Monday, June 03, 2013
This is a post by Michael, Daniel’s father. Daniel is a 17 year old who has severe Autism. Daniel has, over the past year, taken and completed 6 Coursera courses. Their journey warmed our hearts and we asked Michael to share it with the Coursera community. We hope you enjoy Daniel’s story as much as we have.
It is impossible to overstate the benefit and happiness that Coursera has brought to our son Daniel and our family.
Five years ago (next month) our severely autistic son Daniel had a major breakthrough. Then twelve years old, with a using vocabulary of thirty or forty words (though we knew he understood far more) he suddenly learned to answer questions by picking the answers out, one letter at a time, on a letterboard. Within a couple of weeks, Daniel could use the thousands of words he had heard but could not speak.
The teacher who created this breakthrough, Soma Mukhopadhyay, also taught us how to read to Daniel: read him a sentence, stop, ask him a comprehension question, get his answer on the letter board, go on to the next sentence, ask another question…
Reading one sentence at a time makes for slow going, so to make it worthwhile for both of us I started reading Danny A Midsummer Nights Dream which is delightful at that pace. Daniel had great difficulty with reading that went too fast, but once I went slowly enough it didn’t seem to matter how difficult the content was! Soon my “comprehension” questions went beyond “what’s happening” and became about rhyme, symbolism, metaphor and dramatic structure. It didn’t matter to Daniel: as long as he was answering questions, he was following the story, and the tougher the questions the more he loved it. By the end of the seven months it took us to finish the play, Dan had become an expert close reader, a skill which would enable him to take Al Filreis’ Modern & Contemporary American Poetry class, the Coursera class that changed his life again four years later.
By the time someone sent me Daphne Koller’s TED talk and we discovered Coursera, we were well into the groove of teaching Dan at home. Dan loved learning and kept steering us towards subjects where he would be asked to compare ideas because connecting different pieces of information into knowlege made him feel, as he spelled to us, “less autistic.” Dan is eager to go to school, but is unable to sit still quietly in a classroom, and unable to communicate abstract thought except by letterboard. Even more limiting, he is dependent on an adult to bring him to the task, keep him working on it, and hold his hand while he spells. Coursera seemed like a possible bridge between home schooling and what Dan called “going to a real school,” but it turned out to be much more.
In September of 2012 there were not yet many humanities courses on Coursera (remember Dan wants to be made to compare ideas, so the humanities are better for that than many hard science classes) so I helped him sign up for two courses from University of Pennsylvania: Al Filreis’ Modern Poetry, known to its legions of worldwide fans as ModPo, and Peter Struck’s Greek and Roman Mythology.
Dan received many shocks and rose to many occasions. The biggest shock was having to keep up. It had taken us months to read our first Shakespeare play and now I had two weeks to read Dan The Odyssey. Until Coursera, my wife Meredith and I had been so thrilled that Dan could understand literature that we gave him as much time as he needed. Coursera ended that luxury with a bang. True, the online lecture format made it easy for me to stop the video and ask Dan questions, and we could repeat things he didn’t get the first time, but basically Dan had to keep up. And he wanted to keep up and that was a tremendous growth experience. He discovered that he could understand the Odyssey with only two or three comprehension questions per book and keep up the relentless pace of a college course, studying whether he was in the mood or not (special ed can be very forgving. Dan loved having an objective standard he had to keep up with).
Then there were the quizzes. After the first one or two we stopped reading the questions aloud and started dragging his finger across the question on screen. He would then respond by tapping the answer on the screen. Dan can’t use a mouse but we quickly discovered that if we got the quiz on an iPad the touchscreen enabled him to read and answer the questions on his own. Once or twice he realized that he could make a case for more than one of the offered quiz answers being right and he discovered the phenomenon of second-guessing the professor. The in-lecture quizzes are always easy for him becase they are like the stopping to ask a comprehension question, which he knows so well.
Then there were the online essays to write and peer-review. Although Dan doesn’t yet read for pleasure on his own he learned to read the 500-800 -word essays of his classmates, and this young man for whom writing a couple of sentences on the letterboard had been a big deal began to be able to write and construct an argument in logical order. As a peer reviewer he experienced the anguish of hating a badly written essay but not wanting to give a failing grade. He glowed with pride when his peers gave him high marks, and suffered the one time he got a less-than-passing grade from his peers (he did well enough on the other essays that he still passed the course). When it occurred to him that he could write an essay about Frank O’Hara in the style of a Frank O’Hara poem he was filled with pride and he waited in suspense to see whether his peers would like it (they did).
The Coursera Honor Code made a big impression on him. One day I winced at one of Dan’s quiz choices and he spelled out “I see now that answer two is correct, but leave it wrong because that was my choice.”
