How Watermelons Cultivated Belonging
by Joanne denBoer, Director of Learning ◊
I dislike watermelon. It really is nothing more than pink, fuzzy water. Take a bite – it evaporates instantaneously, which, in my case, is a good thing because I find watermelon so distasteful. I only agreed to do a short unit on watermelons …
At the edge of the circle she squirmed in her wheelchair, threw her head from side to side, and whimpered. Again. Then again. This was not going to be a good day for Sarah (not her real name).
I paused momentarily. The Special Needs Assistant (SEA) motioned that I should continue teaching the third graders. I clicked the chalk on the blackboard. Little arms pumped the air – the students were engaged in the lively discussion, nonplussed by Sarah’s complaints.
The SEA lovingly stroked Sarah’s arms to distract her. She rocked Sarah’s wheelchair back and forth. The whimpers turned into noisy wails. I was utterly helpless and relied on the SEA’s expertise to make the appropriate decision to address Sarah’s present distress.
“She’s not well. I’ll take her out,” said the SEA with regret, and wheeled Sarah out of class to her special place elsewhere in the school.
I felt sad. The class was incomplete whenever Sarah left the room, yet at times this truly was the best response to her discomfort.
It was the end of September, so I had only known Sarah for a few short weeks. The children in the classroom had known Sarah for three years and were accustomed to her idiosyncrasies. However, some of the new children in class were uncomfortable with Sarah and would not interact with her. They had never experienced having a classmate who was severely disabled. Sarah had cerebral palsy. She was blind, non-verbal, and her twisted limbs rendered her immobile, hence the wheelchair. Her cognitive ability was undetermined.
I had a challenge on my hands. God created all of us in His image, and that included Sarah. If research showed that “NIMBYism (not in my back yard) is alive and well – yes, even among Christian teachers” 1, then was it possible that it could also be said of children? Of me? “While teachers may give assent to the validity of Full Inclusion as a valid ideological perspective, they add the ‘not in my backyard’ (classroom) proviso.” 2 I didn’t want this to be true of me nor of my students. Sarah was part of my God-given class.
How could I create a community of inclusion in my classroom that reflected the school’s Biblical practice of inclusion? If I didn’t become intentional soon, my unintentional inaction would permit the classroom culture to have pockets of exclusion.
How could I encourage Sarah’s classmates to greet her whenever she came to school? How could the children overcome their reluctance – or was it fear? – to sit with her during lunch, or to push her around the playground during recess? What does it take to turn cautious students to spontaneously invite Sarah to be a part of their Math or Social Studies group?
Compounding this was my own perceived inadequacies to teach Sarah. I didn’t take any courses at university pertaining to learning disabilities, so I felt ill-equipped to educate this young girl. How do I move from being a side-line participant to an actively involved educator regarding Sarah’s learning?
I took baby steps towards creating a culture of inclusion. How? I found the best teachers – Sarah’s classmates and her SEA! The children showed me how to greet her. I watched the children gently massage her hands and stroke her cheek. I learned ways to calm her when she was in distress, and how to run with her in the gym – the faster the better! I learned how and when to communicate with Sarah. The new students watched, yet some were still reluctant to become involved.
We began a communication journal with Sarah’s family. Children wrote in it. The SEA wrote in it. I wrote in it. The parents responded, asked questions, or gave instructions regarding her health. Our confidence grew in interacting with her.
Although we became more playful with Sarah in unstructured situations, I struggled with planning for Sarah’s learning. Her IEP goals, established by the school-based team, were predominantly oriented to communication. She could not talk. She could not see. Often her movements were involuntary and spastic. How can I involve her more in the learning that happens in class? I consulted the SEA.
“We need to create a learning project that’s tangible,” I told the SEA. “It needs to involve smell, touch, and perhaps taste. We need group work. The whole class needs to be involved. Can we ask Sarah to bring something to class?”
“How about apples or pumpkins?” asked the SEA. “Sarah could be ‘responsible’ for a station.”
“I like your thinking. It’s got possibilities. The children probably learned about apples and pumpkins already. How about something similar yet different?” I said.
She can’t be serious! I don’t like watermelons! But could I get excited about it for Sarah’s sake?
“A great idea!” I said. And so a unit was born.
“Watermelons in October, teacher? That’s crazy! Can I bring one tomorrow?”
With Sarah at the hub of the activities for a week, I observed a metamorphosis. Estimating and measuring length, circumference, weight, distance rolled, and number of seeds were vehicles to get everyone involved. The children helped Sarah with finger painting and making watermelon juice, overcoming their awkwardness of touching her frail and crooked body. We gave Sarah special gadgets for special activities and students were soon asking her to borrow them – no, they asked if they could join her! Sarah held the bowl of watermelon seeds; students asked her for them in the seed-flicking contest. The watermelon-shaped candles, red and white checked table cloths, slices of watermelon, watermelon juice, and pink cupcakes all contributed to a grand finale in-class picnic. We achieved our objective of cultivating inclusion.
I marveled. The children and I had taken baby steps from getting to know Sarah better, to including her in our activities both in and out of the classroom. The students who were new to our class now felt comfortable being with Sarah. We needed her as much as she needed us. We wanted to be with her. We had truly moved from being nervous in September, to having an inclusive attitude, and beyond – to becoming a place of belonging3. Sarah loved us and we loved her. We belonged together.
But I still don’t like watermelons.
- Pudlas, Ken A. “Head and heart and hands: Necessary elements of inclusive praxis”. ICCTE Online Journal. Summer 2007, Volume 3, 2. www.icctejournal.org
- SCSCBC. Introduction. Serving All Children Well. Langley, BC, 2007. Page i.