Tomorrow Is Too Long to Wait for Inclusion

9 Ways Teachers Can Move Inclusive Education Forward

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By Elizabeth Stein

A version of this article was originally published at MiddleWeb.

I am all for change. In fact, I completely embrace it. I marvel at the fact that it is only when change occurs that improvements may be made to make some part of our world a better place. It is the essence of change to allow us to become a better version of ourselves.

Yet, change doesn’t just happen. It must be sparked, followed through upon, and updated by human actions to make it successful. Inclusive education is a good example. Inclusion is one of those evolving changes that can both empower and frustrate us.

I am personally empowered by the potential that inclusive education can initiate. When implemented with integrity, inclusion can energize educators, students, and parents, leading to individual triumphs that also can build successful communities of learners.

That’s the potential. But I am also frustrated by the treadmill that many districts walk on when it comes to improving the inclusive practices in their schools. This treadmill approach creates a situation for inclusion to produce wonders in some classrooms, but not in others. If inclusion is going to work for all students, across all schools, more consistent follow through and updating need to be in place.

Let’s put the issue into historical perspective

For a comprehensive description of the history of inclusive education in the United States, check out this article. Take a minute now to journey through past decades. Be prepared to be amazed that this evolving and necessary change to improve the education for all students began over 35 years ago!

Laws were created to protect the rights of all children, and we find that inclusion is accepted and expected for the most part. Yet I can’t help but wonder if inclusion is as effective as it should be. I believe that meaningful change occurs when the drivers of change move with strategic baby steps forward. But when you look around and see you are in the same place you were 10 years earlier, then you have to wonder whether we’re really committed to ever reaching the place where we have the most effective inclusion classrooms possible.

In the over 20 years that I have been a special education teacher, I cannot look back and recall one workshop—one faculty meeting—or one conference day that was devoted to the topic of teacher collaboration in inclusion classrooms.  Master schedules are set each year to incorporate so many important factors in the educational life of our schools —but never have I seen attention placed on ensuring that co-teachers have common planning time in their schedules.

When I speak with colleagues near and far, I get mixed stories of successes and frustrations. But all of these stories share a common theme: Inclusion works simply for those teachers who are lucky enough to be paired with open-minded educators who want to work together successfully because they put the best interest of the students first. The attitude and mindset of these successful educators move beyond the possibility that there may not ever be enough professional development–or time–or resources. These collaborative teachers don’t let that stop them. They make it work because they work together. They make it work because they make the time to tap into one another’s expertise.

So how can we bring more teachers on-board?

So how can we do we get more teachers to make inclusion work? Here’s my off-the- top-of-my-head list of do’s and don’ts that can help us move inclusion forward.

1. To general education teachers: share your plans—do not expect your co-teacher to just come to class and see what the lesson is about at the same time the students find out! Share your plans ahead of time, so that the special education teacher can be proactive with best practices and accommodations for strategic, meaningful learning for all of your students.

2. To special education teachers: get savvy with the content—do your homework– while holding on to the fact that you must insert your expert knowledge in the process of learning.

3. To general education teachers: expect that in your inclusion classroom you will need to implement instruction differently and collaboratively—you do not have to teach each class the same way for all students.

4. To special education teachers: take the necessary baby steps to bring awareness of best practices that work well for all students—see the CAST website for surefire approaches to meeting the needs of ALL students.

5. To general education teachers: remember that the special education teacher is there to teach WITH you to benefit the students—he or she is not there to make your life easier. So it’s not about the special education teacher grading papers to take a bit of the load off for you (although that’s part of the plan). He or she is not there to teach the class so you can take a break (that’s never part of the plan). He or she is there to share, to learn, and to teach alongside you—together as one. Here’s a must read by Anne Beninghof about how co-teaching is not about taking turns—but about teaching collaboratively. Read it and then discuss your thoughts with your co-teacher.

6. To all teachers: Do not sit around waiting for the professional development come to you—create it!  Start a collaborative workshop. Begin a book study group, just speak up with the students’ needs as your guiding light.

Some book ideas: Any book by Anne Beninghofany book by Marilyn Friend. And here’s a new one that I just ordered and am so excited to read and share with colleagues: Design and Deliver: Planning and Teaching Using Universal Design for Learning, by Loui Lord Nelson.

7. To general education teachers: You must adopt a “we” mindset as you speak to the class. You are teaching with another teacher in the room. Be mindful of your language. Are you territorial? Notice whether or not you are sending welcoming messages to your co-teacher and your students about how you really feel about co-teaching.

8. To all teachers: Keep an open mind, don’t take anything the other teacher does personally, and embrace the talents that each of you bring to the classroom—it’s all for the students!

9. To all teachers: Remember that one person cannot do it alone. We need each other. If one co-teacher is striving for successful implementation, but the other teacher is stuck in a world of “all about me” then, well—you know how this story will end.

And so  we see that although professional development, administrative support, and common planning time are all very important and necessary—what really matters is how the two teachers in the room are approaching the experience. It all comes down to the mindsets, attitudes, and willingness to work together—no matter what!

So what are you doing to make inclusive education work? What would you add to my list of do’s and don’ts? Tell us what you think in the comments section below!

Photo Adapted from Nomadic Lass

Elizabeth Stein is a 20-year teaching veteran, specializing in literacy and special education, with experience in both upper elementary and middle school. She’s currently a middle grades teacher and new-teacher mentor in Long Island NY’s Smithtown Central School District. Elizabeth is National Board Certified in Literacy and a contributor to Education Week and other publications. Her first book Comprehension Lessons for RTI (Grades 3-5), is published by Scholastic (June 2013). Follow her on Twitter @elizabethlstein.

