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'Flexibility Is The Key To Success'

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This is one of seven commentaries on the topic of inclusion from "To the Best of Their Abilities".

Imagine classrooms where students are enthusiastic and absorbed in activities. Yet, they take time to talk with tablemates, ask advice, and admire each other's work. Projects are interdisciplinary, with many opportunities for learning by doing. The work is challenging, related to real life, and rich with meaning. Central themes are designed to challenge students at their own levels and appeal to a wide variety of interests.

At the prekindergarten level, students work on books that reflect changes in the seasons, and in themselves, during the school year.

In kindergarten, students work at a bookmaking center, copying, binding, laminating, and using an art studio in the classroom to create their books. Some of these books explain their ongoing building study, where the students observe, create blueprints, and build models of buildings in the neighborhood and around New York City.

In 1st grade, students practice their interviewing skills as they prepare to launch an in-depth study of five stores and institutions in the neighborhood. Soon they will be reconstructing their chosen sites in the classroom and managing them in their cooperative groups.

Down the hall, the 2nd-grade room displays models of the Brooklyn Bridge, sketches, slides, and buildings as students continue their study of New York City, talking to architects and engineers on frequent field trips.

Visitors are often surprised to learn that these classes are part of an inclusion program. Inclusion at Public School 321 in Brooklyn serves a full range of general- and special-education students. Six children with mild to severe disabilities and 18 general-education students are in each class. Over the past two years, educators at P.S. 321 have learned that flexibility is the key to their success.

However, several components have emerged that are essential to the success of the program:

  • Team teaching. Each inclusion class is staffed by a team, including a general-education teacher, a special-education teacher, and a paraprofessional. Teachers plan together and work closely with parents, administrators, related service providers, staff developers, and evaluators. Teachers learn from each other, providing students a broad base of expertise. No teacher is forced to join an inclusion team. Instead, pairs of teachers present themselves as a potential team to the principal. The pairs are then encouraged to spend time together, observe each other's classroom, and observe existing inclusion classes before making a commitment to teach as a team.

    Although teaming is not always easy, teachers frequently identify this as the most exciting and rewarding aspect of the program, on both a personal and professional level.

  • Diversified, thematic curriculum. To meet the needs of any heterogeneous population, teachers must diversify the curriculum. Themes are multifaceted and offer students a broad range of possibilities for completion. One project may involve research, a variety of artwork, and many presentation possibilities.

    Teaching thematically allows students to work at their own ability levels, to apply what they are learning to the real world, to learn by doing, and to build on their strengths.

  • Cooperative learning. In a cooperative classroom, self-esteem and community-building activities receive special attention. Children work best when they feel they are in a safe, accepting environment. Groups are heterogeneous, and they work on challenging projects of interest to all group members.

    Students have responsibility for their own learning; they are individually and collectively accountable for completing projects on time. Students in groups learn from each other, have the opportunity to contribute their best work, and articulate their knowledge in many ways. They learn leadership, communications, and problemsolving skills. Teachers facilitate this process by teaching mini-lessons, providing resources, individualized instruction, and giving constructive feedback and information for the groups' continual growth.

  • Authentic assessment practices. Setting goals for student learning outcomes and measuring student progress in meeting these goals is an ongoing process. Teachers use a comprehensive system to assess students' progress. They conduct written observations, evaluations of student class work, interviews with students and their families, and criteria-referenced tests that take the form of projects or engaging assessment games.

    Team teaching allows teachers to spend more time collecting this assessment data and discussing observations with their colleagues.

  • Parent involvement. From the earliest stages, staff and administration work closely with parents within the inclusion program and in the school community. Parents are able to meet the teachers involved and bring up questions and concerns. They are given the option to keep their children out of inclusion, although very few exercise that option.

    Early in the year, parents are introduced to staff developers, the program coordinator, and the family worker. Parents have been extremely supportive of the inclusion initiative so far.

To further the goals of inclusion, teachers engage in a variety of professional-development activities. In addition to their ongoing dialogues and evaluations as teams, the entire inclusion staff meets biweekly. One meeting may focus on ways to extend and modify curriculum, while another may focus on ways to reach out to the larger school community and share experiences with inclusion. Teachers also meet regularly with specialists in early childhood and special education from the district office.

My job, then, as a staff developer from the Fund for New York City Public Education, is to support and assist in the areas of curriculum development and enrichment, materials, and resources. I help teachers individualize the curriculum and talk through issues with particular children. I work with teams in scheduling and pacing their day. Finally, I work with them in sharing their experiences with teachers in other schools.

Inclusion is still new at P.S. 321. Last year, after considerable planning, it began in the early grades. Each year, one grade is added. In three years, each grade level will have one inclusion class. While there is still a great deal to learn about inclusion, the teachers in this program are successfully rediscovering strategies that invariably improve education for everyone. Special-education and general-education students are achieving academically while gaining skills in leadership, communications, and cooperation in an unsegregated, diverse community. Good education works for all students, and the lessons from good inclusion classrooms are lessons for all classrooms.

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