By Ochan Kusuma-Powell and William Powell
In closing, let us return to one of the statements we made in the introduction to this manual. We put forward the idea that "inclusion", as we are using the term, is a state of mind, not a prescription for program development. What does a state of mind imply? Why is an inclusive attitude crucial to maximizing student success?
Psychologists tell us that there is a bi-directional influence between our attitudes and what we select consciously and unconsciously to pay attention to. In other words, while events and external stimuli can affect our perceptions, our attitudes also determine to a large degree what external stimuli will actually gain entry to our consciousness. Our perceptions and prejudices actively seek confirmation of their validity.
Take, for example, the case of Johann, as described in Elizabeth Wiig's chapter on "Assessing Students for the Inclusive Classroom". When Johann was originally evaluated for entry to an international school, inclusive attitudes were still a decade or more in the future. When the admissions' committee took their decision to deny Johann's application, they focused on his language disorder and his learning deficits. The committee did not pay attention to fact that he had real cognitive and conceptual strengths, high motivation to succeed, supportive parents and healthy self-esteem. These were not the attributes that they were trained to see. Fortunately, it is not hard to imagine a more contemporary and enlightened admissions' committee coming to a very different decision.
Attitudes affect perceptions and determine, to some extent, what we actually see and hear.
Take, for example, the case of Leah.
Leah entered the school at the beginning of the Eighth Grade. She was an attractive middle school student who did her level best to hide this fact from onlookers. She always appeared disheveled, as though she had just rolled out of bed. Her jeans were decorated with numerous frayed holes and hand drawn occult symbols. Her hair never seemed to be combed, although there was evidence that she did pay attention to it as it would frequently appear in brilliant shades of magenta or purple or green. When Leah wasn't coloring her hair, she was piercing various parts of her face with silver rings and studs.
Academically Leah was a model of disorganization. She was constantly leaving books at home when they were needed in school. She had no sense of time, was consistently late for class and appeared to have no understanding of what a deadline was. Her parents attested to the fact that Leah would complete her homework, but somehow it would rarely find its way to school. Half of the central office's "lost and found" bin belonged to Leah.
Leah's written work mirrored the disorganization of the rest of her life and her spelling was so dreadful that it actually prevented most of her teachers from gaining access to her ideas.
However, Leah loved to read and she would consume books the way other middle schoolers would go through chewing gum. She also had a well-developed sense of social justice and was a firm advocate for feminist causes. On rare occasions, Leah would exhibit a flash of offbeat and zany humor that for the most part would zoom over the heads of her classmates.
In short, Leah had become a master at masking both her learning disability and her giftedness.
By the time that Leah entered the 11th Grade, she wore a perpetually indifferent and apathetic expression. She knew that most of her teachers had given up on her as she herself had given up on many of her academic subjects, particularly mathematics. Many of Leah's teachers did not think she was capable of the full International Baccalaureate Diploma and concluded that if her parents pushed for post secondary school education, it would be at a mediocre, non-selective community college. Leah's educational future was very limited.
And then two things happened that changed the destiny that many of Leah's teachers had predicted. First of all, Leah took the SAT's and managed to achieve an astounding verbal score of 760, the highest in the entire class. Her love of reading had borne fruit. At first a number of her teachers refused to accept the high verbal score. It was contrary to their perception of Leah's ability. It just didn't fit.
Secondly, her theater arts teacher selected her as stage manager for a major student dramatic production. Almost everyone agreed that it was a crazy choice. A stage manager for a major production needed to be the epitome of organization and split second timing. The stage manager needed to predict problems and engage in contingency planning. Why would anyone select Leah who couldn't organize her way out of a paper bag, had no sense of timing or deadlines and would lose everything that wasn't attached to her person with Super Glue?
Her theater arts teacher saw attributes in Leah that others did not. He saw her passion for the stage. He saw her love of language and poetry. He saw her offbeat humor and her dramatic flair. He saw Leah's profound desire to contribute to a creative endeavor.
Leah served as a fine stage manager and the dramatic production was a great success. The apathetic expression became less habitual and Leah provided her teachers with more frequent glimpses into her superior intellect. Her teachers' attitude towards her began to change and they began to perceive her very real strengths.
Despite her lingering antipathy towards mathematics, Leah completed a very good International Baccalaureate Diploma and has been admitted to a very prestigious universityin the United States.
The assumption of inclusion - the attitude that a child or young adult belongs - that he or she is to be included - gives us, the teachers, the chance to take a second or even a third glance at students like Leah so that we have a greater opportunity to appreciate them in all their astounding complexity.