Sometimes classroom lessons have unexpected results. For two teachers at Liberty Elementary, what started out as a simple pilot has turned into a weekly activity with results that have surprised them both.
Students in Mrs. Swartz’s fifth grade class read “Because of Mr. Terupt.” The story is about a group of fifth graders who are changed when they start visiting the collaboration classroom in their school once a week. Last year after her class read the book, Swartz’s students asked if they could visit the collaboration classroom at Liberty. Working with Mrs. Hougland, a special education teacher, students began visiting the room in pairs during their reading workshop time once a week. “ When it started, I had no idea where it would go or end up, but I am amazed daily at what it does for all of the students involved,” said Swartz.
Liberty’s collaboration classroom serves students with significant disabilities. While students spend some of their day in this classroom with their special education teacher and associate, they spend as much time as possible in the regular classroom setting. They are integrated with their general education peers during recess, art, music, PE, field trips, and any special classroom events. This year, the class serves six students with a variety of disabilities, from being visually impaired to autistic.
It was obvious from the beginning that both groups of students benefitted from the experience, according to Hougland. For the fifth graders, they learn acceptance. Hougland said many of the students make comments such as “I didn’t realize how much they knew” or “I didn’t know how much I’d learn.” The students learn to accept differences and realize that students with disabilities are like them in many ways.
For the Level III students, they get a boost of confidence with their new group of friends. Previously there was no interaction with older peers. Fifth graders help with communication skills, assisting with a reading/writing lesson and then doing an activity, either a game or craft. These new friends talk to them in the hallways, in the lunchroom, or give them high fives. “It’s a big deal to them to work with fifth graders,” said Ella Vitko, a fifth grade student.
Hougland has also done activities to help students understand how it feels to have a disability. She will blindfold students and ask them to eat different foods. Or take a walk down the hallway. Another time she asked students to use only one hand to complete a task. It’s another way to provide insight into what her students might struggle with. “Being blind must be hard,” commented fifth grader Sebastian Welch.
The Level III students learn how to communicate naturally and respond appropriately, having unplanned conversations with their peers.“They spend most of their time with adults,” said Hougland. “We can practice all day but this is real life examples.”
For one student, Carson Kenney, it was something he needed too. Carson lost a sibling at birth several years ago and has struggled to come to terms with the loss. The first visit to the collaboration classroom was uncomfortable for Carson but he could tell it was something he was going to like. “After a few visits, I was feeling more comfortable, ” he said. Ultimately, he formed a special bond with a second grader, so special in fact that he attends art, music, and PE with this student daily. “The experience has really made an impact on the kids and on me,” he said. “I’ve never had this experience before. It feels like I have a younger sibling I can bond with.”
The experience is also special to James Barbieri, who has a sister in the collaboration room. “We usually read books first, then play a game,” said James. “You work with different kids every time you go.” Sometimes he is paired with his sister. “ I know I make them happy and that makes me happy.”
Evvie Bishop has noticed the students are always happy. “It makes me feel like a better person,” she said. “I like it when we are there.”
“My kids would never give this up in a million years,” said Swartz. “I hope it’s stuff they will take with them forever.”
Carson’s advice to upcoming fifth graders, “Don’t judge them by the way they do things,” he said. “It is harder for them. They can’t do all the things we can do.”