My Merida the Brave

Merida* is one of the most amazing teens I know.  She has this beautiful, large smile, and her hair is cut in a cute, stylish, highlighted bob.  She is always kind and always so happy to see me. 

Merida has cerebral palsy.  She has little control over her right hand and arm, and she walks with a right-side limp.

Merida the Brave Lego Communication Activity
Merida doesn't talk much.  I can probably count the words in her vocabulary on my fingers and toes.  She often uses and ipad to speak, but it can be frustratingly limited.  Merida has learned to advocate for herself by speaking the words, "Need help." 

I have been working in Merida's class for 3 years now, but I only get to see the group once a month.  We are all so happy when my day to visit rolls around.  We have built quite a bond, this class and I.

Recently, I brought out a Lego Communication activity.  I work to help my students become more prepared with the skills they will need for employment.  Communication is just one skill in a long list.  And even "communication" can be broken down into many parts: verbal, non-verbal, conversational, instructional, casual and business...I could go on.

The term "disability" encompasses parameters as broad as any other label.  (Just like calling me a girl leaves a lot of room for definition.)  Some of my students need minimal support, and some require more.  It is important that I am able to adapt my lessons to meet individual needs.  I can teach the same skill to a high functioning group that I teach to a group with higher support needs, but I am able to adapt the lesson to meet everyone at his or her level.  In this particular class, I was breaking down the concept of "giving and receiving instructions."

I passed out baggies of Duplo Legos.  There were about 6 or 7 blocks in each bag.  I started by modeling the instruction portion, after we talked about active listening: eye-contact, quiet voices, obeying instructions, asking questions.  I built a barricade so no one could see the structure I was building.  Then, I gave them verbal instructions to build the same structure I had made.

When it came time to open up to student volunteers, I couldn't help but notice that Merida was one of the first to raise her hand.  I hesitated and chose a student I thought might have an easier time handling the task.  I was concerned Merida might struggle with the limitations of her communication device.  Even the most high functioning students can struggle with this activity, because it requires a wide vocabulary, boldness (to get up and try in front of their peers), concentration, and on-the-spot problem solving.  These skills do not come naturally for a lot of teens.

One-by-one, my student volunteers struggled through the project.  I am always quick with words of empathy and encouragement.  "It's not as easy as it looks!" (I don't allow my students to perceive mistakes negatively.  We all learn by messing up...and I happen to be the queen of messing up...which also makes me the queen of learning-a-lot!)

I coached several kids through to instruction success.  I modeled.  I questioned.  I restated.  I supported, as needed.  I watched Merida struggle to gain control with her one fully working hand, so she could put the cubes together as directed.  I always encourage the students to try for themselves.  Just try. could I not offer the same to Merida, who was both so determined and so eager to get up and instruct?

Be Imperfectly YouToward the end of our time together, I asked for one more volunteer.  Merida boldly stood up through her teachers' hesitation.  Her speech and language pathologist (SLP) spoke gently, "Merida, to do this, you have to be able to give instructions to the whole class.  Is that something you can do?"

Merida smiled and nodded, pointing forcefully to her ipad.  "You want to use your ipad to try?" the SLP clarified.

Merida nodded and marched proudly to the front.  She started opening the picture to speech commands on her ipad, so she could call out the colors of the blocks.  Soon, her SLP joined her to help create directions, like "left" and "right," "on top," and "half."  And step-by-step, Merida instructed the class to build her own, unique design.

I was so proud of her.  I was proud of her for advocating for herself.  I was proud of her for persevering through difficulties most of us will never face.  I was proud of her for persisting and believing in herself in the face of doubt.  I was proud of her for getting up there and doing what everyone else had done...what she knew she was capable to do.

Heart in the snow
I did not have to feign enthusiasm, "Oh. My. Goodness, Merida!  I am so proud of you.  I am SO proud of you!  To overcome all of these challenges and do such an amazing job.  That is, by far, my favorite instructions presentation yet!"

I want to preserve that moment forever.  I wish I could have taken her picture.  I wish I could share it.  But I will NEVER lose the image of Merida's smile from my mind.  Now, her typical, big smile was particularly bright.  And I knew it didn't even matter that I was proud, because what mattered, right then, was that Merida was proud of herself.  I don't think the smile left her face for the rest of my time in the classroom, and as I left, she caught my eye and offered me a high five.  To me, there is no monetary reward worth more!

*The name, Merida, means "pearl."  This is not her real name, but I chose it because I think "pearl" represents the treasure she is.  And Merida comes from the movie Brave.  There is no one braver than my Merida.  Merida the presenter.  Merida the resilient.  Merida the self-advocate.  Merida the brave.