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When you want to make a film about a 12-year-old special needs kid who excels in sports, you just naturally jump at the chance to shoot a whole tournament. And that’s what we did this past winter in Rollinsford, New Hampshire. The resulting film is still framed around sports – this is Max’s passion and it’s a fun, remarkable thing to behold – but what we saw in the classroom turned out to be every bit as rewarding…

Tina Demers, para-professional at Rollinsford Grade School, with Max Blackwin

Tina Demers, para-professional at Rollinsford Grade School, with sixth-grader Max Blackwin

When you separate children into categories – whether it’s “special needs” or “gifted and talented” – no one actually gains. The kids who get separated lose because they’re not interacting with the “regular” kids. And it turns out that the regular kids lose something, too. They miss out on the opportunity to lend a helping hand to someone who could really use it. They miss out on learning how to be a little more patient, a little more generous with their time, a little more empathetic – in other words, learning how to be better people. But if that’s a little too touchy-feely for you, if you’re looking for something more substantive, you need to meet Kate Lucas, the principal of Rollinsford Grade School.

Kate Lucas, principal, Rollinsford Grade School

Kate Lucas, principal, Rollinsford Grade School

Kate thinks the educational system needs a serious overhaul – not to fix what we do for special needs kids but, rather, what the rest of the class gets.  “I think we should provide the same services we provide for special education kids for all kids. Why aren’t we differentiating it for all of them? Why don’t they each have personal goals and progress monitoring and reflection and growth?  I think that should be for all kids.”

The reason for doing this isn’t just to make nice, Kate insists. It’s to make education work the way the human brain functions. “Fifteen years ago we couldn’t study the brain; we didn’t have the technology to really study what was active and what was not active, and how things were stored, and synapses of all of those chemicals. Now we have that ability, and what we’re learning about it, what we now know about it, is we’ve got to change what we do.

“We have this antiquated system of 181 school days – and they start after Labor Day and they end in June and they’re seven hours long – and what we know about learning and the brain is that it doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t just decide to learn seven hours of the day and it doesn’t just decide to learn these days of the week.

“All kids don’t have to be doing the same thing. And not all of them understand at the same time and they’re not all going to want to invest in the same topics. So… that’s okay. Let it be messy and convoluted, and let them explore and fail over and over and over again, because then they’ll learn to persevere.”

It’s not that the curriculum as Kate envisions it is less structured; it’s that it’s organized differently; it’s organized around the needs and interests and passions of the students. That’s why Kate believes strongly that special education can function very effectively within any class. Yes, some kids will be slower, some will be faster, but the resulting dynamic will truly enrich everyone’s experience.

“I think uninformed people worry that the students in the class that can move forward at a quicker pace, their needs won’t be addressed because it takes time to get all kids moving quickly or moving at all, really. My argument to that would be that what they learn on the flip side of that. If you really want to understand something well, you can sit with someone who doesn’t understand it and explain it to them. And that’s a skill those kids wouldn’t know they had if they weren’t forced to explain it to someone that didn’t know it.

“When they do that, that’s a much deeper level of thinking, which, from what we know from brain research, means it goes from our short term memory to our long term memory, and forces our brain to form synapses and connections.  So in fact, it’s much deeper learning. It may not be the same breadth of topics, but it’s much deeper learning.”

In “Max’s Gift,” Kate Lucas and her incredible team at Rollinsford Grade School have a lot to say about learning and teaching and making the system better for all of us. To learn more about the film – and how you can help make it happen – click here to visit our crowdfunding campaign.