SWIFT Talk Blog

Re-imagining education.

Through the Eyes of One of the "Other Kids"

My daughter came home from school today and told me she had bad news. Her classmate, Eleanor, was being sent to “a camp." Having been a chaperone on a few of the 5th grade field trips, I had met Eleanor. She is a kid who spends most of her school day with a handful of adults (her “team”) on the sidelines of classroom and school life. Last year--as a professional with experience in the area of inclusive education--I had offered to help figure out how to include Eleanor at school, but there was little response from the teachers. And they are “good teachers." I like these teachers! They “get it” about most of the struggles children bring with them to school, but many of them still act like spectators in the education of (some) children with disabilities. I don’t know the whole story, and perhaps there is something I am missing in the rationale, but I cannot think of any way it makes sense to tell a group of 11-year-olds that one of their classmates is being sent to “a camp." My daughter was mad. Fuming mad. She has watched Eleanor on the sidelines for two years, and begged me to come to her class to “fix it." She has come home with tales of watching the reading teacher pass out Book Club flyers, then going back to Eleanor’s cubbie, taking the flyer out, and throwing it away. She has told me tales of Eleanor being “bribed” (her word) with crumbled cookies for following directions. My daughter loves school, so to her, denying Eleanor access to books, studying math, reading about life in other lands, keeping a journal, painting, and creating pottery is a crime. (And she might be right: I do believe the law says everyone has the right to an education.) At age 11, my daughter’s career plan is to become a lawyer who fights for the rights of kids with disabilities. 

I asked my daughter to tell me more about the “camp." She said, “Oh, Mom, it’s a school. But they want her to think it’s a camp, so when they pulled the class together to tell us about her leaving, they asked us to call it that. We all had to write letters to her, wishing her luck at ‘camp.'” I asked her what she had written in her letter. Her focused and energetic advocacy shifted; she shrugged her shoulders, and quietly said, “I just wrote one thing: I told her that I would miss her.” In that moment, it seemed as if her anger stepped aside and, in its place, sat a cloud of sadness. For me, the story brought the kind of tears that fall silently when swallowing bad news. Here--in my daughter’s own class...in our local school...in 2014, almost 40  years after PL 94-142 was passed--the grown ups give up. Another school says to another child, “You cannot learn here,” and sends the child away. The tears fell because all four of my daughters care about the world beyond their individual lives, and understand something about what it means to be human. They fell because my daughter was sad about Eleanor leaving, and distrustful of the way the teachers in her school escorted Eleanor to the door. They fell because Eleanor would be leaving her classroom, her school, her home, and her town, to go to “camp” for 5th grade. But in my sadness about our limitations to support all children, and all families, I still was able to find a strand of hope.

The work of inclusive education has been underway for many years, and my professional life has been dedicated to this work. Over these years, I have sometimes felt lonely in my belief that schools can be designed to work for everyone. So imagine my joy when I attended the Professional Learning Institute of the SWIFT Project this past summer. For five days, I sat in a room with hundreds of educators from across the country who also believe in inclusive education. Who understand the difficulty of this work, but who don’t want to ever give up on defining “all” as ALL. Who recognize that we need to stop asking children to change, and, instead, change schools so that every child can access every learning opportunity. I met people who understood the story about Eleanor the way I did, and for this truth, I feel the possibility at hand for all of us. 

- Susan Shapiro

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