Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Snoezelen... I mean... Sensory... I mean... Quiet Room

“A room by any other name would be as wickedly cool...”
That’s how the saying goes, right?

For those that need some context, here goes...

In February of last year, I asked my principal to assign me to my class, as a second choice to the library.  I had been contemplating a move to middle school (for a variety of reasons which serve no purpose in this story), and my principal was very concerned about assigning me to the library if I was just going to leave.  I had been doing library for three years, which I loved, but I was willing to give it up, and part of me was eager to have my own kids again.  I loved my previous experience in Special Ed, and I thought it would be a great learning experience to try my hand at the ASD class, if I couldn’t have my library.  When she actually did give me the class, I immediately started plotting, planning, scheming and dreaming, and by the time postings came out, I didn’t apply for a single one... I was too excited about my new assignment to think about leaving!

The sad little ALE as it was...
As an occasional visitor to the classroom I was going to occupy, I knew the layout of the room pretty well, and had always been driven crazy by what I perceived to be a an incredibly under-developed corner of the room, literally. About two years ago, the board had installed, at great expense, what they call an ALE (alternative learning environment) in one corner of the classroom. It was basically a 6x8 room with nothing in it. I’m not kidding.  The following year, they spent even more money to have it padded, from the floor to about 6” up on all four walls. Yup... you know the joke about the padded room? Well, that’s what we had.  A padded room, with a couple of beanbag chairs and a yoga ball. I know at one point, there was a student that used to get quite aggressive, and the room was presumably there as a safe space for him if needed. I’m not going to pretend to guess its usefulness, since it wasn’t my classroom.  Suffice to say, it definitely wasn’t living up to what it could be, at least in my eyes.

By March, I had already begun thinking about turning that little room into something more.  I honestly don’t know what put the idea into my head, but I was reading everything I could get my hands on about Snoezelen rooms, and had convinced myself that this was exactly what I needed for my students. It sounded magical to me, although I had never even seen one... Sparkling lights, bubbles, soothing music and special effects, mirror balls, vibrating cloud cushions... close your eyes and picture that... I know, right?! That’s what I wanted. I babbled excitedly to my principal, who agreed that it would be great... in theory. How exactly we were going to pull it off was an entirely different matter, and one that neither of us had figured out.

As the months went by, the Snoezelen idea simmered.  I told friends about what I wanted to do, I kept reading, and searched the web looking for ideas about how to do it “on the cheap”.  At the very least, I knew I wanted music in there, so I purchased a Sony stereo with the last of the class’s budget money and asked my principal if we could install a shelf to put it on. No problem, she says. Turns out, she was wrong. It was a big problem. First of all, my custodian wasn’t allowed to install one for me, because it was to go above the mats, which is above shoulder height, and anything above shoulder height has to be installed by a facilities person from the central office. Remember that little tidbit, because it’s about to get old...

Secondly, there was great debate between facilities and the Special Ed department and the Health and Safety department over whether I was allowed to install a shelf in there at all. The kids might hang on it, climb on it, throw something on it...etc.  I assured them that the children would never be in the room unsupervised, that there would be nothing to climb ON, and that nothing hard would be brought into the room that could be thrown. They then decided that I could have the shelf, but that it had to be ordered and installed centrally.  I measured the dimensions. Twice. In April, we put in a work order for the shelf, and I heaved a sigh of relief.  I didn’t have anything by a stereo yet, but at least I would have a shelf for it.

In May, I was paid a visit in my library office by the electrical safety inspector, as he was touring the school with our custodian.  “Oh, you’re the one that wants to put in one of those sensory rooms, eh?” My reputation, such as it was, was apparently preceding me. “Make sure you’re careful about what you put in there, eh? I’ve seen a lot of schools do these rooms and we have to make them take it all down if it’s not safe.  No Christmas lights hanging from the ceiling and stuff...” So much for all the great “on the cheap” ideas.

I laughed and shrugged him off with “Oh, well, it’s just a plan. Right now the only thing I have for it is a stereo!” Ha, ha... (insert forced smile) 

Him: “Oh yah? It’s certified, right?”

