Special education classroom gets help from NMU students

GWINN — Service learning and civic engagement are the main focus for a group of students from Northern Michigan University who are spending their semester giving back to a local school in a big way.

Room 10 at KI Sawyer Elementary School is receiving some well–needed attention from the community. Kelsey Nordengren is the special education teacher for a handful of students at the elementary school in Gwinn, helping them develop daily living and functional skills to promote independence.

“I like to make my teaching fun. So, instead of ‘here, have a worksheet,’ I really like to have a lot more hands on activities instead of pencil–paper,” said Nordengren. “I would rather do a science experiment where the students are mixing all of the ingredients together and them seeing the outcome versus them reading it in a book.”

A recent NMU grad, she’s in her first year of teaching, and has already faced her fair share of issues with lack of resources and minimal finances. To combat that issue, Nordengren has posted a few projects on Donors Choose, an organization that helps teachers collect donations for classroom projects. So far, she has been able to purchase a sensory swing, fidgets for students having trouble keeping still, a sand table, yoga mats for mindfulness and art supplies to assist in developing fine motor skills.

“I’ve definitely seen great increases with my students,” Nordengren said. “They might seem small to someone outside of the special education community, but for these students, it could be a life changer. It’s been amazing to see them grow throughout the year.”

While she was gathering funds, Nordengren’s former professor, Sara Potter, caught wind of her innovative classroom techniques and was inspired to help.

“You’re taking all these really creative ideas and you’re applying them to a learning environment and you’re really targeting what your student’s needs and wants are in a creative way that I think really brings something unique to the educational environment,” Potter said. “I really think that’s worth supporting.”

Potter teaches a small group communication class at NMU and has based her classroom curriculum on civic engagement and service learning rather than lecture and theory.

“I saw it as a real opportunity to make an impact, not just within our little tiny community here, but in the much broader community at large,” Potter said. “I also saw it as an opportunity to bring awareness to some of the issues that are going on that aren’t necessarily right here in the community, next door. I hope that my students see educating children is not just the responsibility of the teacher, but a responsibility of the community.”

This is Potter’s second year conducting a service learning project for the class, both years involved giving books to the classrooms. This year, the students are hoping to also collect monetary donations as well to help Nordengren implement more innovative ideas for the upcoming school year.

“It feels great to be able to use my degree and what I’ve been studying for the past four years in order to promote positive change within the community and it’s nice to have civic engagement within the community,” said Jessica Hemstock, a senior at NMU.

“I actually went to one of their classes last Friday. Getting to know those students and getting to see the faces that have been putting such hard work into fundraising for this school and my classroom was wonderful,” Nordengren said. “Knowing a community outside of this district is caring and willing to forth some effort.”