Monday, September 24, 2018

What "Dancing with the Stars" Can Teach Us About Inclusion

A new season of Dancing with the Stars starts tonight, and as has become the norm for this particular reality show, the cast includes a contestant with a disability. Paralympian Danelle Umstead, a visually impaired Alpine skier, will follow in the footsteps of dancing stars like Amy Purdy, Noah Galloway, and Nyle DiMarco. Looking forward to watching Danelle perform reminded me of a long-ago article I wrote in my days about Dancing with the Stars and inclusion. Originally published in 2015, it's long gone from my old site, but I dredged it up from the Wayback Machine for your overthinking enjoyment.

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[​Warning: What follows qualifies heavily as "thinking too much about reality television." I do indeed see everything through special-needs lenses. Read at your own eye-rolling risk.]

Visualizing what inclusion might look like in a classroom is often hard for parents and educators. How can students with a wide range of abilities be meaningfully exposed to the same material? How is it possible to grant equal access in a way that's fair to everybody? How can progress be evaluated when learning is happening on many levels? Won't the lower-functioning get left behind? Won't the higher-functioning get bored?

You may not have a school to visit in your community where inclusion is working gloriously to watch and learn and get an idea how one might go about this. But twice a year, there's an example on broadcast TV that can provide some inspiration and insight, if you're willing to accept that those things can come from unexpected places. Want to see inclusion and differentiated instruction in action? Tune into a little show called ​Dancing With the Stars.

The sequin-heavy ABC dance competition pairs "stars" (that term is used with extreme looseness) with professional dancers, with the premise that "celebrities" (also loosely used) with no professional dance experience will learn how to dance over the weeks of competition. Turns out "no experience" is used pretty loosely too, because Olympic figure skaters and ice dancers and gymnasts along with musicians and Disney Channel stars have all come onboard with a high degree of dance training and ability.

These gifted contestants share the floor with contestants with less training but some natural talent, and contestants with more heart and humor than hoofing ability, and contestants whose age and physical condition limit the complexity of their routines, and contestants with disabilities that require special accommodations (of whom two, Season 18 runner-up Amy Purdy and Season 20 third-place finisher Noah Galloway, made it to the finals [and after this was written, Nyle DiMarco won season 22]). That's a pretty good model for an inclusion classroom.

It's also a useful framework for looking at questions of fairness and equality. If you think of the show only as a contest, it may seem unfair to ask people of modest ability to compete against near-professionals, or to penalize talented dancers for imperfect execution of things that their less-talented opponents couldn't even begin to attempt. These cries go up regularly from fans of various competitors on social media. For the purposes of inclusion — and this show, apparently — “fair” means giving everybody an opportunity to participate regardless of perceived ability and making sure each participant has what he or she needs to be successful. What learners do with that opportunity and those tools is what makes both an inclusion class and Dancing With the Stars an exciting and compelling experience.

Though the competition provides the structure for the show, Dancing With the Stars is at least as much about the process of learning and the joy of demonstrating new skills. Viewed in those terms, it's hard to imagine that a homogenous and superficially "equal" group of dancers would be nearly as interesting or effective. There's something about seeing amazing dancers negotiate complex routines, novice dancers delight in their own improvement over the course of the season, and challenged dancers find creative ways to show what they can do that would be lost if all contestants were at exactly the same level. If nothing else, diversity keeps things lively. And there's always a degree to which the contestants are inspired and emboldened by the differing gifts of their fellow dancers.

A concept we hear a lot about in inclusion conversations is differentiated instruction, and it can be hard to figure out what that means. How can a classroom of kids with all different levels of learning and ability be taught the same things? Consider the way Dancing With the Stars teaches participants with all different levels of ability. Everybody has to perform, say, the cha-cha-cha, but someone with dance experience and a flair for movement is going to learn it at a much different level than someone just starting to dance or someone with physical challenges or someone who struggles with rhythm. It's the job of the professional in each duo to choreograph the particular style of dance in a way that makes the most of the celebrity partner's ability and the least of his or her weaknesses.

Can the same be done for academic subjects? While children in an inclusion class may not each have their own personal educational choreographer, some of them will certainly have Individualized Educational Programs (IEPs). Those documents should also recognize and plan for strengths as well as weaknesses, and that same sort of individualized thinking can benefit all the students in a class who are individuals (which is to say, all the students in a class).

