Unified literacy program mentor Nina Ryan poses next to her art projects. Mentors and Life skills students each created several poems and paintings under the guidance of Morse senior and art integrator Kaitlyn Schutt. John Terhune / The Times Record

Jonathan Fisk’s Life Skills room at Morse High School can feel like a throwback one-room schoolhouse. Rather than travel to different teachers throughout the day, Fisk’s students mostly stick together as they cover math and social studies, cookie baking and volcano building.

The Life Skills program allows each of Fisk’s students, many of whom have autism, down syndrome or other learning differences, to learn at their own pace. Unfortunately, it can also isolate the group, leaving its members marooned on their own tiny island within the high school.

This semester, a pilot unified literacy program developed by Fisk and Librarian Dawn Lee has helped bring the Life Skills students and their talents into the light.

On Thursday evening, dozens of guests crowded Morse’s library to view art and poetry created by the program’s six Life Skills students their mentors from the mainstream student body.

The event marked an opportunity for Fisk’s pupils to show off a semester’s worth of hard work and for organizers to celebrate what Principal Eric Varney called a “paradigm shift” for the school.

“I am really proud of our students for embracing this and our teachers for leading the way,” Varney said. “I can’t say enough how it changes the culture of the school.”



Fisk first connected with Lee in order to find a time for his students to explore the library. But soon the pair hatched a bigger plan: a literacy class that, like Morse’s popular unified physical education and basketball programs, would match Fisk’s students with mentors from the general student body.

Cookies baking gave the Life Skills students a chance to practice their math and measuring and gave guests of the 5/12 gala something to snack on. John Terhune / The Times Record

“There’s only so much that you can teach through paper and pencil and through the computer,” Fisk said. “There’s so many social skills that would be wonderful to have through immersion of Morse.”

Since January, Fisk and Lee have taught the unified literacy program’s twelve students three times per week in the library. Each mentor-mentee pair practices reading together before the group reconvenes to discuss their chosen books.

According to Lee, this model helps the Life Skills students practice their vocabulary, enunciation and comprehension. But just as important are the relationships and communication skills the students develop toward the end of each class, when the group takes on art projects or games like Jenga and Uno.

“When people are doing art at a table, it’s like the quilting bee syndrome,” Lee said. “People talk. They share. The model is total immersion and inclusion.”



Because Life Skills students often keep to their own classroom, others in the high school can sometimes be shy or uncomfortable around them, said Becky Roak, a physical education teacher who co-coaches the school’s unified basketball team with Charlie Bingham.

After dipping their toes into Morse’s unified offerings, though, students usually find themselves hooked, she said.

“As soon as they’re involved in it, whether it’s the unified phys-ed, basketball or literacy, they just gravitate to it,” Roak said. “We probably have one of the biggest numbers of all the sports teams.”

According to Roak, about 25 students participated in Morse’s most recent season of unified basketball, which helped inspire the new literacy class. Others have joined unified physical education, music and volleyball programs.

The visibility these programs offer the Life Skills students is an important part of bringing them into the larger Morse community, said Fisk, who noted the library’s glass walls allow passing students to gaze in on the smiles and laughter of the unified literacy class.


As a result, it’s now more common than ever to see Life Skills and mainstream students talking in the hallway or sharing tables at lunch.

That inclusion has been just as beneficial for the general student body as Fisk’s students, said senior Nina Ryan, a mentor in the literacy program.

“Now that I actually have connections with them, it seems like I see them way more,” she said. “They went from being people I did not know at all to people that I have conversations with every day.”


The teachers and mentors of the unified literacy class struggle to contain their pride in the Life Skills students and the progress they’ve made.

Noah Kent, 15, shows off his artwork on 5/12. “He’s proud of what he’s doing here,” said his mother, Megan Evans. John Terhune / The Times Record

In January, most of the class was reluctant to read any louder than a whisper, Ryan remembers. Now, they hold audiences at rapt attention during visits to the early childhood education program.


They compete to see who can read the most and debate the value of finishing many short books versus one long story. In March, some of them even presented to the RSU 1 Board of Directors.

For students like Noah Kent, 15, an animal lover who spoke clearly and confidently on the danger of climate change at the School Board meeting, Thursday’s event was an opportunity to step back and take pride in months of hard work. When not chatting with friends, the Woolwich native mostly hovered near his portfolio of poems and paintings, which included works like “Tape Measure Yellow” and “The Night Sky,”

“For him, it’s a community recognition of something he does,” said Peter Kent, Noah’s father. “It’s huge in so many ways.”

The enthusiastic response from students, parents and administrators have Fisk and Lee working to increase the class size from 12 to 20 next year and to find money for more field trips and activities outside the classroom. They imagine in a few years Morse could have more unified classes, maybe even one for every school subject.

It’s a bold idea, Lee said, but one that has already earned support from teachers who have watched joy radiate through the library’s glass walls three times each week.

“You have to see it in action,” she said. “Words don’t describe it. There is magic in this.”

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