Ja’Neesha’s in for a bit of a change.
Faithful readers may remember Ja’Neesha from last year–a small, pugnacious young lady who enjoys dancing, hugs, and unleashing random yet powerful streams of profanity, typically directed at bathroom equipment. Ja’Neesha has Down Syndrome, and sleep apnea, and asthma: she’s missed a lot of school due to her complex medical needs, and her developmental profile has not always synched up with academic learning. We are still working with Ja’Neesha on counting to one (ultimate goal is five), matching the card with her name to the other card with her name, holding the pencil and scrawling left-to-right. Things are less of a knock-down, drag-out street fight than they were last year, but she remains a rather idiosyncratic learner.
For a number of reasons beyond the scope of this blog, Ja’Neesha started the year in a classroom different than the one we now consider the best fit available to her–now it’s October, and it’s time for a switch. The classroom she’ll be transitioning into is an idiosyncratic class, in many ways: it’s a second/third grade combination, with students hand-picked for their ability to work independently in order to allow the teacher a fighting chance of teaching two curricula in one year.
How will we fit Ja’Neesha into a classroom where even her grade-level peers are often well above grade level, where the curriculum is often a year above her given grade? It’s actually easier than you might expect. Truth is, Ja’Neesha’s not working at the grade she’s assigned to anyway–she’s working on her skills, at her pace, within the context of activities aligned to her grade.
Inclusion, for kids like Ja’Neesha, doesn’t mean that the child learns everything around them. It means they learn what they need to learn, in a classroom community where that particular learning is every bit as valued as the lessons for the rest. The teacher needs to be on board, and the students do, too. Last Friday, I met with Ms. Ellen to discuss the idea. She is in many ways the perfect general education teacher for my inclusion students–her own daughter is a child who shares Ja’Neesha’s condition.
“I don’t want my kids to treat her like a pet.” In that one sentence, Ms. Ellen encapsulated all that is difficult and necessary about creating a meaningful classroom community for students with the most profound impairments. Kids are usually wonderful–they are full of love, and they want to help. But sometimes, they make a category error when they come across a child who is markedly different from them. Their voices get a little higher, they touch a little more. In their eagerness to help, they do for the child things which the child should be expected to do. Everything the child does is seen as funny and adorable because “he doesn’t know any better.” In short, they treat the child more like a puppy and less like a peer.
They fall into a trap that adults fall in, too–an emphasis on the “special” behind “special needs.” Ellen S., the mother of a child with cerebral palsy , describes her frustration with well-meaning people who find it honestly amazing that her son would like ice cream–“as if Max’s disabilities affected his potential for pleasure and joy.”
Ability awareness, especially when it’s targeted at one specific child, is always a delicate balancing act. It is not right to drop Ja’Neesha into a classroom environment without preparing her peers for her different learning needs. And yet, when we focus in too much on what makes a child different, we run the risk of forgetting the things all kids have in common.
Ja’Neesha’s teacher and I prepared our introduction as thoughtfully as we could. At the beginning of the year, her students had read Margaret Wise Brown’s The Important Book, which explores a number of common things in terms of their most salient details. The important thing about a spoon, for example, is that you eat with it. Although it is true that rain does not taste like anything, “the important thing about rain is that it is wet.”
With this structure in mind, I made a PowerPoint, explaining the Important Thing About Ja’Neesha. I illustrated each slide with pictures of Ja’Neesha and the things she was working on, stopped after each couple sentences to take questions and say more. Her future classmates saw, projected on a screen in the front of the room, the line ditto worksheets that Ja’Neesha will be working on–top to bottom, right to left. “We’re doing cursive”, one child offered, and I quickly broke it down for them: before you can do a cursive word, you need a curvy, loopy line, and before that kind of line, you start with straight and slanted.
We talked about how Ja’Neesha is working to count to five in the same way. I asked each child to tell his neighbor how high he could count, and then I asked the kids to all show me on their fingers: if I put that many (five thousand! twenty thousand!) things in a room, what is the first number they’d say when they counted? One. Okay then. Ja’Neesha starts with one.
I worked in the details about Ja’Neesha’s needs the way Brown elaborates on what makes a daisy. “She may not always speak clearly, but you can look at her face and tell how she’s feeling”. “Ja’Neesha might do some things you don’t do.” “Sometimes, grown-ups help her; you can help her too.” We ended the slide show with the same sentence that started it: “The important thing about Ja’Neesha is that she is a student at Greene Elementary.” I held up the book, asked the kids if their learning was ‘important’. They assured me that it was. I told them, very earnestly, that Ja’Neesha’s learning was equally important. We talked a little bit about how we would congratulate her when she counted out loud to 5, how she’d work on her line dittos when they practiced cursive, how they’d set a good example for sitting and listening. “Ja’Neesha is a student, and a friend, and we will treat her accordingly in this class.”
I asked if anyone had any questions; only one kid had a question specific to Ja’Neesha. “Which class will she come from?” I answered. We moved on. Most kids wanted to share with me what they knew about “special needs children”–that their dad said that they were born that way, that different is all right, that it takes special people to make a special world. I framed that, as best I could, away from the “special” and back to the people–that we all have our own gifts and needs and ways of being, and that life is more interesting because we’re not the same.
“But four things are the same, for all of us, in this class.” The kids recited our school’s four values–respect, responsibility, honesty, compassion, and I had them pledge, anew, to display those values. Within yourselves, towards your teacher, with all of your classmates, including your new one. Everyone promised. I thanked them, and I left.
The important thing about Ja’Neesha is that she’s a student at our school. And behind that main idea, so many details. The work her parents and the doctors and the nurses have done, to keep her alive and ready to learn. The work I and my staff do every day, to create and engage her in meaningful curricula, to build her skills within the context of the general education setting. The goals she’s on track for meeting, the ones she probably won’t. Her baffling obsession with yelling in the bathroom, the cuss words she says too clearly and the nice words she can’t say. The peers who make fun of her, when they think we’re not looking—at times, the other peers, who jump in indignantly before we get the chance. The benefits of full inclusion–social, academic. Ja’Neesha’s paraprofessional, reading with Shamika while Ja’Neesha dozed after lunch. The boy with significant emotional challenges, recognizing that Ja’Neesha has challenges too. Lindsay’s parents complaining that Ja’Neesha makes noises when her daughter takes a spelling test, how guilty I feel when she slaps kids when she’s angry.
The important thing about Ja’Neesha is that she’s a student at our school. And that’s part of a lesson that matters to all of us.