Recently, my parents and I found a presentation my third grade teacher, Mrs Nancy Simpson gave in 2002 at a teachers workshop. We found it very interesting because you see, she wrote about the year I was in her awesome third grade class.

Mrs Nancy Simpson is a teacher I’ll never forget. She was like our adopted grandma after I was out of her class. We used to go on play dates every so often. We would go shopping at Claire’s or play monopoly at her house and always eat at Fazoli’s or order pizza. Oh, what fun memories I have with her as my teacher and also as a friend. She’s a very special woman that invested in my life and many others beyond the classroom.

This presentation made me laugh, cry and laugh some more. I will warn you it’s rather lengthy but I believe you’ll enjoy reading it.

I don’t think I wanted to take a picture. 😂

Learning about Literacy with Abbey

By examining Abbey’s writing, both in her own hand and with her computer, considering her reading, and listening to her chat box conversations, we may gain significant insights into ways that Abbey builds bridges of communication with children and adults. Learning about Literacy with Abbey will inspire you as you learn to build bridges of communication with your students as well as others.

This is Abbey’s story as told to third grade classmates by Abbey’s mom. “When Abbey was a little baby she grew and learned to walk and talk just like you. When she was three a tick bit her. This tick was sick and carried a disease. When the disease got into Abbey’s body, it made her brain sick. Have you heard of brain damage? Well, Abbey’s brain was damaged. Not all of it. The part of her brain that thinks still works very well just like yours. But the part of her brain that controls her muscles was damaged. We have done exercises and gotten leg braces, but this is as good as Abbey can walk. She has trouble eating too. Next week when Abbey stays to eat lunch you will notice that her tongue does not work to push her food to her throat for her to swallow it. She has to push food back with her fork. She has to drink from a cup with a handle. She is very messy because her muscles do not cooperate. She eats with a towel around her neck because she can’t help being messy.”

Mom explained about Abbey drooling and her tongue sometimes going in and out. Then she told the students, “If you want to help Abbey, ask her if she wants help. Just say, ‘Abbey, do you want help?’ She will sign ‘yes’ by lifting her hand or ‘no’ by brushing her finger against her nose. Sometimes she signs “thank you” by moving her hand out from her mouth.”

“If Abbey cries, just let her pull herself back together. When you cry do you like someone saying, ‘What’s wrong? What’s wrong? Why are you crying?’ Usually you just want to be left alone until you feel better. Abbey’s like that too.”

“One night Abbey hurt her knee a little bit, but she cried and cried. I asked her, ‘Abbey, why are you crying so hard?’ Using her chat box she told me, ‘Everything is so hard, sometimes I just have to cry.”

Abbey was born Feb. 12, 1993, and was developing into a precocious three year old. But when she was three years and three months old she suffered the effects of an undiagnosed case of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. The family was on vacation and Abbey became more and more lethargic. A doctor at a stand-alone clinic tried to reassure them that she would be fine, but by the time they got to Tulsa, Abbey was not fine. In fact by the time they rushed back to Stillwater, Abbey had to be carried into her doctor’s office. The barely noticed tick bite of two weeks before had caused a very serious infection.

On May 31 Abbey’s pediatrician rushed her to St. Francis Hospital in Tulsa. There she was in a drug induced coma for a week. When Abbey began to wake up, her muscles were tight with her arms pulled up to her body. Her legs were rigid. She could not move, could not talk, swallow, eat, turn over, or even scratch. She cried and screamed constantly.

A feeding tube was put in place then Abbey was transferred to a rehabilitation center in Oklahoma City (where her maternal grandparents lived). She stayed there until August 9, 1996.

While in rehab. Abbey’s speech and language pathologist was talking to her about the alphabet blocks she was lining up on the floor in front of Abbey’s wheelchair. Abbey was moving her left foot and with great effort pointing to the letters A-B-B-E-Y. She spelled her name. Abbey’s cognitive abilities were undamaged!

Indeed literacy unlocked the door to communication for Abbey.

The family was told that the progress which Abbey made in her rigorous exercise program during this first year would likely determine the amount of muscle function that Abbey would recover. For several months Abbey and mom traveled to OKC for therapy three days every week. Family and friends worked tirelessly with Abbey.

