On Teaching Students with Asperger’s Syndrome

teaching Aspies

Teaching students with Asperger’s Syndrome is a challenge. As a teacher who also has Asperger’s, I have some suggestions for how to do this, and wish to share them.

  1. Keep the administrators at your school informed about what you are doing.
  2. Know the laws regarding these matters, and follow them carefully. Laws regarding confidentiality are particularly important.
  3. Identify the special interest(s) of the student (these special interests are universally present with Asperger’s; they also appear, sometimes, with students on other parts of the autism spectrum). Do not expect this/these special interest(s) to match that of anyone else, however — people with Asperger’s are extremely different from each other, just as all human beings are. As is the case with my own special interests in mathematics and the “mathy” sciences, it’s pretty much impossible to get students with Asperger’s to abandon their special interest — and I know this because I, quite literally, cannot do much of anything without first translating it, internally, into mathematical terms — due to my own case of Asperger’s. Identifying the special interest of a student with Asperger’s requires exactly one thing: paying attention. The students themselves will make it easy to identify their special interest; it’s the activity that they want to do . . . pretty much all the time.
  4. Find out, by carefully reading it, if the student’s official Section 504 document, or Special Education IEP, permits item #5 on this list to be used. If it doesn’t, you may need to suggest a revision to the appropriate document. (Note: these are the terms used in the USA; they will be different in other countries.)
  5. Of things done in class which will be graded, if the relevant document permits it, alter them in such a way as to allow the student to use his or her special interest to express understanding of the concepts and ideas, in your class, which need to be taught and learned. This is, of course, the most difficult step, but I cannot overemphasize its importance.
  6. Use parental contact to make certain the parent(s) know about, and agree with, the proposed accommodations/modifications. (504 students get accommodations, while special education students receive modifications. Following both 504 plans, and Special Education IEPs, is not optional for teachers — it is an absolute legal requirement, by federal law, and the penalties for failure to do so are severe. It is also, of course, the ethical thing to do.)
  7. Do not make the mistake of punishing any student for behavior related to a documented condition of any kind, including Asperger’s Syndrome.

My “Take” On Montessori Schools, and a Video About Them

I went to a Montessori school for a year and a half: third grade, and the first half of the fourth. I then re-entered public school. That was a shock.

I wouldn’t trade that year and a half for anything. That was when I started learning algebra, for example.

The problem, of course, is that most families can’t afford the tuition at such schools. I have an idea, then: why not make public schools more like Montessori schools?

I didn’t have anything to do with the creation of the video below. I merely wrote this introduction to it. Enjoy. Questions are welcome.

A Simple Cheating-Prevention Idea, for Teachers with Students Sitting at Tables

With just two pieces of cardboard and a pair of scissors, you can partition a table which seats four into four sections — one per student. This makes cheating much more difficult, and that’s a good thing for everybody. No tape is needed; each piece of cardboard holds up the other one.

cardboard privacy screens for tables of 4 students

Other materials can be used as well. For one-time use, posterboard is adequate. For something more permanent, wooden boards are recommended.

Zome: Strut-Length Chart and Product Review

This chart shows strut-lengths for all the Zomestruts available here (http://www.zometool.com/bulk-parts/), as well as the now-discontinued (and therefore shaded differently) B3, Y3, and R3 struts, which are still found in older Zome collections, such as my own, which has been at least 14 years in the making.

Zome

In my opinion, the best buy on the Zome website that’s under $200 is the “Hyperdo” kit, at http://www.zometool.com/the-hyperdo/, and the main page for the Zome company’s website is http://www.zometool.com/. I know of no other physical modeling system, both in mathematics and several sciences, which exceeds Zome — in either quality or usefulness. I’ve used it in the classroom, with great success, for many years.

My Australia Story

australia

I once got into a huge argument, as a 7th grade student, in a “talented and gifted” section of Social Studies. The issue:  how many countries are there in the continent of Australia?

The assignment was to choose a continent, and draw a map of it on a full-size posterboard. I had worked for hours on this map, only to get it back, ruined, for the teacher had taken a red ball-point pen, slashed through my line “state and territorial boundaries” in my map’s key, and had written, as a correction, “not states — COUNTRIES.” She also docked points from my grade, but that was a minor issue, to me, compared to her ruining my map. She could have, at least, written her incorrect comment on the back of my map!

