The 20 children in Bernice Wisnieski’s second grade classroom at Sibley Elementary School are an inclusive team, learning how to help each other learn in spite of their disabilities, their different backgrounds and skin color.
“Friendship violations” are handled through “circle times” in which the transgressions are discussed, solutions are reached and apologies are made and accepted. A “talking turtle” is passed around, entitling its holder to hold the floor while others listen.
Wisnieski, who has taught at the West Side Grand Rapids school for 32 years, developed those strategies with the help of her sister, Mary Musto, a teacher consultant with Kent ISD who specializes in special education, children with autism, and gifted and talented students.
The sisters have teamed up to publish “It Only Takes One Caring Heart,” a children’s book about a fictional classroom in which the children learn to include Jake, a classmate with autism. The book, available at Barnes and Noble.com, was illustrated by Marc Petz, a 3-D animation instructor at Kent ISD. A teaching guide for the book soon will be available.
As written by Musto, the story line in the book follows a classroom in which a pair of “Super Agent Bugs” identify Jamal, a student with a “caring heart,” to include Jake in their activities.
Despite its simple story form, Musto said the book teaches basic principles of inclusion that are effective in classrooms. “Children learn through stories. Everything in this story is what Bernice is teaching her kids,” says Musto.
Wisnieski says conflict resolution takes precedence over academics in her classroom. If a “friendship violation” occurs, the class immediately “circles up” to discuss and resolve the incident.
“They have to see how their actions affect everyone else,” she says. “Kids are holding kids accountable.”
Sibley Principal Rose Maher says the results are positive. There have been higher test scores and fewer trips to her office from Wisnieski’s classroom. Other teachers have taken note, said Maher. “They want to know what she’s doing.”
Musto says Wisnieski’s restorative methods are a key to reducing school violence, by giving the students tools by which to resolve conflicts and take notice of students who are being excluded.