Saturday, May 14, 2011

Our Battle of Shiloh

Sometimes I forget that our girl is on the spectrum. Some days she can do a better than serviceable impersonation of a sulky neurotypical teenager. Last week we had one of those moments.

There had been some tears at school about a timeline project regarding the Civil War. The project involved choosing three events during the war, writing a ten-sentence paragraph about the event, and another ten-sentence paragraph about why the event was important. This was a lot of writing for our girl. Frankly, it's a lot of writing for most of the kids in her class. I'm glad they're being pushed, but this is definitely a push.

Our girl chose the election of 1860, The Battle of Shiloh, and Pickett's Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg.

Regrettably I was unavailable for homework help on the first night of this multi-night assignment, but our girl took her best shot at it on her own, and wrote lots of sentences, some of which did not make much sense.

The next day her teacher asked her why she had chosen The Battle of Shiloh, and our girl didn't really have an answer for her other than "I have finished this assignment, and I am NOT going to do ANY work on it over the weekend — the weekend is my time for relaxing." Her teacher was really puzzled as to why she had chosen the Battle of Shiloh as one of the three most important events of Civil War. Our girl strongly resisted changing her choice of events — "it's my project, it's my choice." And then, as it was reported to me, her flash drive where her work was saved failed, and she burst into tears.

That's pretty much what I would do if I had done something to the best of my ability, followed the instructions as I understood them, been questioned about my decisions, and then had a technological glitch that lost all the work I'd done. Bursting into tears would definitely be on my repertoire of possible responses. Seems pretty much NT to me.

Since the flash drive failed — and we haven't recovered any of her work — we had the opportunity to start over from scratch, and so she followed her teacher's advice and shifted to the Battle at Fort Sumter. I was puzzled about why she had originally chosen the Battle of Shiloh, but put it aside.

Over the weekend I coached her as she worked on her drafts. The first one went something like this.

Fort Sumter was the start of the Civil War.  The Civil War began with Fort Sumter. Because of Fort Sumter the Civil War started. The beginning of the Civil war was at Fort Sumter. They were running out of supplies at Fort Sumter. They didn't have enough food and military materials at Fort Sumter. They were worried about supplies at Fort Sumter. They only had 97 men to fight at Fort Sumter. They didn't want to loose [sic] any men.

And so on.

Pretty much each sentence repeated the previous sentence. As she wrote her sentences, she would stop, and say, "Wait, let me count how many sentences I have." When I pointed out that the sentences said more or less the same thing, our girl she said, "Well, I have to get to ten sentences."

The grading rubric specified that the highest marks would go to papers that fulfilled a number of criteria, including having 8-10 sentences in each paragraph. She took the rubric literally -- "Write 10 sentences — get an A." The actual content of the paragraph was less important to our girl than the number of sentences.

She was doing what planning and motivational speakers call beginning with the end in mind, but the end she wanted was the A, skipping more or less right over a coherent paragraph (a concept that she may not really understand, whereas ten sentences is clear, quantifiable and incontrovertible). Concrete and literal thinking — what we'd expect of our spectrum-y girl — and also, to her credit, planning for a desired result.

As I was looking through her schoolwork binder to familiarize myself with the Civil War I found some assignments that I hadn't seen.  Truth is, I haven't been checking on her homework or schoolwork much these days.  She's a teenager, and, as she puts it, "You DO NOT have to look at my homework — I have it UNDER control."

Inside her binder, I found a series of graded worksheets that she'd completed in her studies:

          Battle of Gettysburg, B+
          Election of 1860, B-
          Fort Sumter, C
          Battle of Shiloh, A, Great work

For me this solved the mystery of her choice of the Battle of Shiloh.  Shiloh was one of the most important battles of her Civil War because she'd won, she'd gotten an A.  And she wanted to repeat that win, again and again.

After the historic Battle of Shiloh Major General Ulysses S. Grant was questioned about his decisions, too.  He was savaged in the press for the huge loss of life in that very costly encounter of the war.  People claimed, falsely, that he'd been drunk and derelict in his duty.  He'd kept his men in an unprotected field — a position that resulted in huge losses on the first day of the battle, but that ultimately led to their victory on the second day. Grant had the end in mind, in a much more costly circumstance.  Grant was going for his own sort of A, like our girl, not exactly thinking about what would happen in the middle of the battle.

In the end, we know how the story worked out for Grant — the Union won the war, he became a hero, and later won the Presidency. I hope our girl can rally her forces and pull out some of the wins she's going to need in her own battles. It's feeling like she can. One Shiloh at a time.
•   •   •
(I've reposted this since it seems to have evaporated in the great blogger outage of this past week.  Good thing I'd saved it locally.  So much for the cloud!)


audball said...

MothersVox, I wanted to comment so many times in the past - your entries are lovely and so thought-provoking. I, too, have a gal on the spectrum and though she just turned 9 yesterday, reading about your Sweet M helps me in so many ways. I find myself sometimes tearing up and then laughing out loud, as only our kids can make us do. You are so intuitive about your daughter and I love that you always, *always* are so tireless about trying to find out what makes her do what she does. I'm much the same way; part of it, for me, is that if I can understand her, I can help her make sense of this weird world that just doesn't seem logical so much of the time.

We're in the process of thinking about yet another school for our El and this entry just hit the nail on the's so hard to reconfigure what makes sense for every other kid. "Typical" assignments are so not typical! My girl can plug through 9 pages of homework worksheets on a variety of subjects, but is absolutely in tears when faced with essay questions like "Write two paragraphs about your greatest fear" or "Describe your best vacation".

Thank you (and Sweet M) for continuing to share your journey with are a wonderful mother and a great inspiration :)!

MothersVox said...

Thanks so much Audball! The school placement questions seem to me to be the hardest questions of all because it's the place where our dear oddballs are encountering the trauma of the normal and the demand for conformity. It's so tricky.

I wonder if there is some kind of training we could develop for teachers that would help them understand the special challenges that our kids have with any of these assignments that have ambiguity or open ended questions that can just take your mind anywhere?

I'm completely with your girl. I can never answer those questions: what's your favorite book and why? You mean I have to pick one? Or what's your greatest fear . . . you mean people only have one!

Thanks for sharing about your girl. Please tell us more about her as you can. I think we need an aut-girls alliance!