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In With the In Crowd

‘Inclusive’ education—when special-needs students share classrooms with other students—benefits all kids

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Maxie and Josie at their school’s playground. (Marjorie Ingall)

As I write this, kids are going back to school almost everywhere but in New York City. The first day of school isn’t until September 8 here, and thanks to Rosh Hashanah, our second day isn’t until September 13. I think our last day of school this year will be around Tisha B’Av.

Something else is different for my kids this year: They’ll both be in inclusion classes. “Inclusion” is when students with special educational needs spend all or most of their class time with non-disabled students. My kids’ public school is starting “collaborative team teaching” classes for the first time—that’s when a special-education teacher and a general-education teacher work together with one class that combines both populations.

Maxie is one of the kids with special needs. She has motor, speech, and other challenges. Josie, on the other hand, could read young-adult novels in second grade and scores sky-high in standard measures of achievement. I think they’re both brilliant (and beautiful and hilarious, and here, let me show you our vacation slides), but they learn in very different ways. And I think this model of education is going to work beautifully for both of them.

There’s been a seismic shift in the way public schools approach kids with special needs in New York City. In the past, most were shunted off to self-contained special-ed classes. Kids with less severe learning issues were helped using a “pull out, push in” model, in which a learning specialist takes the kid out of class for a while or shadows them in the classroom, quietly helping. This method, of course, means that a kid misses out on a lot of classroom life. Maxie had pull-out-push-in assistance last year. I predict that collaborative team teaching will help her feel a greater sense of community.

Private schools have historically been a lot less interested in kids with special needs. Many still counsel out kids who need extra help or tell parents to pay for specialists’ services on their own, and if the kid can’t keep up, too bad. Sadly, this has also described Jewish day schools and synagogue Hebrew schools.

I recently chatted with Dori Frumin Kirshner, the executive director of Matan (the name means “gift”), an organization that supports Jewish communities in educating children with special learning needs.

“The Orthodox have always taken on responsibility for educating all Jews,” she told me. “But Conservative, Reform, unaffiliated, and non-denominational institutions—well, the going attitude was, ‘Sorry, we can’t handle that. Bye. It’s not you; it’s us.’ The latent message, of course, was, ‘It’s you.’ ”

Things are slowly changing. More Jewish organizations are calling Matan for help, and a number of Jewish day schools are trying to be more embracing of kids with learning differences. “There’s a big difference from 10 years ago,” Kirshner said. “But it still takes time, attitude change, and advocacy. Clergy, early-childhood, and educational directors, the president of the shul, they need to step up more and take the full responsibility off parents’ shoulders. This is everyone’s bag. It’s a health and human services issue, an educational issue, and a cultural issue—because there are so many kids out there with no entry points to the beauty of Jewish culture.”

Inclusion, Kirshner said, was a policy equal in importance to the civil rights movement. “You don’t have to be from the South or African-American to feel in your kishkes that it’s wrong to leave children separate,” she said. “I feel strongly—just as my mom, a white Jew who grew up in Shreveport and marched and got arrested for civil rights felt—this is wrong. It’s wrong to tell people there’s no room for them at the Jewish communal table. They have to start adding other chairs.”

Of course, inclusion—in both secular and Jewish settings—isn’t easy. It takes teachers who recognize different learning styles and plan for them. It calls for professional development for teachers—general and special educators alike—to help work out how best to foster cooperative learning and peer tutoring. It requires smaller class sizes.

And most of all, it needs a schoolwide commitment to true diversity and community. “There’s a social benefit to discovering that everyone has strengths,” said my kids’ principal. “It’s important to be able to work with different kinds of people, to care for people who are different from you, and to see school—and life—as more than just a rat race and a competition. We had a kid with autism in one class who had an incredible instinct for spelling and grammar. He was the best grammarian in the class, and kids really gravitated to him for that and then found other commonalities.”

My kids’ school has a leg up in introducing inclusion classes because it already has mixed-age classrooms. Teachers are accustomed to multilevel instructional approaches and individualized education. Maxie will be in a 1st-2nd grade inclusion class, and Josie will be in a 4th-5th grade inclusion class. I hope collaborative team teaching will help Maxie with her special needs and help Josie with hers (namely impatience, hyper-competitiveness, bossiness).

