Mara Sapon-Shevin, professor of education at Syracuse University, has a bold, even radical vision for full classroom inclusion, for creating school communities in which all students—regardless of race, family background, disability, special needs or other perceived differences—are welcomed as full and valued members from the very start. In her latest book, Widening the Circle: The Power of Inclusive Classrooms, she argues that only through inclusive schooling can children grow into caring, responsible citizens who connect deeply with others and see themselves as change agents in the world.
There have been many challenges and objections to the concept and implementation of inclusion in schools, from practical—space, time, teacher training, resources—to ideological. In Widening the Circle, Sapon-Shevin addresses these challenges head-on, responds to the most commonly raised yes, buts about inclusion and inclusive schools and explores the myths and beliefs that often impede inclusion and inclusion practices. She provides examples and strategies for making full inclusion successful, addressing issues of diversity, curriculum, pedagogy and classroom climate.
Sapon-Shevin believes that full inclusion is a matter of social justice, and is about “understanding—and believing—that the only way for young people to learn about living in diverse, democratic communities is by being part of one.” Repudiating traditional special education models where children with special needs are often isolated is designated tracks until they are deemed ready to join their peers in the classroom, Widening the Circle is a rallying cry for those who see education as the first step toward a just and inclusive society. Following is an excerpt.
Micah Fialka-Feldman is twenty-one years old and currently a college student. Many people believed that going to college would be impossible for a child like Micah, who was labeled as having a cognitive disability. His mother, Janice Fialka, an educator and poet, now spends much of her time helping other parents and educators realize the critical importance of inclusion and working as an advocate for students with disabilities and their families. As a mother, Janice has had her life was turned up-side down by her son’s multiple diagnoses and the ways in which others have seen her son. She expresses this experience through prose, public speaking and poetry, such as the verse below:
ADVICE TO PROFESSIONALS WHO MUST “CONFERENCE CASES”
Before the case conference,
I looked at my almost five-year-old son and saw a golden-haired boy who giggled at his baby sister’s attempts to clap her hands,
who charmed adults by his spontaneous hugs and hellos,
who often became a legend in places visited because of his exquisite ability to befriend a few special souls,
Who often wanted to play “peace marches” And who, at the age of four,
went to the Detroit Public Library requesting a book on Martin Luther King. After the case conference,
I looked at my almost five-year-old son.
He seemed to have lost his golden hair.
I saw only words plastered on his face,
Words that drowned us in fear, Words like:
Primary Expressive Speech and Language Disorder,
Severe Visual Motor Delay,
Sensory Integration Dysfunction,
Fine and Gross Motor Delay,
Developmental Dyspraxia and RITALIN now.
I want my son back. That’s all.
I want him back now.
Then I’ll get on with my life.
If you could see the depth of this pain
If you feel this sadness
Then you would be moved to return
Our almost five-year-old son
who sparkles in sunlight despite his faulty neurons.
Please give us back my son
undamaged and untouched by your labels, test results,
descriptions and categories.
If you can’t, if you truly cannot give us back our son
Then just be with us
quietly, gently, softly.
Sit with us and create a stillness
known only in small, empty chapels at sundown.
Be there with us
as our witness and as our friend.
Please do not give us advice, suggestions, comparisons or another appointment. (That is for later.)
We want only a quiet shoulder upon which to rest our heads.
If you cannot give us back our sweet dream
then comfort us through this evening.
Hold us. Rock us until morning light creeps in.
Then we will rise and begin the work of a new day.
Having a child with a significant disability is not easy; it is never what one asks for as a parent, rarely what one expects. Janice and her husband, Rich Feldman, committed themselves to making Micah’s life as typical as possible. They pushed actively for his inclusion in public school and regular classes. Real belonging comes from being with other children, and not by being educated near them. Micah describes his own journey as follows:
I have a cognitive impairment, but I have been in inclusive education for my entire school life. In grade one, I was in a special education classroom, but I told my parents,“I want to go in the same door as my friends.” They helped me to do that, and from then on I was in an inclusive classroom. I was the first student in Berkley Public Schools to be fully included from elementary through high school.
In high school, I learned other ways of doing things. Because of my disability, I don’t write, and reading is difficult for me. I learned to use a computer and in my senior year I started using a special program called Dragon Speak. This program lets me talk into the computer, and it will type what I say. I have screen reader software that will read whatever is on the computer screen to me—even websites and emails. I was a part of all my meetings, including my IEPs [Individualized Education Programs, educational plans crafted together by parents and educators]. My friends also were a part of the planning meetings and would talk about my strengths. I used Power Points in my meetings to tell the team about my plans, my strengths and my dreams.
