Widening the Circle: The Power of Inclusive Classrooms
reviewed by Howard Weiner - May 04, 2007
Widening the Circle: The Power of Inclusive Classrooms
Beacon Press, Boston
0807032808 , Pages:
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If the vision of full inclusion needed a marketing plan, then this book provides an advocates blueprint, as it offers evidence-based arguments, authentic examples of model inclusive classrooms, and practical, common sense appeal. Mara Sapon-Shevin passionately and persuasively stipulates that full inclusion matters. Her appeal is to the core beliefs and values of teachers, administrators, and parents who want to do the right thing by providing access and opportunity in the mainstream for all children.
Educators will find a concrete, well-presented and useable discourse on essential dispositions to teach well while grappling with two seemingly irreconcilable movements: full inclusion and teacher accountability for student achievement. The reader is asked to examine conscious and perhaps unconscious beliefs about diversity, equality, and social justice when the typical discourse on full inclusion ostensibly is about training, time, resources, and high-stakes test scores.
What distinguishes Widening the Circle from how-to books on full inclusion is that while it thoroughly examines effective teaching practices that help reform the traditional general education classroom, that is not its major contribution. It also does not speak to the nature and needs of the severely disabled student, as that would be a distracter, according to the author. The largest part of the book examines the whythe benefits of inclusion for building the kind of critical life experiences nondisabled students require to become responsible and compassionate members of our society. Quality education builds character as well as academic proficiency. If the foundation for a productive life starts in school, then students need first-hand experiences, not platitudes, that help them develop adaptability, sensitivity toward others, and the ability to be comfortable with diversity and difference. How children treat each other can contribute to a sense of community and acceptance or isolation and despair. The book also asks us to think about the future society we can shape in the classroom, a society that is anxious, intolerant or indifferent toward others based on stereotypes and ignorance, or one that accepts and collaborates with others, regardless of differences, drawing on personal experiences that are enriching. We need look no further than newspaper headlines to realize that the disenfranchised, the bullied, and the powerless can sometimes turn their resentment, frustration, and anger toward those who were perceived to ignore or reject them.
The three parts of the book are divided into the macro issue of social justice; examining and dispelling arguments against full inclusion; and what full inclusion looks like when it is done well. Embedded throughout the book are vignettes, poems, and sayings that drive home big ideas. We should try to ensure that everyone in the fully inclusive classroom is valued and meaningfully participates, and that all students need to experience the commonality and enriching friendships that teach life-long lessons.
Theres a disarming, almost folksy quality to this easy to read book, and you find yourself getting stirred up by the common sense logic of how inclusion presents an opportunity to students without disabilities to get to know, support, and share experiences that will benefit them throughout their lives. Early on you read about how the game of musical chairs can be played to teach important life skills. The competitive edge, being the one and only winner while all others are literally shoved, jostled, and eliminated from the game teaches nothing about working well with others, a sense of community, problem solving skills, and most importantly, fairness. Change the rules so that the upshot is that everyone is a winner when no one is left out, and the new objective is to find ways to continue to include everyone, even when chairs are removed systematically making the task more and more challenging. The process of brainstorming produces creative and amusing ideas that permit several students to occupy fewer and fewer remaining chairs. The reworking of the game encourages students working efficiently and effectively together to think of each classmate as equally important and valued. When nondisabled students are asked how we can change a reading lesson or a playground game so that everyone can participate, you get creativity and innovation. Nondisabled students learn that students with disabilities can do things they didnt think possible, and they also report being more comfortable with a broader range of people. As the author says so aptly, Learning to swim in the bath-tub doesnt ensure that you will be able to swim in the ocean (p. 76).
Several arguments for reworking our notions about teaching, learning, and student interaction are presented, not only from the perspective of how inclusion helps develop caring, concern, and understanding among those who are classmates of students with disabilities. Academics are thoroughly addressed in the second and third parts of the book. The commitment to full inclusion is evidenced when teaching is thoughtfully implemented with a differentiated, multimodality curriculum and a respectful and supportive classroom environment. When students at all levels have the opportunity to engage meaningfully with a full range of academics, you dont see all students doing the same thing the same way. Additionally, research is cited that suggests nondisabled and disabled students improve academically in the inclusion classroom.
Full inclusion is presented as the logical progression of research, practice, and litigation on the education of students with disabilities (p. 83). Our experience with logical programs such as Response-to-Intervention suggests that we could make inclusion more successful if we have the will to do so. We need more books like this one asking us to take a closer look at the moral and ethical values that underpin our teaching behaviors and what will bring us closer to the society and world we want.