For the last two years, Science Camp was my favorite week of the school year and this year continued the trend. As I am really just a glorified chaperone, I get to watch my students engage in the most authentic learning imaginable: walking through the woods and constantly acquiring and applying new knowledge. I love my Direct Instruction, it’s clearly right for teaching arcane math skills, but a hike at science camp is education as it should be.
This year, however, my experience of science camp centered around one student, M----. M---- has spinal bifida and is paralyzed from the chest down. As with most of the students I’ve run into with serious disabilities, he copes by developing a charming personality. He has a great sense of humor, strong vocabulary in both English and Spanish, and keen sense of empathy.
Unfortunately, these personality traits do not always translate into academic success. In class, he is often listless and unfocused. He rarely participates and often does not complete assignments. Much of this stems from his being pulled out of class for various special services five or six times a day, leaving him disconnected from the stream of any lesson. The services are vital and unavoidable, but the result is a constant sense of disengagement for and from M---.
Science Camp brought M---- to life like nothing I have seen before. I saw him engaged and participative during lessons, willing to venture out of his chair for a chance to dip his hand in a cold stream, and anxious to push himself, literally and figuratively, so as not to miss a moment. One day, I took him in a special off-roading wheel chair on a rather difficult hike. We traversed rocks, steep hills, narrow paths and corkscrew turns. M--- bounced from side to side of his chair, peering over the edge and sticking his hand out to grab at flowers and grass, focused for every minute.
Usually M--- is very reluctant to wheel himself about, relying constantly on others to the point of immature development of his arm muscles. By dinner on the second day, he was pushing himself to and fro without a second thought. One evening, I watched as M--- pushed himself across the camp to the nurse’s station, with an accessible water fountain, and brushed his teeth by himself for the first time in his life.
Supervising shower-time, I came into M---‘s cabin and was greeted by a chorus of boys exclaiming, “M---- can drift!” “Drifting,” for those who did not appreciate the third incarnation of the Fast and the Furious, is when a car turns by slamming on the brakes at a high rate of speed. The boys would take turns pushing M--- up to speed down the length of the cabin, then let go, and he would slam on the brakes and turns his chair ninety degrees. This made me a little nervous, but M--- was having far too much fun for me say no. I answered the liability angel on my shoulder by noting that he was wearing a seatbelt, after all.
There were, of course, compromises in M---‘s experience. He could not go on the day-long “Epic Journey,” that is a large part of the camp lore. He was, as at school, frequently pulled out of various activities to receive treatments. I heard from another teacher that he complained of realizing some of the new extents of his disability, as well as his abilities, as he watched others in the outdoor environment. Nonetheless, I can’t help but focus on his statement that he wanted to stay at the camp for 20 days.
This post would not be complete without recognizing the woman who truly made M---‘s trip to Science Camp possible. M---- requires certain medical procedures thrice daily. His family could provide this in the evening, but not the morning. A nurse from the district volunteered to drive up to the camp all three mornings at 6AM and again at 11AM to facilitate this. She rearranged her own life and the day-care routines for her own children to allow M--- to attend the camp. I would do a great many things for my students but getting up at 4:30? Wow.
By the end of camp, M--- had driven himself to exhaustion, literally. He had to get up hours earlier than the other students, and often stayed up late joining in their whispered conversations. On Friday, he complained of dizziness and met our queries with glassy-eyed unresponsiveness. Most shockingly, he crashed his chair and almost fell out. We tried to get him to lie down, but he refused to miss a moment of the camp. We compromised and his mother picked him up just an hour or two early. It was the only time I’ve ever seen M--- cry.
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