I thought it only fair to start my month with an article that will give you an idea of where I am coming from philosophically. I will preface the article by saying I do not believe my way is the only way and I do not advocate all or nothing replication. I encourage you to explore and implement the practices that interest you in small doses and proceed as your comfort level increases. Blend ideas that intrigue you and fit your style with those that you already find successful. Make the resulting combination your own.
I am looking forward to the coming month.
The Discovery Program
Acceptance and Understanding in a Full Inclusion Classroom
By Larry Statler
“A mosaic of abilities, ages, cultures and love” is the motto that describes the Discovery Program. The atmosphere of caring and sharing that has been created in this classroom is what makes the full inclusion of severely handicapped students possible. This award-winning program is a model of collaboration between special and general educators. These teachers have planned and implemented a learning environment that meets the individual needs of children whose abilities range from severely handicapped through gifted. If needed, we are able to toilet train one student while providing accelerated reading to another. The result is a classroom where children can work to their maximum potential while fostering self-esteem and developing their acceptance and understanding of individual differences.
The Discovery Program has evolved over the last thirty-five years from a self-contained special day class to its present full inclusion format. In the beginning, the special needs students were viewed with disdain by other students at the school. General education students felt that the worst prank that could be played on them was to be shoved into the “retardo” room by a classmate. The discrimination was so pervasive that students designated drinking fountains and toilets in the bathrooms for “those kids.” General education students avoided these fixtures and the special education students at all costs.
Realizing that the “separate but equal” classroom fostered isolation and ignorance, the teachers began implementing measures that would bring special needs children into the mainstream of school life. General education PE and art activities were the first areas integrated by the special education students. At the same time, groups of general education students were invited into the special education classroom for music and activity time. As the feeling of acceptance among the children grew, the amount of time the children spent together increased. By 1988, the students and teachers were spending more than 50% of their time together. The next year, The Discovery Program was born when the two teachers decided to team together full time. The original preschool/kindergarten program has grown to now include kindergarten through third grade students and four teachers.
Engineered and Orchestrated For Success
The Discovery classroom is a center and technology based learning environment. It is a beehive of activity as students work cooperatively at multi-leveled, hands-on learning centers. The students are empowered to utilize their higher level thinking skills as they analyze, synthesize and evaluate the world around them. As the students work at centers, the teachers pull individuals or small groups for skill-building lessons. This format enables the teachers to individualize instruction for every student. It also ensures access to the total curriculum for the special needs students.
The term “engineered and orchestrated” has been coined to describe the Discovery setting. The classroom is structured or “engineered” in the sense that each of the learning centers is planned with a curricular and behavioral objective in mind. When a full complement of centers is correctly arrayed, the room takes on an amazing ability to meet the needs of every student in the class.
In this setting, the teacher takes on the role of facilitator and becomes the conductor of his or her “classroom orchestra.” The music of the classroom plays on if the students and centers are in tune. If a student is having difficulty, the teacher can fine-tune the centers to meet individual needs.
Discovery parents are the third component of the Discovery orchestra. Students and staff must work in harmony with the parents in order to achieve maximum success. In most cases, the parents select the Discovery Program for their children and are very supportive of the approach. Parent understanding and acceptance have been phenomenal from the start. They consider it an advantage that their children have the opportunity to work together. The parents of the special needs students know that their children benefit tremendously from the academic, language, social and behavioral modeling provided by the general education students. The parents of the general education students realize that their children benefit from the significantly reduced student to teacher ratio created by the additional special education support staff. They also appreciate the wonderful lesson in developing understanding that is provided. As students, parents and staff work together, a feeling of community and family develops.
The Discovery learning centers are designed to accomplish many facets of the program. They are selected to meet the curricular needs of a wide range of abilities, ages and learning styles. The current research in multiple intelligences (Gardner) and higher level thinking skills (Bloom) is taken into consideration when selecting centers to meet students’ needs. They are also selected with the following words of wisdom in mind:
I hear and I forget.
I see and I remember.
I do and I understand.
The learning centers are designed to be bridges to understanding. High interest and thoroughly engaging centers allow children to concentrate on the results of their efforts instead of the differences of the participants. When this occurs, barriers disintegrate and bridges to understanding are built.
The learning centers form the foundation of the Discovery Program’s classroom management component. The staff utilize the learning centers as interventions to make it possible for students to be successful at all times. They believe that it is their job to facilitate success for children who may be having academic or behavioral difficulties.
Over the years, the Discovery Program has readily accepted students who have a history of disrupting other classrooms. Many of these students come to the program with one-to-one assistants who are assigned to help control their behavior. Within a few days or even hours, the behavioral differences are so dramatic that the assistants are no longer needed. Children who were angry or frustrated in other classrooms no longer feel the need to act out in the Discovery setting.
A recent example is a student who spent his first year and a half in school acting out on a daily basis. His behaviors so impacted his classes that he was put on half days and was constantly being sent to the principal’s office or suspended from school. The school had reached its limit when the Discovery staff volunteered to take him into the program. His anger and frustration were apparent as he rebelled openly to any request made of him. The Discovery intervention methods were implemented in a firm, loving manner. The student was returned to a full day schedule. His unacceptable behaviors disappeared as his frustration decreased and his successes increased. By the end of the month, the student’s only “physical outbursts” were to make sure he hugged his teachers before leaving school each day.
This “miracle” happens on a regular basis. The staff knows that children who feel safe, loved, and accepted will respond positively. Students no longer have to display socially inappropriate behaviors as a defense mechanism to survive in a harsh, unaccepting school setting. Children can flourish in the positive atmosphere of the Discovery classroom because individual differences are truly appreciated and accepted.
Utilizing technology to build bridges of understanding is a cornerstone of the Discovery Program. The latest computer wizardry provides a common interest for a wide range of students. The older students act as technology “big buddies” for students needing assistance. This sharing of expertise and taking on the teacher role enhances computer literacy for all students, and helps develop mutual respect and caring.
The Discovery Program utilizes video technology to produce learning and memory tapes. The learning tapes, which star the students and staff, reinforce literacy and math skills. The memory tapes are produced to give the parents and students a video memory of the school year. The finished videotapes always instill a sense of pride and teamwork in the students.
Staging musical productions is another trademark of the Discovery Program. The students often sing and hum the tunes from the latest production while they are working at centers. The shows are considered an integral part of the language arts program and are a great catalyst for building self-esteem. They are staged so every child gets to be a star. The teamwork and cooperation required to put on a production also leads to a greater feeling of community.
The Children’s Musical Theater of San Jose (CMT), the largest children’s theater in the United States, has brought a new dimension to the Discovery theater arts program. A partnership has been developed which provides a professional director and choreographer for the productions. These activities further increase the children’s self-confidence and pride in a job well done.
Local Silicon Valley industries are encouraging schools to produce students who are prepared to meet the challenges of the Twenty First Century. They are seeking people who are life-long learners and possess the ability to work and get along with a diverse group of coworkers. The Discovery Program is a microcosm of this ideal and prepares its students well for the future. It truly is a “mosaic of abilities, ages, cultures and love.”