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My Journey Toward Inclusive Education

Elizabeth Henshaw, Ed.D., Associate Professor

Department of Elementary Education
Rhode Island College

Fred Rogers describes inclusion as, "A learning environment in which children are supported in developing a spirit of sameness among children that makes no one an 'outsider' because of cultural differences or stereotypes." Some people go through education with little or no contact with people outside of their race or culture. Others have the privilege of growing up and receiving their education in multicultural, multiethnic, multiracial, and/or multilingual settings. The experiences and influences from my multi-dimensional education shaped me into the person I am today.

The earliest memory of my journey can be described metaphorically as a rose flower that gradually sheds its petals as it grows older. I was born in Calabar, a small town in the South-eastern Nigeria, West Africa. To me, my childhood was a period of great discoveries, some of which were fun and sweet, and some gloomy and bitter. I remember growing up in my maternal grandmother's home. It was a tightly knit family, with eight children who were treated with such great love and care by adult relatives that people outside of our family never stopped wondering whose child was whose in our household. In our home were my great-grandmother, my grandmother, her two daughters, her son and her brother with his wife. The two adult males in our family were the father figures while the females played the mother roles to all the children. We, the children, did not know who among the women in the family were our biological mothers. It was not necessary because we were all treated alike, very well cared for, protected, treasured and disciplined when necessary by the older members of the family. The only thing we knew for sure was that we were all sisters and brothers. Thus, growing up in our household, which was really a big compound with many smaller houses connected as one, depicts the African adage, "It takes a village to raise a child."

Most children from elite families attended mission boarding schools because their parents, for example indigenous medical doctors like my father, were constantly on transfer from one town or region to another. Furthermore, parents who were themselves educated in mission schools believed that mission education was the best schooling arrangement they could make for their children. The schools provided the best form of education for well rounded development of the child, preparing the child for adult life. The schools were expensive and their standards were very high. The decision to send children as young as five years to mission schools was very tough to make and required a lot of planning and preparation by the parents. My father had to send almost all his children to boarding schools because he was being transferred so often.

The first petal fell from my rose when I entered a boarding school. It was January, the beginning of school year in Nigeria. A medical doctor, who I later discovered was my biological father, was a Catholic who believed very strongly in the Catholic religion and education. All his children were sent to Catholic boarding schools from the age of seven. I was seven when he came and got me from my maternal family. My dad wanted me to attend a boarding school, Holy Child Convent School, which was in my home town, Calabar. So he took me from my maternal family to get me ready for school. He had already made arrangements with mother superior to reserve places for myself and another young girl, Teresa, who I later discovered was my half sister. Thus at seven, I found myself in a Catholic boarding school, away from home and my loving family. From then on and for a long while, boarding schools became places I would more or less call home. Boarding schools were where I received my primary and secondary education and where I was taught by European missionaries who exposed me to other cultures. The textbooks and materials, as well as methods of teaching, depicted Western cultures and traditions, and were not tailored to the cultural backgrounds, language and customs of the Efiks of Nigeria (my ethnic group). Curriculum and learning materials, which taught us to think, speak, and act like Europeans, excluded the unique characteristics of our cultures and customs, a heritage that transcended many generations of our history. Nevertheless, I did not forget my own Efik cultural values and traditions.

Boarding schools were segregated by gender: female missionaries administered schools exclusively for women; mission schools for boys were managed by male European missionaries. The boarding school I attended was established by the Holy Child Catholic missionaries from Ireland. It was very far from the town where my father and his wife lived and worked. To get to the boarding school, we had to travel by land and water, a journey of almost four hours. My step mom and my dad, who did not live in Calabar at the time, usually took us back and forth to the boarding school. When it was time to go to the boarding school, they would buy all we needed for the boarding school. They kept strictly to the rules and regulations of the boarding school. We were only allowed to bring very few clothes to school and not more than two pairs of shoes. Our dad was a simple and modest man who never wanted his children to appear affluent or snobbish. So he was quite satisfied with the boarding school policy. We wore uniforms from morning until evening. We had two uniforms, one for morning classes and one for afternoon study classes and Sunday services. Even though a residential teacher headed every dormitory, the nuns carried out most of the supervisory duties. They were around all the time, in the dormitory, in the dinning room, and in the classrooms.

