I grew up in a loving family with a Special Olympics athlete. My brother, a National Games gold medalist, has taught me many valuable life lessons even though he is 12 years younger than me. As we grew up, he could make me laugh when I was down, smile when I really wanted to throw objects in anger, and to love everyone without a thought with how they may look, act or behave. I wish I could make friends as easily as he could, but he did teach me a few tricks. I have tried to teach my students the same lessons that he taught me.
The majority of the teachers and students that I work with unfortunately have not experienced life as I have growing up with my brother. I have seen teachers fight inclusion of special education students stating that it makes too much work. I have observed students make fun of others, and many times it is the students who are not as talented or “different” than others. I do not stand by and watch, but provide learning moments. A teacher can’t be everywhere at once, so many of these learning moments are missed and students are hurt. I attempt to teach my sixth grade students acceptance weekly through class meeting utilizing the Special Olympics “Get Into It” curriculum. These activities are to educate, motivate, and activate students to make a difference in their classroom, school, and community.
These character education activities stress lessons against bullying, acceptance of all, inclusion, and changing the culture of schools. To give you an idea on how I try to make a difference, I want to share one of my favorite activities. I group my students in the room with a majority of one group being the lower leveled students. The groups are given a piece of paper in which they are to answer the question. It is a phrase in Latin so no one has a clue except the one group that secretly has the answer on the paper. They have been prepped so they start talking about how easy it is to solve the problem and make fun of the other groups. After several minutes, discussion begins on how everyone feels. The “smart” students finally get a taste of how they often make the students with learning disabilities feel. My students walk out of the room feeling different and do think before they make fun of students who struggle in the class. I facilitate, but through activities students learn valuable lessons. All the teachers in my building can pull up the activities on our building blackboard so it does not stop with my room. Not only do I work with the students in my home base, but I facilitate teachers doing the same activities during our district’s professional development days. As a parent, you can suggest the following site to the teachers of your child: http://www.specialolympics.org/getintoit
Project UNIFY also sponsors Spread the Word to End the Word. My building spends one week during the year emphasizing the use of positive words instead of the hurtful r-word. Each of the eight teams is responsible for a school-wide presentation during morning broadcasts. Each individual is given an opportunity to sign the banner pledging not to use the r-word. Once the week is complete, I then refer back to it quite often. You can make the pledge yourself and find out more information at http://www.r-word.org . Once again, it is activities, not lectures, that make the students think of others in a more positive manner.
Technology has been a tool in which to get other teachers and students involved in the district. An email to Student Council advisors and A+ coordinators brings volunteers to my practices. Some of these volunteers become Unified Partners with the two high school Unified basketball teams. Many still want to volunteer even after they have completed their community service hours and as they say they are hooked for life. I have had students walk by our practice, ask what is going on, and then ask if they could help. They are still helping six years later. An email to the basketball coaches and we have a clinic set up for the athletes. Students spread the word to help keep our program moving in the right direction.
Linda Wiederholt is a teacher at Plaza 6th Grade Center in the Park Hill School District. She is also a coach and volunteer for SOMO’s KC Metro Area.