At first the family hoped that Abbey would regain ability to speak. After about a year the speech pathologist recommended obtaining a “ChatBox,” a device produced by Prentke Romich with up to 64 pictures that Abbey could point to. Parents had recorded appropriate expressions which were activated by Abbey’s touch. Now she could say, “I’m hungry” and other basic wants and needs.

Pretty soon it became apparent that Abbey would not talk again, and that since her intellectual abilities were quite in tact, she needed a more effective way to communicate her many ideas. Parents obtained a Delta Talker produced by Prentke Romich.

Abbey has always been left handed and she now is able to use the index finger of her left hand to type messages on her Delta Talker, which she and her family call her chat box. She also types on the computer using a special key guard that keeps her jerky finger from slipping off the correct key, a software program called Intellitalk which reads aloud what Abbey has written, and a word prediction program called Co:Writer. She has learned an alternate way to hold a pencil so that she can write. Her writing is generally legible to one familiar with it. (Although sometimes even Abbey can’t read it when it’s cold.)

Abbey’s parents wanted her to begin using Sign Language. She had developed her own version of “yes” and “no.” Last year, when Abbey was in second grade, her class joined my third graders weekly for stories in Sign Language. (I am an experienced teacher of the deaf.) Abbey’s expressive, attentive face and her participation showed she was quite interested.

On the first day of third grade, Abbey entered with a wide grin. She and I were already acquainted. Although I was unfamiliar with her chat box, Abbey and I both knew we could communicate. (My years of experience communicating with deaf children who could not express themselves orally meant that I felt quite comfortable with Abbey.)

The night before school started I had offered an Open House for students and parents to locate the classroom, see who was in their class, and meet the teacher. As children noticed Abbey’s special desk they commented, “Oh, Abbey’s in our class,” just as they noticed name tags and said in a matter of fact manner, “Oh, Bill’s in our class this year.” Our school serves all elementary special needs students for Stillwater Public Schools so our students are accustomed to seeing adaptive equipment.

From the beginning it was evident that Abbey was already quite literate. Here’s the way the first day unfolded.

Abbey came in, parked her walker by the door, and located her cubby and desk. I set the chat box on her desk and said quietly to her that I would be calling roll by asking everyone their favorite color and then we would have headline news and each person could tell one sentence about whatever they thought was interesting. I suggested she might tell us about her vacation to Colorado or anything else she was thinking about.

We stood for the Pledge of Allegiance. Abbey noticed that she had the wrong hand on her chest and switched. She stood appropriately and looked at the flag. Later we learned that she has the Pledge of Allegiance stored in her chat box, but it goes much faster that children say the Pledge so she is satisfied knowing that she could say it if she wanted to, but generally she prefers just to listen to her classmates.

As I went around the room calling children’s names they responded with “red,” “blue,” “yellow,” “green,” “orange.” When I called Abbey’s name, she responded using her chat box, “Silver!” I said I didn’t have a silver pen for her name tag. She said she also liked “red”.

Each child said something he or she thought would be interesting to us. Many told of recent vacations. Abbey told us, “I went on vacation in Colorado.”

We moved on to science. Our first unit of study was Rocks. Tell us something you know about rocks. Hard, smooth, bumpy, striped…. Abbey said, “shiny.” Tomorrow’s homework: bring a rock.

“In addition to bringing a rock tomorrow, your homework is to read at home tonight.”

I read aloud the story Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig. At one point Sylvester became a boulder and could not speak. I found myself wondering what Abbey thought of that. It sounded like her, trapped in a big, hard case, not able to move or speak.

Time for writing. Write your own story about a rock. It can be fiction, nonfiction, a rock you have, a rock you wish you had, a magic rock. Or write about anything.

I intended to have the first four children work on the computers: Abbey, Bill, Cody, Chris. Silly me, I thought the classroom computers were up and running. Not so. When the others were struggling to get theirs going, Abbey got up, took the mouse, and tried to help. Contrary to my plan that Abbey not be singled out, Abbey was the only one working at a computer that week.

