Tomorrow Is Too Long to Wait for Inclusion

How an Inclusive Teaching Experience Changed My Life

How An Inclusive Teaching Experience Changed My Life

By Katherine Lewis

“All means all.”

The way educators define inclusion and include all children has certainly changed over time. Many general education teachers consider “inclusion” to mean that children with disabilities are educated in regular education classrooms and that most services and support are provided outside that classroom.

The School Wide Integrated Framework for Transformation Center (SWIFT) is a national center based at the University of Kansas and built on an initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs. At the 2013 PBIS Leadership Forum on Equity in Education, SWIFT described its mission:

Assisting districts and their schools to engage in a transformational process in concert with their families and communities to achieve equity and excellence for all students:

  • Excellence as determined by measurable student social and academic gains
  • Equity as defined by the measurable capacity of each school to deliver the intensity and range of supports to meet the needs of each student and extending to their family and community
  • “All” as defined as the measurable integrated active engagement of all students and their families in the learning process. (SWIFT Center PBIS Leadership Forum 2013)

SWIFT defines inclusive education as meeting the needs of every child—struggling readers, gifted, talented, living in poverty, students with disabilities, culturally and ethnically diverse students, and those with the most extensive needs.  Simply put, “All means all.”

I recently had the opportunity to teach at a knowledge development site, a school selected by the national SWIFT Center as a model of inclusive education, and it was a life-changing experience, both professionally and personally. Because this is such a unique setting (there are currently only six knowledge development sites in the nation), a snapshot of this particular school may be in helpful in understanding my experiences.

West Elementary (a pseudonym I will use to protect the privacy of the school) offered fully inclusive schooling for students from transitional kindergarten through sixth grade. In serving students with disabilities, West mirrored the representation evident in our nation, with about 15 to 20 percent of students with disabilities in each classroom.  (In 2010, about 1 in 5 Americans were classified as persons with disabilities.) West Elementary valued collaboration, differentiated instruction, family partnerships, and instruction based on constructivist theory. The school aimed to provide evidence-based teaching strategies that were tailored to meet individual development. West also served as a theory-to-practice site for students at a nearby university’s nationally recognized school of education. Needless to say, the school was frequented by many visitors, including researchers, professors, student teachers, practicing teachers, administrators, school district representatives, paraprofessionals, parents, and members of the community. The doors were nearly always open and West Elementary thrived on the frequent collaboration and volunteerism among members of the community.

So why was this experience so life-changing? The year I applied to teach at West, I was a relatively seasoned educator eager for challenges and new experiences.  My past teaching experiences had honestly seemed more integrative (and even exclusionary) than inclusive in nature. I must admit that, although willing to try it, I had serious doubts about this full inclusion model. I was concerned about whether or not it was possible to meet the needs of all students in one classroom community. I worried that the students who had special needs may not receive all the services and support they needed. I also worried about the gifted and talented students—would they be appropriately challenged or would they disappear in such an environment? I wanted to be wrong, so I dove right in and tried it out.

The first few months were challenging. I was faced with teaching the most diverse group of students I had ever taught. I had a new student who previously attended small schools for students with special needs and this was his first time in a general education setting. He struggled a lot at first. He had boundary issues, little socialization, and very little experience communicating with his peers. There were times I felt frustrated or at a loss for how to help each student succeed. I was grateful for my special education certified co-teacher and the highly collaborative campus community. We all worked together to meet the needs of the students and I became less frustrated and overwhelmed. Even though I was not a special education teacher, I learned how to support my students with the highest needs. The specialists (i.e. occupational, physical, and speech therapists) were part of our classroom community. They would come in to provide services to both students with and without individualized education plans. The specialists were valuable resources and they showed me how to be cognizant of and address possible areas of struggle for every student.

In about the third month, as we neared our first holiday break, I reflected on my experiences. Here are a few things I realized:

  • Co-teaching and collaboration are invaluable practices.
  • I was wrong. It is possible for every student to receive the services he or she needs.
  • Kids are naturally compassionate and helpful.
  • Educational equity through inclusive practices is indicative of a socially just system and full inclusion is necessary to ensure the civil rights of all individuals.

Throughout the rest of the academic year, I was amazed at how much each of my students accomplished. In less than six months, my new student had progressed from communicating in a few broken words to sharing his thoughts in several, impassioned, complete sentences. I was blown away by his progress! During my end of year parent-teacher conferences, I was allowed to showcase the unique progress each student made, rather than focusing solely on standardized test results and determining whether or not a child fit into the “3rd grade product” box. It was as if each of my students had an individualized education plan and was allowed to progress on his or her own timeline. How liberating! I knew the parents believed in and trusted me as an educator. I also realized that our community was a remarkably strong, dedicated, and compassionate bunch.

