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Monday, August 10, 2009

Hula Hoops and Bovine Poops: Day One of Grad School

Today I began the nine month boot camp that will shed the intellectual flab and give me the superior training that will transform me into a secondary educator. As first days go, it was pretty much what you would expect from a classroom experience, regardless of whether your role as teacher or student. You plan and plan and brainstorm every possible question or expectation, and just when you think you have all your bases covered, reality knocks to firmly on your ass.

I arrived on time and in style, sporting the first of some fancy new digs that my lovely wife Sarah helped me to pick out. She has been lecturing me about my total lack of style for years now, and with a shiny new ring on my finger and grad school teachers to impress, she figured this was the perfect time for a much needed make-over. As I donned my black sweater vest and stylish Chuck Taylors, I thought to myself, I'm glad I will be in an air-conditioned classroom or this would be a really bad idea. Note the not-to-subtle foreshadowing.

For the first hour, our cohort leader laid out the plans for the coming weeks. After some standard Q and A, she turned the reigns over to our exceptionality instructor. Our first week was going to be devoted to special needs learners, a topic which has always intrigued me. I benefited greatly from a TAG pull-out program myself, but it always struck me as odd to remove students from a mainstream class instead of allowing the varied skill levels and learning styles to augment one another.

Within minutes, and much to my chagrin, we were outside. Several games ensued, including one in which we linked hands and passed a hula hoop from person to person without unlinking. It was an excerise in learning, as the latter half of the circle watched the techniques of the first. Before I was completely drenched in sweat, we escaped back to the AC.

Our next and most substantial portion of our day consisted of reading about the former state-run facility at Pineland, ME. Before a person can truly understand where they are or where they might be going, they must appreciate where they have been. When the topic is exceptionality and special needs education in the state of Maine, looking backward means learning a little something about Pineland. The bulk of today’s activity was devoted to reading about the Maine School for the Feeble-Minded, a politically incorrect reminder of eugenics past.

As a relatively new arrival to Maine, I had never heard of the facility or what went on there. Sadly, I suspect the story is far from unique. While I believe it is important to judge men’s actions by the standard of the times in which they lived, it is hard to believe how quickly the road to hell is paved with good and superficially scientific intentions. It is both surprising and unsettling that this institution lasted as long as it did. In the future, should I ever feel hamstrung by exceptionality regulations or frustrated by special needs students, I will remember the shameful mission statement of Pineland and with that will come the empathy and understanding required.

As a demonstration of how things can change, we ventured the 45 minutes northward to visit the Pineland campus. While dining and socializing in the shiny new building atop the hill known as the Commons, it was hard to reconcile the history of atrocities of which we had read with the elegantly manicured landscaping and attractive architecture surrounding us.

After lunch, we meandered down to the Pineland Farm, a working dairy farm adjacent to the main campus. In addition to caring for a herd of show quality cows and numerous other livestock, the staff at the farm maintains a thriving education program. It is precisely the type of program that allows exceptional students to engage in learning activities alongside of their mainstream peers. The variety of sensory experiences and depths of understanding possible make lesson plan differentiation much easier than traditional classroom settings.

And there I was...ninety degree heat, a brand new sweater vest and Chuck Taylors...standing scant inches from streaming cow excrement. A hell of a first day.

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