Reflections on School
Michelle wrote: Emily, profoundly
disabled, is going to transition to Kindergarten next year.... Anyone
else have a child with severe CP and [in] regular Kindergarten?
Amber, who just turned 20, has big-time
CP, and was totally included in regular classes through grade 10. We've
home-schooled for the past two years, but this decision wasn't related
to any problems in inclusion. I need to let you know, so the rest of
this makes sense, that Amber is really, Really, REALLY stuck. Things
like head-pointing are out of the picture, etc.
Shortly after she was adopted, Amber
started entered the University of Winnipeg day care center - a wonderful
setting. When it came time for kindergarten, the Winnipeg school
division wanted to send her to a separate school, but her mom held the
line and started looking for a kindergarten that would welcome her while
the school division 'processed' the question.
A good friend suggested, "Why
don't you bring her to our school - Talmud Torah." This was a
neighbourhood Jewish school with a great reputation. Faye said,
"Judy, that's a wonderful invitation, but you know we're not
Jewish." Judy said that she didn't think that would be a problem.
So Faye brought Amber to meet the principal at Talmud Torah, a man named
Larry looked at this kid who appeared
to be a huge mystery, who couldn't communicate with words, etc., and
said, "I need you to know that we've never had a child with a
disability in this school. I don't know anything about cerebral palsy.
And I don't know anything about special education. But this kid needs sanctuary,
and we do know something about that."
The kindergarten teacher, the kids, and
the other parents welcomed her. She participated in everything -
listening in four languages, learning about traditions, music, colour,
getting the same introduction to reading, etc. that all the other kids
were getting. It was a wonderful year, and the next year, the Winnipeg
school division said she could go to her regular neighbourhood first
grade. The year at Talmud Torah was a powerful witness, and simply
unraveled any argument that she couldn't be in a regular
Each subsequent year, and at each
subsequent school, the school figured it out. Amber had a series of
great assistants. She knew that she belonged, and she learned.
When made our last move and encountered a high school that didn't get
it, we decided that we weren't going to put her through what was about
to unfold. There weren't other high schools we could send her to, and
she didn't have time for this one to have a complete
In your letter, you said, "I don't
want her to be in special ed, but I do want her to be pulled out for
therapies during Kindergarten time when activities wouldn't be
appropriate for her." Instead of pull-outs', I'd encourage
you to think about an approach that brings the specialists into the
regular classroom, and incorporates the work they do into what's
actually going on with the rest of the kids. This way, communication
learning occurs in context. Physiotherapy, etc. occurs in context.
This way, she doesn't become a mystery
to the teachers and the other kids, and the specific support she needs
doesn't become a mystery to the teachers and the other kids. They can be
included as participants in what's going on with her, just as she's
included in everything that's going on in the classroom. Communication
occurs in the context of companionship. It's an interchange, not
an isolated skill. The other kids in the classroom should be her
There is literally no part of the
kindergarten environment, or kindergarten activity, that she can't or
shouldn't be included in. The trick all the way through is a willingness
to figure out, minute by minute, how to include her in what's going on.
The specialist activity should be geared towards doing this, not pulling
her out. As soon as somebody tries to talk you into the idea that
there's something going on in the classroom that's not relevant to her,
Sooner or later, the class will do a
'volcano' project. What's crucial is that by the time that project comes
along, everybody knows how to include her -- it's not even a question
anymore. One kid makes the sign. Another kid makes a chicken-wire
volcano shape. And a bunch of kids, including your daughter, get
incredibly messy making papier-mâché. She helps paint the sides of the
volcano with a big brush. All the kids learn about volcanoes, but the
most important lesson is underneath the volcano project: How do
we work together as a team? How do we figure out how to include the gift
of every kid in making a great volcano?
When this is happening, the fact that
she's not talking, the fact that she's using alternative methods of
communication, becomes MEANINGLESS. Except that it doesn't -- it
actually becomes a powerful lesson for everybody: She's one of us.
Talking isn't as important as being together. Wow! there are a
lot of ways to communicate! I can read her computer! We did a great
project together. She's not alone. I'm not alone. I'm not alone....
Our friend Judith Snow reminds us:
Talking is a gift. Not-talking is a gift. Moving smoothly is a gift.
Having to have a lot of help in moving is a gift. Understanding quickly
is a gift. Having to have a lot of help in understanding is a gift.
Michelle, there is literally nothing, no characteristic, no disability,
that should result in her losing this connection. Communication,
physical, expressive, and yes, cognitive challenges are just that
- challenges. They are also tremendous opportunities, for learning, for
collaboration, for companionship. She will change lives!
With love, and encouragement,
A little post script: Robert Fulgum (Everything I
Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten) teaches his university
students about the game of Musical Chairs. We all played it when we were
kids - remember? The weakest kid gets knocked off first. As the game
progresses, more and more kids experience shame and humiliation and
anger. Finally, the toughest, most ruthless kid 'wins'. Everybody
else is a 'loser'. WHY WOULD WE DO THAT?
Fulgum proposes another version of the game, which he
calls "Cooperative Musical Chairs". In the first round, the
kids have to figure out how to get eight kids on seven chairs. Easy. In
the second round, they have to figure out how to get eight kids on six
chairs. By the time they're getting eight kids on four chairs, they're
having to slow down, think about things, and really begin to work on the
question of, "How do we keep the kid who can't see in the
stack?" "How do we keep the kid who wiggles in the
stack?" or "How do we keep Sarah in the stack?".
By the time they figure out how to get eight kids on
one chair, they've learned a tremendous amount about each other and
about themselves. Nobody's humiliated and everyone's having fun. The
kids don't have to 'know' anything about blindness, or cerebral palsy,
or IQ, to make this work. They do have to know something about Jeremy,
and Aaron, and Sarah. And they learn what they need to know in the
course of playing the game! Fulgum understands that six-year-old kids
can learn to play Cooperative Musical Chairs.
Why would we expect less of our teachers? Why would we
expect less of our schools?
© 2003 David and Faye Wetherow !