Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Getting Know You: A Unique High School English Class Links Classroom Learning with Real-Life Applications and Enables Students to Learn More about Others with Disabilities and about Themselves

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Getting Know You: A Unique High School English Class Links Classroom Learning with Real-Life Applications and Enables Students to Learn More about Others with Disabilities and about Themselves

Article excerpt

It's prom night. A big night for most seniors, but not for one. Elizabeth sits at a table, radiant in her elegant red gown, hair carefully coiffed, nails manicured and sparkling. She silently takes in the sights and sounds of the night with her date--her adult special education paraprofessional. Sitting alone isn't anything new to her. Elizabeth has autism.

At another table, Kim sits with a group of friends. She notices Elizabeth sitting alone with an adult. What a crappy way to spend prom night, she thought. Kim has seen Elizabeth around school, but has never spoken to her. As part of one of her English classes, Kim has been mentoring an elementary student who is also on the autism spectrum and has seen how painful it is for her to be so isolated from others her age. Without a word to her friends, Kim rises from her table and slowly approaches the two quietly sipping their Cokes.

"Hey," she begins cautiously, "do you wanna join me and my friends?"

Elizabeth can scarcely believe what she is hearing. Her paraprofessional is equally astonished. An invitation like this is downright rare--and special. Elizabeth nods and follows Kim back to a table of giggling girls.

The next morning, Kim excitedly texts two teachers, "I had the BEST time at prom! Ur never gonna believe what happened. Gotta tell u bout it! ttyl." In class, Kim explained what happened, adding, "We danced with Elizabeth all night! I never would have done that before I took your class."

This is just one of an array of special moments that have occurred since we developed a unique English course at Model High School in suburban Detroit. Parents of special needs students in the Bloomfield Hills district had long sought ways to create a more tolerant school community for their children--as well as opportunities for them to socially interact with their general education peers. While many special needs children were often mainstreamed into general education classrooms, quality interaction between special education and general education students was unfortunately uncommon.

Literature for social connections

We set out to address these discrepancies. We are two professional educators with distinct educational expertise. Wendy Olah is a social worker with extensive knowledge about and experience with special needs students; Kathleen Conklin is an English teacher well versed in instructional methodology, assessment, and classroom management. Both sets of knowledge were essential to the successful creation of an elective English course we named Literature for Social Connections.

One major focus of the course was to teach high school students about disabilities in order to increase their knowledge and understanding. However, equally important was creating opportunities for actual interaction with special needs students. As a result, we decided to train students to be peer mentors. For one to two class periods per week, students would work in mainstreamed or self-contained elementary, middle school, and high school classrooms, some with children on the autism spectrum, and some with students who were physically, emotionally, or cognitively impaired.

Model High School was the perfect "science lab" for this experiment. Consisting of only seven teachers, Model functions as a part-time program in the district; students at Bloomfield Hills High School may elect to take anywhere from one to six of their seven classes at Model High. Class size is typically 18 to 20 students, and classes are designed to individualize education. We emphasize personal connections and reciprocal relationships between staff and students, meaningful curriculum, and independent learning--often designed by students--that is relevant and lifelong in nature. Model was the perfect place to offer a course that asked students to take a distinctly active role in their learning and move outside their educational and emotional comfort zones. …

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