While I was in high school, I got involved in sports. I was on the cross country team and the track team. One of my biggest accomplishments was getting a varsity letter in cross country during my senior year of high school, when I ran a two-mile run in 23 minutes.
GOING TO COLLEGE
In my senior year of high school, all of my friends were talking about college. I would hear them say things like, “I got into the University of Michigan.” I realized that I wanted to be able to say that I got into college, too. I thought it would be a cool experience to be a college student. Last year, a new program started at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, for people with developmental disabilities. It was started by a few very caring people who thought outside the box. They are my parents, teachers, university people and me. It’s called Oakland University Transition.
My first day of college was a bit scary, but I got used to it. Overall, the transition was fun and exciting, and I had a good teacher who helped me make my dream to go to college come true. I take two buses to the campus and sometimes get a ride home with a friend. In the Oakland University Transition program, students like me take two to four classes and do volunteer job training exercises at the Lowry Childhood Education Center and the student radio station WXOU. I also work at the Student Activities Center. We’re also involved in the recreation and social stuff on campus. I still have an IEP, and I have meetings at the end of every year, just like I did in high school.
This semester, I’m taking a communication class and a mental health class, and I’m taking an independent study on computers. I get help from my peers, and I get help from the teachers in my program. My peer helpers will send me emails, or help me to make flash cards and talk to me on the phone. I can meet with the professors and go over notes with them, too. When I take tests and exams, someone reads them to me.
I also get to complete assignments in different ways. For example, in one class I had, all the students had to write a paper about the Bush versus Kerry election, and the teacher asked me if I wanted to do a videotape instead. So I did an interview with Elizabeth Bauer of the Michigan State Board of Education about her job.
The best part of being at college is being around my peers. I don’t have to be with kids who are younger than me. I can be with people who are 20, like me, and hang out with them and have fun.
BEING PART OF THE COMMUNITY
On top of my school work, I do a lot of extra-curricular stuff. I am in the Social Work club at the college and in Hillel, a Jewish club. I’m in another Jewish group outside school, called USY (United Synagogue Youth). I’m also on the national youth board of KASA, which stands for Kids As Self Advocates. It’s a branch of an organization called Family Voices. I joined the board of KASA in 2001.
I think self-advocacy is really important, because if you don’t advocate, you don’t get what you want. The way I self-advocate is by telling people what I want and what I need.
My advice to other kids with disabilities is to talk to other people. Talk to your parents and to your teachers. If you want to go to college, it’s up to you to make a good life for yourself!
It is easy to read Micah’s story and realize how wonderful and powerful inclusion has been for him. But what about the other students in his classes? Did his inclusion slow them down? Impede their learning? Limit their future options because they spent time with him?
Two of Micah’s friend, Matt and Mike, offer powerful testimony to why inclusion matters for students who don’t have disabilities and how it transforms the very nature of schooling and community. Matt and Mike have both joined Micah in speaking at inclusion conferences, and they have offered their perspectives here.
Mike Boyd writes:
I met Micah in the first grade, and that day we met will stick out in my mind for the rest of my life. You see, my desk was kitty-corner to Micah’s, and Katie’s (still one of my best friends today) was right next to his.
One day we were all sitting there at our desks, and Micah got sick, real sick. It ended up on his desk, my desk, Katie’s desk and so on; I think you get the point. Just about every single person in the class starting laughing and saying “sick, ughh,” but I didn’t. At that time I had absolutely no clue who Micah was, but that was not the point. I didn’t know Micah had what some may call a learning disability or wasn’t able to read or write like most of us were learning, to me he was just like everyone else. To this day I feel the exact same way, he is just like everyone else… different.
No, Micah can’t read as fast as you can, but when you read something to Micah he will remember it better than you will. That is what I wanted to explain my whole entire life to people who look differently at Micah. They see this kid, and some just don’t want to give him a chance, but Micah has made me want to succeed. My whole life he has looked up to me, envied me, acted like me, and in no way could I ever let him down.
After first grade we didn’t really meet again until third grade when Circle of Friends was started. Circle of Friends was an after-school program created to give students an opportunity to interact with Micah… Each year a different group, but each year the same idea, fun. We did many things such as community service, local news broadcasts, sports events and so on. We met at least one time a week after school to discuss with the school social worker things we felt Micah was doing good with and things we felt he needed to work on. After the talk we went on to eat, play and have fun with one another… I have always felt if we are to hide the real world events and situations that many kids growing up experience from Micah, are we really doing something good?…
Most likely if and when I get married, Micah will be standing up there with me. He has been one of few that have proven to me that he is a lifetime friend. He calls me all the time and we talk baseball, school, politics and just about anything that comes to mind… I have been blessed to have known him for this long, and I will only continue to benefit throughout our lives together.
