California Educator

December 2015

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In Cecilia's words: WHY IS IT CALLED ABILITY AWARENESS? We focus on abilities, rather than disabilities. The kids all dressed up to reflect their strengths. For example, a student good at math might be wearing numbers. Everyone is good at something. Every student in the school partic- ipated. We hone in on what kids are good at, and support those skills. It was wonderful to see students feeling successful and confident about themselves. SO WHAT'S AN 'EMPATHY ROOM'? It's a room where students go to learn what life is like for those with disabilities. For example, a student might wear oversize plastic gloves and be asked to do a cutting activity with scissors, to understand the challenges some students face with motor coordination. They might be given something to read with every other word blacked out, and be asked to figure out the meaning, to understand what it's like for stu- dents with reading disabilities. They might watch a short video clip called "Arthur Explains Asperger's," which talks about someone being a genius, but having a hard time being around other people. HOW DID ABILITY AWARE- NESS WEEK IMPACT THE SCHOOL CLIMATE? Our students felt empowered and were able to discuss things they usually don't talk about. Students of all abilities talked to each other about some of the difficult things they may be going through. It definitely improved the climate of our school. I saw a lot of kids reach- ing out to other students they wouldn't normally reach out to. There were a lot more "peer buddies" socializing together. I was very proud of all of the students, who felt they were a part of something important. DID IT HELP IMPROVE LEARNING? Yes. I started to see students brainstorming as a class on ways they could help each other out as friends. For exam- ple, if one student had trouble following directions, another student might pat them on the shoulder and "re-explain" the assignment. There were a lot of high fives around the school. WHAT DID PARENTS THINK? They loved it. There was a lot of support. We sent home packets of information that had conversation starters so students could extend what they learned at school into their homes and families. HOW CAN I IMPROVE ABILITY AWARENESS AT MY SCHOOL? There's a lot of good infor- mation at misunderstoodminds, which is sponsored by PBS. Or visit Awareness_Program.html, which provides free materials such as scripts and schedules. It's a wonderful way to advo- cate for students and improve your learning environment. S taff and students may not always realize it, but special education students are a "gift" to those at their school, says Cecilia Timek, a special day class teacher for students with mild to moderate disabilities at Murray Elementary School in Dublin. "We can learn so much from them," says Timek, Dublin Teachers Association. "ese children can teach us about empathy, compassion and meeting our potential." Schools, she observes, are slowly making a cultural shift beyond merely "including" students with special needs in mainstream classrooms. is means special educators are training colleagues in ways to help all stu- dents succeed by using strategies to help students with learning disabilities, such as differentiating instruction and encouraging real friendships between students of differing abilities. Timek and other school staff held an Ability Awareness Week at Murray Elementary — and at nearby Dublin Ele- mentary School — to spread understanding and goodwill throughout classrooms and playgrounds. e event was held in April, which happens to be Autism Awareness Month. e first-ever event was a resounding success, and it will be repeated next April. SPECIAL EDUCATOR FOCUSES ON ABILITIES, NOT DISABILITIES 17 December 2015 / January 2016

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