A smile as big as the moon
Mike Kersjes with Jo Layden
A compelling and motivational story about a special education teacher, his class of students with learning disabilities and their aspiration to attend Space Camp.
In August 1987 Mike Kerjes picked up a copy of Scope magazine, which contained a story about a program run by the US Space & Rocket Centre for gifted students - and thought "our kids would love this". Together with his teaching partner, Robyn McKinney, he pursues this dream.
Mike passionately believed his students could benefit from Space Camp, that they would learn important life skills and that the experience would build up their self esteem. The challenge he faced, was convincing others that the students in his class had the ability to compete and would succeed. To be properly prepared for Space Camp all students would have to be able to:
- Construct a complex tetrahedron under water (this exercise is similar to one used by NASA in training astronauts for microgravity tasks)
- Understand thousands of acronyms used in the flight instructions
- Endure two intensive shuttle missions
- Build and launch rockets
- Work as a team
- Compete with other teams
"A smile as Big as the Moon is a terrific book. At once uplifting and thought provoking, it pulls no punches in depicting the hardships encountered by a group of special education students and the teacher who believed in them. A remarkable and unforgetable story." Jerry Bruckheimer
From the outset this project was met by opposition, from the school, the US Space & Rocket Centre, Mike's family and the football team he coached. Fund raising efforts proved equally elusive. However, these obstacles were gradually overcome: with perseverance, help from the local senator and the kids, the money was raised and approval from the Space & Rocket Centre granted. Mike's wife and football team also offered their assistance.
"Its hard not to fall under the spell of this Michigan-based David-and-Goliath tale." Detroit Free Press
Getting this far was no mean feat - the next step was to prepare the students. "Space camp is a rigourous educational experience ... its also a competitive experience" As much as Mike and Robyn believed in their students, they were also realistic about the obstacles that stood in their path - preparation was the key. To teach his students the necessary skills Mike devised a curriculum tailored to their educational needs. He created games and experiential learning activities that would "transform the complicated into the simple", for example:
- A board game was used to help familiarise the students with acronyms, codes and flight scripts used on simulated missions and to introduce students to a little competitive fun
- Visits to the local pool helped prepare the students for microgravity tasks and teamwork
- An educational evening put on by the planaterium, combined with weekends spent sitting on top of Mike's roof star gazing built friendships and knowledge of astonomy
- Experiments were conducted with chrystallization kits to teach science concepts (similar to those used by mission specialists at Space Camp)
- Motivation was maintained by arranging a meeting with Jack Lousma, a real astronaut who was the pilot for Skylab 3
- Other educational resources included watching videos of rocket take-offs, using computer software to discuss and analyse various types of rockets, building paper airplanes, then model rockets, to teach propulsion and rocketry, culminating in a community rocket launch event
After 9 months of preparation the students were finally on their way to Space Camp, where they would compete with approximately 200 bright and gifted students from around the world - the first ever team of special ed students.
Against all odds the students had made it to Space Camp, where they turned in a performance beyond anyone's expectations. Just how good a performance will only be known by reading the book!
"A testament to how perseverance can get results and how children can perform surprising feats in a system that doesn't always work to help all children". Pittsburg Post-Gazette
About the author
Mike Kersjes spent more than a decade teaching students with learning disabilities. His first special education teaching job was in an inner-city school in "a cubicle that would barely fit five people". It was a " pitiful excuse for a classroom that sent a message to the kids who were taught there: You are worthless". His next teaching post was at Forest Hills Northern High School in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Somewhat "burnt out" he sought a new way to motivate his student, using Space Camp as the back drop for learning about science and mathematics.
Mike's teaching philosophy was inspired by Albert Einstein, "a man who overcame a childhood learning disability to become one of the most revered and influential mathematicians in history". He always hung a poster on the walls of his classroom bearing the quote:
"Imagination is more important than knowledge, for knowledge is limited and imagination can encircle the world". Albert Einstein
Since this first "experimental" Space Camp the program has seen phenomenal growth. Mike Kersjes has since retired from teaching and is President of Space Is Special Inc, a non-profit organisation he founded in 1989.
- Space Is Special
- Space Camp web site
- Space Camp 2001 for Visually Impaired Students
- Resources for students with learning disabilities
Copies can be purchased from bookshops and online distributors such as Amazon.com
ISBN: 0-312-30314-9 (paperback)
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin (New York).
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