Q: What Does Inclusion Really Look Like? Answers from a Second Grade Classroom

A: Genuine unconditional belonging. Being just one of the kids. Full respect. It was almost Thanksgiving and the whiteboard was covered with words. John, the 2nd grade teacher, had helped the children brainstorm ideas for the “gratitude letters” they were writing for their families and/or caregivers. The children were instructed to write an introductory paragraph and then get feedback from the teacher or the paraeducator before moving on.

Sam arrived late to school that day and was greeted by Lucy, the world’s most positive paraeducator. Sam’s mother and Lucy exchanged information about Sam, being careful to include him while they did. In fact, for each bit of personal information shared (e.g. “He slept pretty well last night…”), they looked to Sam for approval/disapproval—noting his smile. When Lucy brought Sam to his classroom, the children were busy writing at their desks. A few noticed Sam and appropriately and sincerely announced to the class, “He’s here! Sam is here!” John looked up, too, and everyone paused to greet Sam, then went back to their work. (No one said, “Our special friend is here.” If someone had said that, children would have expected the Tooth Fairy to show up.)

A: The presumption of competence. People believing you are smart—regardless of what you do or say (or don’t say). John told Lucy what the children were working on, and gave her instructions for Sam: “Use his yes/no system, go to the list on the board, and find out what he is thankful for. Maybe a couple of things is enough for today, given we are starting late. Print this up, write sentences, maybe some pictures off the computer. He needs to have this ready to take home.” Lucy headed off to help Sam begin his work. Later John checked in with Sam’s progress on the assignment. In addition to writing time, John wanted to work on using some new yes/no buttons he had anchored with duct tape onto Sam’s wheelchair tray.  As John showed Sam the buttons, another child came to have his paragraph read. John began to read aloud, then paused as he noticed Sam starting to dislodge the buttons from the tray. He said to Sam’s classmate, “I’ll read this aloud, and while I do, you help Sam keep those buttons on the tray, okay?” After this child received feedback about adding detail to his paragraph, he returned to his desk. Then another child approached. This time John used the opportunity to practice with the yes/no buttons: “Sam, do you want to hear Gabby’s letter?” Sam touched “yes,” and John read her letter aloud. The process was repeated with several other children.

A: Collaborative teaching teams. It is important to note that Sam was not working on communication instead of writing a “gratitude letter”; Sam was working on communication in addition to the writing assignment. This learning opportunity had depth and breadth, and the fact that 20 children needed feedback on their paragraphs was not a problem.  When John was teaching Sam for a moment, Lucy was also free to review children’s work. They both understood her role was to move between being an individualized support person and a classroom assistant. A phenomenal team, they seemed to know what the other was thinking with just a glance. Eventually, John and Sam identified two items from the list on the whiteboard that he was thankful for: his mother and Batman.

A: Creative problem-solving. Seeing crisis as opportunity. Kindness. A few moments later, what had been going well began to unravel, and Sam seemed to need an adult’s full attention. John is not the kind of teacher that would compromise the flow of his writing workshop classroom, nor is he the kind of teacher that would abandon a child—in this instance, Sam. So, John made an on-the-spot change. He asked the children who were in line for feedback to go to the rug for a moment and read to each other. He followed up later with each of them, but for that moment they read to one another and  remained “minds-on” in the writing lesson. John then directed his attention to Sam and, because he knows Sam well, he suspected he might have been physically uncomfortable. He asked Sam if he wanted to get out of his chair, and Sam used the buttons to say, “yes.” Some classmates were lying on the rug reading to each other, and others were at their desks writing. John assisted Sam out of his chair and encouraged him in a basketball-coach-kind-of-way to take some steps to get to the rug. Then John helped him lie on the floor with classmates, who (without teacher direction) included him in the reading aloud of their drafts. Lucy continued to read and give feedback to a line of waiting students. Before too long, Lucy was lying on the floor beside Sam with a quadrant board above their heads so he could express himself.

A: Dignity and respect. The commitment to include Sam in this classroom is solid. Everyone knows that Sam has lots of thoughts, and that it must be frustrating sometimes not to be able to communicate them all. No one is “testing” Sam. No one is waiting for “evidence” of his intelligence. No one is “taking data” to see if he is smart or not. Everyone believes in him, and everyone takes responsibility for figuring out communication supports.

A: Creativity, innovation, office chairs. The children were meeting in small groups to read some of their written work to one another. When John looked across the room at Sam’s group, he saw Sam sitting in his wheelchair and three boys sitting on the floor. John quickly asked the boys on the floor to each sit in one of the classroom’s big stuffed rolling office chairs. Rather than having Sam participate in the group from a foot and a half above the other kids, the office chairs put everyone at the same height. It was beautiful. And easy. The smiles on the boys’ faces sitting in those big chairs were a welcome contrast to the sometimes vulnerable faces of children transitioning from a wheelchair to a supported floor seat.

A: Teachers who are willing to be learners. John was helping the students find topics for writing in the personal narrative genre.  He wanted them to choose topics that were meaningful. John is a teacher who believes in modeling for children, so he was at the board listing his own potential writing topics. Here is his list:

Getting a new hip last year
Having Sam in my class
Putting my dog to sleep and then getting a new dog

He spoke about each topic, and asked his class to help him determine which topic might have the most meaning for him.  Midway through, he crossed off “getting a new hip last year,” noting that while it was a big event, it was not as meaningful as the other two topics. He then talked about his sadness when his old dog passed away, and his feelings of happiness and nervousness about getting his new dog. And his confusion about whether or not it was okay to change a dog’s name. He also talked about his excitement about being Sam’s teacher. And about the day he asked the principal if he could please have Sam in his class. And about how he was nervous that he might not know how to teach Sam, but that he was happy every day trying to find the best ways.

As I think back, I don’t recall which topic John chose: his old dog dying or having Sam in his 2nd grade class. It was probably being Sam’s teacher; but if my guess is wrong—and if the dog was more meaningful—well, then, that must have been a very lucky dog.

– Susan Shapiro

Photo of blog author.I am a teacher. I began as a self-contained special education teacher, who learned in one year that “mainstreaming” is a toxic model that teaches children that belonging is conditional, and something that must be earned. So I became a classroom teacher for first and second graders, and fully included students with disabilities in my class. I made huge errors (which will be described in future blogs) but I realized that at least kids with disabilities were in the right place—-the general education classroom with their peers. Then I became one of New Hampshire’s first Inclusion Facilitators, back in the late 1980’s. Later I worked at the Institute on Disability doing teacher training, technical assistance, professional writing and lots of thinking: How do we build schools so that all children are valued and have full access to all social and academic learning? I still think about this everyday. I don’t know the complete answer, but I think part of the answer is increasing the capacity of general education teachers to teach children with disabilities. So, now my job is coordinating a graduate-level elementary teacher preparation program at Plymouth State University. By design, our program has no courses in “special education”, but we have lots of courses about diversity, supports and accommodations, and differentiating instruction, assessment, and environment. I consult with school teams interested in learning designs that provide all children access to all learning. I can be reached at: sashapiro@plymouth.edu