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Diplomacy in Action

Chapter 4: Introduction


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I have known Kulsum[1] for many years now. When I first met her, I was the Resource Teacher assigned to Kulsum's first grade class. It was her second time through first grade and when I read her file I came to understand that this little girl had had a normal development until the age of 4. In the December of that year, while visiting her grandparents in a suburb of London, Kulsum had suffered a massive epileptic seizure and had been hospitalized until her situation stabilized. Although she looked no different thereafter, the doctors would later confirm that her seizure had impaired Kulsum's ability to learn.

By the time I met Kulsum, the school was slowly moving towards a more inclusive program of service delivery. Whenever I arrived at the door of her first grade classroom, regardless of what the rest of the class was doing, her teacher would announce, "Kulsum, it's time for your special lessons now. You can come back to this other work later." And to me she said, "I've prepared a little table in the corner there where the two of you can sit together." Although the pull-out was disguised by virtue of being in class, Kulsum knew, as did the others in the class, that she was special and different from other students. Despite this, however, she learned to read that year, albeit haltingly, and with comprehension at a very concrete level.

Kulsum continued to be a special needs priority, although I didn't see her again until the beginning of Grade 5 when I was the Student Services teacher assigned to her class. By then, she had begun puberty and had become concerned about social relationships and a lack of friends. Within the first few days of school, Kulsum had established a routine of physically clinging to her class teacher at break time, sticking to her like glue and complaining about the behavior of other students in the class. Most of the time, she complained about how they had "looked at her in a funny way," or "made fun of her," or "didn't like her," or "didn't want to be her friend." She seemed to know instinctively that although others in the class might reject her, the teacher couldn't - or wouldn't. Kulsum also complained at the end of every lesson that she hadn't understood what the lesson had been about, didn't know how to do the math problem, or had no idea what the teacher's instructions were. The writing Kulsum did was very repetitive, almost formulaic, with very little content.

Within the first week of school, Kulsum's mother had also established a pattern of coming in to see the teacher after school. She, too, complained about specific students who had taunted her daughter during the course of the week, how hurt they had made her daughter feel, how her daughter needed friends. In her litany of complaints, she always managed to include how Kulsum never understood the teacher and how the teacher needed to try harder to bring Kulsum into what was going on. After all, the class teacher was aware of Kulsum's past medical history. Although Kulsum was on Tegretol to control the seizures, everything else was normal. It was just that Kulsum needed a little more help than others to understand what was going on.

It seemed that over the years, Kulsum and her mother had become habituated to seeking attention in this manner. Whatever suggestions were given to the parent to help Kulsum in making friends - joining after-school activities, inviting other children to the house - were brushed aside as impractical and many reasons were manufactured as to why they wouldn't work.

By the second and third weeks of school, the class teacher was unsure how she and the rest of the class would manage Kulsum's excessive demands for attention and the mother's projection of Kulsum's difficulties onto other children and the teacher. Responsibility for special needs students was now shared between the class and special ed. teachers and lessons were co-planned and delivered in a collaborative manner within the regular class. In any case, the class teacher felt it important that Kulsum stay and actually become a member of the class. "If you take her out," she said to me, "we'll lose any chance we ever had of convincing her that she belongs."

Over the years, it had increasingly become an expectation that special needs students did belong in the classroom.

Soon after the start of the school year, the 5th grade took an extended field trip over three nights to one of the nearby game parks and Kulsum's class was scheduled to go during the fourth week of school. Classes scheduled their field trip before the first half term to help students create a class identity and to introduce the Grade 5 integrated approach to academic work in science, social studies, maths and language arts. Kulsum's class was excitedly preparing themselves for the trip.

Everyone except for Kulsum, of course, for whom the trip had become added grist for worry. Should she go? Could she do this? Who would she share a room with? Nobody liked her. She didn't have any friends in the class. She would spend most of the time away upset. And on and on. Her mother came to see the class teacher with the same litany of worries. Would Kulsum be all right? What if no one spoke to her? What if she was teased? Could she room with the teacher?

