(Note: What can a high school English teacher learn from a special ed life-skills elementary teacher? I asked Jane Wiltse at Cedar Grove Elementary on the Sunshine Coast if I could hang out for a day in her life-skills program aptly called “Shine” – a place where she works to provide opportunities to let students show how brightly they shine.)
When Ms. Wiltse enters her room each morning, she stands at the door – a door which today opens onto a field touched with frost and morning sun – and surveys the scene. She moves around, deftly manipulating the space, readying it to greet each of her students. One student needs his chair set up in a space reserved just for him. Ms. Wiltse ensures his white board sits ready on the chair’s ottoman. Today she places an orange marker on the spot where he expects a black marker to be. “We want him to branch out a bit, so I’m trying an orange marker,” she smiles. “We’ll see how he copes and help him through it.”
As she readies the students’ personalized activity cards (aka their Picture Exchange Communication System) so they each know that “first this, then that,” I ask about the coloured panels of cloth over each fluorescent light panel. She tells me that it calms the space – makes it less difficult for those sensitive to stimulation.
Ms Wiltse moves over to the visual day plan and arranges it to reflect the day, which includes time with their peer-aged classmates for purposeful integration times in select subjects. She has just enough time to organize the agenda before her students rush to greet her as they arrive in the classroom. She greets each of them, asking one about the weekend, another about his cold, and another about the trip he went on with his parents last week. Each student gets attention. Each one glows at the conversation.
One girl runs over to me, out of breath from her eager sprint to the classroom. She smiles at me and I introduce myself.
“Wow, eh?!” she says, pointing to the doll she carries in her arms, introducing me to her companion.
“Wow!” I say.
The girl gets herself settled after hanging up her coat and pulling out her printing book. Actually, every student gets him or herself settled. Routine a soothing balm.
I know about the lessons in store for each of these students in Ms Wiltse’s life-skills class. I understand that each lesson is part of a greater plan. I get that the lessons spring from a deep understanding of each student’s struggles and strengths. However, I don’t notice the lessons all day – and that is my lesson.