The school where I work has a large population of students with emotional disabilities and special learning needs. Although our classes are not considered “leveled” we do have special advisories, or homeroom groups, that are aimed at helping to teach students respect, responsibility, civility, and hope. In these specialized classes there is often a concentrated population of “red zone” students – students who have been on the radar of teachers and administrators due to past behavioral issues such as physical assault, threats against themselves or others, cursing out teachers, etc.
Last year I co-taught one of these “focus homerooms.” Even though homeroom was the very first class of the day, most mornings students entered the classroom already upset, yelling about things that had happened at home, on the walk to school, or in the cafeteria (our bus corral). Due to the specific grouping, often two students in my group were angry at each other and most of the period was spent as a sort of mediation or restorative circle rather than actually being a pre-organized lesson about recycling or whatever it was we were supposed to be learning about that particular day.
The year had a long and slow projection where my co-teacher and I found ourselves constantly attending to these student’s every need and helping them to just navigate through the morning and prepare for the day ahead. If each of the students had a bite of the free school breakfast, and some of the trash made it into the trashcan, and no one physically harmed anyone else, we would consider it a positive morning.
Unfortunately these positive mornings were few and far between and we ended up bribing students to be good by providing incentives such as pizza lunches or doughnut breakfasts if we could make it just a single week without a referral being written during our homeroom advisory period. Even with heavy incentives the students only earned one pizza lunch and two doughnut breakfasts in the entire academic year.
Arts as an Agent for Change
This year a small group of teachers in our school implemented a collaboration that has revolutionized the way we interact as teachers with our focus homerooms. A focus homeroom teacher teamed up with our Alternative Curriculum Classroom homeroom to create arts integration projects during the 40 minute advisory periods. Our Alternative Curriculum Classroom is home to our intensive special needs students who focus on building life skills and developing relationships in an isolated classroom with a high teacher to student ratio.
Together with a focus homeroom of “red zone” students, these two groups worked together to create a number of arts projects while actually learning the concepts of respect through action. This collaboration began around the thanksgiving holidays so the first collaboration involved a simple arts enhanced project creating turkeys. Then closer to the winter holidays the students constructed bird houses and learned about the types of food that birds eat. Students went on to collaborate on a number of additional arts projects.
Product vs. Process
The projects themselves were not particularly exciting but the process or the collaboration of the students working together one on one to achieve a common goal has proven a remarkable change in our focus homeroom students. Rather than learning about respect, students were actually having a real life lesson on how to interact in a respectful manner. Rather than watching a video about responsibility students were taking on responsibility.
During this time we were asking the red zone students’ teachers about what they were observing happening in classes throughout the day and the response was interesting. Teachers noted that these students were more attentive in class, more conscious of others, and more willing to work in small groups. Perhaps most compelling of all were the responses we received on a survey given to the students themselves who noted that they “were learning about the personalities of others,” “learning to be kind,” and “learning how to be helpful.”
Certainly these students were not totally reformed from these simple interactions and some were still getting referrals and making poor choices throughout the course of the day; however, the fact that there was a notable improvement in behavior has been an encouragement to the teachers who monitor these focus homerooms. Additionally a sense of community has formed between the ACC students and the focus homeroom students leading to friendly greetings in the hallways and high fives in the lunchroom. Certainly we are far from having a perfect model, but this simple change has helped bring about a positive effect in our academic community.