Abbey typed “The Gold Rock. I have a gold rock. I got it in Colorado.” (Remember this was typed with one finger over which Abbey has limited control.)

Last year the capability of the computer to read Abbey’s writing had apparently not been used so Abbey was not familiar with it. As I was trying to make the computer read aloud for her, I erased the whole thing! I apologized and said, “Luckily I read it. I can be your computer when it’s your turn to read.”

Each student in turn sat in the AUTHOR’S CHAIR and read his or her writing. When it was Abbey’s turn she grinned, looked at me, and gestured in my direction. Without comment I read her piece just as instructed.

Since the beginning of school several things have helped us use the “read aloud” capability of Abbey’s computer more effectively. The occupational therapist enlarged the tiny volume knob so that Abbey can control the on/off and volume herself. The speech pathologist and Abbey work together regularly to explore the potential of her computer. Abbey’s inclusion assistant since November is very knowledgeable and computer literate.

Abbey generally leaves school at noon. Everything is hard for Abbey: eating, bathing, getting dressed, moving from place to place – everything. But because she is so bright, learning new things is not hard for Abbey. Mother wisely teaches Abbey at home in the afternoons so that a significant part of their day is spent in sharing something which brings them both pleasure.

Sometimes Abbey tells us her home spelling words. One day she said she could spell “miscellaneous.” I expected that she could, so I said, “Well, o.k. then. Spell it and I’ll write it on the board in case anyone else wants to know how to spell it.” Abbey set her chat box so that it read letter by letter. She actually missed one letter, but I spelled it correctly on the board and carried on about her being able to spell such hard words. The other students were quite impressed with Abbey’s spelling of “miscellaneous.” When she got home she told her mom it was embarrassing to miss a letter when she was spelling “miscellaneous.” The funny thing, Abbey was the only child who even knew she had missed a letter. Now she is seen as the spelling expert. “If you need to spell a word, just ask Abbey,” the kids say.

On the second day of school Abbey came in proudly carrying her “gold” rock. Her mother said that two different times Abbey was reading and when mom asked what she was doing, Abbey replied she was “doing my homework.”

As students took turns telling about their rocks, Abbey said, “My gold rock came from Colorado.” The kids asked her a question and she replied, “fools gold.” Bill was curious about that. He knew gold was expensive and wanted to know if fools gold was expensive also. Abbey went right to her chat box and punched and punched. I commented, “Wow, Abbey must have a lot to say about that. Now I’m curious too.” After more punching, Abbey looked up, grinned with a twinkle in her eye, and pushed the final key to say, “I don’t know.” We all laughed. She is quite a tease. She loved having the power of keeping kids in suspense while she typed her response.

It is fascinating that all children, those who are on Ritalin, those who should be on Ritalin, those who’s attention span is extremely short, kids who are mostly impatient, ALL kids, wait patiently while Abbey types.

On occasion as Abbey is composing at the computer I think I know the next word and type it for her. Invariably, she moves my hand, deletes what I typed and inserts a much more clever or unusual word. Why are we grown ups so arrogant?

Another day a special guest, OSU student Jordan, came to share a couple of his favorite poems with us and talk about imagery. He then asked us all to write poems. He wisely wrote also. Abbey wrote about a cat and dog fighting – quite a vivid image.

One day Abbey went home complaining about the occupational therapist. After several weak complaints Abbey’s mom asked, “Abbey, are you trying to make me mad at Rosalie?” With a hand-caught-in-the-cookie-jar grin Abbey signed, “Yes.” Mom said pleasantly, “Well it won’t work because Rosalie and I both want what’s best for you.” That day Abbey cried and said, “I am just so different.” Mom hugged her and let her cry.

Literacy is certainly more than learning names of things and color words. Literacy is about deep feelings.

One day Abbey told us her 14 year old sister got braces on her teeth. I remembered how sore my teeth were the first day I got braces and that I could only eat mashed potatoes. Abbey said, “Alicia had ice cream for breakfast!” We asked, “What did you have?” With arms folded in a remembered huff, “Toast!” As classmates discussed the unfairness of life and who gets ice cream, Abbey raised her hand again. She pointed to her leg. I guessed, “You have on yellow socks today. Usually you wear white ones?” “No.” “Uh, Tweety Bird?” Tweety Bird is on the backs of her leg braces. Suddenly it hit me, “You have braces; you should get ice cream too!” “Yes, yes.” The kids laughed and encouraged her to try to convince her mother that since she had braces, she should get ice cream whenever she wants it. Who would have expected a child who cannot talk to have such fun playing with words!

