Saturday, November 30, 2013

Building Communities With Inclusion

This week's reading, "Citizenship in School: Reconceptualizing Down Syndrome", by Christopher Kliewer, was inspiring and relevatory as teaching special needs' students is something with which I have had low exposure. I am in awe of the several teachers mentioned in this chapter who have seemingly become masters in altering social places so that classrooms are communities embracing the idea that diversity is normal and that "school citizenship requires that students not be categorized and separated based on presumed defect".
Kliewer examines several special needs' students who have flourished in well designed inclusion classrooms. Isaac Johnson, a student with Down Syndrome, gained acceptance  in the classroom community while interpretating and thus, showing meaning of literacy, through his teacher's design of a Where the Wild Things Are dance interpretation lesson. This wise teacher realized that "community acceptance requires opportunity for individual participation in the group, but opportunity cannot exist outside of community acceptance."
This "community connectedness" was what was lacking in John Mcgough's early learning experience in one California city where his mentally retarded label severly limited his access to a rigorous classroom. However, when his family moved to a more progressive community, which accepted and challenged him, he became productive and creative. In fact, "John's dramatic shift in persona is an example of 'altered social place' from a location of hopelessness to one filled with possibility." This happened, in part because of the recognition from community partners of John's "inherent value to the community" and in doing so fostered the opportunities needed "in establishing and confirming that value."
Much of the theoretical basis of the pedagological focus of inclusion as shared community values is found via Howard Gardner's work in "patterns of learning" which mirror democratic values. Along with the traditional school values of honing logic and linguistic skills, Gardner includes five other areas of multiple intelligences: spatial, musical, kinesthetic, interpersonal and intrapersonal - all of great cultural value but which are often ignored in schools. Kliewer cites these intelligences as areas which should be recognized and fostered in a truly inclusive classroom. Teachers of students with low cognitive functioning can, as attested by Isaac's and John's teachers, bridge understanding and build community by focusing on any/all of these multiple intelligences.
While I found this piece to be inspiring, I also wondered how building an inclusive communtiy of learners would work in secondary literacy classrooms with multiple special needs students and no aids. For instance, many city secondary schools have students with cognitive needs, second language needs, and emotional needs. Although I have never taught a child with Down Syndrome, I have taught many classes with second language learners with IEP and 501 plans. With limited staff, the IEP students are usually pulled/tutored after my class and while I would love to incorporate more classes focusing on kinesthetic or musical learning, preparation for rigorous state tests, and a curriculum focused on developing literacy via traditional reading strategies, which must be followed with fidelity, makes those lessons more difficult to squeeze in.
So, as usual, the culprit is a one-size fits all curriculum and schedule, designed to get students to pass their state tests, which makes the types of lessons/classes higlighted in this text, more difficult to initiate with my students.






  1. Typically in my school, students with disabilities have the tendency to be put on one team because of logistical needs, I would agree that although I found the text to be inspiring I would agree that the case studies and/or examples that were provided were under ideal conditions. There are other factors that must be considered.

  2. Polly, you really hit the nail on the head. The overarching problem with our educational system is the "one size fits all" approach. I think that this approach has been historically viewed as most the most efficient way to deal with large numbers of students. This model worked when students were viewed as empty vessels that needed teachers to fill them with knowledge and information. We have come to realize that this is not the case and what we need to understand is that ALL students are different (not just special education students) and come into the classroom with a variety of levels of readiness. The constant phrase used as a blanket statement in my school is "differentiated instruction." This is supposed to be the magic key that unlocks student success. Ideally we would all have the time, resources and training required to plan for the needs of every student, every day...but the truth is, there is only so much time in the day (and night!). So the greater questions become: how do we work with what we have? And How do we work smarter? A teacher in my building went to a conference recently where she met some teachers that have 175 students. Is this the way of the future? If so, what does that look like?!

  3. I also found myself questioning the logistics of incorporating students with Down syndrome into my eclectic cast of characters in my already very needy Spanish 1 class of 29 students. As you point out, we are already grappling with accommodating a wide variety of other issues at the high school level. In theory, I found myself agreeing with Kliewer and the basic humanity of inclusion, but in practice, I was thinking, HOW? I also read Brittany's blog and was equally mesmerized by her experiences and knowledge about this topic because, like you, I have no experience in inclusion classrooms in the traditional model with an aide or two. For some reason, world languages doesn't get aides in my school district, yet most of my students in Spanish 1 and Spanish 2 travel from class to class with aides in all of them. I find myself in the quandary of teaching 3 very needy classes with no special needs training. It has been trial by fire, and I'm just really trying to appreciate the good in each of these kids. Some days it is very hard, and I'll tell you honestly that I could not imagine having any more on my plate. (Today was a day like that.) At the same time, I would never want to discriminate against anyone with needs, therefore, should it happen, I would welcome it and try to make due. What else can we do?

  4. Polly I couldn't agree with you more. Today I was listening to the radio on my way to school. They were talking about the results of a ten year study on the quality of education through out the world. The test score in the US has not really changed however many other countries have improved their test score and have surpassed the ranking of the US. One of the conductors of the study suggested that the only way that the US could improve would be to make changes in the way that we teach. One of those changes should be that we give more to those students that have less. I think that it is appalling that instead of increasing your staff, the are giving you less. This makes no sense to me

  5. Polly, I totally agree with you that it is difficult to be able to service those children whose learning styles fall outside of those most useful for learning in a traditional school.

    A few years ago I attempted to teach myself something about neurolinguistic programming. What I learned was that as a teacher I can reach my students using the three basic modalities (kinesthetic, auditory, visual). That seems to work to get the information to the kids, but the problem arises when we have to assess their learning because we are limiting the ways in which they can express themselves to us.

    That is a big problem. They cannot show us (particularly on a standardized test) what they know because they do not have that skill set. So, the question. How do we get past the "one size fits all" in our teaching and still prepare our students for the "one size fits all" testing?