I have a young man in a primary grade with Down Syndrome. He is a charismatic, funny, adorable young man who is also popular. As he grows older, his peers wonder why. Why does he talk different? Why is he so short? Will he grow? Why doesn't he read and write well when he works so hard?
The teacher and I talked about a variety of messages we wanted to teach to the students but we both agreed that they needed to learn about what Down Syndrome is and what it isn't. The teacher set the stage by talking to the class about how to be a friend even when you are not alike. Then, I met with the class the following day to explain Down Syndrome. I am always nervous. Will I make it sound scary or confusing? Will the students have more questions and concerns when I leave than when I came? What questions will the ask that I don't know how to answer in a way that a 7 or 8 year old can understand?
The class and teacher then participated in an experiment to find to what it was like to have Down Syndrome with a larger tongue. I found this idea at another great bloggers site http://elliesgift.blogspot.com. You simply get the large marshmallows and cut them in half. The students, teachers, or anyone else who wishes to participate pushes the marshmallow onto the roof of their mouth and then tries to talk. Instantly the participant has a Down Syndrome accent. It is a simple but dramatic experiment and helps others to understand the struggle that individuals with Down Syndrome have to even talk to a friend or family member.
We talked as a group about how frustrating it was to try to talk. Then I talked about how I don't know if I would keep trying if it was that frustrating but that the young man with Down Syndrome was far braver than I am. The class agreed that it takes courage to struggle but still try (see Home of the Brave to read more on this). I watched as each student and adult in the room looked again at those around them with an appreciation for who they were, rather than who they weren't. A great day teaching. A great day learning.