What It’s REALLY Like to Teach Middle School

When I tell people I work as a teacher, the conversation inevitably goes like this:
“Oh, that’s wonderful! What do you teach?”
“7th grade sp–“
“You teach middle school?! That is rough. I hated middle school. I cringe when I think back to my time in middle school. It takes a special kind of person to deal with kids that age. You are a saint!”

 There are so many stereotypes I have heard of middle schoolers– that they are self-involved, disrespectful, and unkind to adults and classmates. I have to admit that I don’t like to object when people are telling me what a wonderful person I am, but in all honesty, I do not feel like a saint at all. My students have overturned all of the stereotypes I have heard and previously believed about middle schoolers. I am not a special kind of person to deal with them– they are a special kind of people themselves, who are often misunderstood and need to be treated in a unique way. Last week was my first last day of school as a teacher. As I have been reflecting on my first year teaching, I wrote my students a letter about what this year was really like.

Dear students,

Teenagers are most known for acting in ways that may seem selfish and self-centered. I came into this year fully prepared for one hundred and five students who only cared about themselves and how popular they were. I want you to know that you have proved me wrong.

Sarah, when you came and spoke to me to express worries about your friend who was going through a hard time, I know that you took a risk to do so. You put her safety before your desire to be on good terms with your friend. You acknowledged that she might be angry with you for speaking to a teacher about it, but you did it anyway. You knew that I could help connect her with the support she needed. You were worried that I might think you were being overly dramatic, but the reason why you acted so passionately is because you care so deeply. Many adults have lost that passion. You are a hero.

Ruby, when you volunteered to help your classmate who has difficulty following along, you have no clue how much you really supported him. What you do not know is that he has a moderate hearing impairment, and having someone to help him fill in his notes when he misses some details was invaluable to his growth this year. He is also very shy, and I’m not sure he would have had any friends in class if you hadn’t gone out of your way to include him in your group projects. You made sure he knew he is a valued member of our community, and for that, you are a true leader.

Joseph, when you helped your friend with her math homework before school, you have no idea how much you warmed my heart. She came into class showing a much greater understanding of the work than she had in class the day before. I asked her who had helped her with her homework, and she said it was you. You must have known that her work was perhaps at a simpler level than the math homework you had done the previous night. Instead of pointing that out to her and making fun of her, you helped her and boosted her confidence. You have a kind and nurturing heart, and you are the picture of empathy.

Finally, Caleb, I know that you are the “cool kid” in school. You moved here and joined our class halfway through the year. Immediately, you had plenty of friends who wanted to sit with you at lunch and play football with you after school. Despite the countless offers from perhaps more “popular” kids in our grade, you chose to help out other seventh graders who needed a friend. You came before school every single morning to support your classmate who needed extra help and worked with him as a study buddy. In your end-of-year project presentation, you helped your quiet and reserved classmate step up and coached him through what he needed to say; you put your arm around him and supported him through each moment. You are a true role model.

I’d like to say I’m responsible for creating this community of kind, empathetic, hard-working leaders, but I think you just needed to be given the opportunity to let your true hearts shine. You were already these amazing people, and I am so grateful that I was able to get to know each of you and learn from you this year. Thank you for creating an amazing seventh grade community. Have a wonderful summer, and let’s do it all over again next year in eighth grade!

All my love,

Ms. Hopkins

–Written by Elise Hopkins, KIT blog editor and full-time special education teacher. 

Kids Included Together (KIT) is a non-profit located in San Diego, CA and Washington, DC. We help make the world a more inclusive place by providing live and online training to people who work with kids. We teach strategies, accommodations and best practices to include kids with and without disabilities in before & after school programs. Inclusive environments create stronger communities. Learn more about our work at www.KITonline.org.

Inclusion From Day One

My name is Hannah Alves, and I have an older sister with Down Syndrome. Her name is Sabrina, and she is 36 years young. I say it that way because ever since her 30th birthday, she has insisted that she is getting younger. As it is for most individuals with older siblings, I look up to her.

alves2When people ask me what it was like growing up with an older sister with Down Syndrome, I never really know quite what to say. She was my older sister. We laughed and played, fought over toys and busted our knees biking on rocky roads with plenty of potholes. We sometimes got into trouble and always seemed to giggle our way through it. I remember idolizing her. She participated in Special Olympics, taught me how to swim and to ride my bike. She used to go to Tae Kwon Do classes with me, and she was a fantastic gymnast.

