Yesterday my heart broke.
I was with a girlfriend and her 13 year old son. They were fighting about football practice :) He didn't want to go, she said he had made a commitment to the team and needed to follow through. Sounds normal enough, doesn't it? Then he said something that sent an arrow through my heart. "it doesn't matter whether I'm there mom, I'm like seventh string anyway." No, this isn't a rant about competitive sports. You see, the thing is, Lance (a pseudonym), has learning challenges. He is one of those kids who is brilliant and creative, and struggles with text. As I listened to him argue with his mother, I realized where it all came from. It came from us. From teachers and schools. From group work projects where Lance and his friends were never taught to value each other. He learned what many students who struggle learn - to keep quiet, try to be invisible, and let the "smart kids" do the work. He learned that we wasn't valuable to the team. That he didn't matter, his presence didn't matter. He learned that he had nothing to offer "the team." When we don't differentiate the tasks we assign in such a way that all students have a valued role, when we don't teach students how to work together, when we don't give every student in our class a voice, we give them a simple message...you have nothing to offer. You are seventh string.
THIS HAS TO CHANGE.
We must use programs like the RD program, programs that teach students to value themselves and others. We need to teach kids how to collaborate - that leadership doesn't mean taking over - it means finding out what the gifts of your team members are, and inviting them to offer them. It means making all of your teammates feel like you have their back. If Lance spent his days in a classroom where he felt like he made a valuable contribution, that he had meaning and purpose, he might think his presence on the football team, even if he's on the bench, mattered. He would know that he needed to have his teammates back. He would know how to be part of a team, and later, part of a community. Instead, he has learned that no one cares whether he shows up, so why should he care about them? He learned that from us. We can help Lance, and others like him, unlearn it. It's imperative. No child should think their presence doesn't matter.
I am an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia in Inclusive Education, and the developer of the Three Block Model of Universal Design for Learning.