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A few more thoughts on Inclusive Education

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ImageI didn’t mean to do a series on Inclusive Education but that’s exactly what ended up happening so tonight I’m finishing that series off by sharing my final paper for my educational psychology class with you. Learning from those we label

I based my paper around a great children’s book “The Black Book of Colors” by Menena Cottin & Rosana Farin.  Even if you don’t read my paper this book is worth checking out.  It describes the colours the way a blind child experiences them.  The illustrations are black on black so they can best be felt rather than seen.  It is a feast for the tactile sense and the poetic words provide a brief insight into the way people without sight perceive the world around them.

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Social Inclusion is Just as Important

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Discuss the strategies teachers are likely to use to help exceptional students be part of the social and academic life of the classroom? 

 

This chapter really spoke to me because I think it got to the heart of inclusion.  It isn’t enough to just have exceptional students in the classroom, we have to include them in the social network of the classroom.  I think this is an area teachers have held themselves back in because they don’t want to interfere with children’s friendships.  I think it is generally felt that adults can’t and shouldn’t dictate to children who they are friends with.  However, in an age of anti-bullying education and inclusive education it is time to re-evaluate these opinions.  Chapter 9 does a really good job of explaining how a teacher and school community can help exceptional students form friendships.  

 

The first strategy the chapter demonstrates is probably the simplest strategy but can go along way.  It is the description of the teacher addressing the class and explaining the exceptionality to the class and then stating the student would be a full member of the class.  Right from the start this teacher is establishing an open relationship where it is okay to discuss the exceptionality in a respectful way and an expectation that the student would be included.  I think children are often more accepting than adults because our social fears limit us.  This example resonated so strongly for me because it related to some of the experiences I’ve had with my father.  My dad is a paraplegic and confined to a wheelchair.  My little cousins weren’t born before his accident so they are growing up knowing him in a wheelchair.  They are much less awkward than many adults are with my dad.  When small they would push him around thinking he was the best adult and they loved taking a ride with Uncle Neil.  Where most adults are scared to ask questions and worry about offending these children are open and accepting of my dad. They ask him questions and if he doesn’t want to answer or it may be awkward he addresses this.  I think that the teacher in the text example set a good example for her students by allowing them to address the exceptionality and natural curiosity that happens when someone is different from ourselves.  It’s not rude to ask questions if it allows you to build a relationship.  By having the teacher there to aid the student in this initial encounter they can help address questions that may be too personal. 

 

I think that the next step that needs to happen after this first encounter is to help students to find activities that they can share and participate in.  The example with the blind girl is a case where this step wasn’t applied.  The more chances you can give the students to have meaningful exchanges the more likely they are to build a relationship.  This is true of all people that friendship grows out of shared common experience.  As a teacher I was glad to see that the IIP has a space for friendship goals and also areas for outside activities and organizations.  I was glad because I think that for a friendship to grow there needs to be contact between the students outside of school.  The more involvement the student has with peers and activities the more shared common ground will be created. 

 

I also liked that cooperation was stressed over competition.  In traditional schooling competition is an important element.  However as an educator I have tried to stress cooperation because I have found that it has created healthier relationships between my students.  Even with my efforts there are elements of competition I can’t completely erase such as ranked grading.  However, by stressing that by working together we all achieve better results we can make it more of a team effort.  I think especially for exceptional students competition can be difficult because rarely is the playing field even for them.  My dad would play basketball with my sisters and I but rarely did he win when playing one on one because the net was that much higher for him and he didn’t have much of a jump shot.  However, when he worked on a team with one of us he was amazing at defense and his teammate could take the shot.  Together his team often won our matches.  Putting students with exceptionalities on our classroom team means we all can succeed in ways we might not have even imagined.  

 

I think the last part of mediating social relationships is helping students learn how to handle difficulties.  I think teachers are getting better at this skill because of the rise in anti-bullying education but there is always room to grow.  Giving students chances to practice social skills in structured settings is an important part of this education especially for students who might not have had much interaction with peers in the past.  Through social stories and role plays examine student responses both positive and negative to situations.  Developing empathy for each other is important to so give students a chance to see what it is like in another students shoes through these type of activities.  

