When I was a kid in school, I barely even know that there were kids with special needs on campus. They were there, in a segregated classroom. I saw them occasionally at lunch, all together, isolated from the rest of the student body.
I’m ashamed that I used their differences to make myself feel better. I may have been picked on for being fat. I may have had only a few friends, all of whom were as unpopular as I was. At least we weren’t retards! Yes… I used that slur.
I’m glad that I don’t hear that slur in my Intro to ED classes these days. I think that our Peer Partners program has a lot to do with the absence of that particular form of bullying.
I can’t take credit for Peer Partners. My colleagues Amy, Anya, and Andrea started the collaborative project before I joined the ED Academy three years ago. All I did was say, “Yes,” when they asked if I would continue the partnership that Intro to ED had with three of our SPED classrooms. Heck! At the time, I barely knew what I was agreeing to, but I trusted these three teachers, so I was willing to go along for the ride.
And what a ride! In the Fall, the four of us sit down and talk about our students. Using what we know about their interests and personalities, we pair each of my sophomores with a student in one of their classes. Once partnered, the two kids spend a day with each other each month.
About two weeks prior to Peer Partner Day, my colleagues and I plan the activities for our students to do. We try to keep the agenda light and fun, because we want to give each pair plenty of time to just hang out and get to know each other. Sometimes, that’s a challenge. Some of our partners with special needs are non-communicative. Sometimes, they can communicate using their picture-word books, other times, even that scaffold isn’t enough and my students are charged with holding up a one-sided conversation.
Often, we focus the activities around one of the many holidays during the school year. In October, we decorate pumpkins. In February, we make Valentine cards for our moms. In March, we play games, talk about luck (as in “Luck of the Irish), and listen to music for St. Patrick’s Day. In May, we write cards to soldiers overseas or convalescing in hospitals state-side.
So, what do we get out of these experiences? Well, my kids get to understand that kids with special needs are, first and foremost, kids. They get accustomed to some of the differences that traditionally serve as barriers between kids with and without special needs. Eventually, some friendships are formed. Not every one of my kids delevopes a friendship with their Peer Partner. For some, the whole experience is no more than a requirement for their Intro to ED class, and a part of their grade.
But that’s not always the case.
One of my students came to me on a Thursday in May. “Mr. Orphal, I was absent yesterday for Peer Partners,” he said. “Do you think it will be OK if I just find my partner at lunch and hang out with him?”
At that moment, we both came to a realization.
“I guess I don’t need your permission,” he continued. “I mean, it’s lunch time and I can hang out with anyone I want to, right? So, if I want to hang out with my Peer Partner, then that’s cool.”
“Yes, yes it is,” I replied.
Very cool, indeed.