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Inclusion Teaches Kids Who Struggle How to Succeed

Soapbox is an occasional Education World feature that gives educators a chance to express their views.

Cossondra George is a middle school math teacher. As a former special education teacher, she has a unique perspective on the value of inclusion.

By Cossondra George

I don't remember a lot from when I was in seventh grade. Maybe it was just too long ago. Or maybe nothing significant happened that year.

I remember being sent to the office for chewing gum in science class.

I remember another day when someone broke a jar that held a fetal pig preserved in formaldehyde. We got to go home early that day.

And, I remember the kids across the hall. The kids in Mr. Adams' class. The ones other kids called names like "retard" or "dummy." The ones other kids made fun of -- not just behind their backs, but also to their faces. I can still see the looks on their faces, the wounded looks.

I can still hear those taunts too. We all knew the "special" kids understood the taunts other kids made. Other kids, never me. Well, maybe once or twice me, but not like the mean kids did.

Isn't it odd that among the few memories I have of seventh grade, I remember those kids?

WAY BEFORE INCLUSION

In the past, "special education" always meant being educated somewhere else. Somewhere special. In a place that really wasn't all that special at all.

Then along came state and federal mandates, most notably the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA.) That federal regulation enforced placement of special students in the "least restrictive environment." Inclusion became the new buzzword as special students were placed in regular programs with their peers.

Today, there are those who advocate elimination of inclusion programs. On both sides of the inclusion debate you find parents of special education students and regular education students, special education teachers, regular education teachers, and students.

As a regular education teacher who spent the first years of my career teaching in special education classrooms, I am a strong inclusion advocate.

When I taught special education, I pushed for my students to be taught the regular curriculum whenever possible. I wanted to challenge my students to reach their full potentials. When they were "included," my students had other students to look up to as role models, academically and socially. My students saw what successful students did in order to be successful. They wanted to fit in, and they imitated the appropriate behaviors exhibited by their classmates. They saw that appropriate behaviors were rewarded, and that other behaviors were inappropriate. Beyond the social skills learned, their academics also soared. The curriculum was challenging, pushing them to reach beyond the safety of their comfort zones.

BACK IN THE REGULAR CLASSROOM

Now that I am teaching in a regular classroom setting, whenever possible, I still want all children included in my classes. Even a child who struggles and cannot master all the skills in the curriculum will benefit from the exposure to the variety of topics covered in regular seventh grade math.

When students are pulled out for a subject, special ed teachers tend to "dummy-down" the curriculum; they want students to work at a level at which they can experience total success. Those students are often never exposed to geometry or algebra topics. In my class, at least they have the opportunity to glean a bit about those topics. They may not master every topic we cover during the year but, realistically speaking, neither do some regular education students.

Some parents of regular education students balk at the idea of special-needs students being included in classes with their children. They feel the curriculum will be held to a lower level because of those students. But that is simply not the case. More likely, the "normal" child will benefit from the experience of working with and being a mentor to someone who struggles.

Schools, especially middle and high schools, are not only training fields for college; they are training fields for life. The kids we teach need to be exposed to a diverse range of people with skills in a variety of areas. They need to find ways to help others succeed. They need the opportunity to be leaders.

Life does not sort people into those who struggle and those who find certain tasks easy; why do we in school then?

Cossondra George has been a middle level educator for 11 years. She teaches seventh grade math and social studies at Newberry Middle School in Newberry, Michigan. George started her career as a middle school learning disabilities teacher, and has also taught consumer education, public speaking, and American history.