When they walked into his sixth-hour class for the first time in September, Todd Hardy gave this crop of students his opening day lecture.
“I said you should all get an ‘A’ in this class, because it’s all about you,” said Hardy, a special education teacher at Tremper High School. The answers for all the questions in this class are already in your heads, he tells the students. Which isn’t the same thing as saying the answers are easy.
Self Advocacy is a one-semester elective class at Tremper focusing not on academics but on the skills of living. Hardy said he and two of his fellow special ed teachers came up with the idea for the class six or seven years ago, hoping to design a program that would help their students think before acting on impulse. He designed the curriculum himself, tweaking it a bit each year, hoping to use the time to get students to reflect on what is driving their decisions and on how the choices they make affect their lives.
“We do a lot of different things in class, but the basic overall theme of the class is to teach them that they have strengths that they may not be aware of, and to get them to think things through,” said Hardy, who has taught at Tremper for 19 years.
Senior Danielle Riggins said the discussions have helped. “I feel like I have really grown in this class,” she said.
In the classroom, Hardy uses everything from poetry to arguments about the best kind of ice cream to get kids thinking about their lives. They work on “life maps” that chart the lives they have lived so far, and the lives they hope they live in the future. Students try to answer tough hypothetical questions, like ‘if you knew you were going to die tonight and you had to chose just one person to talk to, who would it be and what would you say to them?’
On a recent afternoon, the group was going through “favorites,” an exercise they do regularly. Hardy ran though a list of 12 questions, three at a time. The kids wrote down their answers, then explained themselves to the class. Some of the questions were easy — “what is your favorite love song?” or “what is your favorite season.”
Some were tougher — “what is your favorite change you have made in your life? What has changed about you that you are happy you changed?”
“Maturity,” answered Severe Carter, a junior. “When I was younger I was super goofy all the time, and I would never stop. It would make people mad, and when they got mad I would end up in a fight.”
Even the seemingly silly questions sometimes got at tough answers. “If you could have a tattoo, what tattoo would you want to have?” was answered by more than one student with the name of a family member — a brother or a beloved cousin — who had died.
“What would be your favorite thing to change about yourself if you could?” Hardy asked.
“Anger issues,” one student answered.
“Temper,” said another.
“Being able to get close to people,” said one girl.
Hardy said the class always draws a wide range of students. Sometimes case workers recommend it to students, others just opt in. “We always get a diverse group,” he said. “It’s not necessarily kids who would hang out together.”
Once in class, they get close quickly.
“You feel like you can say anything here,” said Penny Clark-Taylor, a junior. And, students said, they are careful never to talk about what they have discussed in class once they get out to the hallway.
“We are like family now,” said Kelsey Clifford, a senior. “This is my favorite class of the day, I love coming here.”