The Sweeper Van

UntitledSo, yesterday I was fortunate to spend the day co-presenting with two of my colleagues, mentors and friends, Faye Brownlie and Leyton Schnellert. The three of us were invited to be the featured speakers at the BCSSA Spring Forum, which brought together leaders including superintendents, administrators, directors of instruction and teachers from around the province, for a day with a theme of inclusive education. I contemplated writing about my session for you here, but my presentation was captured on camera! SO today, instead of writing, I get to TELL you about a moment in my life that has forever changed my practice and beliefs about teaching. I invite you to watch, share, and hopefully laugh without offence 🙂

May I present to you… The Sweeper Van.

A Gay Danish?

Ok, so this story is about my mom…well not completely, but it starts with her. But before I go further I should tell you a little bit about her.1458539_10154635398550131_1051224502576919098_n

Imagine a 5’2 3/4” tall, cute, nice, 63 year old with great skin. And now add a homemade colourful fluorescent moo-moo with matching crocs and a big smile. My mom (and her twin sister) are ACTUALLY the sweetest creatures that have ever lived. She is always happy except for these 3 things get her mad:

  1. Cable TV and how there is never anything on
  2. She thinks that there should be a grandfather clause that allows people over 60 to still smoke at the beach, and
  3. She can no longer buy fabric at Walmart

She loves lays chips and the colour blue, buying tables, going to the dollar store, quilting and the beach. In fact, you will often find her at the beach with a table, wearing the colour blue eating lays chips and quilting under an umbrella that she bought at the dollar store.

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Anyways, So her and I both live on Davie street, 3 blocks apart. Screen Shot 2015-03-07 at 2.29.17 PMShe proudly declares herself as “living in the heart of the village,” and we will often meet at our neighborhood coffee local, Melriches.

One other thing about my mom is that she is very reflective and often bursts out profound one-liners. Like one time she called me up and left a message on my phone that simply said, “Shelley, I’M IN LOVE!” and then I made this face.Screen Shot 2015-03-07 at 2.26.43 PM

Only to find out later that she had recently watched a documentary about Leonard Cohen and convinced herself that he was her true soul mate. ANYWAYS…So one afternoon, as we sat at Melriches, and she declared, “you know, we could all learn a lot from the gays.” And then I made this face.

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Before I could respond, however, she continued into a lovely monologue about how happy she is that she lives in a community that values diversity and how everyone is different and that it’s ok! And she’s right, people CAN learn something from people who are gay, and she CAN walk down the street in her fluorescent moo-moos and matching crocs, and the only people who turn their heads to stare, are women (and men) who want to know where they can buy a set.Screen Shot 2015-03-07 at 2.46.50 PM

She absolutely meant no disrespect to gay people, (or her daughter) by calling us an adjective, so I used this opportunity as a teachable moment.

“So ma, you know that gay is an adjective right?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I mean that you can’t call people adjectives when we are people, we are nouns!”

“Oh…. Well that’s what I meant.”

Now one more thing you should know is that I inherited a few things from my mother. We are Danish, We both have cute toes Screen Shot 2015-03-07 at 2.22.36 PMand apple shaped bodies, and we both manage some mental health issues.

“I know ma, but what if people called you an adjective, like crazy?” (Which we have both extensively experienced in our lifetime)…this one got her.

So we de-constructed this a bit, and discussed different adjectives we had experienced and compared them with each other. What made some terms ok and not others? Some terms were adjectives. Some were nouns. Some were used grammatically correct and others were not.

And some were mean and should never be spoken.

We used the stem, “If we saw each other walking down the street, what would we say?” as our litmus test. We tried everything!

  1. Oh look, there is a gay (no)
  2. Oh look there is a crazy (no)
  3. Oh look there is a Danish (I am not a pastry)
  4. Oh look there is Shelley! (Totally)
  5. Oh look there is Shelley, who is crazy (ummm still no)
  6. Oh look, the Gay Danish! (I don’t even know what this means)
  7. Oh look! There is my mom! (Yup)
  8. Oh look, there is Danish Shelley (sure…at a Viking festival)
  9. Oh look, its BGS!!! (Big Gay Shelley) – (only on the August long weekend please and thank-you)

So we eventually agreed to just call each other  by our names Ma and Shelley. My mom learned her adjective lesson, and we moved on to the next profound reflection.

