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September 1, 2000
Vol. 58
No. 1

We Teach All

Including special-needs students in general-education classrooms can be challenging for teachers, administrators, and students—but it is well worth the effort.

Hey, Ms. S, what's up?" John called out as he entered the science room.
"Hi, John," his teacher responded casually. "You know what's up today. Are you ready to work? Can you help your lab partner?"
"Sure," John said as his backpack thudded onto the floor. John sat down and watched the rest of the students file into the room. The teacher waited to see what John would do. It was October, and John was learning the routine.
Students walked over to the lab tables and took out their materials to finish the preceding day's lab. John's partner, Matt, slid in the door at the bell. John and Matt had already decided how they would share lab responsibilities. John picked up and returned all materials. Matt made sure they went through the experiment step-by-step while John checked off each step. Matt recorded their findings and explained the essence of the discovery, and John asked questions.
Matt is a typical sophomore attending a large, suburban high school noted for its academic achievement. John, a student with significant learning challenges, is learning science with his peers. Just a few years ago, John would have been placed in a special science class with other students who had significant learning needs. Today, to the wonder of many adults, he is enrolled in a regular-level science class.

A Program for Inclusion

John's success story, like the stories of many others, comes after a few long years of trial, error, and teamwork. Encouraged by parental advocacy, the local school board approved a new certified staff position: an inclusion facilitator. After 20 years in an English classroom in a neighboring district, I was charged as the new inclusion facilitator to set the wheels in motion. I was willing to break new waters because, as a former teacher of students in the "bottom track," I had witnessed firsthand the effects of tracking. I believed that good teaching is good teaching, no matter what the ability of students. The principal agreed: "Inclusion is not only legal, it's the right thing to do. We don't know how to do this, but we know we should include these individuals because it's right."
Before the special-needs students arrived, administrators and faculty had two years of training. Concerns and questions flew around the school. What were those students doing in these rigorous classes? Why did they have to learn the content? Wouldn't they be better off learning domestic skills? "What's an IEP [individual education plan] got to do with learning about Africa?" one teacher asked. "I'm not trained," another said.
Always working with the assistant principal, I jumped in to support faculty. I surmised that everyone's biggest enemy was time. Because classroom teachers did not have the time to go to children's libraries or bookstores to get material for their next unit, I took care of it. Because the faculty did not have time to listen to all of the parents' concerns, I addressed them. The assistant principal and I were in constant communication.
The second biggest enemy was fear. The faculty members were committed to teaching and were justifiably proud of their achievements. They knew their content and how to teach it. What were they supposed to do now? They had moved well beyond their comfort zone, and no one quite knew the destination. With guidance from the assistant principal, I drafted a collaborative model to begin the process of supporting the incoming students. At the center of the model was the student, with three concentric circles behind him or her: the general-education teacher, educational services support staff, and the inclusion facilitator. The idea was to meet not in IEP teams but in this newly formed student- and content-centered team.
With strong administrative and parental support, the school officially launched its inclusion policy with five special-needs 9th graders in fall 1995. Eight other students took one or two general-education classes while they maintained their traditional special-education program. Initially, when students with significant needs were included in general-educaiton classrooms, confusion reigned. I promised to be in the classes for the initial month to discover the ability levels of the special-needs students. Next, the miniteam would meet to assess how each student was handling the curriculum and adjusting to high school. From that, the team could lay out patterns of work, expectations, homework assignments, and assessments for the next unit. The team made decisions on the basis of the student's ability. That concept was a major shift in thinking for most teachers who had spent their careers comparing student achievement with course content. At the same time, some faculty faced another transition: Their classes shifted from ability-level grouping to heterogeneous grouping.
There were roadblocks. Not all teachers were available to meet when support teachers (or teacher's aides) were available. Not all teachers could easily identify the key concepts in their class. I spent a majority of my time communicating with families when I had hoped to be in classes developing support plans for students. Parents threatened the school with lawsuits.
However, each year, more teachers understood their responsibilities to all students and welcomed the assistance from the inclusion offices. Parents began to trust the individuals who worked with their children. Trust develops when the relationship between school and parents permits it. The administration hired faculty and related services personnel to support special-needs students in general-education classrooms. They developed curricular files through the efforts of support staff who often were "one-year wonders," stopping by our school on their way to full-time teaching positions.
In the second year, the new support teachers were thrilled with the files, many of which were on computer disks. Teachers needed to change some items to reflect a different learning need or a different teacher's style, but at least a base existed for them. A team of general-education faculty worked with me and the school's technology team to store adapted materials on the school's computer server for easy access by all faculty and staff.
But during the first year, the measuring barometer was the students' smiles as they boarded buses at the end of the day. Each day, the assistant principal and I watched as the students got on the buses. Lots of smiles meant success.

