Brand Loyalty: What Happends When Experiences Allow Perceptions to Change?

Article excerpt

Pairs of students enthu- siastically wash, groom and maneuver through obethence commands with dogs they train as therapy dogs for people with special needs. Teams of students work together to complete as- signed tasks as part of their own school-based business. I could be describing the scene in many agricultural science classrooms, but a closer look reveals that the diversity of these students is much greater than the surface reveals. However, this was not always the case. In fact, the process followed, to get to the class described above began with an experience that most agricultural science educators have experienced. It's the first day of school and the class enters with lots of noise, new book bags and plen- ty of excitement. As a teacher, you smile and greet each stu- dent enthusiastically... at least so it appears on the exterior. However, who hasn't felt that knot in the stomach when one of "those" students en- ters the room? That certainly was the way it was for me and, from an informal sur- vey I conducted, several ag- ricultural science educators expressed similar experiences. I know this is not politically correct but, after all, we teachers can come up with some pretty good reasons to justify these feelings. Thoughts like: "I'm not a special education teacher. I haven't been trained for this!" or "What is going to happen when they can't do my class activities?" or "How can I teach class with all of that yelling out and those sudden awkward move ments?

It is s o dis- tract- ing for me and my students!" or "How can I teach them when they can't even communicate with me?" I had experienced all of those thoughts, but don't get me wrong. One of my main goals as a teacher has always been that every student, regardless of ability level, would have the opportunity to learn and build skills in my class that would allow them to be successful in life. However, here was a group of stu- dents who had always challenged me and, to be truthful, I knew I was not meeting my goal for them. That fact led me to reach out to some of these students' special education teachers and, after some creative brainstorming, we devel- oped a new strategy for meeting the needs of ALL of the students in my agricultural science class, while building some very important social skills in all of our students. The first step was to develop a plan that paired each agri- cultural educa- tion student with severe special needs with an agricul- tural educa- tion student without spe- cial needs in their class. As it worked out, we had fif- teen students with severe special needs and sixteen other students in that agricultural science class. In the beginning, the students with- outspecial needs expressed emotions ranging from fear to excitement. To help those students understand some of the sensory challenges that the students with special need experience, the students went through a sensitivity training. This included experiences whereby students, albeit temporarily, were placed in situations that limited or eliminated the use of limbs and senses that are typically taken for granted. To accomplish buy in from the agricultural education students without special needs, they were included in all of the brainstorming, activity and project creation from the beginning. Even though the sensitivity training helped these students to understand more about what their partners are living with, we still needed something to be the point of contact that the students could use to bridge the communication gap with their partner. Our answer came in the form of a medium-sized border collie cross fortuitously named Hope. Hope is a certified therapy dog, and when she came to our classroom for a visit, we were all surprised to observe that the students with special needs responded to her with arange of reactions from total fear to pure joy! After Hope's visit, everyone agreed we found what we were looking for and our search began for suitable dogs that would fit the needs of the students. …