At this point, Kulsum's teachers and the administration took a decision that Kulsum had to go on the field trip - it was an integral part of the academic program, not an option, and they thought it might serve to articulate her membership in the class. By now it was evident that Kulsum wasn't easy to like or get along with. She had an unfortunate habit of saying exactly what was on her mind, usually a running dialogue with herself - not unlike Alice's White Rabbit - that occasionally broke to include non-sequiturs directed at other people: "Oh no! I can't find my school bag again. Who do you think took it this time? I know I left it here before school started and now it's gone. I want to take something out of it. Why are you wearing that dress today? Stop looking at me like that! I'm going to tell the teacher."

In a stroke of luck, Kulsum was absent one day, a few days before the scheduled departure. Kulsum's teacher spoke to the rest of the class about the coming trip and about Kulsum and her concerns. "Kulsum is a member of our class and we have to show her that she belongs. She has some of her own difficulties and she is working on them. Kulsum is worried about the field trip and about whether or not she should go."

Two girls stepped forward and volunteered to share their room with her. When Kulsum returned to school, they invited her to room with them and after some pressure from the teacher, she accepted. During the trip, two boys invited Kulsum to join their learning team, at work on a science/social studies project. Again, with pressure from the teacher, Kulsum reluctantly accepted the invitation. The teacher commented afterwards how pleased she had been with how the other children rose to the challenge that Kulsum embodied.

Some curious things happened after the field trip, but it was a few weeks before the class teacher actually recognized them. The first was when she realized she was having her coffee at break time on her own, without Kulsum clinging to her. The second was that Kulsum had stopped coming to her after each lesson to complain that she hadn't understood what had gone on. In fact, the teacher observed that Kulsum was approaching peers during the course of the lesson to ask for help. And finally, it had been some time since Kulsum's mother had been in to see her.

Kulsum still didn't have any real friends and she still had a hard time with academic work, but she had become more comfortable with herself as a member of the class and she was ready to learn.

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There will always be students for whom the mainstream classroom is an inappropriate placement and the International Baccalaureate Diploma or Advanced Placement programs unrealistic goals, but by and large those students are exceptions in the "self-selection process" of international schools. Most international schools have traditionally provided education for the children of professional expatriates who are temporarily resident overseas. However, we have seen a general population shift in recent years with correspondingly greater diversity and more host country nationals applying for admission. Expatriates with severely disabled children who are already placed in special needs programs in their home countries will rarely risk jeopardizing established and proven educational support for their children by moving overseas. Nevertheless, by developing inclusive programs, international schools can broaden the scope of services to include a wider range of students with special needs.

By using the term "inclusive classroom" we are not rigid in our definition. To the contrary, we see inclusion as a state of mind, with flexibility as a central feature. We are not suggesting that inclusion dictates full-time attendance in a regular classroom, nor are we denying the possibility of intensive withdrawal work. Such decisions have to be made by the practitioners "on the ground" in each setting. Teachers need to have the resources and repertoire of strategies so as to have maximum flexibility to create optimal learning experiences for each child.

More importantly, inclusion is not simply placing the exceptional child within the four walls of the classroom, without teacher and student support or preparation. The lessons learned from social psychology of the damaging effects of non-equal status contact between majority and minority children are still fresh in our minds from initial experiences with desegregation in the U.S. (Aronson, 1995). The possible transfer of similar effects into the special education situation is clear: we would not ask educators to risk further diminution of special children's self-esteem, nor the further build-up of negative stereotypic views of learning different children in this way.

What we are saying, however, is that we begin with the premise that belonging is the birthright of all children and anything - be it personnel, resources, or organizational structure - that undermines or erodes that sense of belonging does great harm to learning and growth. We begin with the belief that all children can learn, and that the regular classroom can be a very rich learning environment. That is our starting point.




[1] Not her real name



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