In her story about flying to England Abbey used “wellp” for the child’s comment. “Do you mean well?” “No.” Isn’t that what mothers say? “Wellp, I’ll think about it.” Or maybe, “Wellp, I don’t think we better do that.” Or “Wellp, I guess that’s it.” She used “droom” for the noise of the plane and “whee” for shrieks of the children.

When choosing a book to read aloud I try to pick one of general appeal and often a book with which I think one or more children will particularly identify. In previous years I had read Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio by Peg Kehret and the students loved it.

As I read Small Steps aloud (only when Abbey was present) Abbey was extremely attentive and occasionally added comments. When Peg described how her arms were stiff when she woke up, Abbey pointed to herself and then drew her arms up tight to her chest to show us what it had been like for her when she woke up. We often stopped to discuss iron lungs and various aspects of polio. When we finished the book I loaned it to Abbey’s mom. She and Abbey read it together. For Abbey’s birthday the first present she told us about was her own copy of Small Steps. We finished our current read aloud and I was suggesting several possibilities of what to read next. Abbey suggested Small Steps. “Again?” I asked. She and many of the others said yes, and began to chant Small Steps, Small Steps. Never before have I read the same book aloud twice in one year, but never before have I taught and learned with Abbey either! So we began, at times when Abbey was present, to read Small Steps. The children were, if possible, even more interested the second time. They had both more knowledge and more questions.

One day there was a lull in activity, a transition time when I heard Abbey’s chat box. She said, “Small.” Then she looked up and gestured at the class. In unison they said, “Steps!” The refrain continued “Small.” “Steps.” “Small.” “Steps.” Now how did Abbey, who does not talk, teach the other students to respond in that way? All I can figure out is the power of literacy – in this case the joy of sharing a significant book.

In 4th grade I did a research project on her.

Abbey’s condition is labeled “dystonia.” Dystonia is a neurological movement disorder characterized by involuntary muscle contractions which interfere with normal function.

Dystonia does not imply problems with vision, hearing, strength, or cognition. In Abbey’s case, there is no doubt in my mind that she is actually gifted. Dystonia tends to worsen with fatigue or anxiety.

Abbey’s mom says that sometimes when Abbey comes to the supper table she is literally unable to get the food into her mouth and they have to ask her to go to her room and rest a few minutes before she comes to eat. (One parent will wait to eat with her.)

Abbey’s paternal grandmother lives out of town, but was spending a couple of days babysitting Abbey’s cousin. When she brought cousin to school Grandmother realized that Abbey would be there too and came to our class to say hello. Abbey was very excited and wanted to show her a story on her computer. It was a story about flying to England and shopping at Harrods. For some reason she could not retrieve the story. I tried in vain. We called the speech pathologist who works with Abbey on adaptive communication devices. She couldn’t figure it out. Frustration was mounting. Mom could see things were, as you might say, “going south” and since she couldn’t help, she left. (Wise mother.)

All the while, Grandmother kept saying, “Your class needs to get started now Abbey. Your class needs to get started. Mrs. Simpson needs to start class now.” I wanted to scream, “Don’t worry about that, I am capable of deciding when we need to start.” But of course Grandmother was just trying to be nice. Abbey was getting more and more frustrated. By the time Grandmother left Abbey was bawling, 22 other kids were staring, I had no other adult to help us out. Obviously writing was the only answer.

I set Abbey’s keyboard on my lap, chose a large font, faced the students, and began to type. The title, of course, was “Abbey’s Bad Day.” The students really got into recording the events of the morning. They even insisted that when we wrote that Abbey was so mad her face was red, that “red” be printed in red.