I never really noticed she had an intellectual disability until I was 6 or 7, when she got angry at me for asking her to sit down and read with me. I didn’t get it. I just wanted to play a​nd read a book with her, but she couldn’t. After my mother explained some things to me, I understood. As we get older, I still find that she influences how I grow and develop as an individual. I continue to learn so much from her. She loves with all her heart and gives everything her best shot. She has taught me that labels don’t define anyone.

alves3I truly feel blessed to grow up with someone like my older sister, not only because she is an amazing person, but because it has colored the way I think about life and the diverse group of people I interact with each day. I truly appreciate diversity, and I appreciate being exposed to so many beautiful individuals through Sabrina- her friends and their families. I enjoy the sense of community we share when we are together.

alves5I think inclusion is so important because the only way to feel comfortable with one another is to be around one another– to build community. It is easy for kids to be fearful or uncomfortable with things they don’t know. In this context the only way to break down those barriers, and for understanding and acceptance to come to life, is through inclusion. I think that growing up with this mindset has really influenced how I view diversity in all aspects of life. To further understand the human condition, it is absolutely necessary to expose yourself to diverse populations. Through exposure and experience with diversity, common humanity grows. If you seek out diverse environments, you will eventually find that there are so many things binding us all together.

–Written by Hannah Alves, edited by KIT staff.

Kids Included Together (KIT) is a non-profit located in San Diego, CA and Washington, DC. We help make the world a more inclusive place by providing live and online training to people who work with kids. We teach strategies, accommodations and best practices to include kids with and without disabilities in before & after school programs. Inclusive environments create stronger communities. Learn more about our work at www.KITonline.org.

The Power of Teamwork

Today, I’d like to tell you a story about a student of mine named Elena. Elena  is a seventh grade student who has been working so hard all year. She comes in to office hours before school, takes home extra study materials and extra credit work, and has significantly improved her self-advocacy skills. She is a kind-hearted, helpful, and responsible. However, she learns in separate settings for all of her academic classes every day, and I often wonder how much exposure she gets to her peers who are typically-developing (and how much exposure they get to her wonderful self!).

This Spring, Elena joined our school’s girls’ soccer team. She has been such an amazing team player, cheering on her team members and giving every practice and game 100% of her effort. She has blossomed into an aggressive and skilled soccer player, and a true athlete. The best part of all, though, has been to see the relationships she has built, especially with the older players who have welcomed her to the team. At our first game, she was elated to have her first few minutes in the game. When we put in a sub for her, she came running off the field to a group of her peers who greeted her with bottles of water and high fives, congratulating her on a successful first game. Any time Elena is running a drill at practice, her teammates cheer her on, and she does the same for them.

Elena has become so much more outgoing since she joined the soccer team. Before soccer, I hadn’t seen her with many close friends outside of class. Now, she comes early to school to spend time with her friends at breakfast. Furthermore, these friends are not just friends from the team, but girls also who do not play soccer. Due to Elena’s newfound soccer community at school, she has become more and more comfortable in her skin and in our school, allowing her to make friends with ease. And this, my friends, is why I believe in inclusion.

–Written by Elise Hopkins, KIT Blog Writer and Editor

Kids Included Together (KIT) is a non-profit located in San Diego, CA and Washington, DC. We help make the world a more inclusive place by providing live and online training to people who work with kids. We teach strategies, accommodations and best practices to include kids with and without disabilities in before & after school programs. Inclusive environments create stronger communities. Learn more about our work at www.KITonline.org.

Different Abilities. Same Determination.

Ruben and Javier were both 16 year old students in my ROP (Regional Occupational Program) Retail Sales class.  The class consisted of 19 students – 3 of which were in our district’s special education program. Ruben and Javier both had learning disabilities, according to their IEPs, and their academic skills were below those of the other students.  However, their desire to do well in the class and gain employment matched, or exceeded, their peers’.

Each day in class, some activities were geared more for individual learning (i.e. creating a resume and cover letter), while other tasks were intended more for group learning (like practicing customer service skills and using the cash registers).  Fortunately, this particular group of students worked well individually and in groups. As a teacher, I made it a point to modify the curriculum and accommodate Ruben and Javier’s needs, but I also encouraged the other students to help Ruben and Javier by offering their own encouragement and being patient with them.

Despite their differences in abilities, these students were united by one valuable trait – determination.  All the students appreciated how Ruben and Javier didn’t give up.  They took the extra time and effort needed to learn the cash register or whatever challenge we took on each day.  Once the students recognized the determination in each other, they established mutual respect. Together, they accomplished their goals.

