All for One
Ten Lessons from Inclusive ClassroomsMara Sapon-Shevin, professor of teaching and leadership programs at Syracuse University, has written more than 150 books, book chapters, and articles on cooperative learning and cooperative games for the classroom. In the following adaptation of her most recent book, she breaks her theories into application.
There is no question that in some classrooms, schools, and districts, the rhetoric of inclusion has been used to justify eliminating services and unceremoniously “dumping” students with significant educational needs back into the mainstream with little or no preparation or support. If this is what you have seen, it’s not surprising that the concept of inclusion seems ill-founded and bound to fail. But it is important not to reject a concept and commitment because of poor, halfhearted implementation. Holding those who espouse the goal of inclusion to high standards is a critical part of making inclusion successful.
Parallels can be drawn with other attempts at integration. In Cleveland, Ohio, for example, court-ordered racial desegregation was initiated on Monday, September 10, 1979. I was living in Cleveland at the time and remember reading a news story that said one of the participating white schools had placed all the incoming black students in a separate classroom on a different floor.
This, the school believed, met the “letter of the law” because the students were attending the same school. Then they communicated vociferously that desegregation didn’t work because none of the students had developed interracial relationships, and the achievement disparity between white and black students remained constant. It seems disingenuous to say that “desegregation doesn’t work”—to reject a complex concept that demands systemic and structural changes—when the implementation was so limited and halfhearted. A more accurate statement would be “attempts at desegregation implemented without thoughtful planning and consistent monitoring are unlikely to succeed.” The same can be said about inclusion.
Another key concept of inclusion, properly understood, is that students with disabilities should be represented in the school in “natural proportions.” That is, if children with disabilities represent 10 percent of the overall student population, then no classroom or school should have more than 10 percent of its students be children with such challenges.
Unfortunately, this is not the way inclusion policies usually play out in schools, for several reasons. At the most basic level, when principals or district administrators are deciding where to place students with challenges, they look for welcoming, accommodating schools and teachers, whose curricular and pedagogical practices support diversity and inclusion.
Sadly, this has often meant that schools and teachers who meet these criteria receive all of the students with disabilities, and those that are rigid, unwelcoming, or reluctant do not receive any. This invariably results in uneven distributions, often followed by resentment and grumbling. “Good” teachers often burn out because they have been given more challenging classes, and teachers who have stated their unwillingness to accommodate students with significant differences are allowed to continue to use rigid and unwelcoming models in their classrooms. Similarly, welcoming schools can be quickly positioned to serve disproportionate numbers of students with disabilities.
At another structural level, patterns of staffing and supplying support services often result in the creation of “inclusion classrooms” that serve many more students with significant challenges than would be predicted by the principle of natural proportions. A classroom, for example, with 12 students with Individual Education Programs and 12 “typical” students tends to resemble a special-education classroom much more than it does a typical classroom, eliminating many of the goals and benefits of an inclusion model. The use of the term “the inclusion classroom” should make us wonder: If Mrs. Robert’s third-grade class is “the inclusion third grade,” then what is Mr. Willet’s room next door—“the exclusion third grade?” If only a small number of classrooms are singled out to forward the mission of inclusion, it signals a larger failure to commit to inclusion in the sense that I mean to advocate.
I believe that there are 10 lessons to be learned from inclusive education and that some of these can be learned only in this setting. By exploring these 10 lessons, we can begin to understand why inclusion matters, and how the ways we structure schools and classrooms affect not only the quality of our children’s education but their abilities to shape their world in the future.
1) UNDERSTAND DIFFERENCES
It seems obvious to say that we can understand and value differences only if we are surrounded by them. Otherwise, our understanding, our acceptance, and even our tolerance are academic issues.
Within inclusive settings, students are not only exposed to a vast array of people and their differences, but also learn how to talk about these differences, to ask thoughtful questions, to connect. Many adults are remarkably awkward about differences in race, religion, ethnicity, appearance, and so on. My white university students consistently stumble when trying to talk about racial differences. “Should I say ‘black’ or ‘African-American’ or what? If someone is from Jamaica or Haiti, are they still called African-American?” Lack of experience with difference coupled with limited conversations leave us uncomfortable.
Inclusive classrooms teach us that we are all different and that we want to be talked about respectfully. The language we use—and the labels—are profoundly important in shaping our own understanding and others’ perceptions. Calling me a “middle-aged, organizationally challenged woman” feels very different from calling me “a creative woman in her prime who grasps the big picture rather than being mired in petty details.” Both descriptions are true, but which one would make you think, “Gee, I’d like to hang out with that woman!”?
What we call people does matter, and inclusive settings help us to expand our vocabularies, widen our lenses, and sharpen our kindness skills. What is at stake here is big. It is through our relationships with others, particularly those whom we perceive as different from us, that we learn who we are. We learn how to treat others, and we begin to articulate how we want to be treated as well. We learn to care for others or to turn away from their pain. We learn to reach out or to withdraw. We learn that it’s “each person for him/herself,” or we learn that we are a community, interconnected and interdependent.