As we approach Thanksgiving celebrations here in the U.S., I'm reposting this to remember the power of celebration with students, particularly those living with challenging circumstances.
Not counting leftovers, I had 3 full Thanksgiving dinners last week, and not just because I like turkey. As an educator working with students with different special needs (I’m an administrator in charge of a program for students with autism, and another for students with depression/anxiety), holiday celebrations are unique opportunities to strengthen staff-student bonds, promote social interactions in populations that can struggle with this, and promote a culture of caring and community. And with a population of 85% low-income students, we can provide that feeling of abundance that Thanksgiving embodies, as well as providing the traditional “American” celebration for our multi-cultural students. (While I acknowledge that this holiday is fraught with a troubling historical narrative, we chose to focus on the positives of gratitude, coming together, and bounty.)
The celebrations at school looked a little different. First, in our MDC Program for students diagnosed with autism, it was a full family affair with parents and other relatives invited and many joined in, often coming with heaping platters of food. Given that we are an urban high school with many immigrant families from different countries, it was wonderful to enjoy dishes from many cultures. Teachers and other staff cooked turkeys, baked pies, and provided side dishes and desserts. The atmosphere was festive and relaxed, and while we provided a quieter room for students who struggle with noise, our students are used to the many social functions we hold at school and appeared to enjoy the celebration with staff and family.
The next day, Thanksgiving was celebrated in our Path Program for students with depression and anxiety, many who came to us from psychiatric hospitalizations. These students often struggle socially and many can isolate themselves from peers. This celebration was just for students and staff, but again we had foods from other cultures along with the traditional turkey feast. Acknowledging and honoring these cultural differences is important for all, but particularly for students who feel like they don’t belong. Sharing food from their culture allows them to share a part of themselves with others and food is a great equalizer.
With all the emphasis on standardized testing, we need to remember the value and necessity of personal connections as a motivator for students. Public education advocate Deb Meier states, “We cannot convince kids that we cherish them in settings in which we cannot stop to mourn or to celebrate”. And many of our students, not just those with special needs, need to know they are valued before they can feel comfortable addressing academic needs.
Of course, boundaries are important and always communicate to our students that we are adults and will share what we feel is appropriate, but there are so many opportunities to connect and model social behaviors for students. For example, our social worker was expecting twins and students and staff joined together for her baby shower. This was opportunity to learn about how we celebrate important life events with people that are important to us, and to help deal with her impending absence. This social worker has brought her adorable twins to school after hours and students take great joy in interacting and helping her with the babies.
While social media can be a slippery slope with current students, I’ve found that it has been a great way to keep in touch with former students, and often offer them support as they make their way through the world as adults. Just because students graduate doesn’t mean they won’t need a helping hand or a referral to resources, and a quick Facebook connect can really help. It’s also motivating for me after all these years working with special needs students, to see their achievements and who they are as adults. Linkedin has been a great vehicle to connect on a not-so-personal level, and I’ve even used twitter to monitor students during vacations when I was concerned about their safety.
As we move full-force into the holiday season, I encourage you to think about ways to make more personal connections with students, as well as staff. Those of you in schools know that holidays can be hard for students with families in turmoil or in poverty, or just those who feel their experience doesn’t live up to the media hype. I just returned from drawing a name for our “Secret Snowflake,” where staff and students in our program for students with anxiety/depression will give secret gifts. With a budget of no more than $5, everyone feels able to participate and will get us all to think about the personality of our gift recipient.
I would love to hear your ideas on how you create community and personalized school environments, so please share your best ideas!