Our daughter Penny started kindergarten six weeks ago. At the end of her first day of school, she greeted me with, "Mom! I didn't miss you!" She's loved every moment since. I'm sure much of her experience is typical—she walks to school, she works on spelling and reading and basic math concepts, she plays on the playground at recess. And yet Penny's experience also highlights significant changes in American education over the past few decades because Penny has Down syndrome and an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and regular therapy sessions. Hers is an "integrated" classroom, with two teachers and a classroom aid. Forty years ago, she might not have been eligible to attend public school at all, much less in a classroom alongside her typically-developing peers.
Penny's academic skills are similar to those of her friends at the moment, but her behavior is different. Her teacher breaks the day down into 10-minute intervals, with a sticker for every stretch of self-control Penny displays, and frequent rewards—"Freeze Dance," a prize from the prize box, the chance to read out loud to the class—throughout the day. It's a lot of work to have Penny in the classroom. And it's a great place for Penny. I hope and pray that it's also a great place for the other kids, that Penny's presence contributes to the learning environment in such a way that she is a blessing to her peers, even as she is blessed by their inclusion of her.
The New York Times recently ran a series of opinion pieces about "differentiated learning," in which teachers modify curriculum so that children of various academic abilities can all work in the same classroom at the same time. Most of the commentators held up differentiated learning as an ideal, ...1
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