A Special Classroom: Visits


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by Dr. Dawn Menge

“Help Queen Vernita with our days of the week: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.” I encouraged the preschool students with Autism as I read to nine different preschool classes. Each class has a population with ages ranging from 3-6 year old and the students’ abilities range from non-verbal to verbal communicatively. “During the Sundays in January, Queen Vernita and her friend Debbie stayed home and read three books. Do you like to read? “Yes,” chimed in several of the students while others nodded their head or attempted to grab the book.

“In February, Queen Vernita and her friend Tommie had a huge snowball fight and made beautiful snow angels.” It has been a highly unusual winter in Southern California with rain and snow for weeks. “Did you get to make a snowman or have a snowball fight?” I asked the little ones, as I imitated throwing a snowball in the air. “The class of nine preschoolers all attempted to throw their own imaginary snowballs through the air. “On Sundays, they lay by the fireplace and took long naps, snoring loudly! Do you guys snore when you sleep?” The room was filled with nine little children snoring loudly and laughing.

“In July, Ashlie and Queen Vernita spent 31 glorious days at the beach. What is she doing in the picture? “Several of the students got up out of their chairs and pointed to the illustration of Queen Vernita and Ashlie building a sandcastle while the verbal students excitedly started reliving their experiences at the beach. “I played in the ocean, but I didn’t like the feel of the sand.” A little boy told me as he rubbed his hands together. Many students with Autism have sensory needs, as textures bother them. This little boy was sensitive to the feel of sand, while others are more sensitive to smells or visuals such as the lights in a classroom. Many of our students cannot tolerate loud or noisy areas and wear sound reduction head phones to limit the input coming to them from outside their worlds. “Queen Vernita ate fried fish tacos on Fridays. Who likes fish tacos?” Most of the students wrinkled their noses but a very verbal little boy informed me, “I go to Hawaii every summer and play in the waves and make sandcastles, but we do not eat fish tacos. That is yucky!” as he turned his head back and forth in an obvious sign of distaste.

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“Then came August and Hannah came to visit. It is a very hot time in the land of Oceaneers. Queen Vernita and Hannah spent all 31 days camping in the mountains. On Wednesdays, they slept outside of their tents so they could count all the stars. Can you help me count the stars?” A little girl jumped onto my lap and grabbed my hand as I pointed and began to count the stars. Those little ones that could count joined in on star counting, fading away as we reached past the number ten. “How many frogs are there? One, two…,” as I held up each finger the students followed along. “Saturday nights they made a campfire and cooked S’mores. They were so gooey and yummy, made of marshmallows, graham crackers and chocolate. “Have you ever had a S’more?” I asked as I rubbed my stomach, “I like the melted marshmallows, and I like the chocolate.”

“As the season of summer left, fall came. Along with the changing of the leaves colors, came Virginia. September is apple picking time. Do you like apples?” Apples, repeated a little girl that had been silent up to this point. Echolalic speech is frequent with people who have autism. They will repeat specific words or phrases. The more verbal students who are echolalic come to school and repeat phrases they’ve heard on movies or TV. They also repeat out of context, prior conversations they have had at home or in the community. Their speech is halted short, sometimes limited to a word or two to convey their message to the listener.

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“Tyler Ann stayed until the end of the year. I’m so glad that I have 12 such great friends to come and visit me on each of the 12 months of the year. Thank you so much for allowing me to come and read Queen Vernita’s Visitors to each and every one of you.” I thanked my last group and headed back to my classroom of high school and transition students who are have moderate to severe disabilities. It is always such fun to read to the little ones at the educational center in which the preschoolers who have Autism attend school. Their teachers all refer to them as their friends, creating a warm and friendly environment for children who have high anxiety in social situations. But, after reading to 90 friends in nine different classrooms, my voice is tired and I’m ready to rest until the next year.


Dawn Menge, PhD has won 29 national awards as the author of the Queen Vernita's Educational Series. As an educator, she holds a Master's and a Clear Credential in moderate/severe disabilities and a Bachelor's in human development. Dr. Menge has been teaching severely handicapped students for 16 years.

    

Cartoonist Across America Creates Art Ability in the Classroom


by Dr. Dawn Menge

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Phil Yeh founded Cartoonists Across America in 1985 to increase literacy across the country. He has painted more than 1,800 murals in 49 U.S. States and more than a dozen countries. Phil’s goal is to create and encourage literacy through the Arts. "I am pleased that the Cartoonists Across America Tour has been formed, because I agree that literacy has become a problem in our country. Humor itself is always a valuable tool in providing incentive for reading.” - Charles M. Schulz, creator of Peanuts.

The recent snow storms in Southern California postponed our much-anticipated visit from Phil Yeh. He was going to bring his talents to our classroom to create a mural with the students who have severe cognitive delays in our classes. Finally, he was able to brave the weather and he and his wife Linda came to spend the day with our students.

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Paint, brushes, and comic books were all unpacked and Phil soon began to freehand the mural for us to paint. Right before our eyes he created mountains, the sun, Joshua Trees, and many animal characters for our students to paint in. Highlighted across he wrote, “Building a World of Readers, Artists and Dreamers.” The first of the students came to choose their colors to paint. Their varied cognitive and physical delays were pushed aside and soon forgotten as they excitedly picked up their paint brushes and paint and began to fill in the mural. Each student took their turn in adding their personal touches to our mural. Soon, there was a bright yellow sun with deep red lips painted by our beautiful young student who despite being deaf, uses her assertive nature to command and direct others. Our young man with Cerebral Palsy in his electric wheelchair spent an hour painting the Joshua Trees. He was so intent on getting it right and staying within the lines, carefully dipping his paint brush in the green and then raising his arm to apply the color.  

The hours passed quickly as more than 30 students whose abilities included Autism, Down syndrome, visual and hearing Impairments, and intellectual disabilities, took turns adding their loving touch to the mural. The occupational therapists, speech therapists, education specialists and educational assistants all joined in to add color and flare to the community board. The students used their creative imaginations and formed a river flowing at the bottom of the mountains. Animals were given varying color schemes, none looking the same as different students tackled different areas. Birds flying across the mountains sported colors in yellow, red, blue, and brown. The mountains were orange, yellow, and blue. A young man in an electric wheelchair painted the rabbit with a red face and a purple suit.

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Phil Yeh spent the morning helping and encouraging the students and explained his philosophies and experiences about using the Arts to expand and increase the use of combining art and literacy to build stronger communities. “Our belief is that without the presence of creative expression, the ability of students and adults to learn and pursue any subject becomes stifled, uninspired and robotic,” he says.

Phil’s graphic novel, Dinosaurs Across America, teaches U.S. Geography while entertaining students and adults with the vividly illustrated pages. As Phil painted over the black lines on the mural the paint brushes were washed, and the paint put away. The mural will be showcased in a local art show to appreciate artwork developed by individuals with disabilities. A fitting end, to a unique and amazing opportunity given to our students, on this rainy, wintery day. We are all responsible and influence Phil’s dream to create literacy through the arts and to help him accomplish his goal of “Building a World of Readers, Artists and Dreamers” in homes, classrooms, libraries, and community centers throughout the country.