Jonathan Fisk’s Life Skills room at Morse High School may look like a one-room schoolhouse. Rather than traveling to different teachers throughout the day, Fisk students generally stay together as they cover math and social studies, cookie-making, and volcano-building.
The Life Skills program allows each of Fisk’s students, many of whom have autism, Down syndrome or other learning differences, to learn at their own pace. Unfortunately, it can also isolate the group, leaving its members abandoned on their own little island within the high school.
This semester, a unified literacy pilot program developed by Fisk and librarian Dawn Lee helped shine a light on Life Skills students and their talents.
On Thursday night, dozens of guests gathered in Morse’s library to view the art and poetry created by the six Life Skills students, their mainstream student body mentors.
The event was a chance for Fisk students to show the value of a semester of hard work and for organizers to celebrate what Principal Eric Varney called a “paradigm shift” for the school.
“I’m really proud of our students for embracing this and our teachers for leading the way,” Varney said. “I can’t say enough how this changes the culture of the school.”
Fisk first connected with Lee in order to find a time for his students to explore the library. But soon, the pair hatched a bigger plan: a literacy class that, like Morse’s popular unified physical education and basketball programs, would pair Fisk students with mentors from the general student body.
“There’s not much you can teach with paper and pencil and through the computer,” Fisk said. “There are so many social skills that would be wonderful to learn through Morse code immersion.”
Since January, Fisk and Lee have taught the twelve Unified Literacy Program students three times a week at the library. Each mentor-mentee pair practices reading together before the group meets again to discuss the chosen books.
According to Lee, this model helps Life Skills students practice vocabulary, speaking, and comprehension. But just as important are the relationships and communication skills students develop toward the end of each class, when the group takes on art projects or games like Jenga and Uno.
“When people make art at a table, it’s like quilt bee syndrome,” Lee said. “People talk. They share. The model is total immersion and inclusion.
Because Life Skills students often stay in their own class, other high school students can sometimes be shy or uncomfortable with them, said Becky Roak, a physical education teacher who co-coaches the school unified basketball team with Charlie Bingham.
After dipping their toes into Morse’s unified offerings, however, students usually find themselves hooked, she said.
“As soon as they get into it, whether it’s unified physical education or basketball or literacy, they just get interested in it,” Roak said. “We probably have one of the biggest numbers of any sports team.”
According to Roak, about 25 students participated in Morse’s final Unified Basketball season, which helped inspire the new literacy class. Others joined unified physical education, music, and volleyball programs.
The exposure these programs provide to life skills students is an important part of bringing them into the wider Morse community, said Fisk, who noted that the library’s glass walls allow visiting students to gaze upon the smiles and laughter from the unified literacy class.
As a result, it’s now more common than ever to see life skills students and regular students talking in the hallway or sharing tables at lunch.
This inclusion has been just as beneficial for the student body in general as it has been for Fisk students, said Nina Ryan, literacy program mentor.
“Now that I have a connection with them, I seem to see them a lot more,” she said. “They went from people I didn’t know at all to people I have conversations with every day.”
Teachers and mentors in the Unified Literacy Class struggle to contain their pride in the Life Skills students and the progress they have made.
In January, most of the students in the class were hesitant to read louder than a whisper, Ryan recalls. Now they capture the public’s attention during visits to the early childhood education program.
They compete to see who can read the most, and debate the value of completing several short books versus one long story. In March, some of them even presented themselves to the board of directors of RSU 1.
For students like 15-year-old Noah Kent, an animal lover who spoke clearly and confidently about the danger of climate change at the school board meeting, Thursday’s event was a chance to step back and reflect. be proud of months of hard work. When he wasn’t chatting with friends, the Woolwich native mostly hovered near his portfolio of poems and paintings, which included works like ‘Tape Measure Yellow’ and ‘The Night Sky’.
“For him, it’s a community recognition of something he does,” said Peter Kent, Noah’s father. “It’s huge in so many ways.”
The enthusiastic response from students, parents and administrators prompted Fisk and Lee to work to increase class sizes from 12 to 20 next year and find money for more field trips and outside activities. of the classroom. They imagine that in a few years Morse might have more unified classes, maybe even one for each school subject.
It’s a bold idea, Lee said, but one that has already won support from teachers who have seen joy beam through the library’s glass walls three times a week.
“You have to see it in action,” she said. “Words don’t describe it. There is magic in there. »
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