Me: “You mean, like, CSA approved? Of course, it’s a Sony...” Ha, ha... (insert forced smile)

Him: “CSA or blah, blah, blah...” – something technical that I didn’t hear as panic set in. “Lemme see it.”

I (mostly) confidently dug out my stereo from its packaging and displayed the approval sticker for him. Satisfied, he wished me a nice day and reminded me to be careful with anything else I put in the room, and left me grinding my teeth and wondering what do to next.

I had been toying with the idea of a fundraiser of some kind for awhile, but this little encounter really made me realize that if I wanted this room, I was going to have to go big or go home, as they say. Anyone who knows me knows what came next. 

I started by calling the official Canadian distributor of Snoezelen equipment, Flaghouse.  Turns out “Snoezelen” is kind of a brand name for a set of equipment and the philosophy/approach that goes with it.  To be honest, I called them to ask if they had any kind of deal or sponsorship program that a school like ours could access. No such luck.  They were, however, incredibly kind and helpful, and passed along to me a whole package about the rooms, a framework for a grant proposal, and a list of possible funding sources.  I called them back several days later, and told them although I had no money yet, I was planning on getting some, and would they please do up a room design and price list for me that I could show to potential donors? They absolutely could, and that was the end of the beginning.

Two weeks later, with the gracious participation of The Essentials secured, I began to plan a benefit concert and silent auction for the end of June, only a month away.  I designed posters, printed tickets, and got my hand slapped by the board, all in the same week.  “You can’t call it a Snoezelen Room”, I was told.  “Schools have gotten into trouble for that – Snoezelen is a brand name.” They didn’t seem to care that it WAS a Snoezelen room, designed by the company that owned the Canadian rights to the name. They wanted the posters changed. I changed them. The 10 of them I sent to the board, that is. And the 4 that were up around the school. The rest of them, plastered across the web and the school community, stayed the way they were.  No one noticed.

Meanwhile, I sent out a plea to friends, family and acquaintances for their help with the event. To say I was overwhelmed by the support I received would be an understatement...

Silent auction items flooded in, local media graciously picked up our story, and a “what-the-heck” email to the CBC got me live on Metro Morning. One kind Torontonian who heard me on the program emailed me and sent a cheque for $200, saying he was moved by the story and wanted to help. Flaghouse agreed to send a rep with equipment out to the event, so that people could see what they were supporting. 

Ticket sales were slow, but on the night of the event, people showed up, and the event ended up raising close to $4000. School ended, but cheques kept trickling in... People who couldn’t attend donated anyway. Other friends in education told their friends about what I was trying to do, and took up a collection at their school.  I spent 2 whole days at the beginning of the summer writing requests to a slew of possible funding organizations, local service clubs and non-profits. Friends sent links they had heard about, and I learned a big lesson about how funding works (or doesn’t) when you’re a public school trying to work outside the box.

In August, I met with the local Rotary chapter, where I ended up sitting across from a gentleman who questioned me gruffly about why I “would want to teach a class like that. That’s hard work.” I explained to him that although I was expecting hard work, I also loved teaching special students, because I felt that it really gave me a chance to TEACH, to work with individual students on things that were going to be relevant and beneficial to them. I told him that I felt that the students in my class were entitled to schooling that would meet their needs, and that the room I was trying to build would be a huge part of providing that for them. Turns out he had had a son with autism, who had had terrible school experiences in the very board I teach in. Ouch. When I later spoke to the whole group, he questioned me aloud again and made me repeat my answer in front everyone. I hoped that I was making sense, that I wasn’t babbling, and that I didn’t sound like some dreamy-eyed idealist.  I felt the need to emphasize that I had been teaching a whole decade, and that I wasn’t naive or blind to the realities of teaching. When I had finished, I passed around my room design and equipment list, and sat down back at the end of the table across from said gentleman, not sure how I had done.  As the meeting went on, my materials eventually made their way back to our end of the table, and when they got to him, he asked if he could write on them. I nodded, and then feigned disinterest as he scrawled across the bottom of the page. 

When he handed it back to me, he had written his name, phone number, email. Under that, it said: “$2000. Let me know the name on the cheque.”

As the meeting ended, he asked me to keep the donation private, but to keep him posted on how the room was going.  “Buy that fibre-optic you were talking about,” he said. 

