A Composition.


Here we are again. Stuck in between the two historical and political silos: the government vs. the BCTF. I’ve been stocking up on Kraft dinner and hotdogs and watching this saga unfold for months. I agree with all things teacher, but there is one point, at the forefront of this debate, that I have been waiting for someone else to address … and frankly I’m tired of waiting.

The class size and composition battle has been ongoing. Personally, I don’t even know why teachers are negotiating this…you don’t see doctors striking for the rights of patients??? Regardless, there is ample  research supporting the teachers’ demands of lowering class size and I have no (nor want to have an) argument to counter this. Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 11.46.28 AM

The other one though, ‘composition,’ leaves not only a bad taste in my mouth, but makes me wants to convince both the BCTF (along with every teacher in every school district) and Christy Clark (and EVERYONE in the ministry) to take a Shelley Moore seminar about the actual implications of the word.

I have tried daily to (unsuccessfully) convince myself not read twitter; and/or Facebook; and/or the news; and/or (and especially) the comments and government propaganda. All I see are graphs, opinions, false statistics and creative M n M visual metaphors describing the horrors of this strike, including class composition narratives.


The true horrors, however, are what fill my screen: Tweets screaming the atrocities of having “7 special needs students in a class…..SEVEN!!!!!!!!!” A website devoted to collecting the compilation ratios of teachers classes and graphs with the increasing population of students with special needs and English language learners in classes, displayed like these kids are a spreading disease with no cure. Another, BC teacher supported blog, carries a headline, “BCTF says class composition the worst it’s ever been in the province!” An additional Vancity Buzz article actually ranting about the disruption of special needs students in classrooms. And my favourite, a parent tweeting, who wants their kid in a class with special needs kids anyway?

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The kicker, a Vancouver Sun interactive resource, where parents can go in and find the exact composition atrocities of their own child’s class online.

Ok everyone, enough is enough.

photo 4For some reason, class composition, has become synonymous with impossible teaching arrangements and a pessimism toward individuals with special needs that is rooted in the conviction that these students are incapable, and worse, a burden, to other students and teachers in public classrooms. Before these negotiations, the word composition did not just refer to ratios of diversity and ability.

In writing and art, the word ‘composition’ is used to describe “the plan, placement or arrangement of the elements of work.” In music, it is “creating and arranging an original piece of music.” In the digital world, composition refers to “the practice of digitally piecing together a video.” All of these have one thing in common – planning and arranging pieces together to create a whole. Another common theme? In every definition, compositions are original creations.

For too long, we have been aiming to teach homogenous groups of students who, as Ken Robinson so eloquently described, “have only one thing in common…their age.” I guarantee that more than just my music, writing, and digital composing friends agree that … “all the same” is not enough; it’s undesirable. With these homogenous standards, it is not just students with special needs who don’t fit the mold. More and more students (including me) struggle to find success in a teaching career that focuses on deficit rather than ability.

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The educational shift towards inclusion has attempted to counter this attack, by embracing diversity and creating classrooms that are not just geared towards the status quo. THIS is what we all should be fighting for (student, teachers, governments, parents, and tax payers). A shift in education to embrace all… not just some. Somehow though, this value shift has been left for the teacher’s to carry alone. It is because of this that inclusion (and composition) has become a contaminated practice, rather than a philosophy that binds us, and brings us, together.

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My lovely hairdresser, Missy, cut and coloured my hair yesterday (in exchange for an IOU) and in our chair/mirror discussion, she described her choir and their (sold out!) performance this summer. My ears perked when I heard her casually mention, “we have so many tenors this year!”

bc-class-compositionWhat didn’t follow, were these statements:
– “The tenor population has increased so drastically because we are so much better at identifying them”
– “Ugh, this choir year is IMPOSSIBLE, these 7 tenors are taking up SO much extra time”
– “We found an app that alters a tenor’s voice so we can fit them into our choir now…kind of”
– “We needed to compose a whole new piece for them! I don’t have time for that, so we found a piece that was similar that they can sing quietly at the same time.”
– “The tenors should probably just be in their own choir, they require a different set of skills that I am not specialized to compose.”

