A version of this article was originally published by Shelley Moore at blogsomemoore.wordpress.com.

As an inclusion consultant for school districts and community organizations I ask groups of teachers all the time… “Why inclusion? Why are we doing this? Why are we bending over backwards, spending money, striving to make this happen in our schools? Why? What’s the point?”

Answers range from “because that’s how it works in the real world” to “because it’s the right thing to do.”  And while they aren’t wrong, they’re missing something critical…

Here’s a story about bowling, and if you bear with me, it can teach us a lot about inclusive classrooms. Most of us have experience with the balls, pins, stinky shoes, glowing, garlic fries…

When we go bowling, we want to knock down as many pins as we can. Most of us throw the ball straight down the middle of the aisle. We contort our bodies and limbs into strange positions after we throw the ball because we think it just might help. Sometimes we get gutter balls and that feels bad and sometimes we get a strike, which always feels good!  We aim down the middle, using those little arrows on the floor, and once we release the ball… all we can do is hope as we peer anxiously down the alley.

We listen with trembling anticipation, waiting for the sound of pins as they’re falling, all while we hope to avoid what usually happens to me when I throw the ball down the middle… the split.

The 7-10 split is the most difficult shot for a bowler. It means the only pins left are on either side of the aisle with a big gap in between. Even with the second ball, it’s rare for anyone to knock down both pins. In fact, in the last 50 years of televised professional bowling, a 7-10 split has only been hit 3 times.

Sometimes bowlers have great games, and sometimes we have crappy games. If we practice with a coach, we’ll get better, because bowling takes skill. But even after the skill development, coaching, and practice, a perfect game is very difficult, even for professional bowlers.

My brother and I joined a league once. I liked to ignore all the coaching and whip the ball down the aisle as hard as I could. My brother, on the other hand, slowly positioned his legs on the line. He pulled the ball back between his knees, and with the release, it catapulted down the aisle… The ball moved so slowly, I thought it would come to a full and complete stop. But somehow, he knocked down more pins than I did and more pins than most kids his age. He bowled with both hands and fluorescent pants all the way to a provincial bronze medal one year—that little bugger. Family and friends know how this drove me nuts. My brother knows it, too; he still displays his medal when I come over to his house.

Fluorescent pants weren’t the reason he won, and they won’t help us succeed in life.  But teaching will.  It might take a moment, but I encourage you to think about this question: how is bowling like teaching?

Here are some of the answers I’ve collected over time:

  • The teacher is the ball, the students are the pins
  • Bowling is loud
  • Sometimes my lessons are a strike!
  • Sometimes the ball is so off the mark, I don’t even knock down any pins in the next aisle
  • Teaching takes balls (seriously…this was an answer once!)
  • A perfect lesson is hard to do
  • Teaching takes skill and practice
  • We get more than one chance
  • We get to wear radical shoes

One teacher flipped my whole metaphor around and said, “Well, I see the ball as the students and the pins as teachers.” Think about that one!

After some discussion, we usually come up with something like…we teach as best we can and hope to get to as many kids as we can, but the reality is that there are still kids we can’t reach, even if we really want to reach them all.

Kind of a depressing metaphor, actually.

I thought about this one afternoon. I was cleaning my kitchen and watching the sports channel. I love sports as background noise. Football calls, cheering crowds, skates on ice, car commercials, crashing bowling pins. And then I saw it.

I stopped and watched. Professional bowling. So fast, great outfits, serious faces…and one more thing! I noticed that not a single one of those bowlers threw the ball straight down the middle. I jumped on the computer and did some bowling research, since these are the types of things that keep me awake at night…

Let me tell you what I learned—there is not one professional bowler, not even my brother, who throws the ball down the middle. Professional bowlers throw the ball down the aisle with a curve. The ball spins so close to the edge of the aisle, it seems like it defies the laws of physics. At the last second, however, it curves and… STRIKE! These bowlers aren’t aiming down the middle; they are aiming for the right pocket. (Note: I only know this because there was a professional bowler in one of my sessions who told me!) For those who aren’t up on their bowling lingo, aiming for the right pocket means we aim for the pins on the outside of the lane.

Professional bowlers don’t do the easy or the obvious and aim for the head pin. They aim for the pins that are the hardest to hit. The probability of pins getting knocked over is higher if they aim for the pins on the edges, because these pins help the others fall down, too. If those outside pins weren’t there, it would be much harder to reach all the pins… to knock down the whole set… to reach the whole class. STRIKE!

Teachers are required to teach many different grade levels and different subjects. We are trained to teach to the middle and simplify the material for students who are having difficulty. Pairing up students who need more support with students who need more of a challenge is the limit for many teachers when it comes to differentiation and accommodation strategies. We often teach how we were taught, and in my case, that was during a time of mainstreaming and segregating students with special needs, so they were never a part of my education experience. Classrooms have changed… for the better, I think… but our education system is the same.  We need to teach to diverse learners rather than to a group of students for whom the one commonality is their date of birth.

What if we totally changed how we plan, teach, and assess? What if we started to look at our classes and students as different communities who we also teach differently, even if they’re taking the same course?  Using the same material, we can offer students varying amounts of support. We can give more to any students who need it to succeed, not just because of a certain special needs category or label.

When we teach, we need to focus not on our status quo, the middle of the pack, or the head pin (a shrinking group over the years as more students are receiving special education services).  Instead, on Monday morning, we should look at our kids and think:

“Which of my kids are the hardest to reach? What do I need to do so that THEY get this content?”

So… why inclusion?  Why are we doing this? Yes, it’s true—we need inclusion because kids have a right to learn. And yes, inclusion is a diverse setting that reflects the way of the real world. But here is the answer I want to hear: we also do it because these kids have contributions to make. It’s true whether they have special needs or they didn’t eat breakfast that morning, and whether they’re English language learners or they have a hard time getting to school on time. These kids who are the hardest for us to reach have so much in them that will teach us all, and if we get them when we teach… we can get everyone.  This symbiotic learning environment is important for inclusion to work and sustain itself over time. Inclusion, especially in high school, is often limited to physical and social contexts. In order for inclusion to be effective and efficient for teachers and students, we need to extend this idea beyond the gym and the cafeteria for all students to be contributing members in academic communities. That’s the critical but missing piece, not just for students with special needs but for every one of us.

Photo Credit: Robert Parviainen/Flickr

Based in Vancouver, British Columbia Canada, Shelley Moore is an inclusion consultant for school districts and community organizations locally, provincially and beyond. Her presentations include professional development for teachers, educational assistants and administrators in school districts throughout British Columbia, Canada, as well as participating in various leading conferences throughout North America, including CEC, IRA, NCTE and CSSE. Growing up with a learning disability, she has developed a passion for collaborating with school teams through frameworks that integrate theory and effective practices of inclusion, special education, curriculum and technology to support students with the most significant learning needs. With these supports in place for herself, she has successfully completed her undergraduate degree in Special Education at the University of Alberta, her masters degree at Simon Fraser University, and is currently a PhD student at the University of British Columbia