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Understanding Inclusion: Insights Welcome

Wipe your differentiation at the door.

Note: This is my attempt to understand the inclusion model. I am humbly requesting any anecdotal or quantitative data you may have.

Least restrictive environment. Absolutely. Check.

And, from Inclusion: What is Inclusion?

Two Models

There are generally two models for inclusion: push in or full inclusion.

“Push In” has the special education teacherenter the classroom to provide instruction and support to children. The push in teacher will bring materials into the classroom. The teacher may work with the child on math during the math period, or perhaps reading during the literacy block. The push in teacher also often provides instructional support to the general education teacher, perhaps helping with differentiation of instruction.

“Full Inclusion” places a special education teacher as a full partner in a classroom with a general education teacher. The general education teacher is the teacher of record, and is responsible for the child, even though the child may have an IEP. There are strategies to help children with IEPs succeed, but there are also many challenges. No doubt not all teachers are well suited to partner in full inclusion, but skills for collaboration can be learned.

Differentiation is an incredibly important tool to help children with disabilities succeed in an inclusive classroom. Differentiation involves providing a range of activities and using a variety of strategies for children with different abilities, from learning disabled to gifted, to successfully learn in the same classroom.

About four or five years ago, the inclusion model was brought to the middle school where I work. There was never any training, professional development, conversation, or guidance on how this new model would look, what benefits and perhaps pitfalls may be. We as a staff have had to try to make sense of it through three administrative staffs, (and now going on the next, who’s starting next fall). I have never had a set or regular para-educator. The special education teachers in my building are some of the superlative educators I am honored to know: their voices and contributions to the inclusion model, from what I have observed, has been hamstrung from the beginning. The students are no longer in their classrooms, but in general education, so now their time and insight is diced and parsed thin. The IEPs are kept in school district drives, and unless there is an IEP meeting and a diligent review of the special education needs students on one’s roster, often these students get lost. We have no more Honors classes, so students who are seeking a faster paced class are made to scramble through the stew of differentiation. And, those in the ‘middle’ seem to push both sides further to the edge and marginalize them. The core kids tend to bully both groups, the honors and special education students, to establish their own dominance and try to hide or save face academically.

Most of what I read describes the benefits and ethical correctness of allowing those with IEPs (Individual Educational Plans) or Special Education children mainstreamed with general education classes.

Anecdotally, I have seen:

1. Where there was a 50/50 blend of Honors and Special Education students, the classroom was lively and engaged

2. Where there were 1-3 Honors students, 1-5 Special Education students, and the rest Core, there is chaos and confusion.

The Honors kids stop taking academic risks, the special education students are left to be guided by the “honors” kids because of the misconception that the honors kids will be leaders, and the core kids bully the two extremes for being ‘smart’ or being ‘stupid.’ I have had to fight for the legally-required para-educator hours for the special education kids, because it’s assumed that they are needed elsewhere, or that any of the honors-level students will step in. Anyone who’s watched Susan Cain’s The Power of Introverts knows this is wholly unfair to many honors students.

No one wins.

Sixth period, yesterday, May 12:

Two female students wrote great ode poems about their friendship, but declined to share it. I understood: their poems were great examples of odes, (the learning target). Both students would normally be considered ‘honors,’ but are in a class of 31, with 10 ‘essentials’ students including 3 special education students. “Essentials” were those two hour long blocks of reading or math instruction, so ‘essentially’ they’ve come to hate math or reading by the time I see them.

Step in one young squire, who couldn’t care less about odes, recitation, and repeatedly said ‘he didn’t get it’ and even when I checked pre-and post for understanding, would not allow himself to admit to any new knowledge. At all. It was such a clear case of obstinance, he couldn’t even feign the weakest level of engagement, compliance. Was he so terrified of showing that he gained some modicum of education he could barely function? Appearance, staring at basketball shoes, and looking good seem to be his values, at least they are at this time in his life. But what is next for him?

Recently on an NPR report, “Students’ Work Ethic Affected by Peer Groups, Desire to Be Popular,”  (one of those stories/research projects I could have conducted!), the researcher concludes:

VEDANTAM: Well, I think, as you just said a second ago, Steve, teachers and parents need to be keenly aware of how much peers affect the choices that students make. Sometimes it’s not the best idea to say everyone who wants to go the extra mile in class put up your hand because sometimes it’s better to allow students to make those choices in private so they don’t feel ostracized by their peers.

I cannot find how to help those students who need faster pacing, who may be introverts, and now are not taking risks because of peer pressure. For students to be silenced is just as egregious as those who need extra help. Most articles discuss the benefits to special education students, which I wholeheartedly agree. But it makes the assumption the faster-paced students will lead. No. Please, just no.

From Seamless Teaching: Navigating the Inclusion Spectrum:

What General Education Teachers Should Know
The central legislative force behind education’s inclusion movement is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)—the federal law that mandates that all children with disabilities receive a free appropriate public education and that “to the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities … [should be] educated with children who are not disabled.” The law also requires that each child be placed in the least restrictive environment—the educational space most like that of the child’s typically developing peers in which she can succeed academically.

Once a child is identified as having a disability (as defined by IDEA), an individualized education program (IEP) is crafted by a team of school professionals and the child’s parents or guardians. IEPs include information on academic performance, emotional and behavioral issues, and academic and behavioral goals. Teachers have a legal responsibility to implement the requirements outlined in the IEP.

• Invite the special education teacher or specialist to your classroom to see how the student does in a larger setting. “This is particularly important for students with behavior goals written into their IEPs.”

• Make sure the student who leaves your classroom for instruction is working with the same content as your students in general education. To achieve this goal, you must devote time to meeting and planning with the special education teacher.

But again: what about Honors, High-Cap, or Gifted students? Gifted students fall under the special education spectrum, too.

In a perfect world, all students would understand that there are all kinds of learners in the world. They would not feel insecurities when their learning is not on par with a peer’s, and would be confident that their paths would lead them to their own success. All students would congratulate and celebrate when every classmate does well, and not label others as “stupid” or “retarded,” or teacher’s pet – I don’t hear that colloquialism too often, but the sentiment is still there.

Students at the beginning of this year shared this horrible Youtube video about a little boy whose uncle makes fun of him when he doesn’t get a math answer right. The repeated word is “21.” After awhile, I told students the next one to say “21” in that context would receive a lunch detention. Yes, their repetition of that meme got to that point. I explained to them carefully why I hated that video, and why it was not funny. They are more interested in laughing at others and establishing a pecking order than actually learning about their own learning style. The other terrible phrase that’s cropped up this year is “neck,” or ‘that’s neck.’ It means you verbally slap someone on the back of their neck to show how stupid they are. Right now I am really tired of the meanness, the lack of self-respect, and fear many of my students have. I feel we have done a terrible job of inclusion, and I’m not sure how to fix it. Lectures on kindness are meaningless. For middle school students, whom I am now labeling ‘in the trough’ (more on this theory later), they are unique creatures. Many don’t have the simple kindness and empathy they had in elementary school, and lack the maturity they will gain in high school: they are wholly concerned with how they will appear to their friends, as either too smart or dumb. Being “smart” is the greater sin. A student was surprised when I said many kids don’t want to appear ‘smart,’ or interested in what they’re learning, and when I gave him examples of what other students actually said, he understood. This is more than growth-mindset. This is truly their future.

What are we teaching our children to value? If we are to make inclusion successful, what will it take for the middle years?