Haven and Hope
In my 30 years as a Special Education teacher, I have seen many new ideas on best practices and approaches in the field and the way in which each impacts students. One thing that has never changed, however, is the fact that many students who end up with an IEP face a Catch-22 from the start: the label that gets them the services that they need often creates an obstacle between them and their neuro-typical peers. Whether they have a teacher who offers them extra support in their general education classroom, they are in a specialized classroom within their home school, or, as is the case for the O-School, a separate school altogether, their opportunities for engaging in activities with their peers become limited both due to their need for supports and, potentially, anxiety and discomfort. The question of how to bridge this gap and help build the skills students will need to be successful in their goals to move toward less restrictive environments is one that is not easily answered, but the O-School has found community partners and programs that have led to amazing experiences and growth for our students.
The first of these partnerships is with the Chicago Shakespeare Theater for the Shakespeare Slam program. Though modified for the past two years due to the pandemic, this program is designed to be a competition program where teams of 2-8 students prepare two scenes that are performed at a regional competition in an effort to be one of 9 teams to make it to the finals. Much aligned with our philosophy, however, the Education team at the theater puts a small “c” on competition and focuses on the goals of the program which are to Be Seen, Be Heard, Be Creative, Take Risks, and Play as an Ensemble. In other words, learn how to work with others and be confident in who you are and the choices you make. These are goals we strive for with all of our students.
The second partnership is with Young Chicago Authors for Louder Than a Bomb poetry slam competition. In this program, students write individual poetry, work on a group poem, or do both, in preparation for two preliminary bouts in which they perform their work for an audience. It is easy to see that the goals of the Shakespeare Slam could be applied here as well. YCA notes that they aim to bring students of varying backgrounds together to celebrate spoken word poetry in ways that encourage self-expression and teamwork.
Key to both of these programs is that they are for any high school in the Chicago area that has a team of students, or even indy poets, who want to participate. This is not a modified program for students in specialized schools. When our team attends these events, they are just another team from another school. They are not there under their IEP designations, but as creative members of a team ready to perform.
Both programs have events in which students from different teams and schools interact, write with and simply spend time with each other. For many of the O-School team members these events are the first time in which they have been around neuro-typical peers in a significant amount of time. This means that, much like the students on our team, we are taking a risk as well, a risk that things won’t go well and growth will come from difficulty. We need to put in the work to give our students the strongest opportunity for success that we can, and we do that in many ways.
Production of Creative work
We meet regularly with students from the beginning of the school year to make sure that they have a voice in the decisions and creative products that will be presented at the competitions. We want the students to drive the experience and use our voices to help them shape and refine their decisions. Our students cut and write any scenes and create all of their own original poetry.
Before we attend an event with other teams, we make sure that our students know exactly what will happen and what will be expected of them throughout the day. Obviously, there may be unexpected occurrences, so we talk about that possibility as well so that students have a plan in mind if things become overwhelming or they need a break. One example of planning ahead occurred for LTAB when we learned that all of our team members would be split into different teams for some workshop time. We had two students who did not feel that they could be without one of their team members, so we worked with program staff ahead of time to make sure that they were in a pair. They were both beaming at the end of the day.
Practice, Practice, Practice
We make sure that students rehearse their performances as many times as possible so that they build muscle memory around their work. That way, when the nerves kick in, and they will, they have a better chance of success at the competition. Our students work with us during school, after school, and at times, even on the weekend, to make sure that they are as ready to perform as they possibly can be. Many students have commented on how prepared they felt at the competition and this leads to a sense of pride in what they have accomplished.
We work to set goals that go beyond the competition so that students can have a sense of success whether they move on to later rounds or not. For some students memorizing their lines or getting a laugh can be their moment to shine.
These programs have been amazing for the students who have chosen to take part. We have seen students who struggle to leave their homes get shout-outs from peers at other schools for being so open and supportive. Students who were sure that they could never remember their lines have gone on to be team leaders and participate in multiple years. We have even had students who, though struggling initially to attend larger events, ultimately felt confident enough to speak to a theater full of people as themselves, not a character in a scene, and express what participation meant to them.
We knew we had something special to offer our students after our first performance in our first Shakespeare Slam when all of our team members came flying off the stage high-fiving and hugging (pre-pandemic of course) because they felt so good about what they had accomplished. In that moment, every risk, every moment of work, and every ounce of preparation, was beyond worth it.
Author Michelle Pegram, MA, serves as a Special Education Teacher at the O-School for the past 18 years and directs the student theatre and poetry programs. To learn more about the O-School’s day program, please visit our website. If you have a child or loved one who you believe may benefit from the O-School’s services, please visit our contact page or call our Director of Admissions, Kristin Friesen, at 773-420-2891.
- child and adolescent development
- day treatment
- emotional disability
- family therapy
- mental health
- mental health treatment
- Milieu therapy
- residential treatment center
- therapeutic treatment
Haven and Hope is a destination for professionals, educators, and parents to learn from O-School experts about the issues facing children and adolescents with a variety of social-emotional challenges and/or autism, and how various aspects of the School’s 21st century therapeutic milieu provides a safe haven and a path to hope for those in need.