When I confronted her about her mistake, she maintained that the political divisions you see above are independent countries. In my opinion, “Northern Territory,” especially, doesn’t sound particularly sovereign, and I said so, but she may not have understood the definition of “sovereign,” for that did not work. Confronted with this absurd situation, I proceeded to grab the “Q” volume of a nearby encyclopedia, and began reading the article about Queensland, loudly enough for the entire class to hear: “Queensland:  one of the states of Australia….” I freely admit that, at the time, my goal was to embarrass and humiliate her right out of the teaching profession — for the benefit of her present and future students. I’ve changed my approach, a lot, since then.

A huge brouhaha ensued, and we ended up taking each other to the assistant principal’s office:  her, to report a disruptive and defiant student; and me, to report an incompetent teacher, who, in my view, at that age, should have been fired on the spot. Dealing with this situation was probably one of the stranger, and more difficult, situations of that assistant principal’s career, for he knew that Australia is both a single country, and a continent — but he could not, for political reasons I did not yet understand, agree with me in front of this teacher. As for me, I was simply incredulous that someone could be a certified social studies teacher, and not know this basic fact about world geography. The whole scenario, to me, was surreal.

The assistant principal handled it well. To the teacher, he said, “You can go back to class — I’ll handle Robert.” He then “handled” me, after she left, in the only way that could have possibly worked:  with an apology, and a polite request to do my best to endure her ignorance until the upcoming end of the year. I respect honesty, was being given a request, not an order, and he had conceded that I was correct. I therefore chose to cooperate — with his polite request.

If he had not taken this approach, I likely would have added him to the list I had, at the time, of people (a mixture of administrators and teachers) whom I was trying to drive out of the education profession, for the benefit of all — but he did the right thing, thus earning my respect.

As for the teacher, I survived the rest of her class, brain intact, and assume she is now retired, this being well over thirty years ago. I’m now in my twentieth year as a teacher, myself, and am pleased to report that average teacher quality has dramatically improved since this fiasco happened. (I wish I could say the same about average administrator quality, but there are, at least, a few competent people working in that field, as well.) During my years of teaching, I haven’t encountered a single teacher who lacked this basic bit of knowledge about world geography. In fact, I count, among my colleagues, many of the smartest people I know.

I am glad, however, that I don’t have to call the teacher in this story a colleague. I simply cannot respect willful, stubborn ignorance, especially in the face of evidence that one is wrong. When one of my students catches me making a mistake, I do the right thing: I thank them, make certain everyone understands the correction, and then we move on with the lesson. That’s what this 7th grade teacher of mine should have done, as well.

A True Story of a Young Aspie Getting in Trouble with “Show and Tell”

In elementary school, in the 5th grade, I managed to get in trouble for a “show and tell” project. As usual, getting in trouble was not my objective, but it happened anyway. This was decades before I learned I have Asperger’s, but, looking back, none of this would have happened were I not an “Aspie,” as we call ourselves.

This image, which I found here, is very much like the poster I made, by hand, and used for this project:

nuclear chain reaction

That was the “show” part of this “show and tell” project. For the “tell” part, I explained how nuclear chain reactions work, and then explained how nuclear bombs are made. It’s very simple:  you have two slightly sub-critical masses of uranium-235 or plutonium-239, and physically bring them together, so that the total mass exceeds the critical mass. At that point: boom.

The hard part, of course, is actually obtaining the U-235 or Pu-239, for those aren’t things you can simply buy at the local hardware store. Ironically, I did know where to find both uranium and plutonium — at the very same university, about an hour away, where I’d spent far too much time conducting mostly-unsupervised experiments with both elements, along with lots of liquid mercury, before my tenth birthday. (I still suspect that all that radiation may have turned me into a mutant.) However, I also knew that the uranium and plutonium there would not have nearly enough of the correct isotope of either element, making this information irrelevant to my “show and tell” report, and so, for this reason, I did not tell them where to find the uranium and plutonium I had previously used for experiments.