Since the students had different career goals, the chances of them competing for the same job were minimal, so that made them even more comfortable encouraging one another during the application process.  As students started internships through the ROP program and/or gained employment, they expressed joy for each other’s success and were interested in hearing about their experiences in the “real world.”  The experience of working and learning with peers with different levels of ability better prepared these students for life, where determination and simple acts of encouragement and patience go a long way.

-Submitted by Rosalie Simons, edited by KIT Staff.

Rosalie Simons is a Teacher of the Year recipient and is credentialed in Sales and Marketing, Finance and Business, and Special Education

Kids Included Together (KIT) is a non-profit located in San Diego, CA and Washington, DC. We help make the world a more inclusive place by providing live and online training to people who work with kids. We teach strategies, accommodations and best practices to include kids with and without disabilities in before & after school programs. Inclusive environments create stronger communities. Learn more about our work at www.KITonline.org.

A Leak in the System: When a Little Girl Felt Sorry for My Son

This week, we are honored to share with you this moving piece about the damage that pity for individuals with disabilities can cause. This post, written by Mary Evelyn from What Do You Do, Dear? appropriately and powerfully identifies the problem with feeling sorry for people with disabilities. We have confidence that, had the little girl in the gauzy white dress been exposed to inclusive experiences, she would have been able to see the joy and excitement– the humanity– in Simeon that we can see from reading his mom’s blog.

She was maybe six-years-old, smiling and ladylike in a gauzy white dress. The kind of dress that makes me want a daughter. The kind of smile that’s heavy on sugar and light on spice. She walked up to my son, as he wheeled in circles outside the sanctuary after church, and planted herself squarely in front of his wheelchair. They studied each other closely. He waved hello.

And then, without taking her eyes from his face, she said  “I feel sorry for him.”

I felt it more than I heard it. Deep in my stomach, in that place right below my breastbone. The place where I keep all my fears and my sadness. I felt it like a kick in the ribs.

Children ask all sorts of question about my son.

Why is he in that? Why can’t he walk? What’s wrong with him? Will he need that thing forever?

But questions are easy. For children, questions have answers.

“I feel sorry for him” is not a question. It is a statement of fact. A revelation. A public disclosure of something I know to be true. Although I fight against it and try to believe otherwise, I know there are many many people who feel the same. Many people who see my son, smiling and spinning and exploring his world, and they feel sorry. They feel sadness. But adults know how to filter. We know what not to say. We know to bottle up. This little girl was a leak in the system.

A system that tells her my son’s wheelchair is “very sad.”

A system that tells her he is a “poor thing.”

A system that uses words like confined tosuffers from, and bound.

A system that prefers to see people like my son as victims, as recipients of charity, as less-fortunates waiting to be healed, rather than seeing them as neighbors, colleagues, teachers, and friends.

A system that tells her my son smiles “in spite of” rather than simply because he too is a child and has access to all the same earthly wonders that she does.

Wonders like fireflies, and candlelight, and going fast, and little girls in gauzy white dresses.

So I stood there shocked out of my comfort and fumbling around for words to make this right. I wanted so desperately to undo the damage done by a system that is still learning to accept my son. But I was tongue tied and clumsy as I mumbled something about “not needing to feel sorry…” And I walked away feeling like a failure. As if this little girl represented the whole world and I had missed my chance to set the record straight.

I realized I am very small. I am only one person. 

Then last week, sitting by the pool with my husband and my splishy-splashy little boy, I heard it again. This time from a teen, maybe 19-years-old. He had seen us there a few times. Today he had a girl with him. A girl he liked. I could tell. He gestured in our direction.

“Something’s wrong with that kid” he whispered to her. “Did you see his back? He can’t walk. So sad…”

I felt it more than I heard it. And I put my head down waiting for her reply. Her agreement. Her inevitable recognition that yes, my child’s life is very very sad.

It’s not sad” she said, looking at my son with so much kindness. “My brother was in the Special Olympics. Nothing sad about it. That kid is cute.”

And then my heart turned to mush and I closed my eyes to keep from crying.

I wanted to hug her. I wanted to tell her how rare she is. And how lovely. I wanted to believe she was once a little girl in a gauzy white dress.

More than anything, I wanted to thank her for reminding me that I am not the only one who sees my son for who he is. Unconfined, unbound, human.

I am only one person.

But I am not alone.

–Written by Mary Evelyn, author of What Do You Do, Dear? To view her original post, click here.

Kids Included Together (KIT) is a non-profit located in San Diego, CA and Washington, DC. We help make the world a more inclusive place by providing live and online training to people who work with kids. We teach strategies, accommodations and best practices to include kids with and without disabilities in before & after school programs. Inclusive environments create stronger communities. Learn more about our work at www.KITonline.org.