BUT THEN!!! I started thinking (and we all know what that means) sleepless nights and multi-tasking through meetings. Labels! We all do it. We label and categorize our students all the time, well-meaning or not. Our days as educators are constantly FILLED with words associated with and used to describe kids.

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I remember the days when I was a student and the words used to describe me. I thought about myself as a teacher, a consultant, a speaker and a person and the words I use to describe others.

… And then I started to make a list, and I have been adding to it…for 3 days.

Let me also just mention that the words I have listed have been heard in a variety of contexts including (some more surprising than others)– My UBC class, a special education conference, a collaboration seminar, IEP meetings, a staff room, the pub, coffee with a parent and dinner with colleagues, to mention a few. Regardless of setting, person, time, and/or tension, labels and categories were present, and I am just as guilty as any.

May I present to you… the list.

Screen Shot 2015-03-07 at 2.36.58 PMLow, modified, bright, illiterate, adapted, gifted, slow, modified, special, low end, waste of space, gay, Deaf, learning disabled, bad, poor, handicapped, Queer, good, problematic, core, vulnerable, grey area, crazy, smart, problem, downs, normal, low and slow, mute, non readers, bottom of the barrel, Chinese, drug users, challenged, teachers pet, high flyers, special ed, behaviour kids, brown, life-skill, brain damaged, Tier 1/2/3’s, resource kids, risk takers, Natives, on the spectrum, Muslim… and lets not forget the acronyms!!!! A’s, H’s, G’s IEP kids, ELL/ESL kids, SPEDS AND of course the ever present – Those are “your” kids (which I realize is not an adjective).

NOW thank goodness I didn’t hear anyone say the R-Word because I may have tripped them.

Screen Shot 2015-03-07 at 2.38.35 PMI will let you decide which labels were used appropriately or not, but I will point out the discrepancy between positive and negative terms. Which labels were you called? Which would you add? I know you remember them; they are not words we forget.

Why do we do this? Why do we need to group people into categories? Is it more effective, efficient, shorter or easier to remember? Is it what we hear, or all we know? Or maybe we say them to harm. I have been told, that some people say them because they can’t keep up with the political correctness.

But I don’t know. Are these reasons good enough? I mean, would you ever see a person on the street and say, “Oh look, here comes a paraplegic” because it is efficient to say? NO!

Another important question that I ask myself all the time is, if you heard that, would you say something? And to be honest, I didn’t say anything anyone in my 3 days of listening. Why?

We (teachers, people, society) are SO focused on labels and categories. To be fair, however, I understand that sometimes they are helpful. They can define culture, build pride and even help bring to the table difficult and social justice issues. The “idle no more movement” is a perfect example of that. And if we are really being honest, labels and categories are the reason I even have a job! Categories are how schools get funding (although that’s not a lot presently!!)

Is there a point, however, where in our label obsession, we forget the person we are labeling? And additionally, how do the Screen Shot 2015-03-07 at 2.51.25 PMlabels we place on others affect the people we are labeling? In the book “Choice Words” by Peter Johnston, he reminds us that the language we use creates us and defines the world we live in. The words we use also make a difference to how people see themselves and how they exist in our world. Words are powerful!

This issue has seriously got me thinking about how I use words my in my world. My friend Leyton also reminded me of an excellent point (as he often does) He gently asked me, “How many remarkable people in the world do not fit into ANY category, or into traditional systems and labels. Like you?!”

SO, with the help of colleagues, a few articles and my mom, here is some criteria and guiding ideas to assist you in the use of words.

  1. Everyone can read, write and communicate – expand your definition – try and argue this with me!! (examples: non-readers/writers, non verbal, etc.)
  1. We no longer use these words: mute, mentally handicapped, illiterate, brain damaged, the R-Word or any statements that starts with “they suffer from…”

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  1. There are some groups that use labels to define their culture (for example Deaf, Queer, Danish, Muslim, Canucks, and Screen Shot 2015-03-07 at 2.45.02 PMsome people with Autism.) If this is you, slap a capital letter on the word, put it on a shirt and wear it with pride because you were born that way baby!
  1. Say the following labels only if you want to get tripped by me. (Bottom of the barrel, low and slow, waste of space etc.) Just. don’t.
  1. PLEASE!!!!! Regardless of adjective or noun… Avoid “a/an or the”, followed by label and a period (For example, An Autistic. A Gay. The bright kids. The Queer. A gay daughter).
  1. And lastly, If your choice of words are not ones that you would say to a student or their mother’s face directly – complete the following procedure:
  1. Write it on a piece of paper
  2. Stick your gum in it
  3. Burn it
  4. Sweep up the ashes
  5. Put the ashes in a glass of diet coke
  6. Add Mentos to the glass