 

As apart of the wider school community I look for ways I can build anti-bullying programs into the school culture.  I’ve seen several examples of this but the most common one I’ve seen here in Regina is the Circle of Courage that a lot of public schools are using.  Sometimes teachers can have a lot of say in the school culture just by their behaviour in the staff rooms and staff meetings.  I have found that it is most important for me to be an advocate for my students in these spaces especially students that are perceived as challenging.  Often teachers can become negative in these spaces and it can undermine the efforts of the school to be a welcoming space.  That’s one of the biggest traps I’ve noticed teachers falling into and that negativity has trickled into their classroom and interactions with students.  This can undermine all the best efforts they’ve put in.  Negativity can be even more contagious than chicken pox I’ve noticed in my work history.  So I want to be a positive role model for my students and bring that positive energy into the staff areas to help create a healthy staff climate that hopefully ensures that positive results for students.  

Some thoughts about Aboriginal Education

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The needs of Aboriginal students has come up often in the course of my degree program here at the University of Regina.  However, in the past the discussion has focused on the reasons why we should be trying to meet the needs of Aboriginal students.  I understand the why and I believe we should be meeting their needs.  Over and over I asked the question of “How do I do this?” rarely have I been given an answer beyond differentiated instruction.  In this class I finally got a glimpse into the how and it made me feel more at peace with this big educational issue.   

 Hearing from Steve how project based learning has helped and getting his perspective on how to plan and implement this type of programming was excellent.  In the early years I often think through my teaching based on themes which is very similar to projects and getting a glimpse into how Steve and his team mates did their long range planning helped me understand for the first time how to bring everything together.  It also gave me hope that I am on a track that can offer the flexibility and support that Aboriginal learners need.  I saw first hand in my pre-internship at Albert school a lot of the issues that Steve mentioned: transient lifestyles, attendance issues, and lack of family support.  By following a less linear planning style and instead thinking through your planning as modules that students can complete based around a concrete product that they are interested in I can see how students are engaged and needs accommodated.  

A big struggle for me has been being asked to teach a culture and beliefs that are not my own.  Not because I think that the Aboriginal culture has no merit but because I am an outsider to that culture.  Often the answer to this struggle has simply been “educate yourself” and I do believe that this is a starting point. The text gave me hope that beginning here can help me be effective.  “‘Non-native teachers who are most successful [teaching Aboriginal students] are those who are continually learning, who understand and accept Native ways and who can then transmit values, beliefs and behavioural norms which are consistent with those of the community.’ (Gilliland, 1999) “  In my studies I have found a lot of values I have connected with and feel I am transmitting in my teaching.   

I also saw at Albert school the importance of bringing in those in the community like Elders to share their culture and beliefs.  The students seemed to like these sessions and they responded well to them but I was left uncertain whether the understood that this was “their culture”.  In one of these sessions the presenter was telling a story about the buffalo.  When she asked if anyone had ever seen a buffalo I was the only one in the room that had.  I saw the students struggle to connect to the story because it didn’t relate to where they are.  These are inner city students who rarely leave the city is a story about hunting a buffalo going to connect them to their culture.  In another session the presenter asked them which reserve they belonged to.  Most in the room couldn’t identify a reserve and were told to ask their parents but if they never visit or live on the reserve is this going to connect them to their culture.  It could be that I witnessed some weak guest presentations but it felt to me that the presenters where teaching a history lesson more than a living culture.  Despite my few reservations about the content that was being shared, I do think it was beneficial for the students to see healthy culturally active Aboriginal role models.  Many of these students are from very broken or unstable home environments so having someone to look up to is very important.  

