Computers were down and tension was up in the class for six- through nine-year-olds at Drachman Montessori Magnet School in Tucson. But master teacher Sixto Valdez did not need to raise his voice to restore order.
Instead, he asked his students to line up and walk quietly to the school’s outdoor patio for a relaxation exercise.
The students warmed their hands by briskly rubbing them together for five seconds. Then they placed their palms over their closed eyes and took deep breaths in and out.
After a moment of silence, Mr. Valdez spoke in a soft voice.
“This is how you need to be in the computer lab,” he said.
And he reminded them of Drachman’s mission: “We are responsible and peaceful.”
A classroom for everyone
I was fortunate to spend a morning observing Mr. Valdez’s classroom for a project for a Rio Salado College class called Learning and the Brain. The assignment was to spend three hours watching how a teacher works with both autistic and mainstream students in a single classroom.
But I learned about much more than mainstreaming special education students at Drachman. I learned that it is possible to build a positive classroom community from a group of 26 very diverse learners.
Mr. Valdez — his students call him “Mister” — has been at the A-rated magnet school for a decade.
When earning his master’s degree at the University of Arizona, he specialized in students who need special education as well as English language instruction. Part of his story is detailed in a recently published book, Crossing the Line: A Marriage Across Borders, by Mr. Valdez’s wife, Linda.
Different students moving in the same direction
Mr. Valdez welcomes all kinds of students to his classroom: Recent immigrants who are still learning English, students who only speak English, students with autism or other learning challenges. In an age when parents increasingly seek out niche programs for their children, Drachman’s program is refreshingly inclusive.
During the morning I visited the school, first, second and third graders worked together on the same projects. Students who did not yet have the writing skills to work on a class project in letter writing used cards with words on them to make sentences.
A boy with autism worked on an independent writing and drawing project but stayed just as busy as everyone else in the class. At one point, he raised his hand and made a sentence out of a spelling word the others were using in their letters: Disappeared.
“Amelia Earhart disappeared over the Pacific Ocean in 1937,” the boy told the class.
Two students and Mr. Valdez took a minute to compliment the student’s knowledge. Then everyone else went back to their own project, which was about trash collection.
Finding that moment of peace
A large sign on the wall of Mr. Valdez’s classroom expands upon the school mission with specific goals for students:
- I will respect myself.
- I will respect my friends.
- I will respect the environment.
- I will have a peaceful time.
After school, Mr. Valdez shared another method he has used to help students stop chattering and calm down.
“You have to tell students the truth,” he explained. “I pointed out to them that they were talking and talking and talking but no one was listening to them.”
Mr. Valdez suggested that the students go outdoors and chat with trees on the playground during recess.
“What did the trees tell you?” Mr. Valdez recalls asking the students later in the day.
The students reported hearing a soothing swishing sound in the trees’ leaves and branches.
“I think that is what the trees want you to feel,” Mr. Valdez suggested.
They had found peace.