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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
December 1, 1994
Vol. 52
No. 4

Easing into Inclusion Classrooms

Should classes for students with disabilities be self-contained or integrated? Experience with these 8th grade classes taught the teachers the value of “pull-ins” for all children.

That afternoon group is a tough one,” my colleagues warned me repeatedly, referring to the self-contained classroom of 8th graders with both learning and emotional disabilities that I was to teach alone. Mornings would present a contrasting challenge—a regular 8th grade class into which students with learning disabilities were integrated. I had more than 10 years of experience teaching at various grade levels from K–12, including students with learning disabilities. Still, I was not prepared. The first month I taught at this middle school was the longest month of my life.
True, there had been a two-year hiatus in my experience. I was lecturing prospective teachers on reading methods at the University of Wisconsin-Madison while wrapping up my dissertation. “I miss being in the classroom actually applying this theory,” I had confided to friends two years ago. “I miss the children, their problems, the challenge. I still have things to learn.” So it was that I accepted a one-year position at an urban middle school in Madison, not far from the state capitol.

A.M.: The Integrated Classroom

My morning integrated class was a two-and-a-half-hour combined English and social studies period, for which I would team up with the regular classroom teacher. Because most of my previous experience with learning disabled students had been in a self-contained setting in which I was the sole adult, I wasn't sure what to expect. Would I be an equal partner? Or would I take a back seat to my teammate? That teacher, Peter O., promptly allayed my concerns. “We're in this together,” he assured me. “I've never teamed like this before either, but we'll give it a shot.” Peter was a veteran teacher who sported a ponytail, paisley ties, and a sense of humor. “This will be like a trial marriage,” he joked.
According to last year's Stanford Diagnostic Reading Test, students' reading levels in the 8th grade integrated class spanned the gamut—1st grade to 12th. Some had been identified as talented and gifted, and they did indeed dare Peter and me to challenge them. I taught literature units on Native American women and on e. e. cummings, and we practiced simulations and intergenerational interviewing. Barely one step ahead of my students, I spent night after night at the university's instructional materials center combing the shelves for activities and readings.
Simultaneously, I made sure slower learners were not left behind. Whenever students were asked to read quietly by themselves, I invited anyone who wanted to read orally to meet me in the back of the room. Those who needed help, including being read to, joined us. In my notes, I assigned labels to some students who accepted help—LD for learning disability, BD for behavioral disability, and CD for cognitive disability. My only purpose in doing so was to make sure they got the help they needed. These were the students who had fallen through the cracks; even though they had repeatedly been tested, their scores were not quite low enough to earn them the help that only a label can bring.
The integrated class worked well, although it took time for Peter and me to work out our separate roles and responsibilities. And students did try to play each of us against the other (the marriage metaphor). But the teaming process decreased our work load and increased the pleasure of teaching.

P.M.: The Self-Contained Classroom

The afternoon class, as I had been warned, was more difficult. First, these 8th graders habitually played juvenile games, such as the exasperating pastime of throwing books and other materials out of our second-story window when my back was turned. No wonder so few teaching materials were available! Since their only classmates were one another, all day, every day, they reinforced one another's behavior. Some of these students had been confined to special education classes since the primary grades. They needed to have more acceptable behaviors modeled on a regular basis. Clearly it was time for some mainstreaming. I asked Peter about possible inclusion activities with his afternoon English/social studies group, and he agreed.
The materials the previous year's teacher had ordered for my class did not help matters. They consisted of page after page of text—no colorful pictures, maps, graphs, charts, or other reader aids—and few activities. The class, whose reading level ranged from 1st to 5th grade, balked: “We can't read all this!” Admittedly, they couldn't. I tried using the 6th grade social studies texts, but they did not fit in with the 8th grade curriculum. I rewrote portions of the text, but that wasn't the answer. Finally, we tried related readings and activities, but time was too short to collect them. I experimented with a half dozen sets of materials before finding a package that conveyed the appropriate concepts, at an appropriate grade level, with sufficient reader aids and supplementary materials. (Mental note: Never again tell my university students they can do without a text if they are creative enough.)

