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M.A.T. student’s creative approach changes the narrative for struggling fourth grader

June 13, 2016

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When Kristina Chou, M.A.T. ’16, met a fourth grade student named Josh for the first time in late November 2015, he had just arrived at his third school since his family moved to Portland in September. Chou was a teacher education student in the early months of her year-long student teaching placement. When Josh joined her class, he was immediately irate with the new expectations, insisting that at his other schools he was allowed to simply sit in the room and was not required to turn in or do his work. Along with Josh’s mom and her mentor teacher Ann Nordstrom, Chou was determined that would not be the case here. In her classroom, Josh would participate, engage with the material, and most importantly, learn and grow with his classmates.

Josh is on the autism spectrum and experiences great difficulty dealing with frustration. Classwork and homework, specifically in math, are huge stressors for him and can quickly send him into a downward spiral of anger. He doesn’t respond to consequences, caring little about losing recess, going to the principal’s office, or calls home.

Recognizing that Josh is, however, motivated by rewards—specifically the use of the computer at home to practice coding—Chou and her mentor devised a strategy: for every math problem that Josh completed, he would earn 7 minutes of computer time.

“With the new implication of the minutes, Josh began completing in-class work and I was able to really tease out what exactly made him frustrated about math. I realized that much of the issue was the way something was worded. He would get hung up because a word problem stated 1/2 gallon instead of ‘one half of a gallon.’ He would get frustrated to the point where he was breaking pencils and ripping papers. With patience and perseverance, I tried to communicate to him the meaning of the problem and found it helped him to reword it. I ended up rewriting many word problems for the class so that he wouldn’t get frustrated,“ explains Chou.

The next step was to help Josh begin to recognize when his frustration was mounting, and to give him the tools to handle his emotions before they became out of control. He was given a standing pass to go to the counselor’s office if he needed to, or to simply put his head down or read a book at his desk and take a “brain-break”.

“Throughout January and February, Josh used the pass a lot and could be at the counselor’s office for a few hours,” Chou recalls. “Now, in May, he rarely uses it. More significantly, if he does, usually he just sits outside the classroom for a minute and can calm himself down independently.”

Through teamwork and some very creative and custom strategies, Josh now is able to complete all problems in a math unit test in the allotted time; has friends and is excited to play at recess; raises his hand when he needs help or more explanation before becoming too frustrated; has initiated a renegotiation of his contract from a 7-minute reward per problem to a 2-minute reward, to make it more challenging for himself; and has made a goal to write more in class.

At home, Josh’s mom has noticed a remarkable change in his attitude about school as well—he is much more positive, and sees education as part of his future.

“Recently, our class took a field trip to Oregon State University, and I was hanging out with Josh,” Chou says. “He couldn’t understand why anyone would want to live at school and thought the idea of college was stupid and illogical. We started talking about what happened at college, aside from living in the dorms, and that he could study coding and get a computer science degree.”

At the end of that field trip, Josh caught up with her. “Miss Chou,” he said, “I think I can do it.” In that moment, the boy who six months earlier didn’t even believe he could complete a math problem, now saw himself as a future college graduate with a degree in computer science.

“Kristina has truly found her voice as a teacher for equity and social justice,” states Linda Griffin, director of the elementary education program in which Chou is enrolled. “Not only is she passionate about going the extra mile to meet the needs of each student, she is consistently innovative and reflective about her teaching. She is already a leader for positive change. I can’t wait to hear about her future success.”

Although Josh still has a lot of work ahead of him, he can now look toward the future and see a path and a place for himself in his school and envision where education can take him. He has friends who root for him and support him. The school is putting together an Individualized Education Program to track his progress and record what teaching methods are successful for him as a resource to each new teacher. Much of this would not have happened without Chou’s perseverance, patience, and drive to collaborate with her mentor and leverage the school’s resources. Thanks to their collective dedication, Josh truly has a team behind him doing everything possible to help him succeed.

Chou will complete her degree in July 2016, and has already accepted a job teaching third grade at Elmonica Elementary in Beaverton, OR. She looks forward to “uphold[ing] the valuable lessons Lewis and Clark has taught [her] and to put them into practice.”

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Students at Lewis & Clark’s Graduate School of Education and Counseling are placed within schools and clinics throughout the greater Portland area, routinely making a difference in their students’ and clients’ lives through their dedication to equity and social justice.

We are honored to share the stories of students, like Kristina Chou, and the impact they are making on their community and society. If you would like to nominate a current student or alumni to be a featured profile, please contact Kimberly Bernick, Director of Communications, at kbernick@lclark.edu.

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