Dan has now earned six certificates and has learned from dipping into several other courses as well. It’s a great introduction to college learning. It is something new in the world for an undergraduate —especially a seventeen year old autistic one— to be able to study Ancient Greek literature from very different points of view at Penn, Wesleyan and the University of Virginia. This whole world is new to him: standards, peers, comradeship and competition. And with his induction into this world came something that would surprise some critics of MOOCs: Daniel experienced a dramatic decrease in his sense of isolation. There are emails and forum posts and people who accept Dan despite (or ignoring) his autism. But there are also in-the-flesh encounters stemming initially from Al Filreis’ commitment to openness and his invitation to his students to drop by Kelly Writers House at Penn. We took Dan there and Al spent time with him, and the TAs, familiar from the video lectures, were friendly and accepting and Dan began to get a sense that there might be a community he could be part of some day that had nothing to do with autism. Emboldened by meeting Professor Filreis, Danny asked me to write to Peter Struck and he met us too. We have hopes of meeting all Dan’s professors — and one is in Jerusalem and several are in Edinburgh! Some of the 49 Courserians who are Danny’s Facebook friends will probably become non-virtual friends in time.
He even had a moment of stardom. We took him to the ModPo final webcast at Penn, and at one point one of the TAs asked members of the audience to pick two words that encapsulated their ModPo experience. Dan’s were “not impossible” and under Al Filreis’ gentle urging he managed to say those words aloud to however many hundreds of people were watching around the world. Someone made a forum topic out if it and for 72 hours “Not impossible” was the top thread on the ModPo forum as people wrote in from all over saying that Dan had inspired them and that “not impossible” was going to be their new watchword. Can you imagine what it does for a person like Daniel to feel useful?
I hope you all found this interesting as I did.....
Saturday, March 23, 2013
Not that I am alone in this but just wish to share.
These aren’t hot flashes. They are power surges.
I have been experiencing hot flushes far too regularly of late and yesterday at work I was a boiling pot of heat. Looking for my makeshift cardboard fan and it was missing. What to do now?
The girls I work with frantically searched for another as they know how hot I get.
They move away from me and go "Here she goes again" "There she blows" All in good humour.
Hugging my husband at times and he pushes me away and says "Oh my I really felt the heat that time."
Wasn't menstrual pain, childbirth, mammograms and pap smears enough? Now we have to suffer hot sweats and the need to change our clothes more than once a day?
Some days they only make an appearance once. Other days they seem to have the need to drive me insane.
Oh the joys of being a woman!!!
Happy days Indeed!!!
Sunday, October 28, 2012
My husband found this poem online and it truly describes what he goes through on a daily basis with his depression. Thought I would share. It is actually a war poem .....
Try To Understand...
If he stays home alone,
And doesn't like to hear the phone.
If he won't answer the door,
'cause he doesn't want to see anyone any more.
Try to understand...
If nightime is something to dread,
And his sleep is restless and fleeting in bed.
If he quietly gets up in the night,
So as not to disturb your pleasant respite.
Try to understand...
If he becomes nervous and jumps around,
At unexpected movement or a sudden sound.
If he sits in a restaurant with his back to a wall,
Because he can't have anyone behind him at all.
Try to understand...
If he shows no fear and wouldn't turn if he could,
That part of him has gone that says you should.
If his anger seems quick and extreme,
He's only trying to control intense emotions unseen.
Try to understand...
If he seems emotionless and indifferent some day,
And perhaps he just says "Go away!"
If he becomes depressed and may seem unkind,
He is only trying to spare you the agony in his mind.
Try to understand...
If his mood changes and alters,
And he becomes unsure and often falters.
If he becomes sad and stares into space,
He has only gone to some other place.
Try to understand...Because he doesn't...
Monday, October 08, 2012
I am back just in case you didn't know. Barry and I had (well I had) a good holiday.
As most of you know he suffers with severe depression brought on by a work related incident. He has not worked for almost 2 years and this holiday was also prescribed by his physicians.
He tried ever so hard to have a good time but daily he wanted to come home. I have to give him credit for lasting 4 of the 6 weeks we were meant to be away.
Only in the last week did he start to sort of enjoy himself.
I had made the decision early on that I was going onwards and forwards regardless. I was determined to fit in as much to my day as possible. He was very obliging and tried hard not to ruin my much needed break from work and routine.
His driving was amazing and I also got the opportunity to drive our beast of a car.
Just some of the places we visited - Airlie Beach, Cairns, Port Douglas, Atherton, Undara Lava Tubes, Georgetown, Karumba, Mt Isa, Mataranka, Katherine, Darwin, Alice Springs, Uluru, Boulia, Bedourie, Windorah, and Cunnamulla before returning home to Brisbane.
I saw the Katherine Gorge (alone) - amazing.
Saw crocodiles jump out of the river and snatch some food from a long rod.
Saw the amazing little Thorny Devils and more animals that I can mention.
I saw the most amazing country and discovered an even deeper appreciation for my fellow country dwellers. Harsh conditions, great distances, limited facilities to mention just a few.
The hospitality in most places was superb. The distances although huge and mostly monotonous also produced some amazing changes in scenery.
Drove through bushfires on both sides of the road, and saw road trains the lengths of like you would not believe.
All in all an amazing journey and I thnak God that I had the good fortune to experience it. I also admire my husbands persistence in trying not to ruin the holiday with his anxiety.
The best part of all though was that I did not gain any weight,
Thank you for reading my long blog. I shall try and put some more pictures on my page.
Love you all
Ps we drove 12000 klms in 4 weeks Not bad!!!!
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