How this special ed teacher got creative in composing a crucial message to his students.

"What I'm about to tell you will change everything in an instant."

The last person you might expect to give a booming spoken-word performance is a seemingly soft-spoken teacher.

But Craig Duchemin, a special education teacher at Charles Hart Middle School in Washington, D.C., found that it was one of the best ways to reach his students — namely, those with autism.


He uses unique strategies to connect with kids of all backgrounds, and poetry set to music is his most recent approach.

Watch Craig's video below:

Duchemin joins other educators from across the country who partnered with Old Navy's cause platform ONward! to create an album of songs that encourage kids to let their unique selves shine through.

While students in his classroom face a number of challenges, ranging from mild behavioral problems to autism, Duchemin is able to forge special relationships with all of them and communicate with them so effectively that he was recognized for it with an Award for Excellence in Teaching.

All images via Old Navy.

His message, "I choose you," is loud and clear: Each of his students are special, unique, and valuable based on their individual merits as people, not outside factors like appearance or clothes.

"I care more about who you are than who you wear. I choose the brain that oozes creativity, not your hairstyle," he says in his performance piece. "I choose you being different because your difference is brilliance. You are more than a label, more than a definition."

Special educators are truly some of the hardest workers in teaching — and Duchemin is no exception.

In 2009, Teach for America brought him to teach at Hart Middle School, where students also face economic challenges: 100% of students there qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

That's why his work is so important. Duchemin strives to show kids that their individual challenges are part of what make them who they are — and that who they are is special.

His efforts reach beyond the lessons of the classroom, teaching kids to be confident in their own unique selves.

Duchemin's special relationships with his students is what keeps him going.

"That’s the easiest part, loving these students and really getting to know them and developing relationships with them," Duchemin told reporter Carolyn Phenicie in a 2016 interview.

For some of these children, communication can be their #1 barrier to a career, social life, and other opportunities, so a tireless advocate like him can help provide the resources and strategies they need to communicate messages of strength, hope, and self-confidence.

"You are fearless, and worthy, and valuable," he speaks. "You, my friend, matter. You are what this world needs."

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Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

RELATED: This fascinating comic explains why we shouldn't use some Native American designs.

Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

Frozen II features Indigenous culture much more directly, and even addressed the issue of Indigenous erasure. Filmmakers Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, along with producer Peter Del Vecho, consulted with experts on how to do that respectfully—the experts, of course, being the Sámi people themselves.

Sámi leaders met with Disney producer Peter Del Vecho in September 2019.Sámediggi Sametinget/Flickr

The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

RELATED: This aboriginal Australian used kindness and tea to trump the racism he overheard.

Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

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