I have been in a state of panic for over a week now. I cannot shake it off. Try as I might, I cannot calm myself. I have detailed daydreams about storming the castle with the most awesome intervention.
This is a heart racing, sweaty palm, dizzy spell, butterfly stomach panic. I am restless and want to take a nap all at the same time. I want to eat everything that isn’t nailed down but I can’t seem to swallow. I want to run away and I want to stay and fight.
Geez, you say. What is this about? Are you OK? Did someone die? Did you lose your house, was there an accident? Are your kids OK?
All those things are just fine.
What is not fine is what too many kids have to face once they walk through their school doors. It starts when I think about just one kid in one program. But then the panic gets worse because I think about how bad special education programs are like mice in the walls. You see one, you know there are many more.
I don’t want to be all gloom and doom here. I know there are plenty of amazingly effective special education programs scattered in every district in every state. Of course there are. Right?
I panic when I know a 2nd grader goes to a self contained program all day where there is no fun, no discovering, no play. And I panic when I know a 4th grader goes into his program every day knowing he won’t earn recess for things he truly cannot control. I panic when I realize this kid, and kids like him, only get a handful of recesses a year.
I panic when I know there are middle school students sitting in self contained classrooms all day working out of packets and individualized binders. They eat lunch together, no matter what grade. They are rarely with same age gen ed peers. I panic when I know those same kids have to mop the lunch room floor and wipe all the tables after lunch is over. The rationale for that? Mopping and cleaning up after others is a vocational/job skill. No. It is not. First of all that perpetuates the notion that the function and purpose of that group a kids is limited to just those kinds of tasks. It undervalues and underestimates potential. It sends the message to their general education peers that kids like ‘those kids’ will always clean up after the rest of us.
I panic when I know high school kids are spending their days in self contained programs where adults talk about them over their heads assuming the kids can’t hear or understand what is being said. This is as good as it is going to get for these kids, so let’s just do the same thing every day. Day after day, after day.
I panic when I see programs in which the primary focus and highest priority is to control kids. Where sitting still and being quiet is the expectation. No matter what.
I panic when I see kids in joyless programs where fun has to be earned. Where there is no such thing as play or silliness.
For the past 10 day or so I have been stuck in his state of panic. It’s really uncomfortable. I was asked to look at a ‘new and improved’ daily schedule for a self contained elementary student. His day is broken into 3-tasks- then- reward segments for the whole day. THE WHOLE DAY! And this is the new and improved version! And the tasks are not stimulating or relevant or inspiring or engaging.
What I want more than anything else in this whole wide world is to take that teacher by the hand and show her how to do this better.
I want to show her how to look at her students as whole little beings that she could enjoy rather than little soldiers she should control. I want to give her permission to throw out the behavior charts, token economy bins of cheap crap, and work buckets. I want to put her worksheets in the recycling bin. I want to let her know it will be OK. No, more than OK to let it all go.
I want to dance into her rooms like hers with a bucket of fun and explore science, read great stories as often and as long as the kids want. I want to bring wood and nails to hammer, a hand drill, some paint. I want to bring a microscope and magnifying glasses and look at stuff, even really gross stuff if they want, and talk about what we see. I want to bring drums to beat on and bells to ring. I want to bring in pipe cleaners and yarn, and weft thread and make a loom.
I want to bring an erector set and a billion Lego and construct anything we want. I want to bring in 500 dominoes and make an awesome chain reaction pattern and then build a marble track out of tubes and wheels and other junk we find and see whose marble goes fastest. I want to stock the cupboards with graham crackers, goldfish, instant oatmeal and feed those kids whenever they decide they need a snack.
I want to bring in a stir crazy popper and make popcorn and talk about what we hear and smell and see as the corn pops.
And I want those teachers to laugh and have fun, to bring opportunities for positive engagement and interaction to their students. I want those teachers to see they have the power to make coming to school something to look forward to rather than to dread. I want them to see that when they do these things their students will take learning risks because they know they are understood and cared about.
I know this stuff works. I have 20 years of working with kids as proof. It’s not rocket science. It’s not hard to do. Just find the courage to try it. The rewards are too great to not try.
The kind of classroom I described is therapeutic. It’s the kind of space that helps kids find lost curiosity buried under behavior charts and level systems. It helps students develop a healthy sense of self so they feel stronger and more relevant and able to do whatever life asks of them.
There is just so much wasted time and energy and lost opportunity to bring joy and hope to our students.
And yes, I am still in a panic. Time is wasting.