I did. By mid-August, I had calculated there to be almost $7000 in the Sensory Room fund, and I gleefully spent it on the two major items – an interactive bubble tube, and a lighted fibre-optic spray – and a few other smaller items. Flaghouse was going to try and get it all to me before the school year started. My kids were going to have their room.

Yay boxes!
When I arrived back at the school in August, the first thing I noticed was that there was still no shelf in the room.  You know, the one we had ordered in April? Still not there. The last week of August, I arrived to a pile of boxes in my room. Sweet! Except that the light source for the fibre optic wasn’t working, the base for the bubble tube was shipping separately and hadn’t arrived, and I still had no shelf on which to put the stereo or the projector. A second projector and a blacklight were backordered. I couldn’t put the fibre optic up anyway, because it has to go above the mats, which was above shoulder height, which required someone from the board to come in and do it for me. Again. Sigh... Best laid plans. 

The first day of school arrived, and the room was as empty as it had been before, except for the boxes piled in one corner and the empty bubble tube set up in the other. A bubble tube requires about 45 litres of distilled water, FYI. That’s a lot of something that is only easily found in about 4 litre sizes, and even then, hard to track down.

Enjoying the fibre optics
(face blurred to protect student identity)
But it slowly took shape... By the end of the first week, Flaghouse had shipped me a replacement light source, and someone from the board actually came in and put it up. The kids were enchanted. The next week, I had sourced out the distilled water and had the bubble tube up and running. The kids took turns wrapping themselves around it in delight. By the third week of September, someone finally arrived to install our long-awaited shelf, and the room had floating piano and birdsong coming from the newly-housed stereo. Our little Quiet Room, as it was known to the kids, was officially the coolest place in the whole school.

The room is far from done.  We still have about $4000 worth of equipment missing – a mirror ball and spotlight, a vibroacoustic beanbag mattress, a pressure roller and an aromatherapy kit, among other small things. Our blacklight finally arrived. We waited to have it put up (above shoulder height). It went up. I came down again, because the board said it needed a cage over it. Someone else came back and said it should be fine.  A third phone call explained that it was not fine, and could not be put back, as no cage was available.  If we wanted a blacklight, it would have to be ordered through the board. They quoted us at $600.  For a single fluorescent black light. Not gonna happened.  So much for the $100+ we spent on it in the first place.  And the cool UV carpet tiles that were supposed to go with it. The board said Flaghouse should know better, since they design these rooms all the time. They had a point.  When I said as much to the sales rep at Flaghouse, they agreed, and refunded us the money. No questions asked.  They also replaced the light source for the fibre optic. Again. Because the fan has started making this strange whirring sound that it never made before, and they have a 2-year no-hassle policy on everything we bought. Amazing.

Our projector is still on backorder. They had to find a new supplier and are waiting on CSA approval before they can ship it into Canada. Good thing, because then the electrical safety person won’t be able to hassle me next time they come around.

Bubble tube bliss!
(face blurred to protect student identity)
Could I do without the ongoing headaches over the room? Sure.  But let me tell you why it’s worth it.  It’s worth it to see my little guy, who doesn’t play with anything, dart in there to sit pushing to buttons on the bubble tube.  It’s worth it to have a safe haven for my noise-sensitive ones when the room gets a little crazy.  It’s worth it to have my most challenging, usually upset child lying under the fibre-optics quietly, and taking my hand to tell me, in his way, to “do it again”, as I pick up the strands and let them fall gently over his face.  It’s worth it to see my two girls sitting side by side on the bubble tube, giggling and playing with each others’ hair. And it’s worth it to see my busy one, who never sits still, sit beside the bubble tube and lean her ear against it, still as a mouse to listen to the hum and the trickle of the water in motion. 

I’m proud of that little room, of that something concrete that I’ve been able to give my kids. I’m thrilled that they’re responding to it, and using it every day. And sometimes, at the end of the day, when everyone is gone, I plunk myself down on one of the grimy, questionable beanbag chairs, close the door, and just take it all in for a minute or two, and try to remind myself of why I chose this, why it’s worth it and why, no matter what the day has been like, I will get up the next day and do it all over again.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Fateful moments... if you believe in that sort of thing...

