Monday, September 26, 2011

Inclusion: One teacher's experiment

Sheila Dobson (above with son Ben) teaches a class for students with developmental disabilities at Sutton District High School in Ontario. She and colleague Andy Hagerman designed a three-week unit called Inclusive Recreation to bring together four classes for students with disabilities with a regular Grade 11/12 Recreational Leadership class. She shared the challenges and rewards of her first experience with inclusion in this piece from the summer issue of BLOOM. Sheila came to visit me a few months ago and she is the kind of teacher every parent would hope for. Thanks Sheila! Louise

Inclusion: One teacher's experiment
By Sheila Dobson

I started teaching special education two years ago, after being a guidance counsellor for most of my career. I knew very little about inclusion, other than being the parent of a child with autism and the joy and heartache that seem to be part of that territory.

I was looking for ways for my students to get to know students in the mainstream and for the mainstream to get to know my students. It’s not that anyone is unkind to my students, but there’s a barrier: it’s like being on different sides of the glass and not being able to communicate. I was searching for a way to make the glass disappear; for our kids to know each other as peers.

Andy and I designed the unit on Inclusive Recreation with ordinary high school kids in mind. The Grade 11/12 class we partnered with is not remarkable. They’re not gifted or elite athletes. They’re just ordinary kids texting at the back of the class and wondering what they’re doing on the weekend. When we began the unit we talked first about the necessity for honesty—that if they couldn’t ask me the questions they were thinking, or if they felt constrained by using correct language or being ‘nice,’ we probably wouldn’t get far.

We did some exercises to help them identify how they felt about disability and inclusion. I asked what words came to mind when they thought of a person with a disability. They wrote about being sad and afraid. They talked about the randomness of a person’s movements, verbalizations that were unclear and a general lack of understanding. This allowed us to have the honest discussions we needed to have before the students could begin interacting together.

We used a few articles from BLOOM to create some context for them, and we had some discussion about the ‘why’ of inclusion, with the emphasis on everybody benefitting. We did a disability simulation where they had a chance to use wheelchairs or experience certain types of disability, such as navigating the school wearing a blindfold.

Then we plunged them, without warning, into an inclusive situation. We paired them up with our community class students, and we played co-operative games. It was a roaring success. My favourite was amoeba tag. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the sight of one of my students dragging his mainstream partner (who was madly trying to hold up his low-slung jeans) around the gym floor.

In guard tag, teams of six kids of all abilities guard a wheelchair from the person who’s ‘it.’ The object is for ‘it’ to try to tag the student in the wheelchair by reaching through the circle of kids who have linked arms around him or her. It was exciting and everyone enjoyed it. More importantly, it gave the mainstream kids a sense of who we are and allowed them to connect in a powerful ‘us’ as opposed to ‘them’ way. We talked about how we structured the games so that everyone can participate and is safe.

Then each mainstream student was paired with one of my students to design an inclusive recreation experience. They learned about principles of inclusive recreation and the board’s safety guidelines. They came up with a number of activities like basketball, badminton, dancing, cooking and going for a walk together. Finally, they organized and hosted an adapted floor hockey tournament for students with disabilities from our whole board. Our final activity will be a slide-show and evaluation of the experience to help us refine the unit for next year.

The number one benefit I’ve seen for my students is that their world is bigger. Now when we’re walking in the halls, mainstream kids will say “Hi.” They know each other and they connect with each other. For the mainstream students, it was a chance to talk honestly about ability in a general sense: “What is able? What does it mean to be disabled or differently-abled?” I saw their perceptions change so much.

The biggest challenge we had was to help the mainstream students overcome their fear and lack of exposure. Given the chance, our students can and will be inclusive. They want to rise to any challenge. They just need to know how. The cooperative games—where the emphasis was on working together—were awesome. In this unit we were able to create authentic opportunities and scaffold the learning so that everyone was safe and successful.

If I had to offer advice to other teachers, it would be to keep the experiences short—20 to 25 minutes—and to give the students enough time to process and talk about their experiences. Our mainstream students did some cartooning to express how they felt about the disability simulation. Some of my students wrote a letter to their recreation partner to share what they enjoyed.

Overall, it was a great beginning. I’m passionate about making the world bigger for all of our students.


Essential best practices for inclusive schools


Why is this called an "experiment"? Students are not guinea pigs.

Inclusion is about automatic acceptance and belonging. It's not about calling kids "mainstream kids" or "community class students" or other labels that separate and marginalize. Until language usage changes, there will continue to be obstacles to overcome in achieving inclusive schools.

Kids are kids. They should all be considered "ordinary" --that's the beauty of authentic inclusion.

It would be nice to know what happened long after this three week unit took place. Did any of the relationships become long lasting? Did any of the new relationships continue outside of school hours --that's a true test of friendship. Do the kids call each other at home? Go out together after school? Get together on the weekend?

How did this 'experiment' affect other students in the school, as well as the administors, teachers, caretaking staff, guidance staff and the other adults? Did they change the way they see and treat her students? That is, did the school culture change?

The inclusive schools resource at the end of the article is excellent. Thanks for including it.

Hi Anonymous -- thanks for writing.

I wrote that headline, and was using the word experiment in its broadest use -- 'to try something new or different.' In this particular school, inclusion of students with and without disabilities is new.

While we can talk about how inclusion "should" be in an ideal world, we're working with boards that have chosen to take a segregated approach to teaching kids with disabilities.

So when a teacher in such a school goes to great efforts to bring students together -- I applaud her.

Are any children "automatically accepted" by their peers? I think that's a goal to strive for -- a place where kids see diversity as a natural part of life and enriching.

But we can't move from segregation to 'automatic acceptance' in one fell swoop. Baby steps are better than no steps!

I agree with what you're saying about how language can separate and stigmatize.

It's an uphill battle in boards that are structured to 'not include.'

But rather than criticize attempts at inclusion because they don't meet an ideal -- I welcome them and what we can learn from them.

I would love to hear more about your experiences with inclusion. Thanks!

What a wonderful concept. You did indeed make everyone's world better. Can't wait to hear what the next idea you come up with to help the students be a part of each other's worlds.

I'd love to see you do it every semester with a new group of non-disabled students. Friendships can't occur until time is spent together. And you are enabling the time, after that it's up to the students... all of them.