As I was walking down the hallway toward my office the other day I walked past a group of fifth grade girls gathered around the published writing I had displayed from my fourth and fifth grade students with intellectual disabilities. The authors of the writing had been so proud of their animal reports that I had to display them in the hallway. They beamed when they saw their colorful illustrations and typed words hanging up for everyone to see. Part of writing is about having an audience, and they were proud to have an opportunity to share their work.
My heart stopped as I heard the fifth grade girls giggling and pointing to the words. They were reading the reports line by line to each other, pausing after each period to giggle some more. I immediately wanted to take the work down to protect the authors. I fought the urge to gather up all of those beautifully illustrated reports, hug them to my chest so no one could ever laugh at them again, and yell at these girls. Instead I took a deep breath to remind myself that I was the adult and no longer a fifth grade girls (why is a large group of almost-middle-school girls so intimidating?) and said in a low, hushed whisper that I hope expressed the horror I was feeling, "Are you laughing at someone else's hard work?" The girls turned, looking sheepish. "Um, no," they feebly said, "We were learning from them."
The girls stared at the ground, not meeting my eyes. I think I said a few more sentences about how would you feel if someone laughed at your work, and I walked on, seeing red. I struggled with whether or not to take down the writing. If I did, the authors would want to know why. And what would I say? I'm protecting you from the mean kids you didn't see? I'm hiding your work so that other kids won't know that you don't write like they do?
Later in the week I started bringing three fourth graders in the intellectual disabilities program into a general education fourth grade classroom for the writing block. We wanted to see how they would do in the general education classroom since writing is more open ended. I spent time pre-teaching the lesson to the students, prepping them for what was to come, going over the teacher's smartboard lesson ahead of time, and starting them on the writing assignment so that they would know exactly what to do in the classroom. When we got to the classroom the three students sat on the carpet with the rest of the class, listened to the lesson and raised their hands to participate. Their understanding of the lesson remained very literal and their comments reflected that. I held my breath while Sarah shared, worried about how the other students would respond to her very simplistic and seemingly illogical thought. The mean fifth grade girls weighed heavily on my mind. Please don't laugh at Sarah, I prayed. Please. The room was quiet and I thought everyone was going to move on with the lesson when Jane, a quiet girl in the front row raised her hand.
"I agree with Sarah," she stated firmly, "and respectfully disagree with Johnny" referring to a general education student who had previously shared his thoughts (which were correct). Jane went on to justify her statement of agreeing, searching for some sort of logic chain that would connect my student's comment with the truth.
Sarah and her two friends sat up a little straighter, beaming with pride that they were a part of the discussion. Other hands went up around the room, each respectfully debating whether or not Sarah's comments were correct.
And just like that, the three visiting students were a part of the class.
Inclusion is messy. We can't make all students fit in, answer questions correctly, and produce the same quality work. We can't protect them from all the mean comments out there. But we can foster students like Jane and positive classroom communities that respect everyone despite different opinions and abilities.