By Manuel Betancourt
To walk around P.S. 146's Special Needs School Carnival on Friday, May 18th, was to see the power of child's play. Edible jewelry-making and face-painting stations, a DJ booth (led by a Venom-clad parent volunteer), popcorn and cotton-candy tables, and even a makeshift dance floor turned the Spanish Harlem school's gymnasium into a raucous, kid-friendly celebration. As Shelley Topping-Omodunbi, Fieldston's director of public partnership, put it as she surveyed the bustling room around us, the annual carnival is a perfect example of "organized chaos." Mona Silfen, P.S.146's principal, was delighted to " see kids in their element." A quick glance behind her easily proved the point: as Justin Bieber blared from the DJ's corner, you could see a group of children engaged in a dance-off that elicited peals of laughter, while others excitedly put their hands in a mystery box that housed goodies for the taking.
Topping-Omodunbi was there observing the work of more than forty Fieldston upper school students, who had spent several weeks planning an event that's as enriching experience for them as it is for the 500 or so P.S. 146 kids that go through it every year. Allowed to roam around with abandon, the young school kids got to enjoy a full day's worth of fun and games — and given that much of P.S. 146's school population come from disadvantaged communities (close to a quarter live in temporary housing at a time when the department of education estimates that more than 111,500 students were homeless at some point during the 2016-17 school year), the chance to throw a basketball, get to play with a clown, and dance around with a Disney princess is a cherished experience not to be diminished.
What makes P.S. 146 so special — and why it always strikes a chord with Fieldston students — is that unique student population. Not only does the school boast the kind of racial and ethnic diversity that befits its Manhattan neighborhood, but it has the largest special ed program in a community school, as well as a District 75 designation. That means that among those roaming the gymnasium that Friday were several students who benefit from educational, vocational, and behavior support — Fieldston students giving out cotton candy or helping craft home-made crowns were just as likely to encounter visually impaired kids as they were kids on the autism spectrum. But, in the spirit of the carnival and given the buoyant atmosphere around them, these encounters merely encouraged a "we are all kids" mentality, something that was underscored by preparatory discussions among the Fieldston crew. Vivian Matz, one of Fieldston's community service coordinators, explained that ahead of the event, students had talked at length about being cognizant of messages we're getting from society when it comes to thinking about people with disabilities." Conversations about stereotypes, as well as research on ableism, prepared those coming to P.S. 146 and informed the debriefing that took place in the classroom soon thereafter.
As a project designed to get these teenagers to think about their own privilege and to help dismantle everyday ableism, the carnival proved to be fertile ground for the kind of self-reflection Fieldston regularly encourages in its students. "What I love about this event," shared Dillon Sheekey '20 as he painted a Spider-Man mask on an eager young boy, "is that I get to see so many communities that I never would have never been in touch with."
Across the room, helping young girls decorate paper crowns, Chassidy Titley '20 agreed. "I'm learning more how to talk to kids who don't fit into society's 'norms,'" she admitted, before adding that "helping these kids with arts and crafts, you learn that all kids are the same." Matz stressed exactly this when expounding on the benefits of these out-of-school events. Classroom discussions on ableism, after all, can only go so far in getting students to understand the many things they take for granted on a daily basis. Seeing young children walking around with their occupational or physical therapists helps ground otherwise abstract conversations.
But there's no denying that much of what makes this annual affair so memorable ("Years from now, I guarantee you," P.S. 146's principal noted, "kids from Fieldston are going to be like, 'Do you remember when we worked that carnival?'") is the fact that it's an all around fun time. Every year, for example, Topping-Omodunbi gets similar feedback: "I can't remember the last time I had so much fun! I can't remember when I could lose myself in art-making." That may seem trivial, but it's a crucial aspect of these kinds of events. By getting Fieldston students to tap into their inner kid, they get to see the event through a new pair of eyes. The element of play, so central to Fieldston's pedagogy, in turn nurtures the empathy that we need to grapple with social issues in real-life settings. That in itself is a powerful takeaway for Fieldston students.
"Hopefully," Topping-Omodunbi adds, "[our students] also take away that outside of this carnival-like experience, they can impact folks in their own small way."