At first Abbey was sitting to the side crying. But of course she heard it all. She gradually joined us with comments and suggestions. At the end, the story turned into fiction and Abbey began to act it out! After Abbey’s sister’s birthday, Anna had come to school as Abbey’s headline news with her cowgirl outfit on, carrying her cow motif Raggedy Ann, and riding her faithful stick steed White Beauty. So we used that common experience in our writing as we ended our story.

To this day if a visitor wants to see how Abbey’s computer works, Abbey will read them “Abbey’s Bad Day.”

Early in the school year Abbey’s parent parked the car, got Abbey’s walker out of the back, walked with her to open the door, and accompanied her to the classroom. One day Abbey’s Dad opened the front door for her and then let her walk in alone. The next morning before they left home Abbey asked her mom, “Please let me go in school by myself.” Mom said, “Oh Abbey, I’m not sure I can do that.” Abbey replied, “You need to let me.”

We submitted a formal request for an automatic, power assist door. In a relatively short time a school district maintenance man came by our classroom and reported that an installer from Tulsa was putting in “Abbey’s door” right now. Of course we quickly got to a stopping place and went en masse to supervise and celebrate. When Abbey came, I explained the man on the ladder was installing her automatic door and Abbey’s assistant said, “Abbey has something to say to you.” He looked down and Abbey said with a gigantic smile, “Thank you.”

The man showed Abbey a tiny remote button which had Velcro to attach to her walker so that she could open the door herself. It turned out that the installer had put in many automatic, power assist doors, but never before had he seen the person for whom it was provided. And thus, no one using one of his doors had ever thanked him. The power of two words, “Thank you.” The remote had not been included in the bid. He just wanted Abbey to have it.

Now Abbey’s mom gets her walker out of the car and watches from the curb to see Abbey walk into the front door of the school like other third graders, unaccompanied by a parent.

A few days after the door was installed mom reported a funny incident. Abbey was walking toward the building with a couple of “big” boys were ahead of her. They were muttering, “What do we do? Push this button on the wall or use the handle? How does this work?” Abbey with a twinkle in her eye pressed her remote button and the door “magically” opened with the “big” boys totally baffled. They never knew what happened. Mom said Abbey was laughing so hard she literally almost could not walk into the building.

Kyla is an identified special needs student in our class who reads at a low first grade level. She writes a few words. She is definitely a “people person.” When she sees Abbey’s mother, she hollers, “Hi, Mom.” She gives lots of hugs and smiles. One day I noticed Abbey and Kyla sitting side by side on the floor sharing a book. Abbey was running her finger under the line of print for Kyla to read. When Kyla came to “monster” and did not know the word, Abbey pointed to the illustration and Kyla said the word. The next word Kyla couldn’t figure out was abstract and had no illustration. Abbey first turned the volume down on her chat box. You quietly tell someone a word when you are helping them read. Then she entered the word and “said” it for Kyla. Both girls were grinning ear to ear. Kyla knew she was reading to Abbey who could not read aloud and Abbey knew she was helping Kyla, a struggling reader, to learn to read. You can just keep my paycheck for that day!

Abbey is quite clear about writing for a purpose. Before Christmas students were writing poems. Abbey’s was a song. We knew that both because she told us and because it read like a song. It began, “My dad is the coolest in the whole wide world, yes he is, oh yes he is.” After she finished three verses I asked if she wanted me to find someone to set it to music for her. “Yes!” My friend Ginger Howl, minister of music at our church, set the words to music and produced a paper copy of the score. She made a white copy so it could be easily reproduced as well as a class set of green copies. One morning she came to school and taught our class to sing Abbey’s song. Such joy in each child’s face and sheer delight in Abbey’s! We practiced by singing for the principal, the secretary, and Abbey’s former teachers. Then we videotaped the class standing in front of the school Christmas tree singing “My Dad is the Coolest in the Whole Wide World.” At the end Abbey pressed a key on her chat box to say “I love you, Daddy.” She insisted no one tell her dad what we had done. She decorated the envelope on which I wrote “Do not open until Abbey says you can.”

