Our Talk with Christopher Ulmer of Special Books by Special Kids: A Seriously Not Boring Interview

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My youngest son and I recently had the opportunity to talk via Skype with Christopher Ulmer, aka “Mr. Chris,” of Special Books by Special Kids. Usually Chris interviews other people, so we thought it would be fun to turn the tables and be the ones asking the questions to learn more about him and his students. For those of you who may not know who he is,  Chris is an exceptional education teacher in Florida. His unique and affirming teaching style as well as his extraordinary class of students has captured the hearts of many and become a viral sensation. The first video to gain widespread attention showcased his “compliment time” with the students at the start of each school day, and it was featured first at “The Mighty” and then in an article on ABC News. From there the message spread all over the mainstream media, reaching far beyond the typical “Awareness” circles, and Chris even made an appearance on Rachel Ray’s television show. The messages from Mr. Chris and his students continue to spread all over the internet, and the page has even been mentioned on unexpected sites like MTV, prompting Ashton Kutcher to say, “Mr. Chris, you’re a great teacher.”

Two videos from our conversation are embedded at the bottom of this post. In the first video he talks with my youngest son (his older brother decided not to participate because this isn’t his kind of thing 😉 ). Noodle Dog makes an appearance, there is some Minecraft talk in the middle, and an eyeball crossing contest at the end. Chris described his teaching philosophy and what influenced his decision to become an exceptional education teacher. I was also finally able to ask something I have long wondered about; it seems, when watching the SBSK videos, that teaching in a private school setting allows a level of flexibility in the classroom that wouldn’t be able to occur in a public school setting (for many reasons). He addresses that, as well as whether or not they have any sort of standardized testing. He also recalls an excellent and entertaining musical concert performed by his students, and all the work that went into it. You will have to watch the video to hear the fun story.

Update: here is the short “highlights” version of just the silly parts. 🙂

 

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Firsthand Look at Syrian Migrant Camp in Slavonski Brod: Stories and pictures shared by humanitarian workers

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They arrived hungry and cold asking ‘where am I’ and wondering how long they would be in this camp… They were the face of humanity, longing to be treated as humans. Their faces were streaked with tears, whether from the cold or something far greater, I do not know. All I know is our tears came from overwhelming love, breathtaking grief and bottomless compassion.”

Those words were written by a friend who is currently serving in the Slavonski Brod camp at the Serbian/Croatian border. She and a team from First Baptist, Richmond are doing what they can to meet the needs of the scores of people (approximately 6,000 per day) who arrive there in a desperate search for refuge, help and hope. Some of the team members have been posting updates and they have given me permission to share them with you. It depicts real people in the midst of great hardship. Please take a moment to look. What is happening there is important. These people are all of us. I urge you to not turn away. ~Jennifer

Posted by Ann Whitfield Carter at Washington Dulles International Airport, Sunday, November 1, 10;30pm  •

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A week ago I had no idea I would be on a plane headed to Istanbul tonight. But opportunity knocks and I can’t say no. I will be spending a week on the Serbia/Croatia border working in a Syrian refugee camp. 5,000 people steam through there a day looking for some food, some rest, and medical attention before they continue their journey. Grateful for a church that cares about the world and sends people to help meet the most basic human needs: safety, food, rest.

 

Posted by Ann, November 3 at 1:37am • Osijek, Croatia •
No sleep yet. My mind is racing. Elvis, a Bosnian born seminary student, along with his cohorts Evan and Miki picked us up from the airport. Because I tend toward car sickness, I rode shotgun and heard the most amazing story on our three hour drive (the one benefit to motion sickness!) This summer, Elvis and his friends had been gathering supplies through their local church for some community service project or other. The Syrian refugee crisis happened before they put their supplies to use. So Elvis and his friends went down to the Serbian border with their supplies and began handing out supplies. Local police who were trying to manage the flow of humanity began to work along side these young men to serve the refugees. Pretty soon, local government, UNICEF, the Red Cross and the Catholic Church were pooling their resources together, and a camp was formed. (They are opening a second camp this week) That was 90 days ago. Today’s trip to Budapest to pick us up was their first time away from the camps since then.

THAT, my friends, IS WHAT THE CHURCH IS CALLED TO DO. To be the hands and feet of Christ, seeing needs, being the first to generously share their resources, and welcome partners into the process of meeting those needs.

I am amazed by these young men – they are courageous leaders. Our world is a better place because Elvis and Miki and Evan are in it.

 

Posted by Ann, Tuesday, November 3 in Osijek •

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Elvis calls this is the Croatian Ferrari. One time all the farmers drove to Zagreb to protest a government policy – on their tractors. It took them 2 days.

 

Posted by Ann, November 3 at 6:57pm • Oriovac, Croatia •

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Tomorrow morning, a new camp is opening in Slavonsky Brod. Today, a train filled with refugees came for a trial run before the real thing tomorrow. Tonight, Steve Blanchard, Jeff Dortch (Jeannie), Lisa Tuck and I will work from 10-7 helping the camp put the final preparations in place. They will begin to receive refugees first thing in the morning. This camp will be better equipped for the winter months. The refugees don’t have to walk to get here, they can take a train. They can wait to register in the warmth of a train car rather than outside in the cold. There are a few winterized tents that will not only protect from the elements, but will keep them warmer than the summer tents at the other camp. This is a major endeavor, yet the organization is impressive. Volunteers from Caritas, Jesuite Refugee Services, the Red Cross, UNICEF, Samaritan’s Purse, local police, and the Croatia Baptist Aid are working together to warmly welcome the 5,000 plus refugees who stream through here each day.

