The article Holding Nyla by Katie Kissinger tells the story of an inclusion classroom where both the students and the teacher overcame fears and learned acceptance. I chose this article because it had a great deal to do with my field...I am an early childhood special educator and it related to discussions we have had in class. The article tells the story of a teacher at a Head Start program who for the first time in her teaching career had to work with a student who has severe special needs. The student, Nyla, has cerebral palsy, a vision impairment, and was medically fragile. She also required tube feedings and had special procedures on how to physically handle her. Her teacher loved the idea of inclusion as it taught students about social justice and diversity but admits that she had no clue what she was getting into. She believed that including Nyla in her class would help the students make meaningful connections with people who are different from them. (I wish all teachers felt this was about inclusion).
As part of the teachers getting to know student tradition, she does self reflections about her students-what she had learned about them, what she wanted to learn about them, and how she felt connected to them. During her self reflection, she realized she didn't know anything about Nyla because she avoided her due to fear. This was only the second time in her life that she had encountered a person using a wheelchair. It was the fear of the unknown. That night she made a promise to herself that she would face her fears and as soon as she did she began a relationship with Nyla. This experience made me reflect on something Johnson said, and a quote I seem to keep referencing in my mind as I have been reading articles for class. "If we feel afraid, it isn't what we don't know that frightens us, its what we think we do know. The problem is our ideas about what we don't know-what might happen next" (16). I remember my first time working with students with special needs (all were non-verbal and behavioral) and I was extremely nervous and it was the fear of the unknown. I did not have any background or experience in special education so it was the fear of what I didn't know about these students.
By integrating children with special needs into the classroom, the teacher and the program learned that it provided an opportunity for students to question and address things that are unfair in the world. The teacher was connected to the trouble and by facing it and talking about it she made a change. This relates to the framework of Johnson's book "it allows us to see not only where the trouble comes from, but how we as individuals are connected to it, which is the only thing that gives us the potential to make a difference" (Introduction page 7) I think the Francis Howell school district could learn something from this teacher about inclusion.
In the article they gave two examples of how they students questioned the injustices. The teacher had ordered dolls from Lakeshore that represented children with disabilities. The students were all excited about the dolls, but they soon learned that there was a problem with the one of the dolls that was in a wheelchair, his feet did not reach the foot rest. The students were very upset about this so they decided to write Lakeshore a letter. They had an open discussion about what they wanted to write and in the note they said they would not buy any more items from the company until they fixed the problem. On another occasion, the class went on a field trip, and they soon realized that the location was not handicap accessible so the students decided that they would not partake in activity if Nyla could not either. Again the students wrote the owner a letter discussing their feelings. After I read this it made me think back to the SCHWAAMP activity in class and our discussion about A(ablebodiness)
I went onto the Lakeshore website and it seems as though they have not changed the doll. They wrote the letter in 1992....it is 18 years later.
At the end of the article, they talk about a student who overcame his fear of Nyla's differences and now considers Nyla his best friend. This made me think of Mah'ria and Brittney. During the interview Mah'ria said "And she just really got to know me. And it was great. Every day, I would see her in the hall, and we smile very big. It was great, because I never expected to have a long-term friend like that." (Part 1 This American Life-The problem we all live with) The mom of Nyla said something similar about her friendship with the boy, "her wildest dreams, she had never believed that Nyla would have a best friend. And she was moved to see a whole classroom of children welcoming her daughter into their community." In both situations, the friends looked past the differences and looked at the person as a person and not based on a category such as race or disability.
In the end the teacher realized that by facing her fears and connecting with Nyla she became a better role model for her students, who grew to learn about acceptance. This also made my think of Francis Howell and how if the parents and teachers faced their fears how different things would've gone for all students.
Early Childhood is a great time to begin to talk about differences. Working in an inclusive preschool, we get many questions about differences and us as teachers take the opportunity to talk about it in detail with the children. Once they are giving an explanation of the differences they have a better understanding of their peers. Many of our students are non-verbal so we get many questions about why their friends don't talk. Many parents have also reported that the typical peers go home and then inform their parents about whey their friends use pictures instead of words to talk.
How to talk to young children about diversity.
The author of the article, Katie Kissinger, also wrote a children's book called All the Colors We Are: the story of how we get our skin color. It is published in both English and Spanish and offers a simple and accurate explanation of how our skin color is determined. "Reading this book frees children from the myths and stereotypes associated with skin color and helps them build positive identities as they accept, understand, and value our rich and diverse world" (Amazon). The book also includes activities to extend the conversation.