My mom, a professor of Jewish education, laughs at how many parents, when considering Jewish day schools for their kids, only want to know what high schools or colleges the graduates get into. (Of course, this is true at non-Jewish schools too.) It can be a lot harder to convince competitive upper-middle-class parents that inclusive education can be good for their precious, advanced little flower.

But it really can be. Even “gifted” kids can benefit. “Done well, inclusive education taps into the depth a kid is capable of,” my girls’ principal said. “Many gifted programs simply offer accelerated learning from a grade level or two up. But keeping curriculum across the grades open and wide-ranging means that every kid can reach the heights he or she is capable of.” One kid may be just learning spelling, while another is writing a novel, and good teachers help both. “There’s a saying,” says the principal: “Good special-ed teaching is good teaching.”

Too often, unfortunately, “gifted” education brings to mind the following story: A guy runs to his rabbi yelling, “Rabbi! Rabbi! I learned the whole Torah by heart!” The rabbi replies, “And how much of it penetrated your heart?” In other words, it’s not only the acquisition of knowledge we should be concerned with. It’s g’milut chasadim, too—kindness, mutual support, and solidarity.

There are times when inclusion isn’t appropriate. “Learning Hebrew or tfilot can work better in a self-contained setting,” said Kirshner. “For instance, if a kid has serious ADHD or Tourette’s in addition to a spectrum disorder. And sometimes parents of kids in mainstreamed classes will tell me no one ever invites them for a play date. A self-contained class can be a meaningful social setting.”

Gifted kids are special-needs kids too; they also benefit from special enrichment. But, Kirshner warns, “ ‘gifted education’ shouldn’t universally be the way your kid learns.” Inclusivity, done right, is beneficial to all students. And, as I said, it’s not easy.

But I’m confident that Josie and Maxie’s school is ready. Pairs of special-ed and general-ed teachers have spent the summer doing professional development and learning the most effective classroom set-up, structures, and pedagogy. I’m hopeful. And as Kirshner puts it, “We’re all gonna have a special need sometime. We may lose our hearing; we may break a leg. By engendering the values of inclusion, the fact that we all have something to contribute, we create a better world.”

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Great article, once again Marjorie. Thanks for bringing attention to Matan. My child attends a Sunday morning Matan program which is her only avenue to organized Jewish education. Another great resource within the Jewish community is Chabad’s Friendship Circle which finds “typical” teens to pair up with younger special needs kids for an hour or so a week. But as Ms. Kirshner implies, outside of Orthodoxy, that’s about all there is for families with special needs kids within the Jewish community (exceping the niche summer camps you pointed out before). Also as Kirshner suggests, and I can confirm from personal experience, the situation is particularly alienating for families with “behavior kids.” Despite every single shul’s insisting they welcome all, it is a very rare shul that makes accomodations for such families. There are a few “shadow” programs at Orthodox shuls, similar to the Friendship Circle model, but they are very rare. Thanks again for raising these issues.

a teacher in NYC says:

When I took Calculus in HS one of the best students in my class was a boy who was near-to legally blind. I taught an HOH kid (hard of hearing) boy who was an excellent student, hard worker, sweet heart supreme! Physically challenged students can fit in well with many classes; but it is hard for subject teachers in HS to deal with the kids who have major emotional problems. It can be very difficult to serve them; I know, as a teacher myself, that they can ruin a lesson in the class with their outbursts.

Sandy Miller-Jacobs says:

Thanks for this great article! The move towards inclusion is almost always written about from the perspective of how good it is for students with special needs. In reality it’s good for all students. One special education administrator I know runs an inclusive preschool and fifth grade teachers tell her they can tell which children have been in that program because they are less competitive and more accepting of children in the classroom!

Our Jewish schools (day, supplemental and preschools) have made tremendous strides in serving student with special needs with inclusive and self-contained classes. The key is professional development through inservice workshops, coaching and graduate classes. Hebrew College offers a certificate program in Jewish Special Education with online classes and one credit modules. Work with your synagogue and school by encouraging them to support the professional development of their educators. Let’s all work this year towards improving Jewish schools through better inclusive education for all!

Wonderful. But, I’m a little concerned that people aren’t going to find anything in this piece to yell at you about.

