September 10, 2009

Today was my first day in the classroom at Riverside. I chose to work with older students because I have had some experience with teenagers from volunteering at The Logan Center in South Bend. I was placed in a classroom with sixteen-year-olds and am happy with my decision, though I am slightly out of my comfort zone; working with this age group in any type of school presents extra challenges unique to the age. I feel that this will afford me greater opportunities in making stronger personal relationships than I perhaps could in a classroom with younger students.

The main teacher is David and he is helped by his TAs Evelyn, Jeannie, Amy, and Mark. The students are Tammy, Mohamed, Maleika, Aroosa, Adam, Archie, James, and Harry. I think most, if not all, the pupils have some form of Autism. As this is the first week, I wonder if I will be given more information on the personal stories of the pupils.

As soon as I walked into the classroom, the welcoming atmosphere was immediately relieving. “Where should I put my bag?” I asked David. A chorus of responses from the pupils answered my question – they were as eager to help and welcome me as I them. My name was learned quickly and as TA’s entered the room, back from lunch breaks, the students were first to introduce me. Afternoons are relaxed at the school – the morning having been set aside for more vigorously academic tasks – and we painted pictures of butterflies for the remainder of the day as we listened to the students’ favorite CD, the Mama Mia soundtrack.

One of the pupils who struck me the most today was Harry. Harry is sweet, frail, and gentle. He is eager to please and seems the model student in the classroom. “What did you think of him?” David asked me soon after Harry left for the bus. I told him I thought he was incredibly kind and welcoming. “But vulnerable, too, don’t you think?” Harry is slight and lanky, often shakes as his hands struggle with crafts, and submissive almost to a fault. “I don’t think he gets the best treatment at home,” David mused. I realized how long it would be until I even partially understood the pupils’ individual temperaments.
Community in the classroom was incredibly impressive. The school year has been in session for only a week, but the students and various adults interacted like an extended family. I think it is a stereotype that “special schools” are formed simply for the purposes of practical understanding among the pupils – but community goes beyond commiseration. While understanding is key in the classroom, these pupils are obviously not all functioning at the same level. They are grouped by age and not ability. As in any classroom, community creates opportunities for example – this school works so well because students are willing to help each other in ways that a mainstream school could not accomplish. Reflecting Dr. Hinchcliffe’s emphasis on expectation, students are not scolded when they correct a fellow student in an appropriate manner.

I could go on with my observations of the day, but I will try to focus on key issues each week so as to not overwhelm the readers. The main lesson I learned this week was the important issue of community – I only hope to be able to add to the Riverside family.