In my first year teaching, I had native speakers of English right along with kids who did not speak one lick of English – who were beside the kids who spoke a phrase or three. This was in Macau, which was a Portuguese colony at the time, across from Hong Kong (which was a British colony at the time), next door to China (which was still China at the time).
Some of the Mamas of the native English-speaking kids were nervous about how their kid was going to "do" – would they fare well, in this class of such mixed-English ability? With kids that wouldn't "push" them to greater levels of linguistic success? I distinctly recall my confusion with one mother in particular. "I so wish there were more kids in this class," she sighed rather dismally. "What do you mean?", I asked, "there are a lot of kids here!" "No, you know, ones he can talk with, ones he can bring home" she said. I was silent then, stymied. I couldn't quite wrap my brain around her prejudice, and being only 19 (or 20?) years old at the time, I didn't have the confidence I'd later gain in responding to hogwash.
While I may have (privately) thought that mothers like her were every level of awful, I did (also privately) wonder how much stimulation the native English speaking kids would get. And how on earth I was going to manage to teach kids in English who didn't speak any English – and sans aid, sans assistance, sans interns. Just me and those 20+ little smiling dollops of potential.
So, I did what made sense to me: I teamed the kids up. I put the native English speakers with the kids who did not speak any English. I tried hard to even it out – that is, I'd put the book-loving native English speaker with the sporty-spice who couldn't speak English. This was because I wanted each person in the team to excel in something – to be the lead person in something. I wanted to avoid creating an environment in which the native-English speakers came off as better/smarter/faster/whatever merely because they knew the language whereby I was instructing. The kids who didn't speak English knew a lot too, and should be given the opportunity to share and teach, I thought.
A year passed. What I noticed was that some kids that started out speaking no English at all spoke very, very well. Some did not speak very, very well but but spoke well and did not struggle at all in class. The native speakers? Their own skills had shot off – evidently, the daily tutoring they were giving their peers re-enforced their learning, allowed learned concepts some ready application. The students had to figure out how to explain things; this does a lot, apparently, in letting the juices of learning slosh around in the jug.
It was win-win. Good for one, good for all.
Now I'm in the US (which is still part of the US). Macau has been returned to China, Hong Kong has as well. China is still China. And I've got a daughter with Down syndrome. I read here and there about inclusion and about how having a child with special needs might pull back the class; how could learning happen when one is developmentally delayed? How could the child with developmental disability actually help his/her peers in the learning process?
And it brought me right back to Macau. To worries of children not learning because their peers did not speak their same language. And it brought me back to the end of the first year, in which each and every child in that class spoke English, fluently. And in which each and every native speaker of English had risen even beyond the next grade level by virtue of their own peer interaction.
I see inclusion (and I'm not just talking about disability here) as the natural way in which we can all be smarter, we can all grow stronger. Inclusion is educational back-scratching. It might take time to see all the scratched backs, but they will be there.
Beyond every kind of delight and pure thrill I get when I see them playing together, I see past the obvious big-brother-little-sister dynamic. The oh-that's-so-sweet-he's-helping-her piece.
But it's moment that I see played out throughout each and every day. Gain, gain. Just like in the ESL classroom. Just like in the inclusive classroom.
What has your experience with your kids playing together been like? And how does your little one go to an inclusive daycare/school/program? How is that?
Meriah Nichols is a counselor. Solo mom to 3 (one with Down syndrome, one on the spectrum). Deaf, and neurodiverse herself, she’s a gardening nerd who loves cats, Star Trek, and takes her coffee hot and black.