Do you remember being eleven years old, sitting in your Life Science classroom with twenty of your peers, watching the Magic School Bus and School House Rocks videos? I can see my prepubescent, freckled face staring wide-eyed at the TV positioned above the dry-erase board thinking, “Gee, if only my teacher could drive us through the nostrils and blood veins of one of my classmates, then I could really learn.”
I realize now, in my budding career in an Autism classroom, just how unreasonable it was to compare my teacher to Ms. Frizzle, and that a field trip to the moon could be a bit pricey for the public school system. The reality of our education system and its limits has become increasingly apparent to me over the past two years, but in 5 short days at SOREM School for Special Children in Chandigarh, my current reality has been drastically altered. In the life I know, teachers in America are cursing those full moon Mondays when the overhead projectors simply refuse to cooperate, the laminator decided to spontaneously combust, and the coveted color copier is all the way on the second floor of the eighth grade wing of the school… and that particular copy room doesn’t offer baked Cheetos in their vending machine, of course.
A day in the life at SOREM is slightly different…
The existence of the school lies in the loving hands of Miss Promila, a beautiful woman who has been blessed with over eight decades of life and continues to care for these special children and their families every single day.
When we entered the school last Tuesday, we walked in equipped with bulleted lists of ideas and proposals and walked out in an honest state of awe. Not only were these teachers managing to run fully functional classrooms in a world with limited resources, they were thriving. There were no rooms of shelves housing stacks of printer paper or boxes of back-up staplers. No cellophane packaged textbooks or iPads charging in a library.
Teachers were using ruled notebooks with hand-drawn activities like matching identical objects or connect the dots. And these weren’t created months ago; each workbook is filled with completed tasks while the remaining pages are blank, awaiting the impromptu moment at which the Ma’am will create a new lesson.
Glancing at my jottings of “innovative” ideas for creating functional learning in an environment with limited resources I realized that, while our help is certainly needed at SOREM, our role would not be needed in the field of creativity.
These incredible teachers have created homemade workbooks with corresponding activities, counting and sorting stations with shoeboxes, water bottles and rocks wrapped in aluminum foil. I never imagined an exacto-knife could turn a piece of cardboard into so many independent work stations, but I’ll certainly be thinking twice next time I thumb through the pages of a school supplies catalog.
The use of positive reinforcement is continuing to spread and resonate throughout the school, which was incredible to see in the classrooms that have been a part of the Global Autism Project training programs for a few years. And yet again, the amazing teachers make the lack of resources an impossibly minute obstacle. Rather than computer breaks and cartoons, the students take time between lessons to dance with each other, jump in the air and laugh with “the Ma’am.” There’s an independence that’s not always present in American special needs classrooms, as the older students help walk in the younger and every student is taught to praise and clap for each and every accomplishment. With a higher student-to-teacher ratio, these kids are learning to not only take care of themselves, but help each other.
Our team is working diligently in the classrooms, working one-on-one with teachers as well as parents, leading workshops and discussing functional communication over Masala Chai at Tiffin (tea time). We are making suggestions when needed, praising endlessly and encouraging the incredible work that is already taking place at SOREM. The school is collecting data, running assessments and building on the research based foundation which will continue to expand with every SkillCorps team that walks through its doors.
And in my first five days at SOREM, I have learned far more than I can write in one sitting. When I return to America after my time abroad, I will likely feel a strong inclination to create my classroom bulletin boards with crayons rather than perfectly designed WordArt printed on laminated cardstock. My desk drawers will be filled with bottle caps and paper towel rolls saved for penniless activity stations. And I will always thank the teachers at SOREM for teaching me a lesson in innovation, the power of creativity, and the genuine laughter that can come from a casual, foot-stamping dance.