From his relationship with Micah, Mike learned to see people as they really are, to reach beyond superficial images and labels.
Another friend, Matt Weinger, writes about the ways in which the Circle of Friends, developed to surround Micah, ended up surrounding him as a new student as well:
I moved to suburban Detroit from out of state toward the end of fifth grade, when I was ten years old. I found myself as the much maligned new kid amongst 75 or so children who’d been together since kindergarten. What easily could have meant disaster for my self-esteem instead became a love affair with my new friends. I was almost immediately embraced, welcomed and included by Micah and his peers, a group known as the Circle of Friends.
It turns out that being the new kid is a blessing in disguise. I’m sure Micah at the time thought very little of what he had done. But look, that’s the whole point! To him I was merely a new friend. A quick display of friendliness and compassion on his part meant the entire world to someone else, that being me. I won’t ever forget that day… Circle of Friends more than opened my eyes; it opened my heart and opened my mind.
I no longer see the world the way I used to see it. No more cool kids and weirdoes or jocks and dorks. No more retards. Micah, his family and his circle have taught me to view and accept people as individuals without classifications. Just because someone stutters doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy of conversation. A blind man would certainly enjoy being read aloud to. Someone who can’t run so fast may still get satisfaction from being a member of a track and field team. A child who has poor penmanship could well be a magnificent writer. Luckily, the standards by which society measures people are evolving, if ever for the better…
Thanks to Micah and his Circle of Friends, I feel as though I’m a better friend, a better person, leading a better life.
Inclusion not only allows students to learn compassion, perspective taking and responsibility, but also shifts their understanding of their own agency and importance in making the world different. Inclusion is about creating schools that are learning communities in which all members are treated with kindness and respect. Though this goal may be achievable without the presence of students with disabilities, the authenticity of thinking about a real student in a real school moves inclusive thinking and a positive response to diversity from a theory to a concrete set of practices. Making a school better for some students can help us think about how to make positive changes for more students. Although Mike Weinger did not have a disability, the presence of a welcoming community, a circle of friends constructed to support Micah, drew him into a web of acceptance as well.
Mike’s mother, Jan Boyd, describes how Micah’s Circle of Friends promoted the inclusion of other children as well:
I am reminded of an incident during this school year when a new student arrived and was not only new to the district, but also new to the culture of the United States, having lived in a different country prior to moving here. The Circle befriended him and asked him to join their meetings and activities. It was this group of youth that helped him feel welcomed in a new environment. This was a wonderful example of taking the term special needs to a new dimension… I think that these young people understand that there are many forms of special needs that need to be addressed and nurtured.
Another of Micah’s friends, Oliver Hersey, gives evidence that the teachings of inclusion continue to shape the lives, choices and careers of the students who were Micah’s peers:
When I was a second semester senior in high school, I was definitely ready to move on to life after high school. I was ready to be out. When the school social worker asked me if I wanted to earn a half-credit by being a peer tutor for a tenth grader who had a cognitive disability and was included in the general education science class, I gladly accepted. Truthfully I wanted a blow-off class, and this definitely sounded like a great option.
My responsibilities were to assist Micah in reading and writing. It took some time for me to understand exactly what that meant. When I would read from the textbook, he would get bored easily and his eyes would wander out the window. As time went on, I realized that Micah was not really absorbing much of the material. He needed something else to stimulate his mind. Thus, I began using real-life examples and talking about science and how it relates to our everyday life. If we were talking about velocity in science class, I talked about the speeding cars in the school parking lot. If we were talking about solids, liquid and gas, we went to the drinking fountain and let water run over our hands. Micah began to understand the basic concepts of science as we know them today. As time went on, I realized that I was not just teaching Micah, but rather Micah was also teaching me. Micah was challenging me to learn about him and the ways he comprehended the material.
Although my sole focus in the beginning of the semester was to assist Micah in science class, I began to learn about Micah as a person. We began to spend time together outside of class. I began learning that Micah had the same needs as me and that we shared a lot in common, especially sports (Go Pistons!). This might sound strange, but I believe that when kids with disabilities are not included and actively participating in school, general-ed students never learn how to develop relationships with them. You get a very narrow picture of who they are. They are just the spec ed kids. They are just labels—someone you might say “hi” to, but that’s about it.
