Making It Work

The following post is an analysis of the article:

“Ability Differences in the Classroom: teaching and Learning in Inclusive Classrooms” by Mara Sapon-Shevin from Common Bonds: Anti-Bias Teaching in a Diverse Society. Author(s): Byrnes, Deborah A., Ed.; Kiger, Gary, Ed.


I chose this article because it is directly related to the issue which I am dealing with, how to teach to a class full of students with different reading abilities and rates, and also because the author provides a lot of interesting examples, ideas and support for her conclusions about this topic.


The overall purpose of the article is to promote a particular kind of classroom experience, which the author refers to early in the article as a class which is based on the idea of “purposive heterogeneity,” or “full inclusion” as it is also referred to. This is a kind of class that will, according to the author, “…embody the belief that diversity is a positive force in children’s and teachers’ lives and should be embraced, rather than ignored or minimized.”(Sapon-Shevin, pg. 37). 

(It will be noted that the author intending this essay for use in an elementary setting, hence the repeated use of the phrase children; however, in the mind of this reader, much of what is discussed in the essay is equally applicable to higher grade levels).


As the author says, promoting inclusive instruction is a relatively radical idea in an educational climate in which segregating students according to ability remains the norm. This situation is further exasperated by political and institutional forces which are calling for increased standardization of curricula and tests, limiting the range of teacher’s scope within the class and promoting the pedagogical segregation already mentioned. In this climate, the author feels it is important to explain and promote her belief in full inclusion classrooms.  


While this is more of a descriptive rather than a strictly research based essay, the author does cite a number of other researchers and findings in support of her ideas. This reader was particularly shocked to find out about one study cited in the article, which found that, “…homogeneous grouping does not consistently help anyone learn more or better (Massachusetts Advocacy Center, 1990; Thousand, Villa, & Nevin, 2002) .”. The effect was a little like scales falling from the eyes to see that the unquestioned way of conducting education (even in post-secondary education, and especially in FYC), was not so unquestionable after all.


As mentioned though, much of the paper is descriptive, with many of these descriptions and other forms of advice coming form the lived experiences of teachers in the field. The author frequently cites the experiences of teachers in the field, for example Patty Feld, who the author describes as a teacher from a small rural school who employs various full inclusion methods in her classroom to positive results. Despite some inclusions anecdotal evidence, which of course could be subject to professional skepticism, the author never strays to far from citations of published works and research, including her own.

The overall thrust of the article then was to both describe the methods of full inclusion classrooms as well as to demonstrate support, both anecdotal and analytical, for its effectiveness. The author begins by questioning some long held myths regarding inclusive and non-inclusive classrooms, including the supposed merits of the homogeneous classroom, the willingness of students to work with various levels, and the relative ease or difficulty of teaching homogeneous and heterogeneous classes. The author then goes on to describe the various aspects of teaching an inclusive class, including activities, peer-tutoring, multi-level teaching and the adaptation of appropriate materials and subjects. The author then speaks about the social skills necessary to conduct an effective inclusive classroom, and concludes by arguing for the importance of these kinds of classrooms.


In the opinion of this reader, this was a very informative and useful essay. The author was able to achieve a nice balance between describing lived classrooms experiences and citing professional research and works(and this even despite the fact that this was not, strictly speaking, a research essay). The conclusions were well supported through both the citations and the authors eloquent evocations of current pedagogical and political trends in education. Though I am still just beginning to wrap my head around the notion that homogeneous classrooms may in fact be detrimental to students success, I am nevertheless intrigued by this idea and I think the author has a persuasive argument in favor of at least considering heterogeneous classrooms as an alternative. In any case, I think the reality is that we will face heterogeneous classrooms of greater or lesser degree, whether or not they are labeled as such. Keeping this in mind, I am grateful to have come across this article and look forward to implementing some of its ideas in both my continued research on this subject as well as in my own classes in the future.


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