Initially, these things were called “Disability Awareness”, which is pretty much the exact opposite message from what we’re trying to get across with them: my goal is most definitely NOT to increase Awareness that my students are Disabled. Basically, an Ability Awareness lesson is a structured activity aimed at helping kids grapple a little bit with issues of exceptionality–to make connections between what they know about their own preferences, abilities, and feelings and how they can interact with kids with different needs.
In the beginning, especially with littler kids, I rarely mention the D_ word (which, in case you’re wondering, rhymes with Shmissability and is often understood by children to be pronounced as Special Ed.) Today’s lesson, which is an awesome all-purpose community builder I stole from my credentialing program so long ago that I can’t credit the source, is centered around Cleversticks, by Bernard Ashley.
Primary teachers, buy it now. It’s fabulous–brightly illustrated, simple, engaging, and REAL, with a great diverse cast of characters and a message kids connect to. Ling Sung is a new student who may or may not have a cognitive disability–I love that you honestly can’t tell. He starts school very excited, but gives up by, specifically, Wednesday morning (I feel you, kid…) because things that come so easily to the other kids in his class are very, very difficult for him. I read this part, with its several hilarious but truthful examples, as dramatically as possible, each time emphasizing that xyz was “hard” for Ling Sung by modeling and having kids copy the ASL sign for “hard”: children love this, because it basically involves hitting your wrist with your other hand and children seem to quite enjoy having acceptable reasons to hit things. We talk a little bit about how Ling Sung must feel, and if anyone has ever felt that way in school or somewhere else.
Things finally turn around for our hero at snacktime on Thursday, when he absent-mindedly uses two paintbrushes as chopsticks to pick up his cookie: children and adults are Suitably Impressed, he shows them all how to do it, and then, over time, the kids show Ling Sung how to do the things that he’s been struggling with. It leads to a nice little conversation about how everyone has hard things and easy things, and ways to be a supportive friend when something is difficult for somebody else.
I always end the lesson by letting the kids try using chopsticks to pick animal crackers off a plate. Today’s bunch was particularly restless during the story and discussion, so I distinctly remember them receiving one fewer cracker per child than the same teacher’s group last year. Once a behaviorist, always a behaviorist.
At any rate, a more or less good time was had by all (except the one little boy who had a rather ironic tantrum over the difficulty of chopsticks five minutes after agreeing that it was Okay for Stuff to be Hard Sometimes.) And now, should I need to get more specific with this class in the future, about teasing, fairness, or any other emotional thing that comes up in a classroom with exceptional kids, they already associate me with picture books and cookies.