April 7, 2011
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Category: Educational Practices
April 5, 2011
This year the Murphy family is looking forward to celebrating the Seder in their Milford home. Which will be a huge improvement over last year.
Last year Frank and Elisa, their younger daughter Hannah, a family friend and an on-duty Jewish nurse had Seder on aluminum trays at the nurses’ station at Children’s Hospital. A few feet away, 11-year-old Rachel was attached to multiple machines all working hard to stabilize her seizures and keep her vitals strong.
Seizures are just one result of a stroke Rachel suffered at 18 months. Brain, muscle and nerve damage also confine Rachel, now 12, to a wheelchair and restrict her speech, movements and eyesight.
But despite her challenges, this is shaping up to be the year when Rachel gets to participate in her family Seder in brand new ways. Thanks to Gateways and Rachel’s DynaVox – a computerized device providing dynamic voice output for people with speech and communication impairments.
Now in her fifth year in Gateways’ Sunday morning Jewish Education Program, Rachel is able to follow along in class with her trusty DynaVox. There the user-friendly visuals her dad downloads from Gateways' online Resource Center circumnavigate the visual and speech challenges that used to prevent her from participating in class. The device literally gives her a voice. “She’s able to connect with what she sees on the screen and what it means,” says her dad. “And that opens up infinite possibilities.”
What’s more, over and above the technology that’s allowing her to learn in new ways, just being in class on Sunday mornings presents Rachel with a new world to inhabit, says Frank. “It takes time to figure her out and see the real Rachel inside,” he adds. “Gateways teachers and teen volunteers are gifted and caring and being with her buddies gives Rachel a sense of community.” The family will also long remember the video Rachel’s Gateways classmates made for her when she was in the hospital.
“Gateways provides that key part of her Jewishness she would never otherwise have,” he adds. “Now when you show her the picture of the Sh’ma, Rachel covers her eyes. It means something to her. And that’s huge.”
Something else that means a lot to Rachel is music, specifically Jewish music.
Indeed, recognizing and responding to music “may be the most profound way she interacts with her world,” says her dad. Every Sunday morning she wakes up singing the Gateways welcome song, The Week is Here. "And now we sing Gateways songs at our holiday events. They’re very much part of our family.”
Compared to last year when she wasn’t able to sing or even know it was Passover, Rachel and her family are hoping for a joyous celebration. “Last year we were like the refugees in the Passover story,” says Murphy. “Now we pray everyone is healthy so we are free to celebrate together in our own home.”
The Murphys are ready: They’ve got a CD of Uncle Eli's Passover songs, a box o' plagues they filled with plastic cows sporting “boils” and some cheap sunglasses signifying darkness – along with the digitalized version of Gateways’ hagaddah Rachel’s dad has downloaded onto her DynaVox. (Click here for Gateways’ Seven Strategies for a Successful Seder for ALL Learners.)
“If we weren’t part of Gateways, Rachel would have a DynaVox but there would be nothing Jewish on it,” says Frank. “Now she has prayers, stories, and a hagaddah that she can understand -- pieces of the puzzle that make up the whole of her Jewish experience. It’s as if Gateways, connecting us to other families and tapping us into the reservoir of Gateways talent, is the hub with our families and temples the spokes.”
Just a few months ago, the Murphys set the date for Rachel’s bat mitzvah: May 5, 2013. “Sometimes I have to laugh at what a multi-cultural undertaking Rachel’s Jewish education is,” muses her dad. “The gentile software engineer father at the kitchen table struggling with the Indian software on Chinese hardware, all working together to make this bat mitzvah happen.”
But none of it would be possible without Gateways, Frank insists. “There would be no alef-bet, no holiday symbols, no prayers, no path to a meaningful bat mitzvah. There would just be a gaping hole in our daughter’s identity.”
“For a child with disabilities there’s a lot of brokenness and, by making Judaism accessible, Gateways brings about a wholeness for her and for us.”