Ahahaha, Amy!!!!

Marlene Rhodes says:

Thanks for the insightful article. As a school-based occupational therapist, I can report from my own experience that inclusion is the best way to solidify the skill sets students need to succeed in their inclusive classroom. Naturally, it may be useful for these students to initially have instruction or remediation of a challenging activity on a pullout model where there are little to no distractions and equipment and materials are available to enhance the learning experience. Yet, once the student has attained a minimum level of proficiency in the skill of challenge (i.e. controlling a pencil, learning far-point copying techniques, etc.), practice and mastery of this skill should take place in the classroom, ideally under the actual application of that skill, with the faded assistance of their teacher, aide or therapist. Let’s all continue to work harder to make every classroom a learning laboratory for all kids!

Sara Chaya says:

While inclusion and co-teaching are an ideal for many children, for children like my son who is autistic, the regular hub-bub of most classrooms anda the noise of so many people in one place was impossible for him to sustain. Putting aside this philosophical difference – that IEP means INDIVIDUALIZED, I have been pleased at the changes which I see in the realm of synagogue participation for people with noticeable disabilities. At age 25, now that my son can tolerate groups of people – altho he self isolates to the rear or corner of a room, he is at last able to be part of communal prayer. Years ago, when his needs were greater, we were asked to leave more than one service so his ‘noises’ would not disturb praying. Would that HAShem had spoken at that moment to say that was my son praying.

Shelly Christensen says:

I’m glad this story is making the rounds. It highlights an important philosophy. Belonging to one’s Jewish community and engaging in the richness of Judaism is within everyone’s reach. Some people need support to level the playing field. Kudos to all of the great organizations who have stepped up and created Inclusion Committees, special education organizations and meaningful ways for people with disabilities to participate in congregational and Jewish life. A word of caution: just because we have these organizations and programs does not excuse any one of us from our individual responsibility to welcome people with disabilities in authentic ways. I can’t even begin to convey the amazing life-changing benefits that come when we take the time and energy to accept this responsibility. Oh yes, the Jewish world is a lot richer when we welcome all those who have been marginalized and ignored. We do this together as partners with those who want to belong, and we establish our congregations and schools as places of warmth and welcome. We engage in tachlis only AFTER we get to know each other and understand the hopes and dreams of people with disabilities. Like any good mission in life, we develop a plan to reach those goals and dreams. As parents, my husband and I needed our synagogue community to welcome us and our child who has a disability. We had great allies along the way. I didn’t have the energy to take on religious school after struggling with public school, doctors appointments and insurance. So please, re-read this article, share it, and let others know of the great responsibility we have to ensure that our synagogues are houses of worship and belonging for all.

As the mother of two smart sons with learning issues, ( one a recent high school grad, the other entering high school this year) I can tell you that inclusion, when done right, allows all of the kids in the class to achieve at their highst level. It also, when done right, helps kids to honestly own both their weaknesses and their strenghts.

I have found Jewish day schools, both in my own experience as a student, in one, and in my own kids experiences to be awful for LD kids. Even schools that supposedly have programs set up,and even have staff in place to work with LD kids, don’t really understand what it is to educate kids who are wired a bit differently.

I hope that while Jewish day schools were not able to educate my kids, I hope that future generationsof kids will be appaorpriately educated in a Jewish context.

Great article, once again Marjorie. Thanks for bringing attention to Matan. My child attends a Sunday morning Matan program which is her only avenue to organized Jewish education. Another great resource within the Jewish community is Chabad’s Friendship Circle which finds “typical” teens to pair up with younger special needs kids for an hour or so a week. But as Ms. Kirshner implies, outside of Orthodoxy, that’s about all there is for families with special needs kids within the Jewish community (exceping the niche summer camps you pointed out before). Also as Kirshner suggests, and I can confirm from personal experience, the situation is particularly alienating for families with “behavior kids.” Despite every single shul’s insisting they welcome all, it is a very rare shul that makes accomodations for such families. There are a few “shadow” programs at Orthodox shuls, similar to the Friendship Circle model, but they are very rare. Thanks again for raising these issues.

I’ve said that least 561468 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

2000

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In With the In Crowd

‘Inclusive’ education—when special-needs students share classrooms with other students—benefits all kids

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