Or my most favourite:
– “We already have three tenors, sorry.”

AND, you will definitely never find a circle graph of current choir composition on Google images used as a strategic and political scare tactic.

The difficulty with these statements, more than just the obvious “oh, those poor tenors,” is that a composer would NEVER say this! Choirs NEED tenors! A choir filled with only sopranos would sound like shrill elevator music on repeat. I love you sopranos, but I feel like you appreciate the compliments of some tenor love as much as I like to turn up the bass in my car when I listen to Beyoncé.


photo 2

What Missy continued to describe (pay attention to this part) was how the choir, responded to having a lot of tenors. This choir commissioned a piece to suit their chorus. In the choir world, a piece is commissioned with the chorus’ strengths in mind. So, for example, if a choir has a strong bass section, the piece chosen highlights lower notes. Alternatively, if a soprano section of a choir is smaller, or developing, the piece won’t include an extraordinary amount of high notes. In other words, the structure of the chorus is manipulated to respond to the COMPOSITION of the group. Missy’s choir created an original piece so that the tenors (and everyone in the mix) could feel “included and have a contribution.” They didn’t make the tenors change their voices, they didn’t make them sing a different piece, they didn’t turn them away… those tenors were as a part of that choir as anyone else. There unique presence, however, informed them to the piece that was created for them for them. The composition utilized their strengths, for the benefit of all. At the end of the day, this choir performed an AMAZING piece (did I mention it was sold out) AND I bet not one person in the audience knew that there was an above average tenor population. The goal was met. Objective achieved!


Strength based teaching is not a new phenomenon, and there are many frameworks that can support the spectrums of language, culture, gender and every other unique identity marker you can imagine…including cognitive ability. These supports are effective in both challenging AND creating access for everyone, and I encourage you to read other entries on this blog if your curious.

There are teachers all over this province trying to create learning opportunities for all their students because of this diversity, not in spite of it. This is inclusion. These classrooms, however, are having a harder and harder time. There is an expired expectation that teachers simply teach, to a homogenous group, in isolation. How hard can it be right???? There are many difficulties with this longstanding image of classrooms, especially classrooms trying to move towards a place of inclusion and access for all. Inclusion cannot happen alone.

Inclusion needs time for collaboration to create a plan that can highlight all abilities.

Inclusion needs assistants and specialists to provide multiple pathways for success.

Inclusion needs resources and funding supports to make a plan acknowledging alternate ways of knowing and understanding the world.

Inclusion needs time and space for teachers to grow and change their professional practice to respond to the changing structures of their classes.

Inclusion needs a government that supports the efforts of teachers, who are caring for and facilitating the growth of the next generation of our society that will require the skills and experiences of learning from, and with, diversity in all its forms.

These are not teacher ‘benefits;’ they are the blueprints of inclusive education. Let us not lose track of what we are fighting for. There is a bigger picture to these negotiations.


There is one more factor for inclusion to be successful. And I argue, the MOST important one! Inclusion NEEDS a diverse composition. Without this, we are simply cookie cutter assembly line workers. Without this, teachers cannot be the creative composer. This is our career, this is our skill, and regardless of how many massages or fertility treatments we require per calendar year, we are skillFULL composers.

Lets look to our teachers as composers. Let us all consider them the skilled professionals that they are, collaborating together and delicately weaving the diverse abilities, interests, and characteristics of our students into creative, original and carefully planned arrangements. Professionals that need support to exist. From everyone…even you.

For all of you who scrolled to the bottom to find the answer, here it is.

Instead of fighting for class size and composition, how about we fight for class size and SUPPORT for class composition. BOOM. That was easy.

14 thoughts on “A Composition.

  1. Thanks for this, Shelley. There has been something niggling at me over the whole presentation of “composition”, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Your blog post here has helped me realize that I too am bothered by the sob stories of having too many kids with special needs in a class. I don’t really think that Classroom Teachers want to get rid of those kids or bring back segregation or reverse the beautiful diversity of inclusion. I think you’re right when you say these teachers want better SUPPORT for their diverse classrooms so that they really can practice and engage in true inclusion. Language is power so let’s get busy changing the wording to “support for class composition”.