Mainstreaming Step by Step

We were to join Peter's class for a slide presentation on colonial artifacts. We planned our visit with great care. We discussed the objects we would be viewing and their relevance to colonial times. We discussed appropriate behavior in a host classroom. It looked like the stay would be a nonthreatening first step.
The assigned day arrived, and we marched upstairs to Peter's classroom. My students froze. “I'm not going in there,” they protested in unison. “Everyone will stare at us.” As my students pressed against the hallway walls, I felt like I was talking suicidal adolescents off a ledge. I reasoned, cajoled, explained. I tried to shore up their confidence: “You can do this.” I gently kidded them. Here was a powerful argument for inclusion. My kids were terrified that they would be labeled as “the dummies” the minute they walked in. Finally, though, something clicked. All but one student—Annie—entered the classroom (she asked to go to the counselor's office instead, and I agreed). This was a start.
As the year went on, the inclusion process inched forward. I was fortunate that Peter encouraged me to help integrate my students. Gradually, they worked with other classes in the library and the computer lab, and joined them for videos, plays, and simulations. They benefited academically as well as socially from the integration, but progress was slow and not easy on any of us. We worked hard together to prepare for visits to regular classrooms.
In addition to teaching the subject matter, I tried to build confidence and to get the students involved and pique their interest. I asked anticipatory questions: “What do you think it will be like?” “What do you know about the subject?” Fortunately, their worst fears proved unfounded. At this middle school, it was behavior, not academic performance, that was most crucial; once my students' behavior was more acceptable, they were more accepted. Indeed, other students who were more capable developed compassion for those who struggled academically, and a fairly strong spirit of cooperation evolved.
Both my students and I learned a lot last year. Peter was not only a master teacher, but a master at classroom management. Rather than struggling to maintain authority with our adolescent charges, he diffused potentially explosive situations with creativity and humor. One example was student breaks. During the daily English-social studies period, 8th graders in four classes were allowed to leave their rooms briefly for a four-minute break. Problem: How do you separate more than 100 8th graders to get them back to their classrooms in four minutes? Peter showed me how. “Last one in the room dances with me,” he called down the hallway. Mary, a tough-looking girl with a just-you-try-to-make-me stare, stood her ground. Peter raced down the hallway, swept Mary up in his arms, and waltzed with her down the full length of the corridor. Mary froze in disbelief. Students still in the hallway flew into their classrooms. Mary was never late from break again.

Learning What Works

  • First and foremost, I believe there is great value in integrating special education students with regular education students as fully as possible. For one thing, it may eliminate problems associated with labeling.
  • I believe in the value of “pull-ins,” that is, putting children in a special program and then gradually reintroducing them to the regular class once their academic skills and behavior approach the proper level.
  • My experience also convinced me of the value of collaboration among teachers. The class integration process appears to work especially well when the special education teacher works side by side with the regular teacher.
  • Finally, my experience reaffirmed my belief that a special education teacher has no special bag of tricks. Good teaching is good teaching. Someone who works with children with special needs may have to spend much more time explaining, modeling, interacting, or practicing particular strategies, but strategies that work well with labeled children usually work just as well with non-labeled children.
I take my hat off to the classroom teacher. All the 8th grade teachers took ownership for all the 8th grade students. The teachers arrived early, stayed late, and put in countless extra hours for special courses, camping trips, dances, fairs, and other activities. They gave up some preparation periods in order to meet regularly to discuss students who were experiencing emotional or academic problems. There was a spirit of collegiality that clearly benefited the students.
I now realize—or remember—just how much time and energy it takes to translate theory into practice. I hope this experience will help me do a better job of teaching prospective teachers.

Arlene L. Barry has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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