Today was, in the words of Grover, a “bad awful day”.  This morning I realized, too late to turn back, that I had forgotten my cellphone at home... Instant panic - dependent, I know, but don’t tell me you don’t panic when you forget your phone, too... Fine.  I didn’t prep a lunch last night, so I have to run out and grab something anyway. I’ll go home for the phone at lunch.  Get to school cranky about the phone, only to realize I’ve also forgotten my school bag – you know, the one with all my papers I cart back and forth, the stuff I had prepped for today’s activities, and oh... ALL of my notes for today’s IEP meeting with a parent at 9:30am. Fantastic... now I’m really cranky, and panicked trying to re-prepare materials for the meeting and the activity planned for the kids to do while I’m in said meeting.

Kids arrive. 2 of them I can hear arriving halfway down the hall.  This is never a good sign. A) long weekend, b) one of my TA’s is away and there’s a supply (a great supply, but nonetheless...) For those that aren’t following this line of awful, kids with ASD generally don’t do well with changes in routine, staff, ect. Recipe for disaster is already in motion.  By noon, all hell has broken loose.  One kid has been screaming all day, another kid bit the first one because they don’t like the noise, a third is in a bad mood and has spent most of the day flopped on the ground and refusing to get up, and my little one is throwing everything he can get his hands on.  *Close eyes, picture my nice quiet library. Wonder if I may actually be clinically insane. Repeat.* I want to walk out the door and not come back. I feel like a horrible teacher, and possibly a terrible person, too.

When the lunch bell rings, I literally escape out the doors, hoping that the room is still standing by the time I get back, and that all of my TA’s will survive the hour. Jump into the car, cursing my own forgetfulness, and head for home.  Consider Subway, thinking something healthy might make me feel better in the long run. Decide to F* that and get McDonald’s. Hit the drive-through, curse the (as usual) terrible speaker system, pay. Pull up to the second window. Am greeted pleasantly by a cheerful young girl who wonders if I want ketchup in the bag, and then stops and looks at me closely.

“Are you Miss *Teacher in 10*?”


“I’m Nikki!” She points at her nametag, which says Nicole.

I suddenly recognize her... a sweetheart little girl from my grade four class in my first year of teaching... 10 years ago.

“Of course? Nikki – hi! How are you?”

“I’m great! Are you still teaching at *school*?”

“I am. And you’re working here now?”

“Yup, for a few years now – I actually just got promoted this week!” she announces proudly.

“That’s great! Are you still in school, too?”

“I am! I’m actually going to be a teacher, too. And I’m taking sign language.  I want to teach Deaf kids, because you taught us sign language in Grade Four!”

I barely heard the rest of the conversation. I was floored. So humbled. I told her how good it was to see her, and to come visit at school sometime, that I’d love to talk to her. And then I pulled away and burst into tears. I cried all the way home.

“I want to teach Deaf kids, because you taught us sign language in Grade Four!”

I used to have a poster of the manual alphabet in my classroom. As part of their science unit on light and sound, I would talk to my fourth graders about the privilege of being able to see and hear, and have them create universal design household items that could be used by someone who was Deaf or Blind. And I would teach them how to fingerspell their names. That’s it.  The kids loved it... They loved to practice their spelling words in fingerspelling. And now here was this girl – this grown-up, university-aged girl, telling me that she was choosing her career based on what I did with her in grade four.

It was like my entire teaching career crystallized in that 30 seconds of conversation. That’s why become teachers – to have meaningful, real impact on the lives of our students. I left for lunch feeling like the worst teacher on the planet, and suddenly, I felt like if I did nothing else in my entire career, it would be enough.  Enough to have inspired that one girl to want to teach Deaf students, because I “taught her sign language in Grade Four.” Enough to be remembered by her, 10 years later, in a random encounter that might never had happened if I had not forgotten my phone, not packed a lunch and not needed junk food after a “bad awful” morning. The highest of highs from the lowest of lows.

Spirit officially refreshed. Tomorrow is another day.  And Nikki’s gift to me will live for the rest of my life in that incredible moment of affirmation that I will never forget.