Last week, I had the opportunity to travel to Bethel, Alaska, with two other teachers and 11 students. This was our first experience traveling anywhere off Alaska’s road system and for a few of the students, it was their first time on an airplane. We were invited to Bethel by the local high school’s Partners Club, who hosted a Unified Track and Basketball Tournament.
Overall, it was an amazing experience. We practiced preparing and packing for the trip, checking-in at the airport, and navigating security. One of my life-skills students had his first experience with the TSA, which included a professional swab of his nervous and sweaty palm.
I realize not every class gets to leave the classroom often — much less fly somewhere 400 miles away — so I’d like to share how we found the support and fundraised the money to do it. In two words: espresso and community.
The teacher who founded our school’s Partners Club had the vision to procure a high-quality espresso machine and form a school-business partnership up with the local bean purveyor. A few times a year, the coffee purveyor’s training team visits the school to turn our student coffee novices into certified baristas. We sell espressos each morning between 7 and 7:30. And so, between coffee sales and a generous matching amount from the Special Olympics Alaska, we were able to fully fund the club’s first excursion into rural Alaska.
It was an amazing experience for our kids and it really opened all our eyes to the beauty of the people and places in this state. While we were there, the crew from the Discovery Channel’s “Flying Wild Alaska” filmed our participation in the Track/Basketball Tournament. With a little luck, others will get a look into what a great event Bethel hosted, so watch for an episode to air in the fall. In the meantime, we’ll cross our fingers that we don’t end up on the cutting room floor!
Switching gears . . . I’d like to thank all the readers who commented with so many great tips in response to my earlier post about my student Anthony. I want to take an opportunity to share some of the strategies that we’ve employed and how they’ve affected our relationship with Anthony.
First, we’ve continued to use the triangle chart and point system. We’ve refined the use the use of the chart and paired it with a visual reward system that allows for Anthony to pick and choose from several rewards throughout the day. As soon we made these visual reward charts, he seemed to take an interest in how they worked and even asked questions about which rewards corresponded to the point system.
One of my favorite comments of Anthony’s occurred while I showed him the new visuals the aides and I created. At one point, he interrupted me to say, “That isn’t going to work.” While it wasn’t the most positive comment, I liked it because it showed his engagement and even his curiosity about the system.
In the meantime, I’ve been catching the entire class modeling good behaviors and giving out rewards. At first, Anthony didn’t seem bothered when he didn’t receive the reward. However, he would appear later and coyly ask questions about the rewards: “You know that candy — where is it now?” That made us feel great, because we could tell Anthony was not only thinking about the reward, he was initiating conversation appropriately (one of his communication goals).
Next, we met as a team to discuss some options for replacing his inappropriate social behaviors. Specifically, we’ve tried to intervene immediately when Anthony models inappropriate hand waving or attention seeking. We’ve explicitly modeled ways he can communicate verbally or physically (handshake or pat on shoulder) to gain the attention of peers and staff. While these strategies aren’t brand new, we’ve tried as a staff to intervene much more quickly and specifically.
To the greatest degree possible, we’ve used this opportunity as a way to reinforce socially appropriate behavior to all the students. During the last two weeks, the frequency of Anthony’s disruptive behaviors has decreased, and he has completed more work in the classroom as a result. And because he finishes his assignments, his peer interaction has increased. Although Anthony rarely initiates conversations, he is no longer such an outcast among the students. Some days he is practically in the fold and part of the social fabric. In our classroom, being invited to play Uno is a sure-fire social litmus test. It’s truly exciting to see.
As you might guess, the students who went on the trip to Bethel had a great time relating their experiences to the other students once we returned home. As they shared, Anthony became interested as well and explained all the things he knew about flying in an airplane. It was a great moment for all of us to see him connect, and in the back of my mind I began to think about when he might be ready to travel too. Only a month ago, the possibility of that thought popping into my head was nil.
Whoever wrote “the more things change the more they stay the same” must not have been a special educator. In this profession, if there’s any norm at all it’s the constant that despite everything, students still have the capacity to confound, perplex, and surprise us all.