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Where's Waldo? Why Inclusion Matters For ALL Kids


Remember those Where's Waldo? books?  My nieces and nephew adored those books when they were younger.  We'd spend hours looking for Waldo in thematic scenarios.  He always seemed to be hiding in plain sight.  As a teacher, we know that our Waldos aren't always so good at hiding out in our classrooms. Every morning when I look out at my students' shining faces, I see diversity.  Sure, there's the ethnic, religious, gender, and racial diversity. That's the obvious.   But I also see Jamie who hates math, simply because she is a girl. I see Todd, who sits every morning and rocks back and forth in his chair to cope with the classroom stimuli. I see Joey who hasn't stopped talking since he entered the room and is now shouting to a friend across several tables. I see Katrina who can't stop tapping her pencil. My learners (and yours) are diverse because  of their needs, their strengths, and their weaknesses. 
I felt like some kind of bad dog that had pooped all over the carpet, eaten the slippers, and attacked the mailman, and was now being sent to obedience school.
                                                                                ---Jack Gantos, Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key

I remember reading Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key as a "youngish" teacher.  The scene when Joey walks to the classroom for special education kids, separate from the whole school, still leaves me in tears. Because of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) and other legislation, those days of isolation should be gone for our kids. Even the formation of the ACLU can trace its roots to the likes of Helen Keller, a disabled adult who became an advocate for disabled children and adults around the world. Legislation and organizations like these exist because history has taught us that we need these protections in place. Why? Because our world often lacks empathy, student aren't always empowered, and educational practices are not always equitable.


Working at schools that include ASD (autism spectrum disorder) classrooms as well as varying degrees of mainstream inclusion,  I've been able to see first hand how inclusion impacts both the ASD and mainstream students.  The buildings I've worked in have implemented student LINKS programs. My mainstream fourth and fifth grade students volunteer to become a link. They learn about autism before hand, and are trained by the ASD teacher to help with specific students. As a result, my students feel empowered to reach out to many different kinds of students, in and out of their classrooms.  They aren't throwing dirty looks over their shoulders during assemblies when ASD students are responding to assembly stimuli because they understand what is happening and why it's happening. They feel a sense of accomplishment that they are making a difference for their peers.  They also serve as an "understanding bridge" for students who do not volunteer as links. When ASD students were fully mainstreamed into my classroom, my students were prepared to work and interact socially with them.  There was no fear.

On the flip side, ASD students who are often isolated because of their disorder, experience repeated and consistent social contact with mainstreamed peers. They are able to practice their social interactions with a supportive peer.

I asked my colleague,  Kyle Curtis, an ASD teacher, doctoral student, and author how she sets up LINKS in schools. Check out our conversation below:


Wild Child: What's the first thing you did when setting up your LINKS program?

Kyle: So the first thing I did was visit every classroom and talk about what it means to be a LINK and examples of activities I would need LINKS for.  It was usually for play activities for my kids, and once I found some real leaders I had them help with running a center and teaching a lesson with the kids. 

Wild Child: What did you do to educate your LINKS leaders before hand?

Kyle:  I usually read my book to explain autism but if you are doing multiple disabilities than it may not work. But there are other books out there that can help. 

Wild Child: Did you get parents involved, too?

Kyle:  If students were interested they could take a permission slip and it needed to be signed by a parent and their classroom teacher as well as the student because they would miss a half hour a week of class.  The permission slips stated that the LINK would be responsible for any work they missed in a timely fashion and if they missed two times by forgetting or choosing not to come they were removed from the program.  If they were sick on their day then they would have to wait until their time the following week.  

Wild Child: Awesome! Then what happened?

Kyle:  Once we got permission slips back we held a meeting for everyone and talked more specifically about the kids they would be working with.  We discussed what their role was if a student got upset while they were in there and how to react.  We asked if students had a preference of activities to do such as art projects, reading stories, playing games, math activities, etc.  Then we gave students another out if they wanted.  If everyone was still in I made a schedule and passed them out and we had LINKS up and running.  