I didn’t figure this out in class that day, since I’m not particularly good at “reading” emotions, facial expressions, and body language, but, apparently, I really upset, and scared, my teacher. This became apparent when she called my mother, and, later, my mother asked me to tell her what I’d done in school that day. Being excited about the “show and tell” presentation I’d given that day, I immediately told my mother all about it. When she told me the teacher had called her, concerned about me explaining to my class how to build atomic bombs, I was confused, since I didn’t understand, at all, why what I had actually said posed any problem. To explain this to my mother, I simply said, “But, Mom, I didn’t tell the class where to actually get the uranium-235 or plutonium-239! I don’t know where to find those isotopes!”

This was enough to convince my mother that I had not, in fact, done anything wrong. She called the teacher back, and simply asked if I had, or had not, included that critical bit of information: where to find the actual fissionable material needed for a nuclear bomb to work. When the teacher replied that I had not done that, my mother’s response was both sensible, and logical:  “Well, then, what’s the problem?”

—–

Postscript, for those who might be worried about the childhood experiments I mentioned above: at around age 40, I asked a physician about my worries regarding early exposure to mercury vapor and radiation. He told me that any problems I might have, as a result of such experiments, would have already showed up by then, and that I could, therefore, stop worrying about this. Thus reassured, I did exactly that.

How To Make Tic-Tac-Toe Interesting

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How To Make Tic-Tac-Toe Interesting

Tic-tac-toe, played by the traditional rules, is so simple a game that few people with two-digit ages ever play it — just because it’s boring. It is so simple a game, in fact, that chickens can be trained to play it, through extensive operant conditioning. Such chickens play the game at casinos, on occasion — with the rules stating that if the game ends in a tie, or the chicken wins, the human player loses the money they paid to play the game. If the human wins, however, they are promised a large reward — $10,000, for example. Don’t ever fall for such a trick, though, for casinos only use chickens that are so thoroughly trained, by weeks or months of positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, and punishment, that they will not ever lose. You’d be better off simply saving the same money until it’s cold, and then setting it on fire, just for the heat. At least that way you’d be warm for a little while, and that certainly beats the humiliation of being beaten, at any game, by a literal bird-brain.

With a small, simple alteration, though, tic-tac-toe can actually become a worthwhile, interesting game, even for adults. I didn’t invent this variation, but have forgotten where I read about it. I call it “mutant tic-tac-toe.”

In this variation, each player can choose to play either “x” or “o” on each play — and the first person to get three “x”s or three “o”s, in a row, wins the game. That’s it — but, if you try it, you’ll find it’s a much more challenging game. I am confident chickens will never be trained to play it successfully.

Consider the board pictured above, which happens to match a game I lost, to a high school student, earlier today. Red (the student) moved first, starting with the “o” in the center. I was playing with a blue marker, and chose to play an “x” in a corner spot. This was a mistake on my part, for the student’s next move — another “x,” opposite my “x,” effectively ended the game. I had to play next — passing is not allowed — and my playing an “x” or an “o,” in any of the six open spaces, would have led to an immediate victory by the student. If you study the board, you’ll see why this is the case.

Mutant tic-tac-toe is a great activity for semester exam week, at any school. Students who finish final exams earlier than their classmates can be taught the game quickly and quietly, and then they’ll entertain themselves with this game, rather than distracting students who are still working on their tests. What’s more, students have to really think to play this version of the game well, especially when they first learn it — and isn’t getting students to think what education is supposed to be all about, anyway?

My Students’ Painting of the Periodic Table of the Elements

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My Students' Painting of the Periodic Table of the Elements

This is my last year teaching at my current school — I’ll be transferring to another school in the same district in the Fall. To create a farewell gift to the school where I have taught for the last three years, I brought a lot of paint and other art supplies from home, bought more when they ran out, and let my students (who are enrolled in Chemistry and Physical Science) paint a large painting of the periodic table on two large wooden boards, each measuring 4′ by 6′. In the Fall, the plan is for the painting to be mounted on the wall of the science wing of my current school, in a location to be chosen by my current department chair, a personal friend of mine.

I think my students did a very good job — better than this picture I took with my cell phone reveals, just due to camera-quality. I am proud of them.