The challenge, both in a classroom and under the mirror ball, is to develop ways to measure every individual's progress, and offer meaningful praise and constructive criticism that points the way toward improvement. In this regard, Dancing with the Stars is perhaps a model of the problems that come with failure to do this. The judges' scores often seem arbitrary or confusing, and their comments tend too much toward gushing praise and declarations of how inspirational struggling contestants are. Reminds me of the years when my daughter's teacher assured me "She's flying!" but come IEP time could not quantify any improvement toward goals.

The show, like an inclusion class, would be much improved if the expectations for each participant were determined and communicated thoughtfully and clearly. Outcomes need to be well-defined and well-understood by everybody, in a way that challenges each dancer to stretch and grow and have that work recognized. We often see on the show that a talented dancer who just seems to be going through the motions is much less satisfying to watch and cheer than a challenged dancer giving 110 percent and loving it. Regardless of who actually receives the mirror-ball trophy, anyone who puts in the effort and participates to the fullest is a winner.

The wild card in Dancing with the Stars scoring is the home audience. Fans get to vote for their favorites by phone, text, or computer, and the most popular and well-known celebrities or pros can get a boost regardless of what happens on the dance floor. Success in this area can compensate for low scores from the judges, and that's a combination that got Noah Galloway into the Season 20 finales. The army veteran who lost an arm and leg in Iraq had a huge fan base of both military families and those inspired by his hard work and strength.

To get that sort of support from the school community for your child, you'll want to get out there and do some promotion. Join the PTA, volunteer for committees, and create positive relationships with teachers and therapists and IEP team members who can be your child's fan club. Preparing your little dancer is important, but if even you aren't voting to the maximum allowed, that prize will remain out of reach.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Hire Our Kids, But Really HIRE Them

I've been writing now and then about problems my kids have had getting jobs, and right at the moment, we're in a good place. They're still only working part-time, but they're working, and I'm grateful to their employers for apparently, at least at the moment, giving them a chance to learn and figure things out and take direction and keep working.

That shouldn't be a lot to expect, but we've also had an additional experience with what I'm calling "Bad Faith Disability Hiring," in which a job is briefly given and then snatched back when the employer realizes, apparently, that the good feeling you get from giving a kid with a disability a chance does not come with a magic wand that makes your new employee immediately 100 percent able to do whatever you want without any thought or planning or patience on your end.

I'm talking about situations where the employer in question knew the new hire had a disability, went through all the hiring paperwork and information gathering and payroll, and then after one or two or three days, turned around and said, "You're not what we're looking for." Or, "This job is not for you." Or, "We hired too many people. We'll call you when we need you." Not.

I'd believe that I was just over-believing in my kids and they're simply not capable, and yet ... there are employers who have made it work. There are people who tell me my kids are good workers. And I don't see how hiring someone and immediately taking the job away or failing to develop an employee in the hope that they'll get the hint and go away or feeling so bad about correcting someone's mistakes that you'd rather just quietly make a list and then use it to fire them is any kind of effective management conduct.

I want so strongly to advocate for hiring kids with disabilities, giving them a chance, and taking a chance on them. I believe there's a whole potential workforce of young people who only need a little time and patience and planning for success to be loyal long-time employees. But for goodness sake, employers, if you don't mean it, don't do it. Not getting a job is painful, but getting one and losing it through no fault of your own is worse.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

For That Back-to-School File You're Starting

Ah, back-to-school. For some parents, it's just a matter of filling out a pile of forms and fighting for the last folder at Staples. For parents of kids with special needs, there's the additional task of gathering together handouts and books to pass to teachers to explain your kid and just exactly what kind of teaching and paraprofessional-ing that will be required. If you're in that pre-distribution gathering phase right now, here are a few more things to look at, get ideas from, and share:

  1. The school section of the Parents Portfolio on my Mothers with Attitude site, where I've gathered things I distributed myself in my kids’ school days along with others I saw, admired, and asked to post.
  2. An article I wrote for Friendship Circle on preparing a teacher information packet
  3. The new book by my friend and co-podcaster Nicole Eredics, Inclusion in Action, to give your school a clue on how inclusion should be done.
  4. The older book by me on school advocacy, 50 Ways to Support Your Child's Special Education.
  5. The back-to-school checklist I wrote for this blog a couple of years ago, which is partially serious, partially funny, and partially sad, really.