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As an alternative, try these:

  • There is a movement called person-first language that I encourage everyone to explore and reflect on. I have linked some articles below to help you do this. It is actually really easy, you do exactly what it says, use the person first (for example, a student with a disability, Joan who is Danish, Shelley who is gay, a kid who needs support, A student who has a learning disability, a teacher who needs a vacation).Screen Shot 2015-03-07 at 2.34.59 PM
  • If you, by accident, use person-first language to someone who prefers the capital letter non–person first tshirt version – I PROMISE they will be less offended than the alternative situation. Referring to people first will never be politically incorrect – it’s safe.
  • If the above option doesn’t work for you, you could just try calling them kids, students or people.Screen Shot 2015-03-07 at 2.36.40 PM
  • If the above two options don’t work for you, you can always call them Shelley, Kate, Leyton, Carole, Gillian, Faye or (insert name here).

Here is the bottom line because I have discovered that people like them. After my reflections and readings and discussion, I have come to this conclusion:

The only label that we should use before a students name is ‘ours,’ except for my mom, because she is mine.

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OH! And…. Sign the R-Word pledge. So I don’t trip you.

Person First Resources

People First Language: Dignity, Not Semantics

Showing Respect by Being Direct

Person-First Language

The Significance of Semantics

A Composition.

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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.

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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.

Beyonce

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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!

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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.

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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.

What about the “OTHER” kids?

Last week I wrote a post about bowling as a metaphor for inclusion. You can read it here if you haven’t already. The most common question I received after this post however, was around what this actually looks like in real life. “Yes this sounds great Shelley, but what the heck does it mean in my classroom?”

I am taking a course for my PhD program right now and our assignment this week was to write a field note from the lens of self/other. I was reminded of a little guy I met last year on a technology consultation. In the midst of professional unrest in the province, this story shone though as a mighty example of what exactly I mean when I say, we need to teach to the pins who are the hardest to hit.

May I introduce you to Ali, a definite outside pin!

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All I wanted to do was make a bank deposit, but then I saw her look at my name tag.

“So…You are a teacher?” Her eyes bolted upwards towards me from the counter, but somehow strangely keeping her head in one position. On a typical day, the above mentioned question would be one of respect and admiration rather than today’s syllable inflection emphasizing instead an inference of question and judgement.

We were striking. In fact earlier that week I too had been waving at cars, trucks and bicycles, Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 12.36.19 AMhanding out pamphlets with words advertising support for “our kids.” For about 80 % of those vehicles driving by us, honouring honks were awarded, but I could tell immediately that on this particular day, with this particular bank teller, she was not a part of that majority.

“So, tell me, what do you think about this inclusion thing?” she said, as she typed in my bank card number.

Ok seriously?! On a slow day at the bank, I would have what? …3 minutes tops of possible conversation time with this person, let alone the hours I would actually need to answer this question with the rationale and justice it deserves.

I had a choice to make. I could say something like, “uh, well actually, I do work for the school board, but I’m not a teacher….I’m in …. payroll.” collect my things and walk away…

OR

I could stand with my integrity in tact and answer with a deep breathe and full sentence knowing that my words could very well just be heard, but not listened to. Before I knew it though, I realized my voice did not matter in that moment, as she continued her thought out loud.

“I just…well, I just can’t help but wonder what will happen with MY kids when they get to school. I mean why should my kids suffer because those special ed kids need extra help all the time. Don’t they just hold everyone else back?”

“..ummmm…”

“I mean, what about the OTHER kids, the smart ones?”

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“UUUhhhhh” I was speechless. It was my turn to stare. I could hear the clearing of throats behind me in line and so I did what any diplomatic strategist would…turn my response into a form of a question…

“So how old are your children now?”

“1 and 3”

“Well lets just hope all this striking stuff blows over by then!”

I was relieved that I was able to by-pass that blow without crying or screaming or pulling out the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act conveniently located in the right pocket of my bag. Walking out of the bank, however, I couldn’t help but wonder:

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 12.36.44 AMWhy does she think that? 

