They might just be kids, but the students in Paul Alcamo and Lori Anne Kado’s class grasp something Kado thinks most adults don’t.
They understand that it’s unfair that some of them can play in the sandy playground, but their friends with walkers and wheelchairs can’t.
The kids have gained that understanding thanks to the integrated full-day kindergarten program at Bloorview School Authority, which brings together 12 normally developing children from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education’s Institute of Child Studies and eight disabled children from the neighbouring Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital.
Alcamo and Kado are the teachers, and their efforts won the pair the Premier’s Award for Teaching Excellence for Team of the Year.
“It’s really quite wonderful,” Kado says. “We’re thrilled, especially because we feel like it’s an award for everyone.”
The truest rewards, though, are the thank you notes from parents, the pictures made for them by the kids and the opportunity to watch their students’ progress, says Kado.
“This is icing on the cake,” says Alcamo, who’s been teaching the two-year program since it started 15 years ago.
The award is especially good news for the school, which in January was dealing with fraud charges being laid against its former director and several other employees.
But the atmosphere walking into Bloorview is anything but negative. Laughter and fun are permanent features of Alcamo and Kado’s class.
When the class had to do a Goldilocks play, the teachers and their assistants did an example dramatization.
Kado played Goldilocks, and had to suppress laughter at how ridiculous she thought she looked until the performance was over.
To her surprise, the kids gleefully shouted, “Again!”
At the beginning of the year, Alcamo says that some kids come in with a fear of sitting in the same chair as a kid with a disability because they think they’ll get sick.
“We work and work to help them understand and build respect and tolerance,” Alcamo says. “The kids get a sense that it’s okay to be different.”
Within the classroom, a mural reading “Friends are like flowers in the garden of life” and a song Alcamo composed motivates the kids to praise each other’s efforts to be inclusive, caring and encouraging friends.
Friendship isn’t a watchword in their class alone, but across the school. Alcamo remembers one student who had kids from three different years at his birthday party.
“We’ve had some children form a little crush on some of the older kids,” he adds with a grin.
Because it’s an integrated class, the most recent unit focused on raising everyone’s awareness of accessibility.
The class visited playgrounds and lunchrooms the kids in wheelchairs wouldn’t be able to navigate, with an eye to what could be changed to fix them.
The goal is for all the kids to reach what Alcamo calls the ramp stage, named after a comment one little boy made in the program’s first year.
His father was building a tree house and the boy, thinking of how his friends from school would get up to it, asked, “Where’s the ramp?”
Kado has been a regular kindergarten teacher for 20 years, but says it wasn’t until she started at Bloorview that she began noticing how inaccessible some of her favourite places were.
“I love this restaurant, but if someone was in a wheelchair they wouldn’t be able to get in the front door and they wouldn’t be able to use the washroom,” she says.
Activities and games are also modified so each student can participate to the best of his or her ability. Kado says the challenge often is helping a student who’s very academically capable, but physically disabled.
Alcamo describes one little boy who can turn his head to activate a switch, and one day he operated the electronic book for the class.
“So he was actually the teacher at that point, and he was very proud of himself for doing that,” Alcamo says.
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