TULSA, Okla. — For years, special education has typically been a self-contained classroom serving students with special needs. Now, a ‘modern-day Annie Sullivan’ is reinventing what a special education classroom looks like in today’s school system. Annie Sullivan, of course, was the teacher who created an innovative education program to help reach a blind and deaf student, Helen Keller.
Lynette Miller began teaching special education students 30-years ago. She has spent 20 years of her career at Jenks Public Schools and now teaches at Jenks West Intermediate School.
“My students make me laugh every day. They’re all unique individuals with special gifts and talents. It’s rewarding to be a small part of their life,” Miller said.
She provides opportunities for her students that are considered unique when it comes to the typical curriculum for special education.
Instead of simply focusing on the usual subjects, Miller’s students learn more real-life lessons; how to cook, run a class business, recycle, work with therapy dogs and perform random acts of kindness in the community.
“Many of my students have social and language delays. When children with special needs are provided real-world opportunities to practice these skills in a safe environment, learning becomes more meaningful,” Miller said.
Every Wednesday afternoon, the class takes part in a cooking lesson where the students learn to follow a recipe. But it is more than just cooking. They learn to work as a team, use a variety of appliances and utensils, prepare the food and then clean up.
Miller’s students learn the world of business, too, in the safe environment of their school. Each student learns to sell the baked goods and soups they make to Jenks West Intermediate staff members.
“The students must use appropriate social skills, greetings and manners. The students work in shifts. Each student has his/her job and assignment. I realize they will not learn everything they need to know about money while at JWI, but my goal is that they have a strong foundational understanding when they leave [our school],” said Miller.
Miller’s students use the proceeds from their business to cover all their field trip expenses.
In February, the class visited the assisted living facility, Grace Living Center, to give the elderly residents handmade Valentine’s cards.
“What the residents love the most are the sweet smiles and hugs they receive from the children, as well as the few minutes of personal conversation. I have always had a heart for children and the elderly. The residents love receiving homemade valentine cards. One woman told us that she had not received a Valentine’s card in years. My goal is for my students to think about how they can show kindness and compassion for others. Learning to do for others is an important life skill,” Miller said.
Last semester, Miller took her students to the Jenks Food Bank for a lesson in giving to area families who need help.
“The students sorted canned goods, stocked shelves, wrapped Christmas presents to give the patrons, make Christmas stockings for patrons, and organized toys by age groups that had been donated. We talked a lot about giving back to our community. I want my students to learn they have a lot to offer their community and that it’s important that everyone use their gifts and talents to give back to their community,” Miller said.
In April, the students will take an excursion to the Jenks Fire and Jenks Police stations. Miller’s goal is to help her students understand the role of first responders and to ease any possible anxiety they may feel about police, firefighters and medics.
“This field trip will help my students to understand better how these community helpers serve the community. I want my students to feel comfortable with both community service providers. The students will learn when they should call 911 and when they should not call 911. They will sit in the fire truck and a police car and visit the 911 dispatch center. It's an opportunity to dispel any fears my students may have and to answer all their questions about fire and police services,” Miller said.
“This is how children with special needs truly learn. I also feel it is important for children with special needs to learn that they have a lot to offer and can contribute in many ways,” Miller said.
Derrick Henslee is a parent who's child is a student in Miller's class.
"[Miller] really knows [my child] and knows how to motivate, develop and encourage him specifically towards his needs. We’ve seen his confidence grow. For the first time he is excited about reading and going to school! We could not be more grateful and thankful for her," Henslee said.
Miller's mission is that her special education program will help prepare her students for an independent future.
Children in special education programs may be, in some ways, just as challenging as Helen Keller was to her teacher, Annie Sullivan. With teachers like Miller, these students are learning important lessons that will help illuminate the possibilities for their place in today’s world.
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