Lake Zurich teacher’s special needs book makes waves
Laura Matuszewski of Lake Zurich discusses her book with Laura Choi and her daughter Katie, 8. | Alyssa Schueneman~Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 8, 2013 6:36AM
LAKE ZURICH — Within a year of publishing “A Special Friend,” District 95 teacher Laura Matuszewski and her book have garnered much attention from the Chicago media.
Now, she’s in the running to win About.com’s 2013 Readers’ Choice Award for Favorite New Special-Needs Children’s Book. People can vote for her book up until March 19 on About.com.
“A lot has happened since last summer,” Matuszewski said.
Matuszewski, a special education teacher at Isaac Fox Elementary School, wrote “A Special Friend” to teach mainstream students in general education classes how to better understand and communicate with their special needs peers. The book was written to help parents and teachers walk their students through the book — with special needs or without.
Since then, the book has gained quite a bit of traction in the media. More than 500 copies have been sold online and in book stores since Matuszewski debuted the book, which was illustrated by 10-year-old Mikayla Crow, a former student and aspiring artist.
As a result, Matuszewski donated $500 to the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago in December. She added that the Special Olympics is also receiving $3 for every book sold at its sporting events.
Mikayla’s mother, Mary Jane Crow, said that Mikayla was excited when “Mrs. M” waved to her on WGN TV, and is happy that her illustrations are part of the book that’s been helping others with special needs.
Nikki Kunkel, a fellow third-grade teacher at Isaac Fox, said Matuszewski’s book was a great resource for her to introduce to her class after her newborn son, Elijah, was born with Down syndrome.
“It was something that we read to have a conversation about us all having different strengths and weaknesses, and that lead into a conversation about Eli being born with his own special need,” Kunkel said. “It lead into a really great conversation about us all having differences.”
Matuszewki said the idea for her book came about as she began to notice that the existing curriculum didn’t address how teachers should be explaining to their mainstream students the reason for why their special needs classmates had to leave the room at certain times during the school day.
She noted the initial effects she witnessed when testing out the drafted book in a general education classroom last year. The results were encouraging enough for her to pursue its publishing.
“I just saw an amazing transformation where they would come up to them at recess and engage them in play, not because they felt like they were supposed to, but because they wanted to,” she said on her WGN segment. “That was the most beautiful change for me.”
On an ensuing radio interview on 101.9 FM’s “Mix Matters,” Matuszewski she said she noticed these kids treating her special needs students like good friends, likely because they felt as though they finally understood them. She added that they later requested that her special needs class be part of their end-of-the-year awards, when they voted Crow most artistic.
To talk to students about others with special needs, Matuszewski recommends highlighting what they have in common, reminding them that these people have feelings, explain that there are many kids who need extra help with something and discuss ways that they can help.
She attributes much of her book’s initial and continuing exposure to supportive vendors like Learning Express Toys in Lake Zurich; Brilliant Sky Toys & Books in Deer Park; Anderson’s Bookshops in Naperville Downer’s Grove; Mangel’s in Long Grove; Pigtails and Crewcuts in Glenview and Mount Prospect; The Bookstore in Glen Ellyn; The Wishing Well in Lake Geneva, Wisc.; and Barnes & Noble’s online store.