May 24, 2011
Ethan was only 5 when his parents first brought him through the door of Gateways’ Sunday morning Jewish Education Program, then Etgar L’Noar. Eight years later, the last two spent on bar mitzvah preparation, the Westford, MA youngster was ready to become a bar mitzvah.
None of the key players – his parents, the Gateways staff and volunteers and certainly not Ethan himself -- would hear of letting his autism prevent him from reaching this milestone of Jewish life.
One of those players was Gateways’ Jewish Education Program Coordinator Nancy Mager, who first met Ethan when he was 8 years old. “He was a bundle of energy,” she recalls. “He didn’t sit still, and spent most of the time walking the halls.”
But what she didn’t know then “was that Ethan was learning -- on his own terms. He was picking up more than we ever dreamed.” And, when he began preparing for his bar mitzvah, Mager knew he’d need a special kind of tutor. “It took a while to locate the right one but, after a few months, I knew I’d found her.” Vicki Freidman was an experienced special educator, someone Mager knew would “get” Ethan as soon as she began working with him. “Then she’d see what he’s capable of."
“At Gateways Ethan found people who care about him, people who taught him to read Hebrew, people who prayed with him,” says his mom, Marla Richmond.
This was not to be the Gottlieb family’s first Gateways bar mitzvah however. Older son Jacob who is deaf became a bar mitzvah in 2007. But his parents knew things needed to be different for Ethan. For one thing, they decided not to have the bar mitzvah in their temple, feeling Ethan’s Gateways classroom would feel more familiar and comfortable. “It’s a place where he’s completely at home,” says his mom.
His teachers began with file folder activities that familiarized Ethan with bar mitzvah skills such as holding the Torah and wearing a kippah. To help Ethan learn how to participate in his bar mitzvah service, the method of task analysis was used to create visual supports that break down complex tasks such as putting on a tallit and dressing the Torah into sequential steps presented in words and pictures. His teachers also began taping Ethan’s bar mitzvah learning. “We had the laptop’s video-camera rolling during each lesson so we would be able to show his friends and family how much progress he’d made,” says Mager.
Viewing the videos, it became obvious that Ethan was making tremendous strides, reading prayers in both English and Hebrew. “It was more than we ever thought possible,” she adds. “And we were absolutely delighted. Now that we knew the knowledge was in there, we had to figure out a way to get him comfortable enough to lead a service in front of his friends and family.”
His teachers began adding more sitting time each week so that, by the time Ethan’s bar mitzvah day arrived, he was able to sit through the entire service. What’s more, though he was most comfortable in jeans and a T-shirt, Ethan gradually began wearing nicer and nicer clothes to class to prepare him for the sports coat, button-down shirt and khakis he would don for his bar mitzvah.
“All this was huge, but the absolutely best part for Ethan was working with Vicki,” says his mom. “From the beginning, she was attuned to what was going on with him. She knew when he could pay attention, she knew when he had to get up and move. Most of all, she knew he could do it.”
Ethan showed everyone there that day -- family, friends, Gateways faculty and students -- the fruits of his Gateways preparation, and his hard work. When he walked in, he slowly paced the room. “The look on his face showed so clearly: ‘I know all these people and I know they’re all here for me,’” says his mom.
Gradually, deliberately, Ethan led the Torah service. He led it quietly – it had been decided a microphone would be distracting for him – with Freidman and Rabbi Karen Landy by his side, along with his parents. “G-d could hear him and I could hear him,” Richmond says. “And when G-d hears you and your mom hears you, that’s what counts.”
“Everyone there was beaming at him,” Mager says. “Ethan, and each child we see through the bar/bat mitzvah process, teaches us something. All those years we did not know how much he was learning. But that day he showed us he had been listening – and learning -- all along.”
His father Bob Gottlieb also looked on with pride. “He knows these kids. He sings along. He’s happy there,” says his dad. “Gateways is a good place for him. Ethan could not have had a bar mitzvah if it weren’t for Gateways. Without Gateways, he wouldn’t have had a Jewish education at all.”
Nearly a year has gone by, and Ethan still wakes up Sunday mornings, puts on his Gateways T-shirt and tells his parents, “Time to go to Sunday school.” He also takes great pleasure in looking at the pictures of his special day. “That’s me,” he smiles, pointing to a photo of himself running up the hill, his tallis flying behind him. “That’s me.”
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!"
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