Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Getting to the "Us": Peacemaking in the Inclusive Classroom

I remember the "resource room" stigma.

In my elementary school, it was the five or six students who used to be taught in what were essentially closets, who used to eat at a separate table in the cafeteria with their teachers, who seemed completely in their element with each other but who when one of them would board my school bus in the afternoon seemed suddenly isolated and ostracized (probably because she was, probably because we ostracized her). My reaction to my classmates then seemed one of contradictions: I remember feeling occasionally envious of their bond with each other but never so envious that I wanted to befriend them myself. I never really felt able to be friends with them; I felt like I had too much not in common, that we were fundamentally different. Mostly, I regarded them with curiosity, when I regarded them at all.

The more I write, the more troubled I am that I keep using one word: them. That I saw a Them at all is really where the problem lies. I mean, I'm not naive enough to think that we should be "colorblind" to differences between students, but I am struck by how institutions can reinforce and stigmatize differences. (After some thought, I am comforted - or at least, less shamed - that I can at least remember one name: Dolly. She was the girl who rode my bus and who would join us for gym but nothing else. Better to have names instead of them's. It's the meagerest but most tangible sign of respect.)

And all of this was eight years after Congress passed what would become known as Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the landmark law that sought to ensure that all children with disabilities have access to free and appropriate public education in the "least restrictive environment," legalese that means that students should be educated in a regular classroom with their peers whenever possible.

It wasn't until this week that I took three steps back far enough to notice just how much things have changed in the decades since Dolly and I shared a twice-a-day bus ride. While students are still occasionally pulled out for special services, these days the majority of the 6.3 million students enrolled in special education - more than half of whom have learning disabilities - learn alongside their peers in inclusion classrooms.

I am teaching Peace Games this year in an "inclusion school." More than half of the students have IEP's. The class size is smaller than I'm used to. Each grade has the help of a paraprofessional - and I'm told that additional reading and "inclusion specialists" are available to work one-on-one or in small groups with students. On the surface, it's a very welcoming, very promising, very hopeful place. The hallways are colorful. The teachers are skilled. And the students are charming.

I suspect that it won't stray that far from most schools I've been lucky enough to see these last five years, but I am suddenly more tuned into what it will mean to teach, talk about, and practice peacemaking in an "inclusive" environment. I look back on my own experience, and I am struck by just how much subtle, unconscious exclusion I was a party to and how much of it was because students whose disabilities would be considered mild were separated from me. And how prone I was to misunderstanding them, to judging them "different" or "less than," as a result. There was never a chance that we might be friends - or even friendly, for that matter.

Early elementary school is prime ground for children's social development. And friendship - what it means, how it shifts, how it gets mended - is at the vanguard of peacemaking for an eight year-old. That all of the students will share the same space may not be the solution, but it's an essential step in the right direction.

At least with all of the students sharing the same classroom, we can rightfully call ourselves "us."

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Making It All A Game

Stephen J. Dubner, co-author of the New York Times bestseller Freakonomics (and current NY Times blogger), recently marveled at the methods of his son's first grade teacher, who designed a unit in which students would systematically assess the merits of the Central Park playgrounds. It is the kind of experiential education that we tend to think of as the foundation of any effective lesson plan, especially in Peace Games.

It made me think about how I try to re-cast the less glamorous aspects of a Peace Games lesson, like yet another brainstorm, as a "game." Instead of asking my third grade students what feelings they know, I unveil a piece of posterboard with "FEELING WORDS" written in colorful marker at the center and lots of different colors at my disposal. I challenge them to see if they can think of twenty feeling words. It's a game, I tell them - or perhaps more accurately, a challenge.

Remarkably, they treat it as such. They all clamor to add another word to the list. The old standards are first - happy, mad, sad - but after awhile, even their teacher is amazed at how many words they know: tired, hungry, surprised, frustrated, furious, bored, thankful. Some students ask if they can add words in Spanish: enojado, in addition to the standard feliz or triste. We get to twenty words easily, and I challenge them to get to thirty. There is certainly no paucity. I try to prompt them with acting out some feelings, previewing an activity that they'll do in a future lesson.

We keep the list in the classroom for the entire semester, referring back to it often. I remind them, to the delight of the teacher, that using lots of "feeling words" (a less stilted and more direct way of referring to adjectives) is important not just for peacemaking but for good writing.

On the surface, playing a game and brainstorming feeling words have little to do with each other, but to me the common denominator of both is the level to which we are able to engage students in the activity. It's part creativity, part enthusiasm, and part semantics. Brainstorms are tiresome; games are exciting.

As we begin another year, remember to make those lesson plans come to life. And don't forget to share that wisdom with the rest of us.