Where do her assumptions come from?

What did her life experiences show her that gave her such a narrow perception of ability and diversity?

Then again, maybe she just was a mom who wanted what was best for her kids. I did, however, know one thing for sure. She neither meant to offend me, my profession, nor my philosophy .. she really just believed it.

Of course this snowballed into sleepless nights filled with questions involving, well who ELSE believes this? and unfortunately for me…many people. This women marked a moment in my inquirous montage; a moment when the battle set forth before me was confirmed. I am not fighting with people who don’t care, or with people whose philosophy differs from my own… I am fighting with people, who simple just don’t know any different. I am fighting with the history and

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dynasty of traditional segregative special education practices predating the memories of people who existed before my time. This is all they know. This is what they believe because no one has challenged them to think or experience anything differently.

What about the other kids? Was I the one being naive in truly believing that everyone actually benefited from inclusion?

The following week I was asked to consult on a case involving a student in grade 4. I was invited to discuss assistive technology possibilities for a student whom I had not yet met. All I knew was that he had multiple disabilities, was non verbal and had little vision. But I also knew as I walked into this meeting, that this little guy was loved, as I was eagerly greeted by his 11 person team of every professional acronym that has ever existed.

His name is Ali. Him and his family had recently arrived to Canada. Fleeing civil war, they were clear refugees escaping oppression and discrimination already, despite the added present disabilities. I was curious as to his story. How did he get here?

When I arrived, Ali was asleep. The team was immediately concerned, as usually he was alert and excited. The family’s interpreter was asked to call home to check in and make sure everything was A-OK. As we waited (and Ali snored) my colleague to my right, passed me his file.

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 12.38.03 AMIn respect to privacy, I will limit details, but allow you the reader to infer. Ali’s disabilities were from bullet wounds received in utero. Somehow, however, both Ali and his mother survived. Ali, unable to walk, see or talk because of his injuries and without medical services available …his mother strapped this boy to her body, and she carried him. For five years, she carried him, wrapped right around her. She carried him out. Out of war. Out of turmoil. Literally heart to heart.

Upon arrival to Canada, Ali was quickly greeted with a wheel chair to carry him now… but for the first year mom followed closely behind his new mechanical, metal and cold new form of transportation. I could see colleagues of my past quickly jumping on this… “she can’t come to school and follow him around.. he needs to learn his independence!”

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 12.38.35 AM10 minutes after the interpreter phone call, mom arrived. Ali’s back was to the door. In she walked elegant and modest in her traditional hijab and without saying a single word, Ali’s eyes opened and his head turned. The interpreter informed us of Ali’s predicted trouble sleeping and continued to explain other factors of his lethargy to the team. I, however, tuned out after 10 seconds, as I was enthralled by the interaction unfolding before me.

Ali’s mother sat beside him amongst the jargon and professional babble. She put her mouth to his ear and whispered his name over and over, adding a gentle coo and cluck of her tongue. His lips split to a smile, his hands squeezed hers. His blinking blind eyes turning towards her voice. This was the extent of their “verbal communication” as we practitioners would refer.

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 12.38.49 AMThe connection I had just witnessed between a mother and child, was one that crossed language, ability, time and place. This connection that I had witnessed in 2 minutes was a deeper connection that I had ever felt in my own 34 years of life. In this situation I was not the able bodied.

These 2 individuals connected on a level not of disability, but on a level to which everyone in the world strives to achieve. Ali and his mother were the exemplar. They were the able. They were the people to which we seek to understand, duplicate and aspire towards.

I could walk down the street right now and find 10 people who would questions Ali’s life. As a person with such multiple disabilities, what could he possibly offer to this world? To what costs and resources are being used to support him benefiting in society. A typical person on the street might assume that these additional costs for special needs children in education are not recuperated. (Mayer, 2009). I wish I could have videoed this moment of connection and shown people. I would ask them to watch it and then simply ask…. who taught you how to do this?

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Ali’s teacher had welcomed him early. She had heard he was arriving and was proactive in contacting additional resources and supports available in the district. A general education teacher, with a background in art education, her attitude was not limited and her philosophy sound in coming to work with the simple objective of teaching those for which were in front of her.

