Teacher candidates in Dr. Srimani Chakravarthi’s Survey of the Exceptional Individual course are gaining knowledge and experience applicable to their future classrooms through a partnership with a special group of students at Lincoln-Way Community High School District 210. For many of the teaching candidates, this collaboration is their first opportunity to work with individuals with special needs.

The class began in spring of 2015 and runs every semester, with approximately 150 teacher candidates having participated so far. The periodic lunch gatherings, held at USF, allows teacher candidates the chance to gain perspective regarding the range of disabilities they might encounter when working in an inclusive classroom setting or as a special education teacher. Many candidates are pleased to find out just how much they have in common with students—from favorite sports teams and foods to future goals.

The partnership also gives Lincoln-Way students the opportunity to work on important skills outside their more familiar and comfortable school environment. With each meeting, the students work at forming relationships with peers, socialization, ordering from a menu, eating at a restaurant, budgeting, and paying for purchases.

After the group meets for lunch, each teacher candidate is asked to consider what accommodations or adaptations may be required to assist the special needs of the student or students in the classroom and to reflect upon any change of perception he/she has undergone about individuals with special needs.

This collaboration is much more than just lunch. It is a rich learning experience for all participants and serves to further USF’s commitment to building an inclusive community through acceptance, flexible thinking, respecting differences, and finding common ground.

Dr. Chakravarthi finds it to be one of her favorite experiences. Why?

“Many reasons. Primarily, almost all my teacher candidates feel like it is meaningful and they really enjoyed getting a perspective of a student with disability. I feel it is a win-win situation where my candidates get experience without leaving campus, and their students get to meet peers of their age and socialize, without any added pressure of ‘learning formally’ – since it is not a classroom-based experience but one focusing on communication and social interaction. I love watching my candidates grow comfortable in talking to students with disabilities and demonstrate a newfound way to respect them and note what they are capable of doing, instead of their ‘need’ areas which are apparent.”

According to Chakravarthi, candidates indicate that they have a renewed perspective on the abilities of students with exceptional needs.

“They learn that there are several nuances to simple acts like buying lunch, serving yourself, making good food choices and conversation skills as they note the varied skills involved in each act. It is a great opportunity for them to observe the students partaking in a ‘life skill’ experience while getting to teach them how to do it,” she said.

Chakravarthi and Dr. Lisa White McNulty recently co-authored a research paper about this experience which will soon be published in the International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. The study indicated that teacher candidates showed ability to note specific strength and need areas of students that would be useful to plan instruction. There were also indicators of attitudinal shift about their perceptions on individuals with disabilities. Candidates also reveal that this experience is one of their favorite ones, and they enjoy their interactions with students with disabilities.