Do you wholeheartedly support inclusion or do you teach in an inclusive classroom with reservations? Regardless of what you believe, the inclusive classroom is the reality for the majority of teachers. Each day we are faced with 25 or more students and within each group of students we have at least one, if not more, students who have a special needs code. Moreover, within our non-coded students we have a variety of abilities and learning affinities. If we are lucky we have a teacher's aide for our special needs student either part time or full time. Perhaps we even have a resource teacher scheduled throughout the week. In the midst of this we are charged with the challenge of helping our students succeed academically and socially. Their success is our success. What is the key to a successful inclusive classroom?
I found my key to a successful inclusive classroom was to create a sense of belonging for each student to our classroom community. I learned this when I arrived mid-year as a replacement teacher for a Grade 4 class who was known as a very difficult group. Their previous teacher was rumoured to have left because the class had brought on high stress levels and depression. They had a number of substitutes for a month or so because no teacher was willing to sign a contract for the remainder of the school year. In the class, there were students with ADD/ADHD, learning disabilities and behaviour issues. There were also a number of students without offical codes. I had the school resource teacher, board behaviour consultant, school psychologist and special needs consultant available to me. You knew this was a broken class when teachers were telling me stories of how difficult they had been in kindergarten and which students caused the most trouble. You knew this was a broken class when students were echoing outloud the labels their classmates had been given.
I started off building our classroom community by creating routines and expectations. We implemented a visual schedule, set up activities for early finishers and reward systems for positive behaviours. I began to build a sense of belonging for each student by getting to know them individually. I learned their like and dislikes and extracurricular activites through reading their daily journals. I did my best to let go of any preconceived notions I had of my students and encouraged my students to do the same. I provided different learning opportunities to let students shine at different times.
But the moment I realized I had a successful inclusive classrom was when we embarked on our project for each student to make a tied fleece blanket. I initiated the project because I thought this was definitely something each student could accomplish and I wanted our class to feel success as a group. I went to the fabric store, negotiated a deal for the fleece and bought fleece samples for the students. After explaining the project, each student excitedly chose a front and back fleece. On the day of the project, the class and a number of parent volunteers walked into the gymnasium and settled into their project. There was a buzz of excitement as they began but it was replaced with a sense of worry as they realized the project was going to take a good dose of perseverance. I went from student to student and was amazed at what I saw. The students were trading scissors when a friend's got dull, leaving their own blanket aside to work together to make headway on another and encouraging one another to keep going. Some students finished that day but many didn't. In the days that followed students would pull out their blankets at random times to finish tying knots. Sometimes there would be 3 or 4 students working together.
This project was a success because each student felt they belonged to our classroom community. They each had a place and knew they could make a contribution. Most importantly, each student was just a student. The project placed everyone on an even playing field. We succeded individually and as a group. There were no special needs students. There was no inclusive classroom. We were just a classroom. From this, we ended the school year with the class you see above. We had experienced the key to a successful inclusive classroom!