Monday mornings mean the beginning of the work week, an earlier alarm and coffee for most. All of that applies for me but I have some extra motivation. I get to spend my morning with students at the Widener Memorial School in North Philadelphia.
Widener is a unique place. The school was founded in 1902 and is specifically for students with physical, medical and mental disabilities. The student body represents a wide range of abilities and socio-economic backgrounds. Regardless of a student’s individual needs, the goal is to help each pupil reach their potential through the various programming and therapy offered at Widener. 1812 Outreach gets to be a variable in that equation once a week throughout the school year.
With my brilliant co-teachers, Katherine and Carlos, I get to spend two or more hours talking about comedy, writing, laughing, reading, telling stories and being silly with three groups of students. As I walk into the lobby and see the students coming in from the buses, each smile and exchange fills me with warmth and appreciation. I am grateful to spend time with the students here and am humbled by their incredible attitudes in the face of adversity.
Our high school group has eight people in it and the majority are students that we have worked with before. For the first half of the year we have focused on looking at the various forms of comedy, from slapstick to sketch to stand-up and everything in between. We talk about each form and watch video clips of examples. Two weeks ago we talked about satire and read fictitious articles from the satirical publication, The Onion. We asked the students to take a stab at writing their own. I had braced myself for the typical teen response of, “I don’t know what to write….” “Nothing that happens to me is funny…” Instead, there was a pause followed by a chorus of “My step-mom said the funniest thing…” “Can I write about someone on the bus?” “Oh! I have something!” “Breaking news!..” The students all began to work; some writing on their own, others dictating to helpers. There was a buzz in the room and we had to stop the group mid-thought, with the promise that we would come back to it next week. I thought to myself, “I can’t wait to pick up where we left off next week!"
Next up, we meet with the lower school students. With 9 students ages 8-12, we explore storytelling through reading books and creating our own stories with imaginative play and occasionally a box of props for extra fun. This week we read The Day The Crayons Quit, which features letters written from various crayons to their owner, Duncan, complaining of how they have been either overused or under-appreciated. After reading, we went around the circle while each student chose a color and told us a little about how that color was feeling. The students brought these characters to life beyond what any of us had expected. The students began to improvise an argument between Purple and Yellow over who should color the grapes. The two crayons took the other’s spot in the box in an act of protest. The White crayon dreamed of expanding his creative contributions to things like “glue spilling out of the bottle.” The ideas were flowing from the group so easily. It was such fun to watch!
About three times each semester we meet with a third group: the Multiple Disabilities Students. Many of these students are non-verbal and have limited mobility. Our focus is to stimulate them as best we can. With this group, we begin and end each class with a song. Music tends to elicit a response from many of them. Some react vocally, physically or with eye movements. We often will read some of the same books with this group that we read with the Lower School students and adjust the activities that follow. During and after each reading, we move among the students and provide tactile stimulation. We make physical contact and sometimes use scarves, props or percussive instruments to give them a chance to use their senses to feel, hear and see something new based on the book or activity.
This will be my third year working with students at Widener Memorial School. Each year brings new groups and new challenges but the goal remains the same: once a week, we come together, laugh and grow through comedy and creative expression. Every smile, silly dance and new idea leaves me feeling inspired and ready to start my week. My Mondays are magical. I hope you find some magic in your Monday, too.