Last week I talked about a book I was reading for the Partners in Policymaking class. It was one of two that I was assigned. The second was A Smile as big as the Moon by Mike Kersjes, with Joe Layden. Just like The Short Bus this one was full of great lessons and information that I felt I should share.
Kersjes was a high school football coach who doubled as a special education teacher. He eventually led a misfit band of students in the special education program to become the first group with disabilities to attend the Space Camp program in Huntsville, Al. The process to mature these students into potential astronauts led to many great moments, as often times the teacher became the student.
This story showed me what I suspected all along; the goals for students with disabilities are limitless if someone fights hard enough and believes in them. They all just needed a little encouragement and eventually freedom to perform on their own.
Without telling the entire story I'm going to give some of the highlights of the account from a parent's perspective.
One of Kersjes' favorite quotes in the book was from Albert Einstein which read: "Imagination is more important than knowledge, for knowledge is limited and imagination can encircle the world."
What a great thought. Often, children on the spectrum, or with other disabilities for that matter, are limited by their IQ. They are seen for the number on a piece of paper. In our schools we have become so reliant upon those numbers that we forget to see what lies deeper within a child's mind. The one point that is drilled home in this book is that children with disabilities have other strengths to compliment their weaknesses.
One student was a great artist, the other was really good at putting together models, and another was a good public speaker. The challenge is not finding away to "fix" their issues, but to unlock their other assets.
Kersjes made sure the students understood where he stood on this subject by pointing out the quote every year and stating, "I don't care about your IQ. I don't care about your standardized test scores. We're all equal here, and we're all going to work together, and imagination is going to play an important role in how well you do." If only all education professionals felt this way.
When fighting to get his children into the Space Camp program, which is sponsored by NASA, he listened to a keynote speaker, whom later he would have to convince to allow his children into the camp.
The speaker stated that he: "...hoped to improve NASA's education program for all mankind." Kersjes explained that he hoped "mankind" included children with special needs. "After all, he said 'mankind'. He hadn't said 'for all brilliant people', or 'all geniuses'."
Kersjes used this in his favor when talking with the lecturer. This was a great example of the equal rights that I have been talking about lately.
Of course Kersjes' idea of a genius was questioned later in the book when a fellow coach asked him his definition of the word. He stated, "A genius is someone who is very intellectual, very smart, gets a grasp of things quickly." The other coach says, "A genius is someone who takes something that's complicated and makes it simple."
In context of trying to teach children with learning disabilities how to understand rocket science this is a great statement. However, this is what I feel should be addressed everyday in classrooms. We have to adjust our way of thinking to accommodate others' style of learning.
There is a point toward the end of the book where the group is at Space Camp and has an argument among themselves.
As one student storms out the door, Kersjes decides to go after him. Two of the other boys stop him and say to him, in a very calm manner, "Coach, we don't need you anymore." This was not said in a hurtful way. It was actually to explain that they were at a point in the process where they had been trained enough, and had become such a close team that they didn't need the coach to settle their disputes.
I've always explained that this is the way that I feel about having an aide in the classroom. This is the way it's supposed to be in life. You teach your children well enough that they don't need you anymore. They are comfortable enough in the classroom that they don't need the aide anymore. It's bitter-sweet, but a great moment when it's all said and done.
I won't give anymore of the story away, but I will say that the team was successful. The group matured from a combative group of eccentrics into a close-knit team.
I recommend this book to parents, teachers, and especially special education teachers. It will open your mind to the potential of children with disabilities.