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 12.39.19 AMWith an upcoming unit about adjectives and descriptive words in writing, this teacher spent an evening collecting recycled materials, gadgets and crafty supplies. She piled them on the table and connecting to the book, “That’s Not My Dinosaur” by Fiona Watt, designed an activity where every student in the class was to create a page of the book. Using the supplies available, these students had to use texture to connect to descriptive words, and by the end, collectively, this class made a parallel book to the published.This book, however, was filled with rich texture and materials, perfect for any student, but especially perfect for a student with a vision impairment.

The students worked hard, carefully incorporating mini lessons co taught with the district vision resource teacher about contrasting colours and black backgrounds. The learning experience was authentic, rich and genuine for every student in the room.

Upon completion, Ali sat with his classmates. The book was read out loud one page at a time. The class watched as Ali Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 12.39.29 AMinteracted with and felt each page made just for him by his peers. Savouring every detail, listening to the words read and turning every page slowly. All eyes locked on Ali, ears open, hands still, all watching and learning.

I have been to many a classroom and myself taught lessons around adjectives which was not only less effective but boring. A simple task worksheet to be checked off on a thursday afternoon as we complete one standard and move to the next. Not only was Ali’s teacher embedding her lessons in an authentic learning experience, but knowingly or not, this teacher had also mastered an example of Universal Design. An activity built for one, but taught for many. A perfect framework to support the diverse, extending well beyond the walls of education and into architecture, medicine and the world.

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I would love to bring Ali to the bank. I would love to introduce him to the bank teller as “the boy who taught us.” A boy with great purpose in this world. A boy who enriches the lives of his peers, his teachers his team and my self. I would show her how we are the lucky ones, and so would be her children. Children so lucky to be in a class, where students of all backgrounds, experiences and abilities learn from each other.

At the end of the day, and many days beyond, I still catch myself wondering, how one of those 14 bullets not hit something vital to survival. I know for sure that Ali has me reflecting on this and many things, but most of all, he has taught me how we can learn from each other. That we all have strengths and that we all have stretches, but despite of this we are all in fact.. here. Here to learn if we chose to reflect beyond what we think we already know about ourselves and more importantly what we think we know about “the other.”

Inclusion: It’s Critical

I ask groups of teachers all the time, “Why Inclusion? Why are we doing this? Why are we bending over backwards, spending money, striving to make this happen in our schools? Why? What’s the point?”

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Answers range from: “because it’s the real world” to “because it’s the right thing to do…” and they aren’t wrong. But they are missing something…critical.

Here is a story. A story about bowling. Most of us have been bowling. Balls, pins, stinky shoes, glowing, garlic fries… bowling.

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When we go bowling, we throw the ball down the aisle. We try to knock down as many pins as we can. We contort our body and limbs into strange positions after we throw the ball because we think it will help. Sometimes we get gutter balls and that feels bad and sometimes we sometimes we get a strike… and that feels good! We aim down the middle, at those little arrows on the floor, and once we release the ball… all we can do is hope as we peer anxiously down the alley.

We listen to the sounds with trembling anticipation, of pins falling, and hope to avoid what usually happens to me when I throw the ball down the middle… the split.

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The 7-10 split is the most difficult shot in bowling. When the only pins left are on either side of the aisle. Even though we have another ball, the chances of knocking down both pins, is rare. In fact, in the last 50 years of televised professional bowling, a 7-10 split has only been hit 3 times.

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Sometimes we have great games, sometimes we have crappy games. If we practice, and get coached, we will get better, bowling takes skill. But even after the skill development, coaching and practice, a perfect game…even for professional bowlers, if very difficult.

My brother and I joined a league once. I liked to ignore all the coaching and whip the ball down the aisle as hard as I could. My brother, on the other hand, slowly lined up his legs on the line. He pulled back the ball between his knees and catapulted the ball down the aisle…so slowly I thought it would come to a full and complete stop. But somehow… he knocked down more pins than me. And more pins than most kids his age, as he bowled with 2 hands and fluorescent pants all the way to a provincial bronze medal one year. Little bugger. If anyone knows me at all, you would know how nuts this drove me. He still hangs his medal up in his house when I come over.

The point of this story is not that fluorescent pants will help us succeed in life, it is instead, about teaching. My question to you however, and I encourage you to really think about it is, how is bowling…like teaching?

Here are some answers I have collected over time:

–       The teacher is the ball, the students are the pinsbetween legs

–       Bowling is loud

–       Sometimes my lessons are a strike!

