June 29, 2014 by readlisaread
And again… warnings, this will offend….
So here we are, the end of another school year. This one ended in the worst possible way– in the midst of a labour dispute, so that we couldn’t have proper year-end celebrations, closure, good-byes and good-lucks. This is always a introspective time, and today I am reflecting on integration. This comes to me because of a contentious conversation regarding Public vs Private schools. Briefly, I take issue with some private schools receiving government funding (30 to 50% of what public schools get, based on enrollment). Public schools are already drastically underfunded (compounded by the fact that we fund BC kids 20% less than the national average–roughly $1000 less per kid than every other K-12 student in the country). Independent and Private schools provide services we cannot– such as religious instruction, and alternate philosophies (ie, Montessori and Waldorf). I don’t begrudge funding to Parochial and alternate-style Independent schools, they fill a void we cannot. But I do take exception to funding elitism.
One of the most heartfelt and cherished tenets of public education is that we take all comers. I’m not going to lie, there are times when this is problematic. In fact, this is the biggest bone of contention in the current dispute– 12 years ago, we had contract language which protected both class size (no more than 30 in an Intermediate classroom) and composition (no more than 3 special needs/identified students per class). Turns out that is really expensive if you can’t turn anyone away at the door. It’s not irrelevant to add here that, along with the lowest per-capita funding, BC also has the highest rate of child poverty. Growing up– or trying to– in poverty often manifests in things like-yep, you guessed it- learning disabilities and special needs behaviours. These are not necessarily genetic dispositions– poor nutrition, lack of sleep due to any number of factors, poor dental care, homelessness, resulting in frequent interruptions to school…you get the picture, I’m sure, dear reader. Another day and another rant can fill in other pieces of the story, such has “raising the bar” on what defines a learning disability (you might also call it shifting the goal posts) or Christy Clark’s attack on democracy (by stripping those conditions from our contracts and twice ignoring court orders to re-instate them), but today I want to talk about Integration.
And so… I started school in 1970. It was a simpler time…. we were just getting to the moon, and the Metric system was still only in Europe. We still referred to people with disabilities as “Retarded” and “Slow”. We didn’t mean it unkindly, we just didn’t know better (you might say we were socially retarded). When I moved from elementary school to junior high, we were “streamed”: Enriched, Core, or Modified for each of our academic subjects, and then in high school, you chose the “Vocational” or “Academic” stream. Fast forward to the beginning of my teaching career in the 1990’s. We were Integrating and Mainstreaming kids like nobody’s business, and here are the things I know to be true:
Special Needs kids sometimes yell and cause disruption to the learning environment.
Special Needs kids don’t learn in the same way or at the same pace as the rest of the class.
Special Needs kids deserve a safe environment to learn in.
Special Needs kids learn from the examples around them.
Special Needs kids require adequate classroom support by trained teachers and assistants.
Special Needs kids deserve the opportunity to achieve the best they are capable of… and to be pushed to realize how much they are capable of.
Now… gentle reader, please indulge me by doing the following: please read the above 6 sentences again, this time truncating the “Special Needs”. I’m sure you would agree with me that all of those statements are not more or less true no matter which subset of kids you are talking about. Here is the rest of the story.
Over my 20+ years of teaching, I have had the privilege of having many SpEd students in my classes. And I’m not just saying “privilege” in a fake attempt to put a positive spin on it, and to be PC. I mean it. Was it easy? Oh hell no! Would I have preferred to have had 25 or 30 “non-challenged” students? I’m embarrassed to say that, yes, in the beginning of my career, I would have chosen the “easy” make up. And how wrong and how sad that would have been. From a personal point of view, teaching SpEd kids has taught me a greater level of patience, forced me to find different ways to get my instruction across, and allowed me to work with a variety of educational assistants, specialists and coordinators.
But it’s not all about me. Gifted kids deserve to be challenged and allowed to work at their own pace, too, right? And they often feel “held back”, they get “bored” and disengage (at least, that’s the excuses I have had in the past). Here’s the beauty of integration. A child who is intellectually gifted can only benefit from sitting beside a child who thinks differently. Why? Well, empathy is the biggie, but there are other things as well, like realizing that while there MIGHT be a “best” answer to a question, there is often not just one answer or, if there is just one, there are many ways to get to that answer. When we started to teach math from a number sense point of view, for example, rather than a rote method, those sorts of differences became magically clear. The gifted child may know that 7 x 9 is 63, he may even know the “trick” of the 9-Times table, and he (or she) may even intrinsically know that it is 7 groups of 9 things. But the SpEd kid? Oh my… he (or she) has a dozen different ways to get to that destination…. Efficient? Probably not. But rich? Oh yes…. oh HELL yes.
One of my own personal children graduated this year. Now, teacher kids are a little different than their peers, sometimes, and the Girlchild is pretty gifted socially, but my last reason for cherishing integration is in this story from her graduation ceremony. As it happened, I was stationed at the last point before students’ names were announced and they crossed the stage. They came to me in groups of 2 or 3, and then went individually to have their name called. At one point, 2 boys came up, clearly both Special Ed students. One I recognized as having taught in grade 7 and 8 and remembered fondly, the other was a stranger to me, but both came up, with big smiles, and the same healthy amount of nervousness all the kids demonstrated. I commented to the boy I didn’t know that he was really tall “Yeah!” he said “I’m 6’6″!!” and then he turned to his compatriot and asked him how tall he was, and then turned back to me to report that his friend didn’t know, but he sure wasn’t 6’6″. And then he was off to cross the stage. I told my daughter the story later, and she said “Oh yeah, that’s D___…. He’s pretty funny”. In a school of 1500, a graduating class of 250+, and she knows exactly who I’m talking about, and it is unremarkable to her–he wasn’t “some SpEd kid” (or worse) to her…he was just another grad…. and funny (and tall!) one…and that’s all… that is the magic of integration. To put it in her words, it’s not even a thing.
To sum up, I will revisit my example of 7 x 9. If I ask you to think of the equation as a picture, what do you see? You probably bundle sticks, or circle pebbles. Or, you might not be able to visualize anything except the digits “6” and “3” because this is what you know to be true. And in an industrialized, efficient society, I guess this is all you need to know. But I feel sorry for anyone who has not had the story of 7 x 9 told to them by an inventive learner. “Well, there were seven dog walkers, and each one had 9 dogs. But they all had different kinds of dogs…there were labs and this one dog named Blake…..and the dalmatians were on red leashes……and one guy accidentally had 10 dogs so he had to give the extra one to another guy….” and gentle reader, you may think that listening to a story like that is torture….but listening to a story like that is why a whole bunch of us become teachers, and cherish it.
By the way, Blake is a real dog. My very first grade 2 class I taught in, and I read a story a little boy had written about his dog, and I said “Blake is a neat name for a dog!” and he looked at me like I was crazy (or at least really stupid).
“His name” the boy said patiently and with no qualms about his own intellectual capacity, “is Blacky.”
Bless you, Blacky, wherever you are, for making me a better teacher.