At the beginning of the year, I had worried so much about my students with physical or mental disabilities. I worried they would be mistreated, picked on, or “babied” by the other students. What was most surprising is that we all learned, as a community, how to support one another in the most appropriate ways. The students learned about each other’s unique personalities and strengths, and they spent so much time helping each other learn that many of them seemed to become experts at scaffolding learning and encouraging inquiry among the group.

After this invaluable experience, I began to question the purpose of education. Had the current market-based education system blinded us to the simple fact that education is a social science and students are individuals in their own right? I began to wonder why educators still questioned and even spoke out against more inclusive environments. On a more personal level, the experience “opened my eyes” and I began to think of inclusive education as a civil rights issue. I knew, from this point forward, that I was an advocate for inclusive practices.

I had so many questions. What was it about this site that worked well? What is the essence of the phenomenon? Who are the teachers that thrive at full inclusion schools and what are their honest beliefs about inclusion? With a plethora of research questions burning in my mind, I decided to begin the intense (yet satisfying) educational journey of pursuing a Ph.D. in School Improvement.

As a doctoral student and research assistant, I spend the majority of my time researching, reading, writing, and researching some more. With this luxury of thinking time, I often reflect on my experience teaching at a full inclusion school. In nine years of teaching across three different states, it was this experience that impacted my life the most.


Brault, M. W. (2012). Americans with Disabilities 2010: current population reports. Household Economic Studies, 70-131.

(2015). Retrieved 16 January 2015, from

Katherine LewisKatherine Lewis is currently working as a doctoral research assistant and is a first-year student in a school improvement Ph.D. program in Texas. She entered the program with nine years of experience teaching kindergarten through third grade in Texas, Colorado, and California. During this educational journey, Katherine taught in diverse school environments, including: a rural, Title I school, an International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme, and (most recently) a fully inclusive charter school. In efforts to improve schools through transformational leadership, Katherine is interested in addressing social justice research questions, particularly advocating for full inclusion practices as equitable education. She continues to contribute to discourses focused on transformational leadership, the emancipatory potential of education, and inclusive practices as necessary for a socially just public school system. Katherine can be contacted at

Why We All Should Have The Chance To Hate (Love) Shakespeare

Why We All Should Have The Chance To Hate (Love) Shakespeare

A version of this article was originally posted on Beth’s blog, Grace In The Ordinary.

By Beth Foraker

When Patrick was in kindergarten we needed some sort of incentive that he was willing to work for.
We needed a pay out.
Since I didn’t want an obese child, the pay out couldn’t be candy.
Who am I kidding, Patrick is not candy focused, he’s all about the carb.
He, for sure, would have worked for a fresh baguette every day but I just couldn’t do that.

So we brainstormed and perseverated and finally landed on the library.
Patrick and I could go to the library every day after school if he had a happy face day.
Oh, those happy face days!
That meant that Patrick had listened, worked hard and kept it together.
It also meant that he came in from recess on his own — a true trial for Patrick —
since he couldn’t distinguish when his time was up.
If he saw anyone on the playground, he thought it was his time to play too.

At first, going to the library was a big deal.
We celebrated!
We cheered.
We did the happy dance.
And then we waltzed right in and Patrick spent a delicious amount of time
over the videos and DVD’s,
like a guy named Patrick at a bakery filled with croissants and baguettes and other sourdough options.

He relished the moment.
He perused and paused and savored so many choices.
The library was his spot.

Like all favorite memories, the library still makes him happy but it’s no longer something he works for.
His happy face days are the norm now.
The library is just a pit stop on our way to the park…or a place to go to directly if there’s research for a school project involved.

And so yesterday I casually suggested that we go to the library while Caroline had basketball practice.
Since he is still known for his slow pace of perusal, I was a bit worried we might be cutting it too close.
But we gave it a try.

Like a salmon finding its place to spawn, without thought, he honed himself straight into the kids’ section and started the monumental task of choosing a video.
It only took about 5 minutes and we were done.
He had nothing.

“So, what do you think?” I asked.
“I need the computer.” he replied.
so causal…so big

He gets on the computer and types in his item: Macbeth.

He finds all sorts of options but zeroes in on a Macbeth video in the adult section…we repeat the call numbers to ourselves over and over as we cross through the library.
We find the Shakespeare section and attempt to locate the video.
My mind: tick tock, tick tock
I suggest that we can put in a request for it and he agrees.
We walk right up and talk to the librarian who happens to be a young guy —
note to self: when did that happen??

He says it should be on the shelf…he meanders over to the section with us, finds it for us
(library newbs) and Patrick is smiling…fired up…for Macbeth???

We don’t have time that night to watch the show.

