DeWally Thursdays

Caroline Sisson

It is a pleasant Thursday morning. For some this is a normal day, but for Instructor Jen DeWaard and Instructor Chris Mendel’s special education classes and Instructor Lindsay Walcott’s WOBN class, today is the day that memories and friendships are made. Every Thursday, DeWaard and Mendel’s classes venture down to room B173, the WOBN classroom and studio. Here, the classes collaborate with WOBNers to learn and have fun. WOBNers and special education students get the opportunity to learn from each other and make friendships that will last a lifetime.

  This collaboration is nothing new. Since 2012, special education students have been working with WOBN students. It all started when some of DeWaard’s students would wander down to the WOBN studio, “I had three specific students who would disappear. I would get a call from Mrs. Walcott (a teacher I didn’t know very well) and I would have to go down and collect them. They were drawn to the news show, the cameras/technology, and (most of all) the students they saw every day on the news. They pretty much invited themselves down.” The two teachers decided to create a program that would benefit both WOBN and special education students; they dubbed it “DeWally Thursdays.”  

  Not only for fun, these DeWally Thursdays aim to help both WOBNers and special education students learn and grow from each other. “I think the most important aspect of our DeWally Thursdays is that both my students and Mrs. DeWaard’s students learn from each other. This program isn’t just about helping out students with special needs, it’s also about helping my students learn from those around them; things like courage and compassion,” Walcott said.

  With the help of WOBN students, DeWaard’s students also learn new skills and benefit greatly from the collaboration. “The biggest change I see in my students throughout the year because of DeWally Thursdays is not in my classroom – it’s in the halls, lunchroom, Homecoming dance, and at events like the football games. My students are more vested and willing to be a part of our Panther Community because they know other students, feel important, and are recognized by others. Their communication skills probably benefit the most – we work on this specifically with videos but it’s also more meaningful. I can be a little bit more like their ‘mom’ and what I say isn’t as meaningful. They’ll listen to and strive to improve more when they are working with and for their peers,” DeWaard said.

  WOBN and special education students alike love these DeWally Thursdays. This year is Junior Annie Nguyen’s first year in WOBN. “I didn’t know about DeWally Thursdays when I started this school year. At first, I was a little hesitant but after a couple [Thursdays] I learned that special education students are just like us- they like to learn and have fun. Even though we’re not even halfway through the school year, working with Mrs. DeWaard and Mr. Mendel’s students has taught me so many things,” Nguyen said.

  Junior Taylor VanAllsburg agrees. “I love working with the special education students. We get to do fun activities with them every other Thursday, but the best part is during the week when we see them and talk to them in the halls. It’s fun to watch them grow and kind of come out of their shells when we hang out with them on Thursdays,” VanAllsburg said.

  With approximately 36 DeWally Thursdays a year, it would be unrealistic to finish a year without some good stories. DeWaard says that she has lots of stories involving dance parties and pie face- very normal occurrences on DeWally Thursdays. One of her all-time favorites, however, is one that happened before she and Walcott even started the program. “Before we officially started as ‘DeWally,’ I had a student that would sneak down to WOBN. He was very hard to understand and we eventually set up a system for him to visit. One day, Wally called me and had me come right down. I thought he was in trouble but he was being filmed speaking more clearly than I had ever heard him speak with two or our senior leaders prompting and filming,” DeWaard said.

  The collaboration between the two classes will likely continue for years to come. The WOBN and special education classes are mutually beneficial – students and teachers alike can see that. These DeWally Thursdays will have a lasting impact on everyone involved. DeWaard sums it up perfectly: “There are lots of schools and programs that have opportunities for students with special needs to be more included in the high school community – we aren’t special or unusual because of this. There is something special that happens at West Ottawa and through the connection we have with WOBN. I’m not sure what it is or how to define it because it’s about our students here and how they handle themselves. It’s about West Ottawa’s willingness to be open and accepting of those that may not be the same. There is undeniably something special about West Ottawa and it shines through experiences like this.”