“Alahni has a beautiful heart,” noted one of her third-grade classmates. “She’s taught us to be sweet and caring to other people.” Another classmate laughed when remembering when Alahni left school one day and said, “Bye! I love you!”
“I said, ‘I love you too!” he remembers, smiling.
This isn’t often the way third-graders talk to each other – and we’ve talked about that in my class. It’s ok, though -- we’re thankful that Alahni reminds us that we DO love each other!
Alahni is in my third-grade class and has Down Syndrome. And she’s a valuable part of our classroom community. As part of Down Syndrome Awareness Month we here at West Side Christian School thought it would be helpful for you to understand a bit of what inclusion looks like by hearing from Alahni’s classmates. From her friends.
“She LOVES to color and draw pictures” and her favorite things to draw are designs and shapes and houses. When talking about their friend Alahni, many third-graders describe her as being “funny.” Funny as in Alahni gave her homework to her sister as a birthday gift!
Alahni’s mom Sadie describes describes Alahni as “a very loving firecracker! She is so empathetic and affectionate, and she warms our hearts daily with sweet hugs and kisses. She also can get upset very quickly and will let us know exactly how she is feeling! She is very determined and strong-willed, which can cause frustrations at times, but this is also what motivates her and helps her be successful at many things.”
And that’s exactly how she is in our classroom too! “She’s funny and nice and kind. She was reading to me the other day and she was skipping pages and I told her to not skip pages, and she said, ‘Be quiet!’” Everyone laughed when remembering this story. My third-graders have spent several years with Alahni now, and they’ve come to expect her honesty!
Notice those few words from that moment though: “She was reading to me.” Third-graders as teachers, and third-graders as learners. Teaching Alahni, and learning to be Alahni’s friend and encourager.
The opportunity for Alahni to be a part of this kind of classroom community is one of the reasons Alahni’s parents enrolled her at West Side Christian. “We felt strongly that the most beneficial thing for Alahni was to learn socially acceptable, Christ-honoring behavior. When surrounded by peers that would model that for her, we hoped she would learn these behaviors and choose to follow them! We want Alahni to be as academically successful as possible, but we also recognize that her social skills will make a profound difference as she grows up.”
“She’s funny and happy all the time. And she loves playing duck duck goose,” to which the whole class nodded emphatically. “And once you start playing it with her, she won’t let you stop!” It’s true – it’s one of her favorite games! “And she LOVES the tire swing,” noted another classmate, to which someone else added, “and she’s REALLY good at it! I don’t know how she hangs on for that long!”
My third-graders play with her. Alongside of her. As a group, they collectively care for her and take care of her. On the playground: “I was helping her on the monkey bars and then she said, “I did it!!” And that was a shared victory!
Recently we were heading to a different part of the school and Alahni did not want to come, which means she was not going to come! I turned off the lights and told the rest of the third-graders to start walking. All of them were concerned that we’d left Alahni behind and got very worried that she would be alone (which she was not! Mrs. Bultsma came for her, as part of our plan). As a group and as individuals, my third-graders are always watching out for her. It’s just what they do.
They also understand that Alahni learns differently than they do. She writes on her whiteboard and “it looks neat to her and neat to us -- but not the same kind of neat.” In our classroom she does many of the same things that we do, but it looks a little different for her. And Mrs. DeWitt works with Alahni a lot.
“She writes stuff and then Alahni has to trace it. Sometimes if it’s too hard for Alahni to focus she takes her to another room, or out in the hall. She helps her with what to write sometimes if she doesn’t know.” Mrs. DeWitt spends time in class with all the third-graders, and several of them offered up that, “Sometimes Mrs. DeWitt helps me too!” A community of helpers all around.
Alahni participates in most of our classroom activities, including our “buddy time” with the preschoolers. Third-graders read to and hang out with their preschool friends, and Alahni loves reading to her buddy!
My third-graders are kind and accepting and understanding, and that is so evident in the way as a community they help each other out, like Alahni who “has a special ability that no one else can do!” And I’ve seen SO many other kids here at West Side Christian, from all different grades and classes, coming alongside Alahni. She is such a treasured part of our community.
And as only kids can do, they speak profound truth about spiritual matters. Psalm 139 reminds us that we have all been knit together in our mothers’ wombs. What does that mean to a third grader?
“God makes everyone different – and everyone is special!”
“Everyone’s minds are different but our hearts are the same.”
To see my third-graders – all of them – not just articulate this truth from scripture but to live it is profoundly encouraging, and profoundly humbling. As Christian educators, we pray that the Word will take root and flourish in these kids’ hearts and lives. My third-graders are loving each other. They are modeling the love of Jesus to each other.
As parents, we invest in building God’s kingdom here in this corner of the world we know as West Side Christian School. You only need to step into my classroom to see the fruits of these investments.