Since Abbey can do so little for herself you might assume she is spoiled. But you would be wrong. One morning I was working with Abbey when she pointed to Sara and signed “crying.” I thought Sara was mad at me or in “a mood” and I planned to ignore it and let her pull herself back together. But Abbey was concerned. So I quietly asked Sara what was wrong. The kids on either side of her said, “Her puppy died.” I was skeptical, but reported to Abbey. She used the paper she had just walked across the room to get to write Sara a note. “Dear Sara, I am sorry your puppy died. From, Abbey.” I patted Sara on the shoulder and said, “Abbey has something for you” while Abbey haltingly walked to Sara’s desk. I was both touched and humbled.

Abbey has a difficult time eating. Food just gets stuck in her mouth and won’t move to her throat to swallow. She took a zip zap learning bag home which had an audio tape including a little piece “How to Get Peanut Butter off the Roof of your Mouth.” Nikki had brought slices of peanut butter (which were, by the way, developed at OSU) for us to taste. Abbey was on pretty much equal footing; the peanut butter stuck to everyone’s mouth. Abbey communicated that I should play the tape while we were eating. Her literacy definitely extends to Music as well as reading and writing.

One day we were experimenting with writing cinquains. Abbey was at her computer writing a cinquain about Dad when Lauren handed her a piece of paper. Lauren had written:


Crazy, silly

Smiling at me

Glad she’s my friend


From Lauren

Immediately Abbey began to write a cinquain about Lauren. Soon she printed it and gave it to her friend.

In my mind one of the most frustrating aspects of Abbey’s dystonia is the fact that it fluctuates daily. One day her right hand has all the fingers hyper extended and the next day the fingers are clenched in a fist. One day she can walk fairly smoothly and the next she falls many times. One day she can eat a cookie and the next she may not be able to “hit” her mouth. Sometimes her tongue goes in and out without her control.

Inclusion for Abbey means that she is provided a 100% inclusion assistant who helps with physical tasks, an appropriate computer for her use, specially designed desks and chairs, assistance with adaptive equipment, as well as physical and occupational therapy. When a “regular” teacher has a student like Abbey, she finds herself inventing things to make life easier for everyone. In return Abbey keeps us all stimulated and entertained. (There are 23 students in our class so class size was not reduced.)

We use Rubbermaid non-slip strip for pencils, crayons, colored pencils on every desk. An architect’s magnifying lens from a garage sale makes a great handless magnifying glass. A clipboard taped to Abbey’s desk secures papers while she writes. A beanbag holds a book open as she reads.

As I talked with another third grade teacher she commented, “Sometimes we change because we learn something new and sometimes we change because we have to.” This year our class has longer writing times because Abbey needs them. The pace of our class is more relaxed because we’ve learned patience. We are more aware of how we can help and support each other. We’ve learned to try new ways to do things. We’ve become more adaptable and inventive, better problem solvers.

I asked her classmates what comments they had about Abbey and literacy.

She’s really good at writing. She can spell a lot of words, hard words. She uses really good words in her stories.

Nikki said, “I am impressed that she made up her own sign language for ‘no.’”

Remember at the first of the year when Abbey came back from P.E., lay down on the carpet, put her hand to her forehead in a very dramatic, “I’m so tired.” That’s when we first thought she might want to be an actress when she grows up. And then she was so good in our plays.

Abbey loves to laugh with her friends. Abbey is funny when she uses her chat box to say, “This is so boooooo-ring.” Abbey figured out how to type good morning so that her chat box says it with expression. “Good! Morning!”

For some reason she and Lauren got tickled because they both had ear infections. Abbey has a good sense of humor.

Abbey loves knock knock jokes. One of her favorite jokes says, “What did the mother volcano say to her baby volcano? I lava you.”

Abbey must be a real artist; she gets paint in her hair.

She is working on her climbing and hanging on the monkey bars. (For Abbey daily life IS physical therapy.)

Ms. Dill and Abbey play games on the United States rug. Abbey knows the names of all the states. Ms. Dill says, “Put your right hand on Iowa; put your left foot on Oklahoma.” None of the rest of us know all the states.

My aide Miss Dill

I asked, “Is Abbey spoiled?” No, she just has to have help, it’s not because she is spoiled. She knows what to do when you do something nice for her. She signs, “thank you.” Sometimes she signs “thank you” and then does something nice for you.

The threads of literacy are braided and woven into the wholeness of our living language.

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