What do the Common Core State Standards mean for Special Educators?

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By Elizabeth Stein

This article was originally published on the MiddleWeb website. Elizabeth Stein has graciously given us permission to republish the article here.

It’s time for the Common Core and collaboration. When thinking about implementing the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), teachers have a choice to make:

  1. Resist the standards and complain.
  2. Include the standards and get by.
  3. Embrace the standards and dazzle.

Can you guess which option I am clinging to? And as I continue to read and learn, I find that I am embracing the CCSS with more passion and determination than ever before. This brings me to think about my upcoming school year.

I will be co-teaching with four different co-teachers (math, science, social studies, and English). That’s a lot of content and a lot of personalities for one person (namely me) to take on, weave in, balance out, and collaborate with in order to meet the needs of all learners each day. In addition, I will be teaching solo for one period of study skills (that’s a perfect time for me to reinforce the content, process, and strategies to guide independent life-long learners).

There’s a lot to think about as I begin to plan ahead. The instructional shifts driven by the Common Core are enough to make general education teachers’ heads spin. But what does it mean for a special education teacher?

The Common Core and special education

The Council for Exceptional Children provides ongoing articles and updates (based on research) to support that students with varying abilities are capable of reaching higher levels of achievement than was once thought possible. The trick comes as we strive to update the mindsets of administrators, teachers and families (as well as the personal belief systems of the students) about the capabilities of diverse learners.

Typically, a student with a learning disability is viewed through a deficit lens. The fact that he has difficulty reading and writing becomes a priority for teachers to address. Yet, in what direction does this priority go? Is he supported in a way that encourages independent, higher level thinking (that the CCSS demands) or is he supported in a way that focuses on his deficits—emphasizing his disability and dependence?

Enter special education. Teachers must make sure that supports are scaffolded in ways that allow students to become empowered by what they can do—rather than disenchanted by their areas of need. I’m reminded of a former student, Andrew. He could not decode or read fluently. In addition, he could not write in complete sentences using traditional paper and pencil methods. His Individualized Education Plan (IEP) stated that he must have text read to him, and he needed a scribe for all writing assignments.

Does this sound about right? Personally, it makes me cringe just thinking about it. Sure Andrew’s needs were met, but only for the moment. He learned to be completely dependent on others to gather information and express his thoughts. How, I ask you, could this student meet the high expectations of the Common Core? More importantly, how could he apply this to his future life and the need to become an independent learner?

Clearly some changes need to be made as we think about how we are supporting our students. For example, Andrew could be given text-to-speech and speech-to-text technology to encourage his abilities. Educators must re-think accommodations and modifications in a way that nurtures students’ strengths and abilities.

The high expectations of the Common Core Standards are exactly what our capable students need. It’s not their disability that gets in the way of their learning. It’s the way we create the learning environment that can make all the difference. I say, along with the instructional shifts of the Common Core, let’s all do our part to encourage the necessary perspective shifts that can help many more students meet the standards. (My idea of perspective shifts will be addressed in a future post—stay tuned!)

What does CCSS mean for special educators?

The attention around the Common Core’s higher expectations puts special educators in the limelight. Our entire training was based on learning how to individualize instruction. We know what it takes to specialize instruction so that a variety of students’ needs are met. Here’s the part where thunder bolts strike! Isn’t that what general education teachers are being asked to do?

Just think for a second. We have Response to Intervention (RTI) making waves throughout general education scene. And we have Universal Design for Learning being cited as an effective research-based framework for meeting the needs of all learners. The premise and principles of each framework fall solidly on the practices that special education teachers have routinely followed for many decades. It is clear that special education teachers will need to speak up and raise the roof! We need to support our general education colleagues. We have the knowledge of research-based practices that align seamlessly with the expectation that all students will gain the skills and knowledge to achieve more within the CCSS universe.

The Flip Side

General education teachers are not the only ones who need to experience a Freaky Friday moment (remember that book/movie where the mother and daughter switch places?). In addition to the special educators’ responsibilities, we, in turn, must adopt the roles and responsibilities of general educators. The Common Core standards are loaded with literacy and critical thinking skills. Special educators are in the trenches. Many special educators find themselves in a variety of classrooms, subjects, and grade levels—with various co-teaching partners.

The CCSS means we must add to our process expertise and be content experts as well. Sounds like a perfect fit with the expectations of the Common Core, don’t you think? Although I’m aware this can become daunting for those folks asked to teach/support subjects that may not have been their area of study—it doesn’t matter.

Everyone needs to kick it up. For special education teachers, it means investing the time to strengthen our content knowledge — and for the general education teacher it means investing the time to learn research-based practices that differentiate and deepen learning. When content and process expertise are combined, we will pave the way for achieving the high expectations of the Common Core.

Sounds like the perfect rationale for true collaboration. How are you preparing for the Year of the Common Core ahead?

Elizabeth Stein is a 20-year teaching veteran, specializing in literacy and special education, with experience in both upper elementary and middle school. She’s currently a middle grades teacher and new-teacher mentor in Long Island NY’s Smithtown Central School District. Elizabeth is National Board Certified in Literacy and a contributor to Education Week and other publications. Her first book Comprehension Lessons for RTI (Grades 3-5), is published with Scholastic (June 2013). Follow her on Twitter @elizabethlstein.

Photo Credit: Stacy Spensley

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