Elvis story of the day: He said something at dinner about “failing forward.” I asked him what that meant and he said that when something needs to be done and you don’t know how to do it, you have to start somewhere and just keep adapting and adjusting until it works. When you try to do something this big, you can’t be afraid to fail – because you are going to fail. You just have to keep failing until you succeed. Truth.

So now I am going to sleep before I pull an all nighter!

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Posted by Ann, Wednesday, November 4, 4:40am, • Lovas, Croatia•

A 4am train filled with 1200 precious humans. Next stop Zagreb.

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Comment by Steve: “Such an eerie representation of human suffering as refugees debark from trains at Croatian camp”  Continue reading

Autism & Empathy (A LOT of it)

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There is a common misconception that people who have Autism lack empathy. I beg to differ. Autistic people may have difficulty at times understanding the emotions of others around them (honestly, don’t we all?), but that does not mean that they lack empathy. They may just respond to the feelings of others in an unconventional way, and we need to work harder to understand and appreciate those reactions.

My youngest son is Autistic and cares very much about his family and friends. Hugs might be a little too tight or knock you down, but they are meant with every inch of his body. The intensity of his Big Feelings can also cause him to act out at times, and the Little Ninja has needed coaching over the years to learn how to more properly express his empathy. For example, when he was four years old we needed to do some allergy testing on his big brother. It took all the strength of both the nurse and me to hold the Big Ninja down for the blood draw, and he cried and was very upset. That was too much for my tiny vigilante to handle. When we were done my youngest rushed at the legs of the nurse and started swinging, yelling, “You leave my brother alone!” Luckily she was a good sport about it, and was impressed at the passionate way he defended his big brother. I had a talk with him later about finding less physical ways to stand up for people. This is an especially important lesson for the times that he misinterprets a situation.

There are other times that my son feels so intensely for other people that he is overwhelmed by his emotions and doesn’t know what to do with it. Continue reading

Autism, Meltdowns, and the Unexpected Kindness of Strangers in a Supermarket

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The following is an excerpt of an article I wrote for Parents.com. Note: I do not describe my child’s meltdown in much detail because I feel that would be disrespectful to him. The details I did share were in order to share the importance of kindness, patience, and acceptance.

I have been a parent for over ten years now, and for a large part of those years I have also been an Autism parent. It has been quite the eventful journey; full of twists, turns, and lessons along the way. In my house we call it “Not Boring,” and have come to celebrate my son’s uniqueness. Back when my two boys were small and I was new to the Autism world, however, I spent a lot of time feeling confused and overwhelmed. I wish I could go back in time and reassure that worried mother, “Everything is going to be okay.”

One day in particular stands out in my mind. Many years ago I attempted the ambitious feat of grocery shopping with two small boys. Our trip to Kroger took longer than I would have liked, and the sights and sounds became overwhelming for my youngest. At the time he was pre-verbal, and his lack of ability to communicate seemed to heighten his moments of frustration. At that point I knew that he was facing developmental delays, and suspected Autism, but I had not discovered how to best help him when he became upset. I also had not yet learned all his triggers, and constantly walked around in a state of high alert because I never knew what the day would bring.

We finally finished shopping and approached the checkout counter to pay. I abruptly took a package of rice cakes out of the hands of my youngest son without thinking, and placed them on the conveyor belt. He was surprised and upset, because rice cakes were his favorite food at the time. A scream came out of his mouth and he took his frustration out the object nearest to him: the soft flesh of his older brother. My firstborn started crying, my youngest kept shrieking, and I desperately tried to calm the scene and comfort both children. I soon became completely overwhelmed, and all I could do was press my face against the soft hair of my oldest son and sob. I cried for his hurt, I cried for my own fears, and I cried because it broke my heart to see my youngest baby get so upset. Yet, as disturbing as it was for me, I knew it must be even more terrifying for him to feel so overwhelmed.

So there we stood, immobilized in the middle of the checkout lane… 

>>>>>>>>>>

To read the rest of the story please visit the original post, Autism, Meltdowns, and the Unexpected Kindness of Strangers in a Supermarket  at the Parents.com Special-Needs Now blog.

(Image is via Shutterstock and was posted on the original article.) 

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Celebrate what makes you unique! It’s Not Boring. Seriously.

The School Conference That Made Me Cry

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I recently attended a conference at my 3rd grader’s school and it totally made me cry. This time, however, it was a GOOD cry (although also a borderline “ugly cry” too). All because my youngest son has incredible teachers, and he has some amazing, supportive classmates. But let me rewind…

Parents of children with special needs are used to crying in conferences and IEP meetings. We walk into the room bracing ourselves because we feel raw, vulnerable and are afraid of what we might hear. (We brace ourselves every time the phone rings during the school day, too!) In some school settings our children do not always get the support and services that they need. Resources are limited, teachers are exhausted, and classmates can be cruel. I feel blessed to say that has NOT been our experience at my son’s school. From the beginning Team Ninja has been full of exceptional, patient, caring teachers who have found creative ways to help my son THRIVE.  Continue reading