family, with the knowledge that we would have to have him formally evaluated in clinical settings, our peaceful happy private life, a life in which we – not teachers or doctors or therapists – defined his value and his identity, was gone.  Benj was still his same sweet self, but my entire sense of him, of our family, of his and our future had changed.”

I could very much relate to that feeling of loss relating to allowing the sterile, clinical world intrude on our family to assess our child and break him down into scores and numbers and deficiencies.

Benj is diagnosed with hyperlexia (which is like the opposite of dyslexia) and a myriad of delays, sensory issues, and obsessive-compulsivity, and so begins his entrance into special schooling and intensive therapies.  Indeed, nearly their entire lives seem to be taken up with various therapies for young Benj.  Meanwhile, Gilman leaves academia behind and her fairy-tale marriage breaks up, due in large part to a polarization in her and her husband’s feelings about their son’s issues.

Gilman’s prose is beautiful and from the heart; she is a gifted writer and tells her story vividly.  I think what I found frustrating – as a parent of a child with special needs myself – was what I perceive as a juxtaposition, or maybe just waffling, between Gilman’s determination to accept her son and value him exactly as he is, rejecting notions of achievement-based valuing of human beings, and a strong sense of ableism and very much wanting to normalize Benj as much as possible,  by relentlessly plunging him into therapy after therapy aimed at changing him.  Perhaps, however, her summing up of her feelings explains it best:

“Wordsworth has strengthened my commitment to simultaneously helping Benj integrate into society and honoring his differences.  Our therapeutic efforts have been, of course, designed to help Benj be more ‘romantic’: more spontaneous, imaginative, intrepid, playful, connected to others.  But even while striving so hard to help Benj become more romantic, I always wanted to remember that Benj’s antiromantic traits are valuable and wonderful and an essential part of who he is.  They are strengths and gifts.  I never want them denigrated or dismissed as ‘splinter skills.’  Both my reading of Wordsworth and my experience with Benj have taught me the danger of the very idea of ‘normalcy.’  I will always resist mightily any orientation or approach that sees Benj as a problem or somehow ‘broken’ rather than as simply and profoundly himself.”

It was perplexing to me that her son never received a formal diagnosis; so much of what she describes seems like autism, but that may admittedly be my own misconceptions and assumptions.  I wondered if it was a form of denial on her part, or a manifestation of the ableism I perceived in her.  And yet, she explains very eloquently,

“Despite numerous evaluations over the past seven years by developmental pediatricians, psychologists, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, and psychiatrists, Benj has never received an official label or diagnosis.  He clearly has shades of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and could be grouped under the headings of sensory-integration disorder and social-pragmatic language disorder; now, as he gets older, I often describe him as ‘borderline Asperger’s,’ usually as a kind of shorthand when I need to succinctly explain why he’s in a special school.  I’ve always been ambivalent about the idea of labels.  They’re undeniably useful for securing the much-needed therapies and special services, but I’ve often wondered how a label would be helpful in understanding Benj.  Would a label make people more sympathetic to him?  Or would it get in the way of appreciating the complex, intricate person Benj is?  How much detail, nuance, subtlety do we lose when we slap labels on people, and especially on still-developing kids?  Reducing Benj to a label would me the loss of mystery, romance, respect for the idea of identity as something that can never be precisely defined of fully known or mastered.”

But there are children like my own who are born with a recognizable, inescapable diagnosis or label; and so, while I fully appreciate Gilman’s hesitancy at using labels, I can’t help but also recoil a bit at her feeling that labels are reductive.  In reality, sometimes they can’t be avoided, for all of their pitfalls.

This is a very different sort of memoir that I’ve read before, generally and pertaining to having a child with special needs, in large part because it is so heavily informed by the author’s passion for literature.  Despite my misgivings, it has definitely given me pause to consider how other parents approach disability.


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One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd by Jim Fergus

33512 One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd
by Jim Fergus

This novel is a western with a twist: the recounting of a fictional agreement between President Ulysses S. Grant and the Cheyenne Sweet Medicine Chief, Little Wolf, wherein the U.S. government traded 1,000 white women for 1,000 horses, as told through the detailed journals of the fictional May Dodd, a participant in this “Brides for Indians” program.

Torn from her children and committed to an insane asylum by her family for taking up with a man beneath her class (official diagnosis: “promiscuity”), young May is offered release from her bondage if she will volunteer to serve in a top-secret government program whereby 1,000 white women (all “volunteers” but also outcasts – asylum inmates like May, prostitutes, women with poor matrimonial prospects, and the like) will marry Cheyenne braves and produce children with them, such children which are viewed as potential gatekeepers to assimilate the Indians into white culture.

May, along with the rest of the first installment of white women volunteers, heads out to the prairies to live among the savages, but not before May has a quick, passionate affair with an Army Captain charged with escorting the women on their journey into the wilderness.  Once among the Indians, the women, gradually overcome their fear of the Indians and their disdain for life away from the comforts of civilization.  May herself is chosen by Little Wolf to be his wife, and she grows to love and respect him.  As the women conceive children with their Cheyenne husbands and assimilate into Indian culture far more than they ever manage to introduce the Indians to the ways of white civilized culture, the U.S. government has second thoughts about fulfilling its end of the bargain with the Cheyennes and decides to not only renege on its promise to deliver the balance of the 1,000 white brides, but to take back by force land given the Indians.  And so, any peaceful relations between the Indians and the while people are lost, and May and her fellow volunteer brides are, of course, caught in the middle.

This book has received very good reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, and won a Fiction of the Year Award in 1999.  I’ll be honest and say that I didn’t think it was a stellar book.  The story is an interesting one, but parts of it seem very contrived and highly unlikely (for instance, identical twin sisters marrying identical twin brothers and each producing a set of twins – I don’t think the author understands the hereditary factors of producing twins, especially that identical twins are not hereditary at all; a small thing, perhaps, but as a mother of twins myself, this bit of unreality bugged me), and I could have totally done without the cheesy romance aspect of the story.  More than anything, though, I just found May to be annoyingly full of herself, and generally unlikable.  That really took away from the story for me.

This is the current pick for my book club; out of five stars, I’d probably give it two and a half.

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