Sunday, July 06, 2008

Port Lucie Debacle

Now that I am back the first piece of outdated disability news I want to comment on is what happened in the Florida classroom that that voted a boy with autism off their island.
I will begin with a story:

Once upon a time there were 2 best friends in a first grade classroom in upstate NY. They both knew how to read, loved books, loved words and loved sharing this with everyone they knew. Perhaps they were a tad obnoxious which was only accentuated by the fact that they were 7 (many 7 year olds lean a little toward the know-it-all side, look it up in your developmental psych book!)

In first grade these girls were inseparable, in second grade they were in classes across from each other. In one classroom the teacher was pretty awful. She called her student a show-off, made fun of me (I mean her) when she picked out chapter books to read and was otherwise generally unkind.

Her friend, on the other hand had a teacher who let her read out loud to the class, had her look things up in the dictionary and generally was nice and seemed to value her.

The first time I ever cried in school happened when our two classes were in the school library at the same time and my friend went over to the encyclopedia with the librarian to look something up and I looked at them. My teacher yelled at me (in the LIBRARY) and asked me ‘Did I think that I was going to get to look in the encyclopedia with the librarian??? NO I WAS NOT!!!!!’

After that a lot of people thought picking on me in school was a pretty good idea. Ugh! She went on to torture one of my brothers, but my parents figured her out that year and kept my other brother from having her (which amazed me—I didn’t know parents could DO that!)

The moral of the story is I was not picked on because of who I was—my friend was much like me. I was picked on because my teacher was mean. She had a host of approaches to choose from—she chose nasty. She could have chosen nice—my friend’s teacher did…

The boy in Florida was not excluded because of his diagnosis, or even because of his behavior. There are thousands of teachers in the country who do not vote children out of their classrooms—no matter what they do.

When you read follow-up stories you realize that the teacher and much of the world still does not know what went wrong. I think I can help.

Apparently there were behaviors in the classroom that were difficult and were disrupting learning. So the teacher called the class together to name the problem and strategize solutions.

So far, so good. This is often a good strategy with groups that have gone sideways.

Where it turned into Lord of the Flies was in the next phase:

Here the teacher could have pointed out that all of these feelings and actions and drama are interrupting learning and then laid out a plan for ‘what we will do in our class when these dramas occur’. Then she could have said that the class would meet again next week to make sure things were working better, but if they weren’t we will fix the plan until we get it right. This would make it clear that she was in charge of the dynamic and it would make kids secure that everyone belonged AND that she was going to handle the problems that were upsetting to them.

But no, from here the teacher blamed the whole problem on one of the students and had the kids turn against him and vote him out.

The teacher is just lucky that she did all this at the end of the school year, rather than at the beginning. According to studies in education the formation of the learning community is one of the strongest predictors of the academic success of the students in any class. Their learning community became an incredibly dangerous place to be.

Teaching the children that the way to be “in” is to make sure that someone else is “out” leads to a lot of insecure kids scrambling to avoid the same fate—some will duck out of sight, others will aggressively seek to keep the negative attention on some scapegoat to protect themselves. These kids’ future teachers will be contending with this dynamic from them for years to come.

I will not insult the thousands and thousands of teachers who handle problems like these and more in thoughtful and effective ways by saying “teachers are just not prepared to handle these things.” Universities have been teaching and research has been supporting inclusive education practices since PL 94-142 was passed in 1975.

Most teachers are NOT 35 years behind in their profession!

[And can you imagine a computer engineer facing some new operating system saying, “I really can’t do this, when I was in college we learned Cobal, or Basic, or MS-DOS???? Everyone’s profession has changed since they graduated!

But I digress! (that’s for you Barbara!)]

I am sad for this boy and for his classmates who learned something about the way the world sometimes works--they could have waited a few more years to learn this lesson—some innocence is lost. But I am really glad that in this day and age people have the ability to name these situations as abuse and protest when they see it.

Kudos to Alex’s mom and the millions like her who are standing up for their kids all over the world!

Image from here.


rickismom said...

Just found your blog! Glad I did. This is what I wrote on the same incident:

therextras said...

Thanks, Terri! Glad to see you're back - I'm just now pulling your url out of the 'possibly dead' file in my favorites list.

I look forward to many more cross-visits between us. Barbara