Perkins teacher Sharon Stelzer adapts every lesson to the unique interests, personalities and abilities of her students
Stelzer makes story sequencing relevant through the story of Kimmie’s recent birthday celebration. Photo Credit: Anna Miller.
By Stefanie Cloutier
For Perkins teacher Sharon Stelzer, every student is a mystery to be solved.
Her students have a wide range of challenges that impede their ability to learn. All have profound vision and hearing loss, and most have additional physical or cognitive impairments.
So every time Stelzer steps in front of her class in the Deafblind Program, she has to figure out what unique combination of teaching methods and fun activities will help each student master that day’s lessons.
“Thinking outside the box is what I do best,” she said. “It’s the challenge and the interest that are just really intriguing to me.”
Currently Stelzer, who has taught at Perkins for 30 years, has three students ranging from 9 to 14. She frequently teaches students for several consecutive years, giving her time to figure out their individual needs.
“I really get to know the whole child,” she said, which allows her to adapt lessons to fit each student’s abilities and interests.
She showcased her technique in a recent history class about America’s westward expansion. One student enjoyed learning about history, so Stelzer assigned him to research and write a paper. Another student was a “foodie,” so Stelzer had her find a recipe for hardtack, and they baked a batch of the dense, long-lasting biscuits that pioneers used to eat. A third student loved music, so Stelzer asked him to sing the classic western song “Home on the Range.”
All three learned the same history lesson, but they approached it from different directions.
“It makes the learning come alive,” said Stelzer. “You need to be having fun – if you’re having fun, they’re having fun.”
That philosophy of adaptation and creativity runs through all her classes.
For a student full of energy, she sat down on the classroom floor with him and let him fidget while learning. With a competitive student, she turned a lesson into a race. When her class studied the Boston Tea Party, she had them dress up as Native Americans and act out dumping tea into Boston Harbor.
Stelzer said her students learn best when classes combine textbook readings that inform and physical activities that bring lessons to life.
“You have to tap into the active part, especially for students with dual sensory impairment,” she said.
Stelzer’s innovative teaching style earned her the 2014 Janet James Award, given each year by Perkins to outstanding staff members who have been nominated by their coworkers. But for Stelzer, the real reward is seeing her students learn and thrive.
“I want my kids to feel in charge and successful,” she said. “I want them to want to come to school, to want to have that learning, to look forward to being here. That’s really important to me.”