Sunday, July 17, 2016

End of an Era - Life Skills Reflections (Part 3 - Out of the Building Learning)

As I continue to pack up my former Life Skills classroom, I am amazed at the artifacts that were collecting in the six years since the new Ryerson reopened and moving into Room 20.  With every pile I sort and photograph I find, I am reminded of the very unique learning opportunities that occurred in this program over the past 8 years.  With every class photo I look at, I am brought back to a really cool project we worked on or interesting trip we took.  You see, having a class of 6-9 students each year allowed for some pretty cool and unusual experiences that you just can't do with a regular class of 18-30 students. With educational assistants willing to use personal vehicles, we avoided huge transportation costs and used those funds to seek out experiences that were new or exciting to the students currently in the program.

One of the trips that I always struggled with each year was Horseback Riding.  This practice occurred prior to me coming into this role and it was a highlight that was requested to continue.  My first year, I was shocked at the expense and had difficulty justifying using over half of the year's budget on an hour lesson repeated over eight weeks.  To me it didn't seem practical.  The adults basically watched and cheered on the students, and I wondered if this was a good use of 3 educators' time. What this time actually became was an opportunity for us as a team to do some informal planning and debriefing of recent activities. As a team, we never had planning time together.  All of our communication occurred while students are present.  These weekly trips that I scheduled in the Fall, gave us an opportunity to have some professional discussions to support students during the upcoming days.  Each and every year, with each group of students, I learned something new about the students and each one showed some progression of skill achievement during our time at the stables.  Let me tell you, you learn so much about students when you're driving in the car.  They don't feel like they're in school and the conversations often take a humorous turn.  It also allowed for some informal coaching and debriefing on the drive to and from the stables.  Most of the students that I worked with over the eight years, with a few exceptions of course, did not have many experiences outside of their home.  An opportunity to do something like horseback riding is something that many of my students would never experience otherwise.  Every year, even though it's the farthest trip from memory the students always say that horseback riding was the best trip of the year.  That REALLY matters with special education students because they typically recall the last trip/activity as the best.  Was horseback riding the best use of those funds? I'm still not sure, but I justified it each year due to the excitement and development I observed in the kids. Some were terrified to get on the horse the first day but were thrilled to return on day 2 and loved each and every lesson thereafter.  Some students that struggled with anxiety and anger management showed calm and controlled bodies around the horses 100% of the time.  Really.  Just think about that for a moment.  Students with balance or  physical issues worked on fitness goals, and for one student, it was the only time he was able to focus on this posture and keep his back straight.  Maybe this learning experience is more valuable than the price tag the program costs.  I was sad to inform the stables that we would not be returning next Fall.

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Being a Life Skills program, it was always a fun challenge to find meaningful local trips that relate to daily living.  Our regular grocery shopping trips provided great talk time and in the moment math when students evaluate the value of items based on sale prices, quantities, and brand comparisons.  At least once each year we would visit a restaurant to discuss dining etiquette, ordering procedures, and calculating tips.  We were also fortunate enough to partner with some local food establishments for occasional cooking classes in the industrial kitchen.  These trips were always a hit and a great way to prepare students for future vocational work in this industry. Students wore gloves, hair nets, and had to follow the safety rules of the kitchen.  A trip to the local mall would provide opportunities to read maps and follow directions.  A trip to a mall in neighboring cities would introduce students to the public bus system; using tickets, following the route, and attending for the desired stopping point.  These all seem like pretty common outings for families, but you would be surprised at how many students were experiencing these things for the first time.

Occasionally we would find a reason to drive around Cambridge and make many stops to check out local attractions. Sometimes it was the quest to find the perfect place to take a photograph worthy of submitting to the Imagine A Show photo contest.  Sometimes it was to find a scenic place to do some art, studying perspective, landscapes, and practice sketching.  My favourite tour of Cambridge took place the year we were working on creating a "tourism Cambridge" app.  Students recorded GPS locations and took pictures of local attractions and businesses to include with each write up.  These tours were so beneficial for so many reasons.  It was a great opportunity for orienteering, directional language, estimation of time and distance, and exposure to areas of the city outside of the student's home community.  Again, it often amazed me at how little the students knew about their home town.  For this reason alone, I felt these trips were extremely valuable for this population of learners.

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One year there was a student that was obsessed with ships so a trip to the Museum for the Titanic exhibit was perfect for this group.  Another year Medieval times was a huge interest for my class so we not only went to Medieval week activities at the Museum, we also went to Toronto for the Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament.  For most students in my class that year it was also their first trip to Toronto.  Another year my class pulled in a huge profit on our hot dog lunch fundraiser.  This enabled us to take a bus to Stratford, take a tour of the costume warehouse as well as try on some cool costumes, picnic in the park, and then take in a show at the Theatre.  Again, live theatre (of this quality) a first for every student in my class. So many "firsts" over the last eight years.  I feel like our team provided many memorable experiences for these students and showed them a little slice of what life has to offer.

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