Can we change the way young teens think? Is it too late by middle school? After all, some believe that everything important has been taught by kindergarten. Many educational institutions have taken on the challenge, over the past twenty years, of teaching anti-bullying, empathy, respect, cooperative learning and so much more. How many of these educational institutions actually find out whether or not the instruction resulted in changing the way their students think? Very few is my guess. How many parents actually think about a teacher's role in their children's lives, the teacher who spends sometimes 8+ hours a day with your child!? I did, but not for my son who is normal, rather for my autistic son. It was essential for our survival that we know what school was doing with Greg. Mandated IEPs kept us in the loop and so did daily journals and phone calls.
We, teachers, are so much more than "common core" advocates. We have an active voice in teaching your children to accept differences among people, and we feel empowered to do so.
The eighth grade teachers at my school teach the famous novel, Flowers for Algernon, (Keyes, 1966), in the spring. Realizing we are taking on quite a challenge, to change the way middle school students think, we promote acceptance of differences in intellectual capacity using a variety of additional resources and techniques. Flowers for Algernon is about a man who, unwilling to accept his IQ of 68, has brain surgery to change his intelligence. What happens by the end of the book shows students that Charlie had worth, not as the brilliant result of a surgical procedure, but before, when he was learning disabled. Powerful, needless to say. As supplemental lessons, we begin by sharing John Quinones' "What would you do" segment about an autistic family in a New Jersey restaurant. (See YouTube for other segments. They teach empathy for homosexuals, blacks, and other minorities). We then share an newspaper article about a young lady who was bullied and called "retard" at her school and tell what she did about it. Our students must pledge not to use the "R" word ever again by signing and displaying their pledges for fellow students to see. We teach the students the characteristics of autism, showing them how to interact with and accept the sometimes odd behaviors of autistics. We blog about questions, sort of like "what would you do" scenarios, with our students. We read the chapter in my book which describes a scene in K Mart when Greg had a tantrum and no one offered to help. We discuss it. We problem solve. As a grand finale, we show videos such as Awakenings with Robin Williams, movies in which practitioners learn to have unconditional acceptance of special people.
Students recognize differences in learning abilities from their toddler years. They are quick to pick up and use the "R" word (retard). They shy away from having special friends. Our school's fund raisers become so much more meaningful when we have a sibling, cousin or friend afflicted with the target population for the fundraiser. How can we effect actual change in our students when it comes to having friends with special needs, to helping at the Special Olympics, to stopping the use of the "R" word or to helping out someone special who is bullied when they are outside of school, after graduation?
Another teacher and I took on this challenge this year. We asked our students five questions. They journaled their answers, completely unaware that we were going to "study" their responses both prior to reading Flowers for Algernon, and afterward.
The five questions:
1. Would you ever have a relationship/friendship with a special child or adult?
2. Would you ever volunteer for a group like Special Olympics, special bowling, babysitter group?
3. What are your feelings about the use of the "R" word?
4. If you saw someone "abusing" (verbal, physical or other) a special person, what would you do?
5. If you spot a special person in trouble (like a blind person trying to cross the street), what would you do? Would you help or let someone else help?
Next blog? See how the students responded to the first question. In early May we will reveal the follow-up answers.
Can we change the way teens think? Prior to reading excerpts from a book about a mentally challenged man, students journal their opinions about a variety of topics related to special needs population.