Saturday, November 3, 2007

Building Community

Topics that I seem to see frequently are how to build solid learning communities and how to prepare our high school students for their future in the work world. I was fortunate to have witnessed both of these in action in our school over the past two weeks.

Our school currently includes students in grades 2-12 and our population is 100% students with LD and/or ADHD. Often our students have not been successful in school and/or have not had many opportunities to act as leaders in the school. These are the skills our students need to be successful as adults and require experience and shaping. This fall, our high school students tackled a leadership challenge and I am extremely proud to say that I was able to be a part of it.

It should be noted that we have 9 high school students and 20 younger students which often gives our whole school events, our community building events, a less "mature" aura which often contributes further to our high school students often feeling as though they are not as "good" as other high school students. Halloween is often a time when this disparity is more evident . . . . younger kids means more "tame" Halloween celebrations or having to select from a limited amount of videos, etc.. We often expect much grumbling on the part of our older students when their Halloween enjoyment is reigned in. This year however, we had quite a different experience. Our high school students organized a Haunted House for our younger students and they exceeded our expectations even on their meager (non-existent) budget.

As a group, students with learning disabilities often have difficulty with organizing materials and time, they can struggle with interpersonal communication and planning multi-step projects. They can have weaknesses with spatial organization but strengths with language based tasks, or vice versa and their memories can be inconsistent. Our group fits that generalization fairly well as a group which can make group work challenging at times. This project however was different. Yes, they had some adult help - we have a sociology intern this year in our building 2 days a week and she was able to prod them to manage their time and plan things out, but our high school students actually balance two high schools and only attend LMA in the mornings. They managed to organize schedules and materials to completely transform one classroom into a haunted maze within a week and a half using approximately 1 to 1 1/2 hours of biology work time and 1 hour of advisory time (10 min. per day)in addition to time they came in before school or stayed through their lunch periods. They managed 8 different individuals and everyone had a job on Halloween. They developed rules for the attendees, asked for $1 admission, restricted entrance to two people at a time and tailored the "rounds" for each section; low intensity for the 2nd-4th graders, slightly more intensity for the 5th & 6th graders and high intensity for the 7th & 8th graders. They reigned in their own impulsive behaviors to keep from going too over the top and made sure everyone had an enjoyable time and all received credit for their efforts.

Sure, this project caught their attention and they hoped to raise money for their year-end trip, but more importantly they were successful. On the Fri. before Halloween, the original design (a box maze) wasn't working coming together well. The three officers who had started the project weren't sure they were going to have anything worthwhile, but they opened up the project further to others, some teachers offered some structural suggestions and the students picked the ball back up and ran with it. Our intern kept working with them on her days, helping them select assignments for the days she wasn't in and kept encouraging them that they could be successful and it would be worthwhile. (The fact that our intern is an alumni of our high school made it an even more impactful event.)

I realize that I am blessed to be at a small school where we have more opportunity to set up experiences like we had this week, but the biggest key was the students following through. They had a valid, life-based challenge and they met it. They received some support, but not too much, they were given restrictions, but not too many and they were treated with respect. They were expected to meet the expectations - and they did. . . and they enjoyed it. In fact, they worked their haunted house for almost an hour and a half straight in masks, sweatshirt and plastic walls. They entertained elementary and middle school students, service providers who were visiting our building that morning, teachers, staff and parents. I know that a few of them really enjoyed being able to "pay back" some of their teachers or service providers for all the work we make them do :). In short, they developed skills they will need to survive in the world of work after graduation.

As for community building, not only is our high school a stronger community of 9,but our younger kids made thank you cards for the high school students to let them know how much they appreciated all their work - and the really neat thing about that was that the high school students then argued about who had the best card :). They are now part of our learning community, no doubt about it. In fact, I think they're already planning some type of Thanksgiving event for the younger students....

When I tell people that I work at a non-profit school for students with learning disabilities and/or ADHD in grades 2-12, I often hear "oh wow", or "you must be a saint" or "oooh, I couldn't do that" followed by "why" or "what made you go into that" often with a modifier such as "I've worked with those kinds kids once" with a story that often is about more physically or cognitively impaired students than mine. I don't really have an easy answer for them to their questions . . . . in fact, I usually go into "nerd" mode quoting varying researchers, statistics or diagnostic definitions. Weeks like this week though are when I don't need the statistics or research to explain my enthusiasm for my kids. I just answer, "because I can"!

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