So I wake up to my husband leaving for work and telling me,
“Yeah, Patrick is fully dressed and watching Macbeth.”

I come out a half hour later to check on Patrick and he’s engrossed…
full middle English +Shakespearean drama + early morning = confused momma.
I shake my head and keep my morning pace.

He comes out for breakfast asking questions.
“Who killed Macbeth?”
My mind needs simple gimme questions like, “Where’s the toast?”
I do what all motley, sleepy, busy parents do…I tell him to Google it.

He does.
Fascinated he tells me that Macduff kills Macbeth —
because Macbeth had killed Macduff’s wife and son.
I start to get interested.
I can’t help it…
this whole weirdness is also super cool.
It starts to break through my early-morning mind fog: my kid is curious about Shakespeare?!?

I tell him that Macduff got revenge on Macbeth. I ask him if he knows what that means.
He pauses and lets me continue…Macbeth gets killed because he killed other people…he had it coming.
He understands…and he reveals others that Macbeth has killed, Duncan and one other whose name I can’t understand.

But here’s what I do understand.
Talking to my 14 year old son about the plot of Macbeth in the early morning time before school was an unanticipated miracle.
My son has Down syndrome.

The statistic most often given is that women who find out they are carrying a baby with Down syndrome abort that baby 90% of the time.

I like to think that number is a little high…but if it’s 75% or 50% it really doesn’t matter.
Women are terminating their wanted pregnancies because of fear.
Because they don’t think they will be talking Shakespeare to that child, ever.
Because they can’t imagine someone with Down syndrome being clever or funny or
with dreams of their own.

Because all they know is mis-information.

My son is no “gifted and talented” child with Down syndrome, trust me.
But here’s what he has had…access to the curriculum.
He’s been fully included alongside his typical peers and exposed to rich literature, big ideas like
social justice and freedom. He’s been in on class discussions and wrestled with morality.
He’s learned about the arts, history, science and math…just like any other kid at his school.

Once in awhile, his curiosity gets the better of him and he gets sucked in.
It happened when he had to do a big project about New York City in 5th grade.
It happened when he pretended to attend Apple Valley (a school set 150 years ago) in 3rd grade.
It happened with the Terra Cotta Warriors and with 6th grade science camp and music.
And now it’s happened again with Shakespeare.

The problem with limited curriculum for people with cognitive disabilities is that we limit the menu.
I don’t know if Patrick will become a vegetarian, passionate about mangoes or obsessed with granola.
Who am I to decide??
He gets introduced to new foods all the time…that’s part of living.

It’s the same in school.
People like Patrick deserve to have the same menu as anybody else.
We can’t know what will intrigue or light the fire of anyone’s mind — people like Patrick most of all.
If you would have asked me if Patrick would love Macbeth, I would have guessed no.
I would have guessed wrong.

People like Patrick love learning; they light up with excitement when they figure it out.
Just like anybody else.

People like Patrick deserve more opportunities and more depth and more enrichment in school.
Because we can never guess or know what will touch their hearts and speak to their soul.
Their individual passion and interest is unpredictable and incongruous.
Just like every human on the planet.

So, yes, it matters if people like Patrick get to learn alongside their typical classmates.
Yes, it matters if opportunities are limited.
If the curriculum is watered down and dull.

No mind should be wasted.
Nobody should be denied.

We should all get the chance to hate Shakespeare…or in Patrick’s case, love it.
It matters.

Beth Foraker has a husband and four great kids — 21,19,15 and 8. Her 15 year old son has Down syndrome and has been fully included in her local Catholic school until he graduated last May. She works as an educator, helping train teachers for UC Davis School of Education is passionate about full inclusion for all students, writes a blog, reads for fun and hangs with her family and beloved dog as much as possible. You can find her on twitter and Instagram @inclusionchick or on Facebook at the National Catholic Board on Full Inclusion’s page.

What Does Full Inclusion Really Mean?

What Does Full Inclusion Really Mean

I know that I do not have a corner on the truth. While belief systems and worldviews tend to get mired in rhetoric, the big picture of inclusion (specifically inclusive education) is far more forgiving. My aim in this piece is to clarify a big misconception about what full inclusion really means.

Typically, when the term “full inclusion” gets batted around in the realm of education, there are one of two reactions—the first possibility is utter horror (you mean you want students with disabilities in general education all day every day?) and the second is indifference, cynicism, or apathy (inclusion? Yeah right. Like that will ever happen). A third, less common reaction by educators, but one that is gaining in prominence, is an embrace of the philosophy of full inclusion as a framework to understand how students learn best.