A Team Effort

How does our inclusion policy work? At the beginning of each unit, I meet with the classroom teacher and the support teacher to discuss key concepts. Once we establish a pattern, I fade out of these meetings, letting the teacher and support teacher call on me only as needed.
In John's science class, for example, I am fortunate because the experienced teacher can easily and clearly identify key concepts and learner outcomes. The science teacher explains what activities the whole class will participate in and what she expects any student to be able to know and do at the end of the unit. The support teacher chimes in with her observations of what John has been able to achieve in the last unit and the types of support that she used. Because vocabulary is part of the normal routine, the science teacher identifies which vocabulary words support the key concepts. The support teacher is charged with creating the adaptations, which the science teacher and I will review. I help the support teacher choose types of materials according to the student's needs—visual, oral, kinesthetic—and help clarify language.
The support teacher often uses children's reference books for clarity. Students review the material at home and again in a Reading in the Content Area class or in study hall. Qualified students can take Reading in the Content Area as an elective. In this course, students who need to improve reading fluency and comprehension skills work with materials adapted to support their core classes. This differs from the remedial reading classes that add more work to a struggling student's load. Here, students clearly connect the reading to their core courses. They also gain credits toward graduation. Most special-needs students earn credits at the same pace as their peers. Thus, a student who in the past may not have had the opportunities to be with his peers is now supported in a general-education class and is on the way to earning a diploma.

Reading Challenges

In a junior English class, students are studying Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. The class will spend three weeks addressing a number of themes, including opportunities for black women, an individual's struggle for his or her beliefs, and choices. Two students with significant learning challenges are part of this class of 52 students taught by two certified instructors and assisted by a support teacher.
Jason learns best if someone reads information to him or presents it orally. He needs help staying focused on academic work. Joe reads independently at a 4th grade level but has limited experience in reading a full-length novel. In the past, as a prereading activity, Joe viewed a movie that was based on the novel or listened to full-length audiotapes. But the Hurston novel has not been commercially recorded or adapted.
For the special-needs students, reading the original text is out of the question because it is written in a dialect. Even if a volunteer could record the text on audiotapes, the students would not grasp the story line because of the strong dialect and the difficult vocabulary level. Should someone write a summary, record it, and have the students listen? Should the students listen to class discussion and take a two-question quiz the next day rather than on the same day as their peers? Finally, the teachers and I agree that retelling the story would be best. I rewrite the book at a 4th grade level and create objective quizzes, tests, and answer keys. The teacher assistant works with the students in study hall to ensure that the prereading activities and chapters are in each student's backpack.
One student reads the version independently; the other asks his family to read it to him at home in the evenings. The students stay in the classroom with their peers, take modified quizzes, and join in the discussion. When the class members write their final essays, the two students take an objective test on the adapted version and write essays connecting the theme to their own lives. The novel is one of the choices that the students can use for an end-of-semester America is Art project. The students know the story line and understand the characters' choices. We add the adapted version of the novel to the files of materials for next year's students.
In world cultures class, 9th graders are assigned research projects to complete at home. All students receive packets of examples, instructions, and deadlines. Ann, who reads at a 2nd grade level, does not have support to help her at home. When she hands in her homework, it is obvious that an adult has simply done it. The teacher, support teacher, and I agree on a modified project that she can complete in school under the direction of the support teacher in study hall. The plan respects Ann's wish and her IEP goal to keep her disability private from her peers. Ann does not give formal speeches or read aloud in classes so her peers do not discover her disability. The class packet is sent home to keep the parent informed. On presentation day, Ann stands proudly and silently by her poster that depicts jewelry worn in African ceremonies.

Learning to Communicate

In another junior English class, students wanted to learn to communicate with Scott, an autistic student who used facilitated communication. As a 9th grader, Scott provoked much consternation among the faculty and students for his distinct gait, flapping hands, and verbal questions that seemed unrelated to the topic. Slowly, Scott taught an entire school how to communicate with him. Scott's peers saw him work with his support teacher and me on a small Alpha-Smart computer. At the end of 10th grade, Scott's peers asked to be scheduled into classes with him as juniors. They were fascinated by the twists, turns, and insights that came about because of Scott's learning challenges.
Students understood that despite Scott's challenges, he was very intelligent. They decided that it was important to talk directly with Scott and not to always have an adult present. Five students and the English teacher arranged for communications training. Scott allowed each of them to enter his world of communication. Scott's disability prevented him from writing 10-page papers, but his teacher understood that Scott could take objective tests, write poetry, and respond to short essays. At their graduation in 1999, the students all talked about the magic of that English class.

Benefits for All

Five years ago, only a few faculty had the opportunity to teach diverse learners. Today, the majority of faculty has learned what it means to teach all students. Few teachers question the students' rights to be in general-education classes. Now their concerns focus on providing the correct materials for each individual learner. Teachers know that inclusion must be meaningful for all the students in their classroom. For those who need it, teachers can seek new skills through the district's collegial coaching staff development program. All students have the opportunity to learn with their peers, not because it's required by law but because it's right.

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