We often take for granted our abilities and appearances. Many students often don’t see the true potential and strengths of their peers, such is true for students with intellectual disabilities. That is, until there are moments where students with ID can truly shine and change opinions of their peers forever. There was such an experience for Special Education Teacher, Caron Heller at Brennan Middle School in Attleboro, Massachusetts and her students. Here’s what she says about her students and their peformance of “It’s Our School, Too!”
As a special education teacher at Brennan Middle School, a Best Buddies advisor, and Special Olympics local coordinator, it was an easy decision to join the Spread the Word to End the Word Campaign. For years, I have been advocating for all students to be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of abilities. When I first started teaching, the principal of my school requested that I keep my students in class for lunch and to not go out to recess until the other students came back in; parents had called the school, afraid their children would “catch” something from the students in my class.
As excited as I am to see how far we’ve come in such a short time, there is still this aspect of “us” and “them” within the school community. Sure, our class is invited to join other classes in school-wide activities, but the obligatory nature of the event is not stressed to my students.
Earlier this year, the middle school Best Buddies program collaborated with the Attleboro High School’s social inclusion club, TEAM UP, for our Spread the Word Campaign. We
presented the play, “It’s Our School, Too!” by Suzy Messerole and Aamera Siddiqui as commissioned by Special Olympics. This unified play, designed to address the challenges and successes of students with and without intellectual disabilities in a typical school setting, promotes acceptance and unity on a very powerful level.
The clubs performed the play for the middle school, high school and community to share the message. The middle school and high school then separately followed up the play with a “black-out day” where students wore black shirts to promote blacking out the use of negative language, including the R-Word.
I was pleased with how much the play “It’s Our School, Too!” brought students with and without disabilities together into a true collaborative effort to present a powerful message. It was the first time I saw the barriers and separation between the special education and general education students finally break down.
Everyone was nervous when they lined up for the opening of the curtain and they all enjoyed the applause and response from the audience when they were done. Students rehearsed, flubbed lines, goofed off, gathered props, decorated the set, and pulled together a performance as equal peers. Success was measured not only in the benefit to the students with intellectual disabilities, but also by
the benefit to their peers. I was surprised by the amount of positive feedback from the students in general education.
One peer buddy moved to the United States from Puerto Rico at the beginning of the school year, and did not speak much English. She joined Best Buddies and auditioned to be in the play. After the experience, her teacher informed me that this student’s longest written assignment of the year was an essay reflecting on her experiences in the play. Even though she was asked to type her essay, she chose to cut a heart out of construction paper and write her reflection within the heart to demonstrate how significant her experience was to her.
Another peer buddy was frequently in trouble in school. He is on a contract level system for behavioral issues. I was worried that he wouldn’t be allowed to participate in the play, since the first thing he loses when he drops levels is his opportunity to participate in Best Buddies. During the entire rehearsal time (about 3 months) he was able to stay on level 4. The week of the performance, he proudly told me he was on level 5. I have known this student for 3 years and never knew there was a level 5! I talked to his teacher that afternoon and she told me that being part of the play was the first thing in his entire school career he was able to take genuine pride in accomplishing, and that the resulting positive attitude was carrying over into the classroom. I recently heard from the parent of another peer buddy that her daughter had told her that she had decided to work in special education when she grew up.
It is stories like these that make it clear to me that teaching students without intellectual disabilities to treat their peers with intellectual disabilities with respect and dignity is a mutually beneficial goal. Coaching an integrated play truly demonstrated the importance of unity in breaking down barriers between students of all abilities.
Caron Heller, Special Education Teacher
Brennan Middle School
Caron Heller, Brennan Middle School, Special Education Teacher
Julie Mador, Brennan Middle School, Library Media Specialist
Becky Richard, Attleboro High School, Community Service Learning Coordinator
Read more about this great story! These events were featured in a local newspaper: http://attleboro.patch.com/articles/attleboro-students-and-community-encouraged-to-pledge-against-using-the-r-word