  2. Sara Raouf

    thanks shelley, as always a thought provoking read. a small difference in words but an important and distinct difference. i have had many similar thoughts over the past few months about the language being used in reference to students with exceptional needs in our classrooms.

  3. claudiasmum

    your blogs are ever so inspiring – never stop!! ps we’re moving out of province to remove ourselves and our “composition child” from this backwards process!! 😉

  4. Patti Thorpe

    As a high school music teacher, I adore large classes. Larger bands are easier to find music for and they generally sound better, larger choirs can sing more different parts simultaneously, shy kids don’t feel like people notice them so much in larger classes and they can be more confident persosonally in a larger group. I don’t have large classes anymore. The kids have so many courses that they have to take (mandated by the government) and many of them retake academic classes instead of electives. I would love a return to the past! Except for the inclusion of special needs, which we didn’t do in those good old days. We used to put them in special classrooms and pretend they weren’t part of our school. The positive difference that having special needs and identified students integrated into my classes has been profound, on the other students, and on my teaching practice. To watch everyone learn how to look after each other better, to learn new ways of learning, to hear and see how much joy there is in working together, I would not for a moment give that up in exchange for a return to the days of separateness.

    But we need help. We need more specialist teachers who can advise us on how to reach different students, and we need education assistants in the classes to help us all manage, because every child deserves opportunities to learn, and the quiet ones who don’t ask for much attention are the ones who will get no attention at all. Eliminating designations for students is just a way to avoid paying for the support we all need.

    Thank you for your blog. And for your support too.

  5. Neesha

    Shelley, I was wondering when we were going to hear from you! 🙂

    I’ve had a hard time figuring out what to say myself, just in daily conversations. Composition is such a complex subject. And when we talk about it in terms of categories, labels, numbers, caps, no caps, etc., it is so dehumanizing….

    In the end, I guess the bottom line for me is that when the caps came out all those years ago in the name of “flexibility,” the chronic underfunding began, and the system has been falling apart ever since. I just want us to find a way to get the money back into the system.

    I’m happy you’ve written this — we have to keep the discussion going.

  6. BB

    Brilliant analogy, Shelley. You are so astute in exposing the critical aspects of this extremely muddy issue. YES, we need support for the complex groups of individuals we teach – we do not need numeric caps based on categories. Thank you for writing this.

  7. Tara Elie

    Exactly, wouldn’t trade the diversity of my classes even the ones with 25 IEPS (no I am not kidding); however, in order to maintain a standard of excellence for these students I need time for collaboration with colleagues – teachers and EAs, etc in order to offer the very best for every student…not a one-man-band or lone ranger teacher

  8. janice carroll

    Alright, you caught me … I scrolled down to the bottom for the answer. I got it (boom). Thank you for this – I always learn plenty when I read your blogs. I absolutely concur (and I did scroll back up and read the article).

  9. bfloris

    Interesting analogy. However, the analogy is incomplete as a choir with extra tenors is still a homogeneous group when it comes to skills & talent.

    I wonder what Missy’s comments would have been had 4 tone-deaf people joined her choir. And another couple of people who can’t read music. And someone with chronic laryngitis. How would the conductor cope? Would hiring a second conductor help? Or do you need a specialized voice teacher? Assistants? Would the most highly-talented singers be asked to step in and help the non-singers learn? Or is it better to segregate the choir into like-abled singers to maximize the potential of each voice with the choir coming together as a whole at only certain points? Will the lower-skilled musicians learn more effectively with like-skilled musicians? If so, is it “wrong” to segregate? How can the talent of the most highly-skilled soprano stand out against the dissonance of the tone-deaf? Is it fair to deny the most talented voices the chance to progress at a faster rate while the non-singers get the individualized attention? Is harmony possible when the skill sets of the singers are so incredibly varied?

    Everyone should be able to sing to the best of their ability and every voice should be supported in their own special way. However, there are more questions than answers when it comes to figuring out the optimal way to get there. It’s important to keep talking.

  10. Pingback: Thoughts on Inclusion – and the situation in BC right now | amanda's adventures

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