Young students learn from ‘walking in the shoes’ of those less able

See how this unique David Douglas Schools program is helping kids gain a better understanding of what it’s like to be young ‚Äì and disabled ‚Ķ

Fifth-grader Max Sklyaruk is wearing vision impairment goggles. He says, “It was hard to see and concentrate. If I couldn’t see well, it would be really difficult to do good in class. I’d feel left out.”

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Menlo Park Elementary School is the home for four self-contained classrooms, providing Structured Learning Program for Academics (SLPA) to 41 students with various eligibilities.

To help students at this school gain a better understanding of their less able counterparts at the school, the staff developed a special program they offered in late January called “Come Walk in My Shoes”.

We’re invited to observe the students experience this learning session, and are greeted by Menlo Park principal Brooke O’ Neill.

Walking to the gym area, O’ Neill fills us in. “Because we house SLPA, we feel it is important that all of our kids ‚Äì both students in the SLPA program, and general education classes ‚Äì learn empathy. To see what it feels like to go through life with certain challenges. And, they learn how they can respond to those challenges, and lend a helping hand and be a friend.”

Demonstrating how students with autism can learn better through the use of instructional picture cards is teacher Jennifer Schloth.

Challenging learning situations
In the gym, we meet Suzi Zehsazian, the school’s music instructor and chair of the program.

“We’re seeing an increasing number of students with autism,” explains Zehsazian. “This year, we added autism stations.” At the first station, we find students trying to complete educational tasks after viewing instructional picture cards.

Menlo Park teacher Sarah Magnano helps students understand the “sensory overload” many autistic students must overcome.

“At another section of this station, Zehsazian continues, “we simulate the sensory overload many autistic students experience. All of their senses are overloaded, and then, we give them an academic task to do.” Most students couldn’t complete simple math problems while being exposed to static-like noise, flashing lights, and surprise sounds.

Student K D Henley tries to make it through the “motor skills course” in a wheelchair without dropping her pretend lunch tray. “It’s not easy,” she says, “I dropped it.”

Life in a wheelchair
Principal O’ Neill adds, “We also changed the ‘gross motor station’. This year, we incorporated the task of going through a door and over different textures and surfaces while holding a lunch tray.”

To many of the fifth-graders who took the course, it seems like fun at first, trying to maneuver in a wheelchair. “I learned that it is hard to be in a wheelchair,” student K. D. Henley tells us. “I was able to open a door in the wheelchair; I pushed it open, but dropped the tray.”

A unique, “home-grown” educational program
The kindergarten-through-fifth-grade program doesn’t come out of a box, Zehsazian says.

“This program is unlike any other in the Portland area. This truly came out of teachers’ experience with their kids. It’s going on all around the David Douglas School District schools.”

The event is important, Zehsazian continues, because it gives students the chance to experience something outside of their normal world-view. “They experience what it’s like to have a different ability for a while. This helps them to develop empathy and respect ‚Äì not only here, at their school, but also among people in the real world. In the future, instead of staring at a challenged individual, they can remember what it was like ‚Äì and help them in some way.”

Suzi Zehsazian, the school’s music instructor and chair of the program, making sure the one-hour class ran on time.

Both the teachers and students told us they agree that “Come Walk in My Shoes” is a great event. “It is about becoming a better, more responsible person in the community,” concludes Zehsazian. “Isn’t this part of the purpose of education?”

© 2007 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News Service

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