By Louise Kinross
“When I was a little girl in public school I remember being in Mrs. Harper’s library and reaching for a book on the shelf called Mine for Keeps,” Shelley says. “It’s about a beautiful young girl with cerebral palsy and it made me dream of being a special-education teacher.”
After seven years teaching at the Bloorview School authority, Shelley returned last year to teach in her childhood school library—the same one where she first read about a child with a disability.
This year she received the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence for her work with students here from junior kindergarten to Grade 12, both in the class and the library. Shelley is married to Dr. Peter Rumney, physician director of Holland Bloorview’s Rehabilitation and Complex Continuing Care.
BLOOM: Why did you decide to work as a teacher-librarian with children with disabilities?
Shelley Neal: Because I love children and I love books. I want them to embrace each other and, in so doing, create a knowledge base that gives students more options in life. My love is for children and how I can engage and bring them into knowledge through books and text and literature, and, in that knowledge, create for them a freedom to think.
It’s almost a selfish thing to be in a relationship with children with different disabilities, because it’s so rich. As you bring out their giftedness, they’re bringing out your giftedness. It’s a real cycle, and out of that comes an incredible journey of relationship that empowers both people.
BLOOM: How did you work with the students in our school?
Shelley Neal: It was the greatest gig ever. First of all you have books, and books are a portal into different worlds and different thoughts, and then you have children—not children with disabilities, I just saw them as my kids. My question was ‘how do I connect these two worlds—the world of literature and books and thoughts—with children who are questioning and wondering? For the younger ones that was easy: by reading and singing and poetry and then saying: ‘I wonder, what do you wonder?’
For the older students I used text to connect them to the world and see their role and passion in the world. It doesn’t matter about disability because they are a whole person right the way they are. They still had that wonderment and we’d use the library, virtual or real, to engage them in discovering.
The middle school fiction is incredibly rich with universal themes of connection and hardship. I had children who were really hurting, coming through surgery and dealing with pain and conflict and all of that regular kid stuff like relationships. I needed to use text to create a genre to have a dialogue about that.
And then I had to figure out what to do with the reluctant guys who don’t want to read. I would use graphic novels to entice them into the text in a way that was fun and that they could glean information that was useful to their life.
One of the ways our kids learn is visually, so I also used TED Talks. One of the best was about a woman from New Orleans who painted one side of an abandoned house with chalkboard paint and wrote ‘Before I die, I want to…’ Then she left chalk there for people to share their hopes. I watched this talk with our high school children and they decided to create their own little chalk boards that they kept in the school, and that anyone could write on. I explained that they had to be sensitive because we have children who are dying with cancer, so, is there another saying we could use? They came up with ‘In my life I wish…’ I was able to get the raw materials for them and poor Peter helped them build this. Most people see him as a doctor, but I see him as a carpenter.
BLOOM: What kind of things did people write on the boards?
Shelley Neal: To sing opera on a stage, to learn to walk again, to go back to school to be with my friends. You saw some of the hurt and coming to new terms with what their body can do. But you also saw things like ‘to study about whales.’
BLOOM: What kind of changes did you see in the students you worked with?
Shelley Neal: It’s growth—growth in their understanding that they have abilities, and they have a brain to think, and learning how to connect them to deepen their understanding and knowledge. For beginning ones it’s literacy. In grades 1 to 6 they learn how to create a good question in their wonderment and to develop research skills. The older ones take those reading skills to a deeper level to empower them to read more complex text that brings up ideas.
BLOOM: What was the greatest challenge?
Shelley Neal: It was looking at each child’s ability and how to make access to information for them. So if I had a child with cerebral palsy who couldn’t hold a book, how do I allow them to access text? An incredible volunteer scanned all of our pattern books into this software called Clicker, so kids could access it through switch technology—with a click or the hummer switch or a head switch or eye gaze.
The other barrier was kids who hadn’t been successful in school. They hated reading and hated the library. I had to engage and empower them to develop a love of learning and show them reading is a skill that would help them. I used graphic novels and good Ted Talks as ways of making information accessible. Then we got into WordQ and SpeakQ, which allow a student to hear and read along with text that is too hard for them to read, but the thoughts are important because they can think really well.
BLOOM: Did you ever get frustrated because you weren’t able to find a way for some students to communicate?
Shelley Neal: The staff came together to learn what the child’s language is and how they communicate—whether a smile, an eye gaze, a motion of a hand or finger. The biggest thing for me was learning how to make my questions simple, so through a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response, I could start to see what was going on in the child’s world.
When I was frustrated I went back to the other disciplines and said ‘here.’ That’s the richness of Holland Bloorview. A whole team is there to enable this child. So the occupational and physical therapists would problem solve on how to position a child correctly or how to make a switch that works best and which part of the body has most consistency for hitting it. This award is a representation of a team, not just me.
BLOOM: What was most rewarding?
Shelley Neal: The greatest joy of a teacher-librarian, no matter what ability the child has, is to have them sit on your lap and engage in a story with you. That is the magic of library. When technology is too cumbersome or slow, let’s share a text together and read and question and think.
BLOOM: Have your thoughts about disability changed over the years?
Shelley Neal: Yes. I went from being a ‘goody two shoes’ who wanted to learn how to help people—where it’s all about you—to a deeper understanding of the power and resilience in the children. They are whole and capable, and my job is not to make it better. My job is to come alongside and learn with them and be honoured with the journey. I learned that these are incredibly powerful, amazingly resilient people—whether they were in junior kindergarten or Grade 12—and they have a lot to teach me about life. I need to stop and listen.
BLOOM: What advice would you give parents?
Shelley Neal: To surround yourself with an incredible team, and that’s not just the professionals, but other parents of children with disabilities. Love yourself, care for yourself, and be the strongest advocate ever. This is a tiring, long journey and you need to make sure to feed yourself.
With Debbie Sutherland, one of my Bloorview school colleagues, we birthed a respite program as a way of honouring and valuing the parents. They think it’s for the kids, but it’s for the parents to reconnect for four hours, to build themselves up. And now they’re connecting with other parents of kids with disabilities to create a valuable team.
BLOOM: What is next for you?
Shelley Neal: Last year at my new school we brought in whacks of technology and this year I want to build capacity with other staff members so it becomes second nature to them. The reason for my secondment to the Bloorview school was to build a skill set that I could take back to the board. In addition to technology, I bring back a deeper understanding of inclusion.
I’ll continue on with our respite program and then I’m getting set to retire. My next job is to use my harp, my music, to bring an environment of rest and healing to the sick and the dying.