My youngest son and I recently had the opportunity to talk via Skype with Christopher Ulmer, aka “Mr. Chris,” of Special Books by Special Kids. Usually Chris interviews other people, so we thought it would be fun to turn the tables and be the ones asking the questions to learn more about him and his students. For those of you who may not know who he is, Chris is an exceptional education teacher in Florida. His unique and affirming teaching style as well as his extraordinary class of students has captured the hearts of many and become a viral sensation. The first video to gain widespread attention showcased his “compliment time” with the students at the start of each school day, and it was featured first at “The Mighty” and then in an article on ABC News. From there the message spread all over the mainstream media, reaching far beyond the typical “Awareness” circles, and Chris even made an appearance on Rachel Ray’s television show. The messages from Mr. Chris and his students continue to spread all over the internet, and the page has even been mentioned on unexpected sites like MTV, prompting Ashton Kutcher to say, “Mr. Chris, you’re a great teacher.”
Two videos from our conversation are embedded at the bottom of this post. In the first video he talks with my youngest son (his older brother decided not to participate because this isn’t his kind of thing 😉 ). Noodle Dog makes an appearance, there is some Minecraft talk in the middle, and an eyeball crossing contest at the end. Chris described his teaching philosophy and what influenced his decision to become an exceptional education teacher. I was also finally able to ask something I have long wondered about; it seems, when watching the SBSK videos, that teaching in a private school setting allows a level of flexibility in the classroom that wouldn’t be able to occur in a public school setting (for many reasons). He addresses that, as well as whether or not they have any sort of standardized testing. He also recalls an excellent and entertaining musical concert performed by his students, and all the work that went into it. You will have to watch the video to hear the fun story.
Update: here is the short “highlights” version of just the silly parts. 🙂
In the second video he answers questions from some readers, including: “Have you ever considered co-teaching in an inclusive class where both your regular students and other students can learn together?” He also briefly compares the possible benefits of private school versus public school, and self-contained special education classes versus mainstreaming. I hope you will excuse the video quality of both (and the fact that Chris is so far away), but you can’t record Skype while using an iPad so I had to try and kludge together some other ways to record the conversation.
While we were talking Chris explained that his desire to do the social media campaign was partially the result what happened when he brought his students to play soccer with the rest of his soccer team. He noticed that his adult teammates were actually “hesitant” and didn’t know how to act with his students, apparently worrying they didn’t have the necessary skills to interact with the students or that they might offend their parents. He stated, “I thought that if we could provide that platform for them to understand the children, understand the human side of them, that hesitation would be erased.”
Chris says ultimately his main goal is for all the videos of all his students to gain regular attention, because “The more people that see this the better the world will be.” He continued, “I feel like these children are so misunderstood… I can teach (them) academics, and we can sit and make each other feel good, but the truth is they are going to leave my class. If the world doesn’t understand them then they won’t meet their full potential once they leave.” Chris’s desire is not only to educate and empower his students, but to educate the WORLD so that it will be a safer, more accepting place for them. A place where they can not just exist but THRIVE.
Chris loves teaching his small class of students, but he has also found that they teach him and constantly help him grow. He stated that he has learned the importance of controlling his emotions (like frustration when things aren’t going as planned), to not make assumptions, and to be open to following his students’ lead. Sometimes the unexpected happens in his classroom and the students take things in a direction other than what he had in mind, and he has learned to be open to that. There are also moments in the classroom when his students really surprise and impress Chris and display great brilliance. He said, “It makes me ponder, are they making great progress or am I learning to understand them more? Did I not see this brilliance at first? It’s probably a combination of both.” We discussed the need to be receptive to seeing the unique ways that people communicate and learn, instead of being blinded by our own expectations.
Chris also thinks his students have a great deal to teach the world. “The most important thing about SBSK is that we can all collectively challenge our perceptions, because we have to evolve our mindsets and our ideologies to better serve everyone. We have a tendency to believe that everything we know is correct, but everything is constantly evolving.” He mentioned that we are not that far removed from the civil rights movement, and the problems and mindset that spurred that movement are, “…so near and it was such an archaic ideology we held true to. I believe there are still many things in our current society we need to evolve.” He stated that awareness is not enough unless there is also acceptance.
We touched on the subject of inspiration porn and the multitude of viral stories, and he remarked, “It’s bizarre, a lot of the stories out there.” Some of those stories were another part the reason for SBSK, because he saw them as potentially damaging and wanted to provide a positive alternative. Chris described a recent viral story that concerned him, “A high school guy took a girl to Prom who had special needs, but the focus wasn’t on the girl at all, it was just what a great guy he is. It made it seem like he was doing the girl the biggest favor in the world, and to me that’s very bizarre… What’s even more disturbing is that that story went viral and nobody saw the trouble with the wording of it, that implied that she is lesser.”
So instead of that kind of story, he said, “I want to provide material out there that is the truth, most of it is positive, but we still cover the really human side of it. It is also real and not just the “Prom” side of things.” Chris said he wants to be honest about the strengths and struggles of his students, but never wants to portray them as weak. “They are human. They have struggles, they have victories just like everyone else… We actually cover the very human side of having special needs.” He wants to remind us that his students have hopes, dreams and aspirations just like the rest of us.
A very important point to remember is that the videos and stories on SBSK are always shared with the permission of the children and their parents. Before it all began they all had a meeting, and they agreed to “Openly discuss each student’s diagnosis, put a face to the name, and let people see that there’s nothing to be scared of.” The students have enjoyed watching the interaction that their videos receive on the internet, and sometimes are in friendly competition with each other about who receives the most views and “Likes.” One of his favorite classroom moments and videos was when he overheard one of his students say, “I wish I could teach the world about the solar system.” Chris then allowed his student to teach a lesson about it, and recorded it. That student doesn’t usually care about how many “Likes” he received, but he was thrilled to find out that the Sesame Street page had shared his video.
One of my favorite videos is this one, which is a collection of some fun classroom highlights. (Singing! Dancing! Social Skills! Acceptance!)
While we talked Chris described his students with a great deal of pride, saying, “The children in my class are some of the most honest, pure and happy kids in the world. They see things how they really are. They don’t see all the excess stuff… and I think if we all saw things that way the world would be a better place.”
The entire Skype session lasted 45 minutes and there is no way to show or recap all of it. It was a very interesting conversation, and I enjoyed watching firsthand how great Chris is with children. I think my son’s favorite part was meeting Noodle Dog.
We really appreciate that Chris was willing to use some of his valuable time on a day off to speak with us. We look forward to continuing to follow the lessons that are shared in his classroom and the adventures of his awesome students.
Here is the video of Mr. Chris talking with my son. There are some pretty cute moments, and they cracked each other up:
And here he answers reader questions:
Thanks for watching!
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