For the second week in March, my fifth grade classroom was not filled with children reading and learning fractions. Instead, we were off milking cows.
That’s right. My co-teacher and I took 18 fifth graders to live and work on a farm in Vermont for five very full days. Even though it was one of the most exhausting weeks of the year, it was well worth it. Our class, with students who tend to be viewed as either “successful” or “problematic” outside school, moved beyond any of those labels and solidified as a group that felt like a family.
I teach at an incredibly unique public elementary school in Boston. Our K-5 school technically has two classes per grade. One is a traditional classroom. The second class consists of a smaller group of children who are labeled “emotionally impaired” (EI). Phrases like “having experienced trauma, abuse, and neglect,” or “behaviorally and emotionally challenged,” are often used to describe these students. These students are placed in the program because they faced serious challenges in traditional classrooms.
Unlike any other school in our district with an EI strand, our school does not separate EI students from their peers. The “regular” education teachers and “EI” teachers combine classes all day, every day—our students are never separated based on labels—and work together to meet the needs of all students.
We believe that all students can handle the regular classroom setting, given certain supports. The idea is that if the classroom is an enriching, engaging place to be, students’ behavior will begin to adapt to ensure that they can remain in that space. We believe and reinforce that academic limitations are not inherently part of EI students’ diagnoses, and providing substantially separate time only when truly needed ensures equal access to instruction. Academic instruction is not sacrificed due to behaviors stemming from trauma.
Is this incredibly difficult at times? Yes. Do big risks often make room for big rewards? Yes. And when it comes to children, it’s important to generate hope for positive change. If education is meant to serve as a tool for social justice, it is vital to ensure that children who have had very challenging childhoods have access to a rewarding and rich education.
It’s that philosophy that brought us to the farm. The Farms for City Kids program in Reading, Vermont provides urban students with an opportunity to develop work ethic and deepen their understanding of agriculture. Because of our philosophy about inclusion, we took a lot of risks when we chose students for the weeklong field trip. With students who have daily medical treatments, deal with transitional housing, do not have stable families, or who have been severely abused, it’s difficult to predict how they will deal with a brand new environment. My co-teacher and I just hoped all our students would learn from an experience so far outside their norm.
And that’s what happened. On the farm we saw students emerge as leaders and hard workers. This trip was not for lounging and watching. It engaged students and they had to work. We were up at 6am for chores, and it wasn’t until 9am that we ate a full breakfast. You would think all ten- and eleven-year-olds would’ve complained, but they didn’t. They were so excited and proud of their contributions.
One child reflected, “When I'm here, I feel happy and excited that we do chores and that we can be with the animals. When I go back to school I'm going to remember to listen more and not to have attitude.” Another student wrote on our class blog about her experience overcoming her fear of bugs and added, “I’m having a good time and I’m learning new things about animals, myself, and my friends.”
On the farm, quiet students who struggled with written or oral expression were able to engage in hands-on tasks that resulted in immediate progress. Our school had nurtured gradual but significant growth in one student, a boy who entered selectively mute two years ago, but on this trip he engaged just like any “normal” kid, and even triumphed over his fear of touching a large animal. Another student, who had been labeled a volatile tantrum-thrower, utilized the leadership skills he’d developed to help his peers stay focused on taking care of the animals.
My students’ reflections on the trip reinforce our school’s belief that all children should be recognized for their value and that each child should be aware that they always have something to contribute. While the work in our school about crossing boundaries, defying labels, and developing strategies to overcome challenges is meaningful, it is useless if the children cannot apply what they have learned to the outside world. Our fifth graders begin middle school next year. We hope that culminating our work with the farm trip will help students ground the skills they have developed while in our care, so that they may continue to grow and thrive as they move through the public education system.