The terms inclusion and differentiation often bring about silent internal groans in most teachers I know. Not that these wonderful individuals dislike special education students or find it a “pain” to plan lessons that have inclusion and differentiation wrapped in. But, to be fair, there is a lot of extra work involved. Even in the most streamlined of planning, general education teachers have to put forth a good amount of extra work to modify lesson plans to meet the needs of every child in their classroom. They do it, but sometimes at the cost of having lessons that are less rich in content and excitement.
Such was the case when I sat in a meeting about these two topics and focusing around special education students. And I’ll be honest here – I had a mini moment of that myself. I teach music – it’s hard enough to teach every single child in the school and modify my lesson plans for the children with IEP’s. Throw into that mix our severely disabled students and it’s a bit overwhelming. But again, I do my best. I was just not particularly looking forward to yet another meeting on the subject at 8AM before the start of my regular day.
Then we learned about a remarkable girl named Carly Fleishmann. For more on her story, visit ABC’s site. This young lady has a severe form of autism and has never before been able to communicate. She never verbalized anything and simply “acted out” when she wanted or needed anything. And then, one day, her parents and therapists discovered that she knew how to type and had LOADS to say. Think of the implications of this. How many times have you walked around talking about your young children or a special needs individual that you assumed couldn’t understand what you were saying about them? What if they really did understand YOU but had no means by which to respond back? Would that change your reality a little bit? It certainly made me stop in my tracks when I saw this story. I can say for sure that I’ve talked about children at times like they weren’t in the room, simply because my perception was that they couldn’t understand what I was saying. Wow. Was I ever wrong.
The thing about special education that I think is so unique is that everyone is afraid of it. I know what you’re thinking – you’re not afraid of someone with special needs. That’s just silly. It’s not like they’re going to hurt you or something. But it’s more than that. I think that people in our country sometimes treat people with special needs like they have a disease that we could catch. Autism isn’t like AIDS. You can’t catch it. It’s a way that people are wired from birth. Yet, many times when people see special needs individuals, they instinctively back away. I am amazed at the people who come to school everyday to work with our special needs students. They get pushed, bitten, hit, and more and yet still keep coming back. Because they understand that these children are simply trying to communicate and have no other options to do so.
I am also uplifted by the movement in our schools to include special education students within the general education classroom as much as possible. As one educator told me today, “It’s about the students being in the general ed classroom and figuring out when to pull them out. It’s not about how to include them IN anymore.” And that’s true. When I went to school, I remember seeing special education students in the cafeteria and the hallways and that’s it. That’s just not the case anymore. Does that mean that it’s not difficult for me as a teacher? Heck no. I do that inward groan like everyone else. It’s HARD to include those kids. But it’s worth it, just because of Carly Fleishmann. If I know for sure that these special education students can hear me and really are comprehending what I’m saying, then I’m gonna put forth as much effort into teaching them as I do everyone else. And that’s what this all boils down to. Putting forth the effort into everyone equitably. Not equally – equitably.
Now, there’s a lot of people out there that say it’s not fair to the general education students to force them to be in a classroom with special education students. And at times, that’s true. If these students are being disruptive and are causing the other students to be distracted, then yes, they can be pulled out for a break. However, it’s also our responsibility to teach students compassion, understanding and how to work with people of different abilities and talents. This argument is the same argument that we were having in education in the 50’s and 60’s about segregation in our schools. Special education is the new segregation topic of the 2000’s. We need to translate all the knowledge and work we had to go through when we desegregated schools into our perceptions and understanding of special education. Only then will we truly be able to say that we believe that ALL students can learn. Carly Fleishmann certainly can. The next time you see a special needs individual, stop and think about Carly before you make a judgment about that person. There very well could be a link that you just can’t comprehend yet. Who’s in need of some “special” education now?
Susan Riley is the founder and CEO of EducationCloset.com. She focuses on teacher professional development in arts integration, Common Core State Standards, 21st century learning skills, and technology. She is also a published author and frequent presenter at national conferences on Arts Integration and STEAM education.
Susan holds a Bachelor of Music degree in Music Education from the prestigious Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ and a Master of Science in Education Administration from McDaniel College in Westminster, MD. She lives in Westminster, MD with her husband and daughter.