Being with Micah opened my eyes and I guess my heart too. I now know how important it is to get to know the person. To start from a place that recognizes that all human beings share the desire to have friends and hang out. I learned that you can only become friends over time, over conversation, and being involved in real activities.
To this day Micah and I are friends. We talk regularly and hang out together. In June 2005, he danced at my wedding, and most recently he flew on his own to visit me in Chicago. We will be friends for life. Micah has had a huge impact on me. When it was time to write my final paper during my senior year in college describing my approach and philosophy on teaching, nearly 30 percent of the content was about what I had learned from my relationship with Micah. He taught me that every student learns at a different pace. That students aren’t just in school to get an education, but are also there to develop social skills and lifelong friends. He challenged me to teach everyone as much as I can.
Now I am a first-year teacher in the Chicago area. I continue to practice what I learned about inclusion and friendships. There is a photo of Micah with his big smile in my classroom reminding me of what true friendship is and how important it is that every student in my classroom feels included. There is a young man with Asperger’s syndrome who is a student in my classroom. Although his needs are different from Micah’s, I often try to get him involved with the other students in ways that he might not do himself.
I believe that inclusion is powerful tool that when used properly has a lifelong effect. I first learned it when I was a student in high school sitting next to Micah in science class. I am now learning it as a teacher in high school.
It is important to emphasize that this inclusion process didn’t just happen. Rather, it was the result of the effort, commitment and vigilance of many people, including Micah’s parents and school staff.
Micah’s mother and father worked continuously to negotiate the system for their son: how much should they push for Micah’s inclusion? If they didn’t push, would it all unfold naturally? How much priming does the system need?
In an article titled “Nudging the Network,” Janice describes how many well-intentioned efforts to include Micah simply didn’t work. Although a basketball coach tried to engineer a successful moment by adding Micah to the fifth-grade basketball team’s play for the last three minutes of the game, Micah had never developed enough basketball skills to make that happen. Inclusion can’t be about programming a few moments of inclusion success, photo opportunities of inclusive practice. Rather, it’s about committing for the long haul, constantly assessing the learning environment and figuring out how it can be expanded, shaped, prodded and molded to be more inclusive.
Although far from easy, we have learned to hold conversations and meetings where we have explicitly asked the question, “What can we all do to ensure that Micah has a role in the action, an assignment, a part of the play, a ride to the dance, a meaningful way to be?” We’ve learned that young people have great ideas.
We’ve learned that it’s okay—in fact, necessary—to nudge his network a bit. For example, one of Micah’s personal goals for his senior year was to go to the prom. After little success hoping that he’d get a date or be invited to join one of the groups, we decided to make contact with the Circle of Friends. It wasn’t easy to hear the “I already have plans, sorry…” response, but we didn’t give up. Micah made some calls, but time was running out. Soon we connected with one of our newest recruits to the Circle, Shosh. She had won our hearts when we saw her running on the same cross country team with Micah. She wanted to include Micah in her group going to the prom, but there were the other 13 kids in her group who needed to be consulted. Can you imagine trying to consult with 13 teens and get consensus? The phone lines were hot.
Eight days passed, each involving many, many phone calls—but it worked out well for everyone. Micah was joining the group of 14 kids going to his senior prom— the most important dream of his senior year. Later, a sweet and unexpected call came from Michael, one of Micah’s longest friends. “Hey Micah, wanna go shopping for our tuxedos?”
Micah’s parents learned that inclusion takes hard work, thoughtful planning, trial and error, and lots of persistence. It took tremendous and collaborative problem solving, but Micah did go to the prom. And although he never did score a basket in a basketball game, he went on to run cross country and track, eventually leading to a varsity letter. And finally, without parental involvement, Micah was elected to the Homecoming Court in his senior year! Sweet success. Powerful inclusion. Important lessons for everyone involved.
Micah’s story is not typical, but neither is it rare. Micah’s father describes the process as “a journey and not a miracle,” with many sad and frustrating days in addition to those of joy. But knowing this is possible for this young man helps us see the possibilities for others.
by Mara Sapon-Shevin
The above excerpt is adapted with permission from Widening the Circle: The Power of Inclusive Classrooms, copyright 2007 by Mara SaponShevin and published by Beacon Press. Widening the Circle is coming soon to bookstores and can be ordered now through online booksellers or at www.beacon.org
For more information on Micah, his family and their advocacy work, visit www.danceofpartnership.com
For more information on the Kids As Self Advocates network, visit www.fvkasa.org
For more information on Circle of Friends, a strategy for building friendship networks for students who are marginalized or excluded, visit www.inclusion.com