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I heard a story today and I think it’s worth sharing.  Here’s my attempt at retelling it:

Quick Background before we begin:  The original teller is an accomplished swimmer, works as a lifeguard, and teaches swim lessons at a local pool.  He’s a thoughtful and kind 16 years old.  He can  be a bit distracted at times and he is incredibly curious.  We’ll call him Andy today.

Andy was having a rough day.  He’s been having a few rough days lately, but this one was special.

The other day at the pool there’d been a “fecal incident” with one of the younger kids, so they had to push up the chlorine level in the pool to a ph value somewhere near 13 in order to prevent people from getting sick.  The chemicals made his eyes so red that when he got home his mom accused him of being high.  Add to that his children’s year-old swimming class in which every single student seemed out to get him by complaining, trying to swim away, and generally not listening to him.  (A multi-hour block with six 8-10 year-olds in a swimming pool would probably get to anyone even on a good day.)  Beyond all this work related difficulty Andy has been having some issues in his personal life that are just plain frustrating.

With all of that working in concert against him Andy finished his swimming class frustrated, tired, and generally just feeling down to the point where he just zoned out in the locker room lost in his own head.  In walks Paul.  Paul is a disabled kid (somewhere around 12 years old.  Maybe he’s autistic, maybe he has downs syndrome.  Andy isn’t quite sure) and he’s pretty regularly around the pool.  Andy knows him, but doesn’t usually have much to say to Paul.

“Hi Andy.  Do you like Angry Birds?”

“What?  Oh, hi Paul.  Umm… I guess so…”  Andy pretty deep in his own head and tried to ignore Paul, but Paul wouldn’t have it.

They talked about Angry Birds for a bit.  Maybe a minute or two, but no more than five minutes.  Paul was clearly pretty excited about the game and happy to have someone to talk to.  Andy was kind of half talking and half still in his own head.

Andy interrupted with, “Hey Paul? … Are you happy?”  Now Andy meant: is Paul happy in general.  Is he a happy person?  Andy wasn’t quite sure if Paul understood the nuance, or if Paul thought Andy was asking if he was happy in that moment.

Regardless of Paul’s interpretation he immediately and emphatically answered: “of course!  You’re awesome Andy!” and then Paul left as inexplicably as he’d entered.

I asked Andy what he thought about the interaction and he broke into a huge grin.  He said that Paul’s affirmation of Andy’s awesomeness turned his day around and he started to feel better.  He was happy that he didn’t just blow Paul off, which would have been pretty easy to do.

I then asked him if he thought he had any impact on Paul.  He didn’t really think so.  He’d just talked about Angry Birds for a second.  It’s not like he’d gone out of his way.

That’s when I told him the story of Renata, and how a simple note I’d written had a larger impact on her life than I’d expected.  Andy didn’t think much of it at first, but Paul really meant it when he told Andy he was awesome.  Having worked with many people with a range of developmental disabilities, I can tell you that most of the time people don’t take a moment and talk about Angry Birds.  I would conjecture that most of the time, people hear Paul say something unexpected and either ignore him, blow him off, or (hopefully not, but I try to be realistic) tease him for it.

Andy did a very simple thing.  He treated Paul like a regular human being and took his question at face value.  Two minutes talking about Angry Birds was all the effort required.  That’s all it took to brighten the days of two people.  It made me think of how I treat the more socially awkward students I have.  The students who, at the wrong time, say unexpected things.

Do I blow them off when they say these things, or do I take the time to honor their ideas and treat them like a human being?  I’d like to think that I honor them more often than I blow them off, I don’t have any evidence.  Moving forward I will be more mindful and I will choose to honor them more frequently.

The next time someone asks you if like Angry Birds take a moment and have that conversation.  You have the time.  Even if it’s awkward and uncomfortable at first, someone might think you’re awesome for doing it.

“Yo , what classes you got?”

 “I got retard class, weight training, retard math, science, another retard class, history, and computer skills.”

Retard class….  Straight from the mouth of a special education student at my school discussing his second semester schedule with another student.

This is a good indicator of problems within classes like “study skills,” “targeted academic skills,” and “resource room.”  The students know they’re in the remedial class, and while the classes are billed as a way to support students’ academic skills and bring them up to speed, they often do little of the sort.  To date I’ve only heard of one student in the special education department (SPED) being exited because they’ve acquired the appropriate skills.  I absolutely agree that students qualifying for SPED classes need something that a standard curriculum does not (or cannot) deliver, however I argue that if a student views their support as “retard class” it is unlikely they think the class is working in their best interest.

Let me back up a bit.  The SPED classes I’m referring to are for students who, to a casual observer, would appear to be a normal student.  These are not students with significant developmental disabilities, but students with either a “specific learning disability” or an “emotional/behavioral disability”.  These can manifest in a variety of ways from dyslexia or difficulty processing math, to anger management issues that impact a student’s ability to succeed in a standard class.  These students are tested in a variety of ways, usually after failing many or all their classes.  Then, in conjunction with parents, a doctor, school nurse, school psychologist, and counseling staff the student is diagnosed and an individualized education plan (IEP) is written to provide accommodations and modifications to increase student success.  These may include shortening the length of assignments, allowing late work, increased time on tests, or changing standards for an assignment.  Students with IEPs are often then placed in one or more SPED classes depending on their academic abilities in addition to their general education classes (with the stipulations of their IEP in place).

Back to the “retard class.”  SPED classes can focus on a variety of things ranging from basic math or writing skills to skills around executive function, study habits, and organization.  In these classes, the students do elementary work: basic arithmetic worksheets, introductory grammar and spelling worksheets, and short “what I did this summer” type writing assignments.  The same assignments they’ve been doing since early elementary school.  They haven’t been successful with them yet, and how can they be anything but bored at this point.

On paper the theory makes some sense.  These students lack the basic skills necessary to succeed in a standard class, so we explicitly teach those basic skills in an attempt to remedy that deficiency.  I should also point out that these are difficult students.  They have a history of failure in the school system.  By the time they are in high school they know full well that they are behind, resulting in lower motivation and a tendency to act out in class.  That is precisely why the mind-crushingly boring arithmetic and grammar worksheets should be scrapped in favor of the intellectually stimulating activities often seen in accelerated classes.  If you already hate school and have a history of being unsuccessful, how does continuing to do the kind of work you did in elementary school going to motivate you to be more successful?  We are repeatedly applying the same interventions with the hope of new results.

These classes can be reorganized to better meet the needs of their students.  I argue that Project Based Learning appears to be an ideal choice to change the intervention.  The authenticity of the project should work to hook the interests of students.  As an example: instead of another grammar worksheet students could work as lobbyists making recommendations on controversial legislation (nothing gets some students to perk up like debating legalizing marijuana or lowering the drinking age).  The final deliverable can be easily adjusted to properly align with the skills of the student.  While an AP class may have a final project of a lengthy, fully researched, policy brief, a SPED writing class could have a final product of a letter to the editor or even a short position statement.  The level of skill can be easily modified in PBL, and there is considerable research showing that PBL can increase motivation and learning of content and skills.

We all need to feel challenged or we get bored.  We all want to be more successful in the future than we have been in the past.  We respect students when we give them work that challenges them and makes them push themselves toward an authentic goal.  In AP and IB classes students are motivated by the exams at the end of the course and the possibility of earning college credit.  They are not all intrinsically motivated students who understand the value of a good education.

Similarly with SPED students we cannot expect that they will see the value of basic skills just because we teach them.  We need to create authentic situations in which those skills become necessary.  We need to create a need for learning and proper motivation for success.  Hopefully then, “that retard class” can become something of real value to students.

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