–       Sometimes the ball is so off the mark, I don’t even knock down pins in the next aisle

–       Teaching takes balls (seriously…this was an answer once!)

–       A perfect lesson is hard to do

–       Teaching takes skill, and practice

–       We get more than one chance

–       We get to wear radical shoes

–       One teacher flipped my whole metaphor around and said, “well I see the ball as the students, and the pins as teachers”…think about that one!!!

After some discussion, we usually come up with something like…we teach as best we can, and hope to get to as many kids as we can, but the reality is, there are kids left over that we cant get to, even if we want to.

Kind of a depressing metaphor actually.

I thought about this one afternoon. I was cleaning my kitchen and was watching the sports channel. I love sports as background noise. Football calls, cheering crowds, skates on ice, car commercials, crashing bowling pins. And then I saw it.

I stopped and watched. Professional Bowling. So fast, great outfits, serious faces…and one more thing! I noticed, not a single one of them threw the ball down the middle. I jumped on the computer and did some bowling research! This are the types of things that keep me awake at night…

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Let me just tell you, there is not a professional bowler, even my brother, who throws the ball down the middle. Professional bowlers throw the ball down the aisle with a curve. The ball spins so close to the edge of aisle, we think it almost defies laws of physics. At the last second, however, it curves and… STRIKE! These bowlers aren’t aiming down the middle; they are aiming for the RIGHT POCKET. (Note to the reader. I only know this because there was actually a professional bowler in one of my sessions once who told me this) For us non professional bowlers, aiming for the right pocket is… aiming for the pins on the outside of the lane.

Professional bowlers do not aim for the head pin. They do not aim for the middle. They aim for the pins that are the hardest to hit. The probability of pins getting knocked over is higher, if they aim for the pins on the edges, because these pins help the others… fall down. If those outside pins weren’t there, it would be harder to get a strike.

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Now…. Just think about this!!!!

We teachers are taught to teach, grade 4 math, and grade 10 science. We are taught to teach to the middle and simplify or water down content for those students who are having difficulty. Pairing up students who need more support with  students who need more challenge, is the limit of many teachers’ differentiation and accommodation strategies. We often teach how we were taught, and in my case, I went to school during times of streaming and segregation of special needs students who were never educated with me. Classrooms have changed…for the better I think…but our education system hasn’t. We need to teach to diversity rather than to a group of students whom (Ken Robinson said it best) all they have in common is their date of birth.

What if we totally changed how we plan, teach and assess? What if we started to look at our classes and students as different communities, different communities that we also teach differently…even if they are taking the same course. Offering students varying amounts of support…not because of their special needs category or label, but just because they need it.

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What if when we teach our students, we think not about our status quo middle of the pack or the head pin (which is shrinking I might add) and instead, on Monday morning, we look at our kids we think,

“Who are my kids that are the hardest to get? What do I need to do so that THEY get it?”

Yes, because they have a right to learn. Yes, because learning within diversity is the real world, but yes, also because these kids have contributions to make. Whether they have special needs, or didnt eat breakfast that morning. Are English language learners, or have a hard time getting to school on time. These kids who are the hardest to get to, have so much that we can all learn from, and if we get them… we can get everyone.  This symbiotic learning environment is important for inclusion to work and be sustained. Inclusion, especially in high school, is often limited to physical and social contexts. In order for inclusion to be effective and efficient for teachers and students however, we need to extend this idea to not only physical and social communities. Inclusion also means contributing to academic communities. It is critical. It is critical, not just for students with special needs; it is critical for every one of us. And this my friends, I would even argue to say, is the ultimate in life skills.

79 stops

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It is hard to believe that on this day, exactly 10 years ago, I left home. Finishing my undergrad classes only a week prior, I bought a one way Greyhound ticket from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada to New York City. It cost me $110. The trip took 77 hours and we made 79 stops. I had 2 bags, no cell phone and a $1000 on a credit card.

I was on my way to my first teaching job in Bronx, NY. A grade 4 class which, I didn’t know at the time, would be the most influential 2 years of my life as a teacher and a person. What is more unbelievable is that on the first leg of this adventure, I wrote a journal entry… and for you I write as me, 10 years ago today. Albeit dramatic and a slue of run-on sentences, an accurate and authentic snapshot of one 23 years young, Shelley Moore, and her first step into the big world.