The idea that “we learn better together” is not a new concept. In fact, it is a notion that has been in the refining of academic and peer-reviewed study for 30 years:

Thirty years of research shows us that when all students are learning together (including those with the most extensive needs) AND are given the appropriate instruction and supports, ALL students can participate, learn, and excel within grade-level general education curriculum, build meaningful social relationships, achieve positive behavioral outcomes, and graduate from high school, college and beyond. (SWIFT Schools)

Before you start rolling your eyes, consider that there are many examples of inclusive education around the United States, Canada, and other parts of the world. Could it be that parents and educators simply have not seen enough of it working to believe that it is possible? I am not convinced that is the reason. As some parents and educators point out, not every school is capable of educating every child. The very mention of this protest is like nails on the chalkboard to inclusion advocates. Yet advocates like me should be loath to ignore them; we must address these concerns head on.

Here is where I would like to clarify what full inclusion means to me, and I hope that advocates on both sides of this issue will take me seriously. We spend an awful lot of time talking over each other. Part of the big idea of inclusion is to create synthesis where there is dichotomy, restoration where there is brokenness, and healing where there is trauma. Full and authentic inclusion has more to do with complete membership in a community rather than time spent in general education. If the amount of time students with disabilities spend in general education is one of the largest measures to whether a school is inclusive, we have failed as inclusion advocates and have missed the point. Membership is about belonging, having full access, being accepted, being supported and having an environment in which every student can learn the best. It is puerile to argue that every school and every classroom can achieve this by having all students in general education all day every day at this point in history.

Perhaps you are upset with my statement. Perhaps you see it as an admission that inclusive education really isn’t for everyone. I would disagree with your conjecture…and here is why: Full inclusion is going to look different in every school and every classroom and for every student. When we open up our minds to include the idea that while this framework is for everyone, we can also say that is not available to everyone. While there are best practices that should be followed and held up as the gold standard, we are not nearly were we should be. When we realize that essential factors, like presuming competence, having high expectations, developing typical friendships, building on strengths, learning grade-level curriculum and having access to alternative augmentative communication devices does not only happen one way we will be stronger advocates.

As noted inclusive education advocate Lou Brown states,

It is unacceptable for students with significant disabilities to spend 0% of their time in Regular Education classrooms. While better, it is also unacceptable for them to spend all of their time therein. Self-contained regular and self-contained special education are both rejected because each extreme disallows important experiences and opportunities. The preference here is that they be based in Regular Education classrooms in which they would be based in they were not disabled. Then, the individually meaningful amounts of time each needs to spend elsewhere should be arranged. (1996, Brown, Schwarz, Solner, et al)

At this point, 17 percent of students with any disability spend all or most of their days segregated. That is just abysmal. Having students removed from their typical peers and their typical classroom should be a rare occurrence. In this day and age, it is the norm. The inclusion movement should be about decreasing that number to the smallest possible percentage, not just wiping special classrooms and special schools from the face of education.

Some final thoughts: Full inclusion is really about education reform. Full inclusion is about teaching all students and using best practices. It is not about one-size-fits-all. Full inclusion is about giving access to all and promoting the best outcomes for all. It is about bringing special and general education together as collaborators. This is the promise of inclusion that I believe in. What about you?

UPDATE (November 2015): Some of my inclusive education advocate colleagues balk at the idea that there should be ANY separate classrooms or spaces for ANY student. For them, this argument is dangerous.  I think it is just as dangerous to say that full inclusion means being in general education all day every day in the current system of education. We need another system. We need to have a system where special and general education teachers work collaboratively for ALL students. Better yet, let’s get rid of special education because if we have different ways of classifying and educating teachers why would we think it would be different for the students who attend our schools? Using the principals of Universal Design for Learning gives us the best chance to create learning environments that are appropriate for everyone. For those families and individuals with disabilities who prefer separate spaces, let’s honor that as well because if we are not listening to the people we are supposedly advocating for that what exactly are we doing? If you don’t think we can educate all students and still support small group learning and spaces within an inclusive model, than you are not thinking creatively enough.


Brown, L., Schwarz, P., Udvari Solner, A., Frattura Kampschroer, E., Johnson, F., Jorgensen, J., Vandeventer, P. & Gruenewald, L. (1991). How Much Time Should Students with Severe Intellectual Disabilities Spend in Regular Education Classrooms and Elsewhere? The Journal of the Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, 16(1), 39 – 47.

A version of this article originally appeared on the Mobility Resource blog.


These 12 Self-Advocates Make Some Of The Strongest Arguments For Inclusive Education

End Segregation End Stigma Full inclusion Now! - YouTube.clipular

Amidst the Dylan-esque ballad, this 10 minute video highlights 12 self-advocates as they make the case for ending segregated special education classrooms. Please take the time to watch and share this powerful video produced by the Coalition of Inclusion Advocates.

Only 13% of students with intellectual disabilities are included in regular education more than 80% of the school day

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