Attending to The Differences

‘It’s hard to be different,’ … ‘And perhaps the best answer is not to tolerate differences, not even to accept them. But to celebrate them. Maybe then those who are different would fell more loved, and less, well, tolerated.’

– Bill Konigsberg

It is now summer time. Students are enjoying their summer holidays and having no school. Teachers are starting to unwind and are enjoying their summer break as well. I am sitting here late at night and can’t stop thinking back to a few weeks ago, when I was teaching grade 4. I know it was only a temporary contract and I know that I was only there for 10 weeks. I also know that I came for the last part of the school year.. I walked into a classroom not knowing anything about my students or their learning. I barely had a chance to prepare from getting the keys to the classroom on a Friday, and meeting the kids and teaching them on the following Monday.

One thing I did manage to locate however was the Individual Instructional Plans for two students in my classroom before I ever met the students. This was a good thing as it gave me a brief background of students that would need extra support, but it also caused me to unintentionally form opinions about and judge my students based on their history and abilities… which I struggle with even now.. I think how I could have done things differently, how I could have worked with them differently, things I should have done/ said, things I needed to change… so many things that I still think about even thought I may not work with these beautiful students ever again unless I have an opportunity to be substitute in their classroom in the following years..

IIP reports are there to benefit the student. They are an educational plan put together with input from support teachers, the classroom teacher, parents, the student, doctors and other support staff that all want the student to succeed and to provide the supports and tools needed for the student to be able to do so.

I had two students with IPP’s in my classroom.

The first student had an IPP that was related to a physical disability that she had – she was in a wheelchair. The school provided her with an adapted desk and storage unit, there were different doors she could use to access the playground, bathrooms that were accessible for her, Educational Assistants to help her with bathroom routines and plans for her for recess during the winter time when it was hard for her to be outside for recess because of the snow in the winter, and support for adapting physical education classes. I read these things and didn’t have any teachers to talk with at this initial time. I formed a judgement about the student in my mind and I shouldn’t have. When I met the student, I was delighted that I would get to learn from her and that she was in fact a student of mine. In the classroom, she fit in just fine. The part I struggled with daily was my word choices when addressing the class as a whole:

  • Make sure your shoes are on
  • Line up at the door
  • Put your shoes on, put your chairs down or up
  • Stand for prayer, stand up straight during O Canada
  • Put your heads down on your desk
  • Starting the explanation part of lessons right after lunch when this student was gone for the first part of the period

She didn’t seem to take offense to anything I said, but each time I said one of these phrases, one that would seem normal in any classroom, I often regretted saying it. She couldn’t do some of those things, and others did not apply to her. I made a point of telling her that if I ever say something and you don’t like it, call me on it and come and talk to me please. Let me know if I have done something / said something that made you feel excluded. Let’s come up together with ways to be more inclusive for you and for everyone in our classroom. We never got to working on the last part, but I wish I had taken time to do this with all the students in my classroom.. There are many things I could have done differently, and that I should have done differently..

With that all being said, we did make some good progress.. She began to sit with the students during assemblies rather than with the teachers on the side of the gymnasium and with another student who was in a wheelchair. Instead of taking the bus for one of our field trips, having to be there early and wait for us to arrive, she made the walk with us and had friends push her and help her, and I also pushed her. I saw her smile and noticed a small change in her. It wasn’t her job to ask if she could do those things, it was my job as the teacher to give her the opportunities to have and to be with her peers rather then segregated off to the side because of a difference she could not control. I smile when I think back to these two moments. I also smile when I think of how she was able to connect with me and was able to ask me questions and ask for help as opposed to asking her classmates to ask me the questions she had. This was a big step and I am pleased she made it.

The other IPP was for a student who was developmentally behind. There was no official diagnosis, but he was developmentally delayed. He was in grade four and at the age of grade four students, but he was learning at levels lower than grade 4. This student had also within the last year come over from the Philippines and was learning English. He was learning on modified programming for key subjects like math and English Language Arts, where as Social, Science and Health and Arts Education were assisted and Physical Education was regular programming. There were Educational Assistants in and out of my classroom daily, sometimes two or three of them.

I made changes to the Math and ELA that he was learning. I sent one EA away for the majority of the afternoon and only had her come back for the last hour where she helped him with computer programs that were helping him learning English concepts and developing conversation skills. I took over teaching him Math, as I would get the class started and then would spend one-on-one time with him or I would have him sit beside me as he worked through concepts. He was able to make great progress in math and he knew that there were manipulatives that could be used if he needed them. We worked on reading – sounding out words, chunking bigger words into smaller words, reading sentences fluently and we began to look at building comprehension skills. We worked on learning Dolche words at the beginning levels and he would read to other classmates and to me frequently through out the day. I should have put a better program in place with the EA who was focusing on English with him in the mornings. I should have changed the things she was doing with them as he had mastered them and needed to work on new skills. I found this hard as she had books and resources in place.. However, I was the teacher and I needed to do this to benefit the student, regardless of varying factors..

We made progress in those 10 weeks and I was so thrilled for him! He could count to 100 instead of just 20. He could read many books, he was having more conversations in English at home and at school, he was reading, he was sounding out words, telling time and place value; he was doing very well. The best comment I have heard so far from a parent was from his father telling me that he would hear his son talking with his brother and sister. He would tell his son to be quiet, but then he would realize that his son was talking and he would tell him to keep talking.

I don’t think that the little things, the small achievements were always celebrated before I came into this student’s life. I don’t think I did a perfect job of it either, but those little things were big things and they needed to be celebrated! Not just with this student, but with all of my students. The one who came to class every day when I was there; the one who made so much progress in math – where the light bulb seemed to turn on and she got it; the that made it to the next reading level and was so overjoyed was so proud of herself and she and the reading support teacher came and told me and I was so happy! To all of my students, I could have done a better job celebrating your achievements. You all accomplished a lot, even if you don’t realize it or think that you did.

There were other students who missed the last half hour of the day to go and receive reading support from another teacher. There were students who would come to work at the back and receive extra support with their math, and kids that would work with me on ELA concepts. The hardest thing was explaining to the class that we are all different and we all learn differently. What works for some of you, make not work for others and they might need extra support in one area and you might need some support in another area. The student with the EA’s isn’t receiving special treatment just like the student in the wheelchair wasn’t either. They were receiving the suppor they needed to help them achieve and to learn. Some days we went over this idea many times. Some days we didn’t have to. This class was supportive of one another in the classroom learning environment and I believe that they did a good job in helping to make sure that everyone felt included. This is not an easy task for 9 and 10 year olds, and sometimes there were moments, but overall, they did good.

I wish that I had not been afraid or worried to make the changes I thought were necessary. I needed to believe further in myself, and I needed to do the best for my student.

I wish I had thought about my words more before I said them.

I wish I could have done better attending to all of the differences in our classroom. I wish I could have helped all of my students more..

Inclusive education is about embracing all, making a commitment to do whatever it takes to provide each student in the community — and each citizen in a democracy — an inalienable right to belong, not to be excluded. Inclusion assumes that living and learning together is a better way that benefits everyone, not just children who are labeled as having a difference.

(Falvey, Givner & Kimm, 1995, pg. 8)



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