July 20, 2003

Stop #23, Jansen Jct. Saskatchewan, 7:30 am

You know when you lose something-or someone, and feel gutrot and pressure in your chest. You’re short of breathe and you cry … not with tears, but with a tear?

I read a book once which explained the differences between tears. Angry tears come from the outside of your eyes, very slowly filling up usually because you don’t want to be crying and so you hold back with all of your might to avoid any sign of weakness?!

And then there are the tears you get when you fall off your bike, or down a hill while rollerblading. And first you get up really fast and see who noticed, and once over the initial shock, your eyes fill up with water and over flow in giant crocodile tears. The only solution to this scenario is getting someone you love to rub your back and cover you with the necessary bandages because we all know the “mom rule,” wounds heal faster when someone else puts on the bandaid.

Then there are the tears I felt 8 hours ago. These tears can last for hours, days, years. They can end and begin again by hearing a song, smelling a scent, tasting, touching and feeling something familiar… all reminding you of what is now gone. These tears come out one at a time, eyes alternating, making streams down your cheek, your neck and all the way to your heart.

Behavioural characteristics include crinkling of eyebrows, sighing and breathing so deep you can feel it in your toes and you get that feeling in your nose you know, like right before you sneeze. 

This can happen by the death of a loved one, getting dumped, saying goodbye to a friend, losing your pet, a special ring or even hope. Or it can happen when you walk through the doors of a greyhound bus station, looking back at people who love you so much, and knowing that you wont be back.

Although in varying degrees, this kind of tear is the by product of one and only one thing…. LOSS.

My problem, however, was that my loss was self inflicted. Am I crazy?! Who walks away from a best friend, and a pseudo korean mom waving at me from the door. Who voluntarily leaves a community of friends, teachers, family, friends, coaches, mentors and teammates that I was embraced by for 23 years, to head to a new city…a big city, a city who I know not a single person? Who walks away knowing that there will never again be a time that I can call any one of these people at a moments notice, see them 5 minutes later, drink a Slurpee, watch a thunderstorm, a movie, a hockey game or just get a big hug.

Last night, at 1215 am on July 20, 3 days before my 23 birthday, I grew up. I have been waiting for this day my whole life. I always knew I would leave. I’m way to adventurous to live where I have always lived, and do what I have always done. I even had my song planned that I would listen to as I drove out of my hometown for the last time. John Mayer, 3×5. But last night it wasn’t that easy.

Earlier that evening my friend Jill gave me a CD. It was called, “songs that remind me of my best friend Shelbert.” As much as I had planned my whole dramatic departure complete with theme song and everything, I was somehow comforted more by the fact that I was listening to music made just for me by someone so important. 

Now some would think that this music situation would not be a big deal, but I will tell you why it’s significant. For everyday that I can remember, going to school, work, field hockey games, riding the city bus, school bus or train, I would listen to my music and watch out the window. Somehow while listening and watching, the world would come to life, like a movie. Like you know when you watch a slideshow, it is always much more meaningful when it is accompanied by “Time of your Life” by Greenday. Pictures came alive and watching out the windows as I grew up, all that life that I would see, suddenly had meaning. Graffiti on the wall, picnics in the park, a shoeless kid taking double steps to keep up with his little sister in the stroller, or even just taking a second to look at the world at that time of day right before disk, where everything seems to glow.

As I travelled all those years, I would always think to myself, “I wonder what I will see out these windows on the day I leave. What will come to life as I look out the window leaving the place that that always been home.”

So last night I did it. I left home. Listening not to my planned theme song, but instead as I drove through my city at midnight, I listened to songs put together by my best friend. Reminding me of good times, sad times but mostly times where I felt so loved.

I watched the CN tower spell out it’s letters to Sara and Tegan. I passed the store in Chinatown where I would buy mango bubble tea and pocky sticks while humming to Jann Arden. I passed playgrounds I played at, 7-11s I got Slurpees at, restaurants I had eaten at, and then, as I entered the Yellowhead Trail exit on 97 st heading east, right before I left the last city light, I realized what I had just lost. As I drove onto the highway, while cramped behind two women on their way to Ottawa, my best friend (who now gets the prize for knowing me best) played for me my song. As John Mayer played 3×5, no one else existed on that stinky bus. I listened to my song, and I watched out the window at the fading city lights, and cried my tears one at a time.

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