Something strange was happening at recess to Laura Matuszewski's special needs students. They were being ignored by their peers from general education. She knew why it was happening, she just didn't know what to do about it.
Matuszewski is a third-grade special education teacher at Isaac Fox Elementary School in Lake Zurich. Because her lesson plans are customized to suit each child's special needs, her class of four students only joins their general education peers for specials like art and gym. She believed there was an obvious disconnect amongst the student body because nobody ever told them why the students don't spend the entire day together.
"It seemed unfair to leave them wondering and not explain it in a way they can understand," Matuszewski says. She didn't know how to approach the conversation, until one night, when the words flowed easily on paper.
She wrote a rhyme explaining how children with special needs are more alike than different from their typically developing peers. The next day she added a discussion guide to help parents and teachers lead talks about the importance of treating children with special needs in a respectful, caring manner.
The work became, A Special Friend: Opening up conversations about kids with special needs, a colorful children's book told from the viewpoint of a child with special needs.
Matuszewski chose Mikayla, a student who has an autism spectrum disorder, to illustrate the book because she wants to become an artist one day. "As a teacher, it's important to make your students feel like they can achieve their goals and that with hard work, their dreams can come true."
As she read and discussed her book with general education students, things began to change. They began playing with her class at recess and including them in activities.
It may not have happened if Matuszewski left teaching, an option she considered after an exceptionally challenging caseload tested her limits. It was an epiphany she had while in the audience of Oprah Winfrey's final "favorite things" show that changed her mind.
She realized that, just like Oprah, she had a lot to give back. A portion of the book's proceeds will be donated to The Ann & Robert Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago.
Her book is available at Anderson's Bookshops in Naperville and Downers Grove, online at andersonsbookshop.com, barnesandnoble.com and rempub.com/a-special-friend.