Service learning with middle school students in special education can be a challenge. I teach in a school with 100% free and reduced lunch students and all of my students have significant emotional and behavioral challenges. They always ask me before I take them out to do community service, “why do we have to do this?” I tell them because it is a privilege for the taxpayers to provide them this special school to attend so they should help the community in return. That is usually enough of an explanation for them. They have a hard time focusing and staying on task, but when they get outside they become decent helpers. I know that this is also the beginning of teaching them a work ethic, persistence, initiative, and cooperation.
2 students dig out an invasive tree.
The skills students learn from participating in community service are not the kinds of skills that get assessed on tests, and they are not skills that are part of the Common Core, but they are skills that are necessary for getting along well in the adult world and keeping a job.
I hope that as more and more research is done on reading and writing that we use our common sense about it. It is, in some ways, regrettable that there is so much standardized testing and assessment because it shifts the importance of learning from “becoming a good person in society and making good decisions” to “making sure students meet the standard.” I believe that the research we do sometimes ends up having a negative effect because we see all these things that need to be done and in order to do them we have to hold people accountable so we put qualifications and standards in place that seem arbitrary sometimes. We lose sight of “the student” while nit-picking details and making comparisons. We forget to ask ourselves, “How can society as a whole contribute to making children the best possible people they can be?” Instead we put pressure on teachers to “bring children up to snuff” and we fit them into molds they might not fit into. We blame teachers and wonder why they need more money when they work in a “failing school.” Until we see education as one small piece of child-rearing, of making a child ready for society, then we aren’t going to make huge changes in our population.
We also need to maintain our focus on children as individuals; not every standard fits every child—some children are more emotional than others, some more delicate, some more rigid. Education can’t end up being so “cookie-cutter” that every child is seen as a carbon copy who needs to fit in, meet a standard or otherwise get special help.
Special education costs are rising all the time as we fine-tune and re-assess. Does this need to happen? We’re at a point now where new laws have made it tougher for children to be identified as special education in order to keep costs down—this just makes these children fall behind because they don’t get the help they need early on. I hope in my lifetime that special education isn’t special education anymore—that all education is special, individualized for each child–where smaller schools are set up that meet certain needs rather than having schools like we do now where everyone must fit or be taken out.
Everyone needs a place to belong and if it is quite apparent that school isn’t where one belongs, they’ll find a different place, usually a negative one. A lot of special education can be “cured” by proper teacher training and enough money in education to train and hire the right people for the job. Without a whole community’s support to help children grow and help people overcome their difficulties, then we’re going to continue to blame each other and then wonder why all these great standards, expectations and assessments aren’t making us a more literate nation.