Today we welcome guest blogger, Michele Kukler, one of our ACTS (Accessing Community Through Spelling) professional practitioners and teacher extraordinare of the Connections School of Atlanta. Michele and the incredibly dedicated teachers and staff at Connections are leaders in education as they include nonspeaking students along side speaking peers inside and outside the classroom through meaningful learning and engagement. Thank you Michele and Connections for your model of inclusive practice! ~EV
Before Connections School of Atlanta came to life and we were only dreaming of possibilities, my mind was already churning with ideas for bringing other high school students into our community of learners. As a conscientious teacher, thoughts of logistics (how can we pull kids out of their own schools during the day?) and potential risks circulated through my brain, but my gut told me that it was a challenge worth pursuing. While Connections offers an incredibly progressive and individualized approach to education, our challenge as a young school lies with creating opportunities for inclusion for our deserving students. Fortunately, a junior at the nearby Paideia School, Sophie Green, was an early supporter of our start-up program and also dreaming up opportunities for inclusive experiences between us. Sophie’s drive and determination, fueled by the enthusiasm of Paideia’s Director of Service Learning, Natalie Rogovin, proved to be the perfect match for a partnership with Connections.
A few energetic meetings and encouraging email threads were all it took, and the two schools were set to begin a first-of-its-kind program in January of 2017. The game would be four square, but the goal would be friendship and understanding. A select number of Paideia students would spend two weeks learning about our students- their hopes, strengths, and their differences- and figuring out how to teach the rules and skills of a movement-based game to teenagers with sensory movement challenges. They would then travel to our school for the last block of each day and spend time leading, learning, and laughing with us. Whether or not the students mastered the game of four square didn’t matter; we could hardly wait for the fun and relationship-building to begin!
On their first visit to Connections, the neurotypicals arrived with vibrant posters, every color chalk you can imagine, a variety of different sized and weighted balls, and open hearts and minds. Both groups of students were challenged to step outside their comfort zones and enter unfamiliar territory. But the differences between them, so obvious at first, seemed to disappear within days and what emerged was a group of teenagers who were free to be themselves together. The Paideia students taught us how to return a ball in stride with a forward motion, rather than pausing to catch it, how to aim for the corners but stay within the lines, and how to advance to the highly sought after “king” position on the four square court. We taught them how to listen to people who don’t speak, how to believe when society tells you not to, and how to break down stereotypes and connect with those who simply experience the world differently.
Our students were so thankful and thrilled about hanging out with their new friends that they each wrote a letter to their designated four square partners. One Connections student’s words seem to sum up the beautiful reality of the experience: “SO MUCH FUN GETTING TO HANG OUT WITH YOU. TRYING TO MAKE MY FACE SHOW MY HAPPINESS IS REALLY HARD. I HAD SUCH AN AMAZING TIME. THANK YOU FOR HAVING FAITH IN US.” Since the success of the first short-term program left both schools wanting more, it was a no-brainer that we would replicate the experience in May, and students lined up at Paideia to sign up for round two. The spring program was another huge success and brought more “off-the-court” experiences, like a neighborhood walk to buy doughnuts and an impromptu talent show complete with tap dancing, poetry reading, and karaoke. We are counting down the days until we meet our friends again this school year!
Ask any good educator, and they will tell you that our deepest hopes for our students stretch far beyond the academic content that we teach. We want our students to grow up understanding how to think, how to relate, and how to communicate in a world that is constantly evolving and growing. Four square offered an opportunity for critical thinking, perspective taking, and most importantly, shared joy. These students were able to find their common ground through a simple game, and each one left with more empathy, imagination, and respect for differences than they had before. What once seemed like an impossible dream, became a life-changing reality, and every single student mastered the game of four square.
~Michele Kukler and the Connections School of Atlanta
Michele Kukler is the Instructional Coordinator and Lead Teacher at Connections School of Atlanta. Contact Michele at email@example.com and learn more about their innovative program at www.connectionsschool.org. Keep up with their adventures by following the students on Instagram @Connections_Class and Twitter @CSA_ATL.