March 29, 2011
It was that rare commodity: a stress-free Purim carnival. Gateways' Purim carnival attracted more than 50 families from its Jewish Education Programs, as well as several preschoolers with special needs and a few families checking out if Gateways might be the right fit for their child. Organizers planned the event to offer enough activity to create a happy buzz, but without the crowds, long lines and most importantly, chaos.
The activities were designed to provide both challenge and success for children with a variety of special needs. Visual supports and a color-coded map of activities helped them select the games and learn the rules ahead of time. The activities were also spread out into different rooms for gross motor and sensory activities, and a quiet room for children needing a break. There were also plenty of sure-fire crowd-pleasers including cotton candy, popcorn and – naturally -- hamentashen.
For Anna, the highlight of her first-ever Gateways Purim carnival was the Moon Bounce where, unlike many other carnivals, there was no line, no time limit -- and no pushing. "It's even better than the popcorn, and she loves popcorn," said her mother Vivian Glassman-Grosser. As Jamie enjoyed the carnival from her wheelchair, stopping to try her hand at adaptive bowling, big brother Tom was impressed. "You can see by the way the aides are interacting with all of them that the kids really feel comfortable here."
The second session carnival ended with a grand finale, a magic show by Gateways Sunday program alumnus Noah Bittner. It was a jubilant performance where objects disappeared and reappeared, ropes stiffened and went limp, balls changed color and shape, all before the amazed eyes of the children.
Noah also made magic happen with his fellow students, many of whom he invited up as volunteer magical assistants.
This connection between the students and the community they and their families have built over the years is part of the larger Gateways magic. "This is a place where it's guaranteed my daughter will be truly successful and feel like a leader," said Rachel Katz who brought her daughter, Genevieve, and little sister Sydra. "It's something that doesn't always happen in other venues."
The carnival's lead staff, Gateways Jewish Education Programs Coordinator Nancy Mager has a theory about why the students had such a wonderful time. "First of all, they were prepared," she says – the week before they'd worked with a social story all about Purim carnivals. "We also wanted them to start their day like they always do – in the classroom, only this time planning their carnival experience," Mager adds. "And the teen volunteers understood the goals of the day included each child feeling feel like a winner. They were able to adapt a game – often on the fly -- as needed, cheering on the children, whether they won or not." As an educator, Mager's favorite games included "Ahasuerus' Moat," featuring a floating fleet of pirate-garbed plastic ducks, and "Dig for Mishloach Manot" where carnival-goers sift through sand for plastic gems which, when added to a crown, made them a winner. As Gateways music therapist Miriam Greenbaum played the children's regular Good-bye Song on her guitar as the carnival's first session drew to a close, many of them sang along, and several jumped up to dance.
"These are all kids who are on the fringe in many ways, but at this moment," said Rachel's dad Frank Murphy, "they are all in sync. Gateways really is Rachel's way of being part of the community."
March 29, 2011
"She's been a great resource for me over the last three years," says Lauri Cohen, who teaches 3- and 4-year-olds at Temple Beth Shalom Children's Center in Needham. The "she" in question is none other than Gateways' Community Special Education Services Coordinator Sherry Grossman, a familiar face in Jewish preschools and congregational religious schools around town, where she regularly collaborates with their staffs around creating more welcoming classrooms to a wide range of learners.
"In preschools, the success of each child is directly related to the environment. The routines and physical set-up are critical," says Cohen. "Sherry always has great ideas about how to set up the classroom for everyone's success … from snack time to conversations with children. She's also helped me and my co-teacher work better as a team."
Another area where Grossman helped out was strategies for seating arrangements for circle time, a system where different learning styles are now accommodated, adds Cohen. "She pointed out that it's unreasonable to expect non-auditory learners to sit and focus for the entire time, so we offered them ways to move around when they need to."
