I will try to make it as simple as possible. In my opinion, there are the three things that need to happen in order for our schools to become better for all learners.
1) Acceptance – Create environments of acceptance in the classroom. We may not all be the same, but we are all deserving of understanding where we are and promoting our strengths.
2) Access – A curriculum that is accessible to all learners! Modifications, accommodations and assessment are the key components to giving our students with special needs access to the general curriculum.
3) High Expectations – Never assume that what we are teaching is going over our students’ heads. This sells us (as educators) and them (as learners) short. We must always presume competence of our students and give them the support that they need in order to be successful.
Oh…and I forgot about the wildcard: Technology! Assistive technology is often the missing piece to getting a reliable communication system for our students…not to mention accessing the curriculum by moving beyond paper and pencil work. The farther technology advances, the more access our students will be able to have.
So! How in the world are you going to do all that Tim?
There is a little thing call the common core standards…maybe you have heard of them. This might be the open door that special education has been waiting for to get back into general education rooms. Before No Child Left Behind…inclusion and mainstreaming was much more the norm in public schools. When high stakes testing came around…students with disabilities started to disappear more and more from general education classrooms. The emphasis was in trying to catch students up to grade level instead of their learning be more organic and focused on strengths. Now with common core rolling out across the country, general and special education teachers have the opportunity to work together to create lessons that reach all students. There are some great resources on Universal Design for Learning (UDL). http://www.cast.org/udl/ The idea is a curriculum that expands and contracts to the diverse needs of our students rather than the one-size-fits all approach. Special Education has been doing this for years…hopefully we can lend our expertise in this area.
Beyond UDL and the common core…we need to change our focus on deficits. Special education has always been (as far as I can tell) based on a deficit model. Where are your weaknesses…how can we catch you up to where everyone is supposed to be. When I am planning for an IEP meeting, I prefer to focus on the strengths of the student and how we can make them stronger. Or in the least…use their strengths to bring up their other skills.
For instance, if a third grader who is non-verbal, a wheelchair user, and has cerebral palsy loves to grab objects and throw them on the floor…let’s create an activity within the context of a third grade common core lesson where the object is choose an answer by throwing grade-level materials on the floor. It can even be a Language Arts lesson… you know…throw bean bags on the floor filled with vocabulary words to pick nouns/adjectives/verbs for a “mad libs” activity.
I know this is out of the box thinking…but if the research says that having students with disabilities in the general education classroom does not take away anything from instruction ( http://tash.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/TASH-Myths-of-Inclusive-Education.pdf ) than we need to start thinking about what they can add to the classroom.
One last word (are you still with me?) about segregated classrooms. I absolutely applaud the work that many teachers are doing for their students in self-contained classrooms. I know that for many of them…their passion is to see their students grow to their full potential. I happen to believe that in order to prepare our students with disabilities for an integrated life in the future, they need to be integrated early and often! Please know that I am all for getting rid of segregated schools and classrooms in exchange for schools that value ALL learners BUT I am not willing to throw out the baby with the bathwater…because at this point…there is