Wild Child: How did your year proceed?

Kyle: At the end of the year we had a LINKS celebration and I announced the "teacher assistants" for the upcoming year.  (I chose two fourth graders - now fifth graders who got to be assistants for the whole year or sub if someone was out).  They get extra duties to help the students and get to run a group time for me a few times through the year with my assistance.  They plan it and do it.  By my last year there we had about 20 kids that "applied" to be an assistant the next year.  They received a letter from me at the end of the year (given to the parents) of recommendation for future leadership positions in the school.

I absolutely loved having LINKS, some of the kids made such wonderful connections.  Honestly, some of my best LINKS were the "troublemakers" in other classes so if they could hold up their end of the bargain to keep up with class work LINKS was almost a reward for some of them.  A time to be a leader for many of them.  


She said I should have been kept behind and given extra help, but no teacher wanted to risk getting me two years in a row.

                                                                                    ---Jack Gantos, Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key

While teachers like Kyle and her students love hosting student links, and my mainstream students love being student links, as a classroom teacher, I'm enamored with it for another reason.  My students are learning empathy.  They are learning what it means to have a brain that works differently and the challenges that can pose.  They are learning to understand that different doesn't mean scary or unintelligent.  I witness compassion from my students on a daily basis. My students have begun to speak up for other students who can't speak up for themselves- they are EMPOWERED!  Even better, they have begun to understand that equity is not  equality. Equity is every student getting what he or she needs.  So when ASD students "get to" sit at the back of assemblies (a coveted fifth grade position), it is to fill a need that those students have. My students are learning what it means to be human. Perhaps one of the coolest ideas about LINKS is that it can set up to support students who have any kind of challenge.

In our country, we have long operated under the mantra that America is the land of opportunity.  We have believed this...strived for it...fought for it...and some of us have died for it. Our country was created by immigrants who were rebels with high ideals. They were misfits that feared for their lives and so they came here. Public education, IDEA and the ACLU are equalizers. They ensure that American truly is the land of opportunity- for ALL.

In my interview with Kyle, she mentioned sharing her book with links students to educate them about autism. This handy little text is written in rhyme from the perspective of an autistic child. Each page outlines a need the child has with a suggestion of how to meet that need.  Many of the needs are similar to what every child needs. Check out some of the pages below:


                


Diversity and inclusion are about giving value to every human being, no matter our differences. 
                                                                                ---thinkinclusive.us

In our ever-changing society, it's imperative that we remember what it means to be human.  As educators, we are tasked with empowering our children to empathize with others and understand equity.  I am part of The  3 E's Blogging Collaborative. Once a month, we write about teaching about empathy, equity and empowerment in our classrooms.  By clicking the logo below, you'll find a free resource to help you educate your students about friends with disabilities.  Below our logo, check out other articles and free materials about empathy, empowerment and equity. Until next time! Teach on.

https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B7SecwFUWytUZDFDRncwQUR2amc





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8 comments

  1. Great post! I'm currently fighting to get support for my mainstreamed SpED students. It's so frustrating when your principal chooses to purchase decorations before he appropriately staffs his campus.

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    1. Equity is so important...and extremely frustrating when others don't see its importance. Thanks for stopping by to read and comment!

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  2. I've not heard of this LINKS program until now, but I'm loving the concept, the explanation you provided, and the empathy and compassion it instills in students! Thank you for sharing this . . . off to research the program.

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    1. Thanks for reading, Sherri! The cool thing about it is that it works for multiple situations. The understanding it fosters in student is remarkable.

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  3. This sounds like a wonderful program! Awesome article!

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    1. Thank you for stopping to read and comment.

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  4. I love the idea of having students embedded in the room who can help make it a safer place by their understanding and knowledge, interest and empathy. It seems like this program could work in a range of situations, with a range of students who might experience prejudice or misunderstanding in a classroom. Thank you for sharing!!!

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    1. Thank you for reading and commenting. You're right about that! A LINKS program could be modified for many different purposes.

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