The text and Saskatchewan Education have also endorsed the infusion of Aboriginal content into all subject areas.  I planned my three week writing unit around the trickster tale instead of fairy tales to try to include Aboriginal culture. I feel the unit went well but I was left uncertain that the inclusion of Aboriginal culture accomplished much to help the students embrace their culture.  The effectiveness of these strategies will have to be judged more in the long range in a lot of ways but I had happy students that all successfully completed the assignment so I will have to hope that my unit was effective at showing these students that I value their culture.  This was harder to judge too because as a pre-intern I was just parachuting into an existing classroom and while I formed relationships with the students I was not there long enough to see if there was growth in their confidence, happiness and sense of self.  I was at least able to convey to them my pride and see their pride in their success at finishing their first written story.  Hopefully when they look back they will remember that feeling of success and that an adult was proud of them.  I think that is important to building strong learners of any background. 

I am just at the beginning of this journey but I am willing to take it and to continue to learn and grow.  I see now that many of the strategies that meet the needs of Aboriginal learners are not very different from the strategies to meet the needs of all my students.  This makes me feel better because I truly want all students I teach to be successful both in my classroom and throughout their life.  I want to help them build a strong foundation so that they can confront the issues that face them whether that is Aboriginal, social, economic or medical issues.   I want to help every student be the best and achieve the best.  

 

Social Inclusion

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This post references the book “Inclusion of Exceptional Learners in Canadian Schools” by Nancy Hutchinson (2010) Pearson Prentice Hall. Toronto, Ontario.

To me social inclusion means that all students are included in their same age peer group for the purpose of education and social development for some part of the school day.  For exceptional students this means that they are included where and when ever it is of benefit for them.  For some students this may mean full inclusion for others with more severe challenges it may mean only a portion of the day. I agree Hutchinson where she writes, “Exceptional students in Canada are entitled to an adapted or differentiated education programing,”(p.3) however, I would expand this to say that all students in Canada are entitled to adapted or differentiated educational programming.  I believe this because the benefit for all students is that inclusive education is focused on each students strengths and needs in order to see every student succeed.

Hutchinson writes, “expert special education teachers consistently referred to the needs and strengths of individual students rather than speaking in generalities about the class as a whole.” (p.6) I think this is the key piece to why inclusive education benefits everyone in a class.  If all teachers learned to view the class as individuals they can improve their teaching for all students not just exceptional learners.  For me as an educator one of the biggest benefits for me already is that inclusive education helps me to view all of my students as capable learners.  Instead of focusing exclusively on their weaknesses I am focused on their strengths and how they can succeed.  It just makes sense on so many levels that we would plan for our students to succeed rather than teaching all students exactly the same.

A big challenge however is that the traditional structure of schools is based on a factory model where every student is expected to be the same, perform the same tasks and therefore finish with the exact same skills.  This has even created the false assumption that to be fair everything must be equal.  To do inclusive education means a paradigm shift and that can be a difficult process.  Teachers, principals, parents and support staff all must support the change to inclusive education and commit to making the changes necessary for every student to succeed.  Right now it seems that a lot of people are giving inclusive education lip service but so far some of the funding and structural changes that need to happen have not fallen into place.  So many of the classrooms I’ve seen have had students reintegrated but the support staff and materials haven’t followed them into the classroom yet.  This creates a situation where a lone teacher is trying to meet the diverse needs of a whole class without proper support.  In these cases I think the end result will be teacher burnout and poor student responses.  This experience leads me to question wether inclusive education will succeed in reaching it’s potential.  As a teacher I can be committed to inclusive education but if I am not given the supports I need I won’t be able to fully ensure my students success. Hutchinson also highlights this writing, “They also spoke of supports that would help inclusion, including more time, appropriate teaching materials, assistants in the classroom and administrative support.” (p.23)

I hope that I am just cynical because I think inclusive education is a powerful educational ideology that views students as capable learners regardless of their exceptionalities.  I also think that inclusive education could be an amazing motivation for school reform.  As well I agree with Hutchinson where she writes, “inclusion involves the acceptance and participation of all, a way of being together rather than a place, and inclusive communities ought to be communities.” (p.24) I think this is an incredible image of the potential that inclusive education creates in our classrooms.