Gateways OT Shana Krell has also played a part in the classroom helping the teachers focus on children's muscle use positioning. "We now make sure our chairs work so all the kids' feet touch the floor. We were surprised at how something that seemed so minor affected the kids' behavior and improved their learning!"
By Sonni Bendetson
March 15, 2011
There’s a tradition at Tufts Hillel that when we say the motzi on Friday nights, everyone reaches their arm toward the center of the table and puts a hand on the challah. Last Friday night, for the first time, several of those hands belonged to young adults with special needs. As I looked around the room at students, professors, Hillel staff and even the university’s President connected to one another and reciting the motzi in unison, I realized that, at that moment, no one could really tell who had special needs and who did not.
That was a highlight for me, watching the vision that has lived only in my mind for quite some time come to fruition before my eyes. I grew up with a younger brother who is hard of hearing, and it only took witnessing one teasing comment from another kid, a family friend who called my brother “ear boy” because of his hearing aids, to ignite my passion for advocating for people with special needs at a very young age. Fortunately, in high school I found a program that provided me with a deeper understanding of the special needs population through a combination of formal education and hands-on experience. The Gateways Sunday Program (then called Etgar L’Noar) provides a Jewish education to children with a wide range of special needs, and trains 50 to 60 teen volunteers each year to be one-to-one aides for the students. I wrote my college essay about my experience in this program, and went on to study Child Development at Tufts University, graduating magna cum laude in 2009.
So, after graduating and exploring the desolate job market for a few months, my next move was to call Arlene Remz, Executive Director of Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, to ask if she would please let me intern in her office, hoping that I had made an impression as a teen volunteer. Graciously she complied, and my internship quickly turned into a real job, as Program Associate. During one of my first days on the job, I attended a meeting with a group of parents who wanted Gateways to design a Jewish education program for their young adult children with special needs, who were all about my age. I was thinking about the role Judaism had played in my life for the past few years and realized that, like most young Jewish adults in the US, my campus Hillel had shaped my Jewish identity as a young adult, providing a forum to explore Judaism through education, socialization, volunteerism and spirituality. Then it occurred to me that people with special needs were simply not a part of this experience, and that if I had not found a way to incorporate this population into my definition of my Jewish community since I left high school, then most other people probably hadn’t either.
The idea came rushing into my head: to design a program that incorporates fundamental elements of the Gateways Sunday Program, like using one-to-one peer aids, but to adjust everything -- content, structure, location -- to be appropriate for young adults. The program would have to take place on a college campus, I imagined, and be designed to include young adults with special needs in existing programming at the respective Hillel with the support of undergraduate volunteers, who would also participate in a concurrent training program. In addition to providing necessary Jewish engagement for young adults with special needs, this program would leave an impression the greater Hillel community, thereby influencing the standards of future Jewish leaders around inclusion.
Lucky for me, Tufts University, my alma mater, was poised and ready to take on this mission. Tufts Hillel, through their Repair the World initiative, partnered with Gateways, Boston’s central agency for Jewish special education, to pilot this innovative new program that aims to challenge -- and change -- the way we view, treat and interact with people with special needs in our community. Now, the greater goal is to develop emerging adults who are not only aware of people with special needs, but who value and expect a community that is inclusive of all Jewish people.
With the support of Gateways and my CJP/PresenTense Fellowship, and with the partnership of Tufts Hillel, I was able to launch this brand new program last week. And, it was a huge success. Everyone in the program -- the volunteers and the young adults with special needs -- had a fabulous evening. “The best part,” according to Marie, a bright young woman with Down Syndrome who is enrolled in the program, “was when we did the Kiddush together. The whole table and the whole room, it was like one big community and I felt part of it.”
Category: Reflections & Perspectives
Gateways: Access to Jewish Education is Boston's central address for Jewish special education. Follow our blog as we spotlight the best in Jewish educational practices and materials for children through exciting ideas, valuable resources, moving personal stories and important updates.
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