I’ve created a truly adorable monster.
Let me backtrack. One of the major things I do as an inclusion coordinator has to do with the social realm–for my students, recess and lunch are as much of a teaching time as any other part of the day. Many of my kids absolutely thrive in the structured, teacher-driven classroom setting: give them a consistent adult, a specified task, a quiet workspace, and a clearly delineated time frame to accomplish things in and you can almost hear the purr of contentment. Throw that same kid out in the yard with 100 unpredictable little people and a road map no clearer than, “Go play”, and you quickly realize that not everyone’s crossing their fingers for extra recess time.
So, we intervene. My staff and I typically join the kids on the yard, to supervise and coach. We buy cool equipment and bring it on the yard, hooking typically developing peers into a game or an activity that just happens to have one of our kids at the center of it. We get the ball rolling, and then we step aside.
Sometimes, we take it inside, to structure small group art, game, or social skills activities with our students and a small handful of typically developed peers. There are a lot of different ways to do that, often using a professionally developed curriculum like Michelle Garcia Winner’s Social Thinking program, which specifically breaks down issues like perspective taking and non-verbal cues. I remember watching a video of one of her sessions during my master’s program: she was discussing the nuances of fitting in with a group of middle school kids with Asperger’s, while wearing a rubber chicken on her head. ‘Twas brilliant, really–gently but clearly, she gave the kids the information they needed to understand that sometimes, peers will look at you funny if you flap, stim, or talk endlessly about something that your peers think isn’t cool.
Alas, I’m not Michelle Garcia Winner, and I can’t finesse a rubber chicken head. My co-teacher this year runs awesome, tightly structured social groups in the more traditional manner, with permission slips and lesson plans and points for good behavior. She rotates the peer models and keeps track of student progress.
I want to be her when I grow up. For now, though, I’m sticking with my tried and true method–the glorious mixture of chaos and belonging that somehow comes together when you find something a kid enjoys, then build a club around it.
We started with Art Club last winter–two of my students, two of their peers, and a little project every week. We made collages, we painted pictures, I ran out of ideas and we made oh, so many cards. My student teacher saved us all with five blessed weeks of new ideas and new enthusiasm, and Art Club gathered steam by the end of the year. With varying amounts of success, I tried the Club format for two other kids. Computer Club was a hit, Classical Music Club fizzled because, no matter how many snacks I provided, nobody other than Austro-Germanic Heritage Boy really cared about the Baroque period and the sonatas thereof. Golf Club, initiated when the p.e. teacher bought one of my kids a set of miniature clubs complete with a plaid plastic caddy, was short-lived as well, despite my best Safety First attempts. I took a nine iron to the jaw a month into Golf Club and was secretly relieved to have an excuse to ban it.
Art Club it is, then. We started again last month, with a charming but deeply disproportionate set of three students with IEPs, one social misfit, and the school psychologist, who dropped in for a question and stayed to make a Pipe Cleaner Pencil Topper. Through the weeks, we’ve gained steam–a repeat member here, a new classmate there, always two of my students, put in charge of handing out the materials and taking their turns with the Question of the Week. My goal has always been a comfy six people–not so many that my students clam up, not so few that an onlooker would see it as a Special Intervention.
Today, we had a problem that most inclusion folks would kill for: there were nine general ed students in the room already when my second student showed up with five more kids. All fourth and fifth grade students, some taller than I am, right at that age between childlike and “cool”. And each and every one of them, eager to give up their recess to make silly little leaf rubbings and hang out with “Special Ed”.
We relocated to another classroom, because my office wasn’t big enough. Broadway Showtunes passed out the papers and Aniyah held the leaves. Her IEP was that afternoon: two hours later, I had a heartbreaking conversation with mom. “This box–it says “Severe”. Why does it say that?” We talked about Aniyah’s cognitive disability–how, because of the way that Aniyah processes information, she needs an amount of support and modification that is typical of those with “severe” impairments. Gently, I explained to her that the box marked “Severe” was how Aniyah got my program–that these types of inclusion services in our district are tailored for students with the most profound needs. Aniyah’s mother knows that her child has a significant disability, but her biggest hopes for her daughter are everybody’s hopes. “I want her to be with the other kids. I want her to make friends. Aniyah comes home, every week, talking about Art Club.”
Next week, I think I’ll need a sign up sheet: 15 kids is just a bit ridiculous when you’re trying to work on social exchanges. But I’m holding on to today as a fabulous success–when a whole community embraces inclusion the way my school has for so many years, it’s possible for word of mouth among 10 and 11 year-olds to grow two children’s social intervention into a room full of friendship too big for me to deal with.