I just got home from the Rockin’ Readers time in my daughter’s first grade class. The volunteer reading program, similar to the program originally developed by the company that owns Cracker Barrel restaurants, allows parent volunteers to come into our local elementary school classroom and read a book and then lead the class in a related activity like a craft or game. The students really look forward to it, and enjoy having something and, most of all, someone different to break up their regular classroom routing.
Once I signed up as a parent-reader volunteer last fall, I had several months to think about what book I wanted to share with my daughter’s class. My daughter, a quiet 6-year-old with a sweet disposition, was excited, knowing that I would be coming to her class soon. I thought a lot about what I wanted to read to the kids, realizing that this was a chance to share not only a great book, but also to introduce a topic of conversation to the kids. As a parent, how often do you get an entire classroom’s undivided attention for 30 minutes?
This was a rare opportunity, and I had to take full advantage of it. I wanted to do something that would grab the kid’s attention and get them focused on something important. But, I also had to make it fun and interesting for an energetic group of 6- and 7-year-olds.
So, what fun and exciting activity did I prepare for my precious chunk of time with the students? An in-depth discussion about special needs and disabilities! Yippee! Ok, ok – so our little chat doesn’t sound all that exciting compared to a cute snowman craft or a rousing game of bingo. But, the time I spent in my daughter’s classroom today was special in a different way – because I created a unique chance to really get to know her classmates. We “got deep” and I encouraged them to share about people in their lives who are different in some way.
For half an hour, I somehow got 20+ first graders to open up about things that even adults rarely talk about: how to treat people we encounter in our lives who are somehow different. The kids shared personal stories in response to questions like, “Who do you know in your family, church or neighborhood who is different?” and “How do we often treat someone who is different?” We talked about things people often do when they encounter someone who has a difference – like name-calling, staring, or not including them – and discussed a better way.
Instead of focusing on physical characteristics that make people look different or act, speak or move in a different way, we talked about focusing on things that make people special, like their talents, gifts, kindness or generosity. I challenged the kids to look at people who have differences in a new way. Focus on what makes other people special on the inside like being brave, or having a great sense of humor, instead of focusing on what makes them look different on the outside.
So, what did I use to start up the conversation? A touching children’s book by Rebecca Elliott titled Just Because about a little brother who loves his big sister (and his best friend) despite her disabilities. In the book, Toby loves his big sis Clemmie “just because” and tells the reader about all of the wonderful things that make her special. Toby doesn’t focus on the things that are different about Clemmie, like the fact that she rides in a wheelchair, or doesn’t talk or can’t do math. He focuses on what makes Clemmie special, like her curly hair, how she’s not afraid during thunderstorms and the way she sits with him and looks through his favorite books. By the end of the story, you wish you had a sister just like Clemmie, too.
As the mother of two children with developmental and learning differences, this is a subject that is on my mind and heart every single day. I’m often focused on making sure my kids are getting what they need like appropriate education, accommodations and therapy. But I’m equally focused on reminding my children, our loved ones, friends and even strangers, that different can be good. Different can also be special. And, let’s face it; everybody wants to feel special in some way.
And, a unique part of this in our family is getting to watch my kids develop their own special relationship. People often point out how close my kids are and how well they get along (most of the time!). My 3rd grade son will still hold his sister’s hand when they are walking into the school building before the morning bell. And my daughter often spontaneously hugs her big brother, just because. We rarely hear teasing or name-calling in our home because it simply isn’t allowed. We all talk about and embrace our differences as much as possible. And I think it has helped my kids grow closer.
So, while I may have missed the chance today to guide the students in the construction of an awesome paper mache’ masterpiece or a colorful collage, I still feel great, because I took advantage of my time with my daughter’s friends to “get real” and just talk. And, believe it or not, the kids really seemed to love it – even without paint, construction paper or glue!
So, I’ll continue to bank on every little opportunity to spread this message to my kids, our friends and the world around us. And hopefully my kids will view these little moments as tokens of how much I love them. Just because.
To learn more about Just Because, nominated for the American Library Association’s Schneider Family Book Award in 2012, or to pre-order your paperback copy, visit the author’s website or go to Amazon.com.