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."

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