Reported by Lisa Klein | bio | email | twitter

Ellyn Pedretti is trying to listen to a reading. Can you imagine trying to learn in this atmosphere?

"It was really overwhelming," said Pedretti, Central High School sophomore.

These Central High School sophomores are getting a lesson on what it's like to be a student with a disability in a classroom.

"It's really difficult doing these exercises and frustrating," said Michael Londergan, Central High School sophomore.

This activity simulates what it might be like to experience a sensory overload. The workshop is presented by Western Technical College students studying to be predicators.

"By doing that we are hoping that the students could understand what its like to go through a class day trying to learn something new with everything going on around them that they can't shut off," said Patty Fellows, Western Technical College instructor.

It's a common symptom among people with Serer's Syndrome or Autism. But this lesson on empathy is part of a bigger project in the La Crosse School District called One Community, One District, One Book.

"For the last three years, every year, the English department has offered a workshop or an opportunity for English students, or the entire high school, to meet with an author," said Mary Newgard-Larson, Central High School English teacher.

But this year, teachers in the La Crosse School District took the event a bit further.

"We decided that rather than just have this author come and work with our students that, really, the author should be one that the entire community should come and see," said Newgard-Larson.

So, a grant was written to the La Crosse Public Education Foundation. The foundation gave $8,000 to Central and Logan High Schools to purchase copies of the National Award Winning book, Mockingbird, about a young girl with Asperger's Syndrome, and to bring the author to La Crosse for a public event.

"We liked this application because it was so powerful," said Geva Thole, La Crosse Public Education Foundation executive director. "We knew it wasn't about just a book. This was about so much more than a book. This was about teaching kids about Autism; teaching kids empathy. The ripple effect was going to be huge and we could see that. And we also liked the idea that it would bring the whole community into the project as well."

Every student in grades nine through 12 at both high schools are reading this book. And some of them, like these sophomores at Central, are being given the opportunity to actually try and understand how the main character, who has Asperger's Syndrome, thinks.

"What's happening is real learning, real understanding," said Newgard-Larson. "And those are the things that people will remember, after the unit test or after the book is read. What we remember are the things that we felt. What we remember are the things that we experience. That's why today is important."

"Just so that you can understand kind of what they're going through cause we take things for granted," said Pedretti. "Things that we do are easy for us and it's just really difficult especially when you get put in a position like this and you get to experience what it feels like for them all of the time."

So, as these students prepare to read the book Mockingbird and meet the author, their teachers are taking the students' education a bit further as they teach what true empathy feels like.

"It's hard to teach and it's essential to live... to walk in someone else's shoes," said Newgard-Larson.