Structure and routine is a refrain that starting-out special education teachers hear incessantly. The right classroom management strategy creates the perfect classroom, we’re told.

Yes, my second-grade special education students at Brooklyn’s PS 12 needed some sort of structure and routine to thrive. Yet so often, it seems as though structure is equated to teacher control. Exact routines. Little freedom. No down time. I knew my students needed something more, something different. There were moments when they excelled and shined, but it wasn’t when they were doing desk work, sitting on the rug, or taking part in skill and drill curricula.

Our escape from a teacher-dominated structure began with a field trip to the New York Aquarium that coincided with the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. After our visit, I posted a few links to site and articles about the oil spill on our classroom wiki and invited my students to look around the websites. They were riveted by the images of the dirty water and oil-covered sea creatures. One of my toughest and overage students sat in front of her laptop and said to herself, “This is so sad. I want to help.” We brainstormed a few ideas as a class. How could we help? We contemplated sending toothbrushes, collecting pet and human hair for the booms (yes, my second-graders know what booms are!), and sending supplies like paper towels and heavy-duty bags. Ultimately, we decided to put our effort in closer to home, by creating a news broadcast about the spill.

The link to our regular classroom activities came from comic books, which my students had been reading. One of my awesome educational assistants, Janice Pierce, suggested that we create superheroes who could help out on the Gulf Coast. Our team of superheros, the Superpsychics — Environmentra, Bubble Girl, Dragon Boy, Diamond Woman, Heart Girl, Rainbow Girl, Green Hulk, and Superboy — was born. The students were at last engaged in writing. I’d never seen them work so intently.

By late June, we had completed two major projects — a video and a comic book. Our news broadcast featured a report on the cause of the oil spill, its effects, and what the everyday person can do to help. The students worked in partnerships to compose and rehearse each segment. As we revised our broadcast, we held “staff meetings.” Students got quite into the role play and some began “collecting the ratings” and saying things like “five minutes until we go live.” Even one of my non-verbal students participated in the broadcast by counting down very quietly “5-4-3-2-1 action!” The final video was not only informational; it showcased each student’s personality.

The same went for our classroom comic book. The students’ comic book characters proved their abilities to understand the consequences of the oil spill and devise creative solutions to help.  Dragon Boy burned up the oil with his fire breath. Green Hulk skimmed the top of the water to collect the oil. Superboy rescued and cleaned the fish. Heart Girl reached out to others to help out with the spill. Rainbow Girl ensured that the ocean would return to its beautiful natural state.

At our end-of-year party we “released” our broadcast, complete with a complementary menu featuring Oreo dirt and vanilla wafer sand that had signs in it reading “Think about our fishman” [meaning: fisherman] and “Make the world” (one of my little guys said he saw that on TV). It was a blast.

The release made my students briefly famous. A few days later, we were asked to spend the morning sharing our work with each grade. With more than 10 minutes of notice, I could have coached my students on appropriate behavior for public presentations, which they lacked. And because we had no time to rehearse, I was in the spotlight more than I would have liked. I wished the students could have run the show! Still, they answered questions from other students adeptly. And when we returned to the classroom, students from other classes passing through the hallway on the way to lunch congratulated my students. One of my little guys commented, “Everyone’s saying hi to me. I feel like a celebrity!”

I reached out to a few community news sources that expressed interest in featuring the broadcast. Sadly, my school administration did not support this move. It’s a shame that there seems to be so much red tape and so much fear of bad publicity that my special education students, even with parental support, cannot have the spotlight for a minute or so to share their good work.

Even so, the students now each have a copy of our DVD and the feeling of a job well done. All students need to know what it means to feel proud. Sadly, a special education classroom endures a lot of teasing and rejection throughout the year (by students and adults). One thing we special education teachers can absolutely, directly control is whether our students are exposed to high-quality instruction beyond the skill, drill, and control strategy.

It was when the school year began to wind down that our classroom began to thrive. I had time to do the things I cared about and knew would benefit my students. We were learning. It just wasn’t what our typical learning year had looked like.

Because I spent so much time establishing and maintaining structure, as I was told should be my primary task, I never got to try more involved projects that might actually keep my students engaged. I realized the best classroom climate didn’t come from the right management strategy. It came from interesting content and challenging and creative activities. It came from going with the flow and having a bit more give and take.

Interested in project-based learning? Here are some resources:

Lizzie Hetzer completed her first year of teaching special education at PS 12 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. In the fall, she will teach at PS 39 in Park Slope. Before becoming a teacher, Lizzie worked as a drama and creative movement teaching artist in NYC public schools.