Petals from my rose flower continued to drop. My journey through the tunnel, toward becoming an inclusive educator, was still a long way off. My life in the mission schools exposed me to many female students from different Nigerian ethnic groups and some other African countries. The life style in the boarding school was very inclusive. I was living and sharing things with people I then felt were different from me. The only people I could relate to were my sister and a few relatives whose parents also brought them to be raised by the missionaries. Dormitories were arranged in a heterogeneous manner. Each of the dormitories housed students of different age levels, socio-economic class, ethnicity, culture, religion, disability, language and dialect. There was no discrimination. We all lived and schooled together even with orphans and indigent children who were adopted by the Holy Child nuns. Children from ages five to eight were called "Number Ones." We were assigned to older students who acted as our caregivers. They were fifteen to eighteen years old. Initially, I was upset and lonely. I cried and tried several times to run home to my grandmother, who lived in the same town. Every time I tried to run away, I was caught by the gatekeeper and brought back to Mother Superior, who would calm me down with cookies and fruits.

Those of us who were "Number Ones" had a lot of privileges because we were so young. We were also very curious. We could go to the convent, which was the missionaries' residential area within the school compound. We were free to ask the reverend mothers any question, some of which were very personal. They were patient and understanding and would answer and explain things in detail, mostly during story time in the evening. We wanted to know why they were called 'mothers' when they had no children. Why they wore habits from morning till night. Did they have nightdresses or sleep in their habits? Did they change their clothing before they went to bed? We wondered why they always covered their hair. Did they not have problems hearing us when their ears were completely covered with veils? During the novitiate ceremony, young postulants were dressed up in wedding dresses like brides when there were no bridegrooms. So, we continued our questions: Where were the bridegrooms? Why did they have to take vows of poverty, chastity and complete obedience? At our age, we were quite satisfied with the answers we got.

At the age of 11, after completing 5th grade, I skipped a grade, advanced to 7th grade and was transferred to a boarding school for junior high students. Since this boarding school was also owned and managed by the same religious congregation, there were not many changes in respect to rules and regulations, though expectations in academics were higher and discipline was more intense. As I grew older, I became more sensitive to my identity. I began to notice the contrast between my background, coming from an educated and privileged family, and being a child of a medical doctor who had been trained in England and Scotland, and the backgrounds of the majority of the other students, who were from less privileged or less exposed families. Their diversity was evident in areas such as human needs, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, language differences, social classes, economic levels, and education. Because of my exposure to this diversity, I continued to grow and expand in knowledge and experiences. Initially, I resented any form of interaction with those outside of my family and my ethnic group. As I grew older, I became more understanding and empathetic to those I considered different, and less privileged. Nevertheless, I was still hesitant to fully accept cultural differences because of fears and ignorance. But after I became acquainted with the diverse cultures and customs of my peers, my biases gradually disappeared.

In the Catholic boarding school, aside from gaining more knowledge from religious instructions and influences, I learned to be independent and to respect life and property. I developed understanding, empathy and appreciation of cultural differences. Life in the boarding school was guided by strict rules and discipline. Our day started with attendance at morning Mass, which usually started at 6:00 am every day except Sundays, when we had an additional hour to sleep before 7:00 am services. It was a punishable offence to be absent from daily Mass, class and afternoon studies. A first offence brought a warning from mother superior; a second offence resulted in some manual labor, like sweeping sidewalks and picking leaves from the lawns. A third violation was more serious. You could be sent home on probation with a letter to your parents. There were lesser punishments for "Number Ones." Looking back on my childhood, I think I had the best education any child growing up under similar circumstances could wish for. My primary and secondary education brought me into early contact with missionaries (people from outside of my country and ethnicity, with diverse cultures and customs, including the Catholic religion) and made me more sensitive to human differences.

My happy and peaceful childhood began to crumble while I was in the boarding school. My stepmother, a Scottish lady, who had come and lived among the Efik people and learned their language and customs and from whom I had my first close contact with someone from a completely different background, passed away when I was ten. Three years later, my life was again disrupted by the tragic death of my father in a plane crash on February 5th, 1955. His sudden death and that of my stepmother taught me to appreciate every moment with family and friends. Prematurely, I came to realize that no condition is permanent. Their deaths changed the course of my life. Another petal had dropped. From now on, life in the boarding school could never be the same again. Prior to my father's death I never felt what it was like to be poor. My tuition and maintenance money were always paid annually and in advance. With his sudden death, my fees were often late. That was an additional trauma I could barely handle but from which I learned much. I became more sensitive to the feelings and pains of disadvantaged and less privileged people.

Upon graduating from high school in the early sixties, I got married and came to Cambridge, Massachusetts with my late husband who had come to Harvard Law School for a Masters Degree in international law under a Rockefeller scholarship. Coming to America with my husband was the first time I left my native home, Nigeria. Naturally, I had culture shocks, it was overwhelming. Right from the JFK airport, into the streets of Manhattan, I felt I was out of this world. The sky scrapers, over-crowded streets with people of different races, languages, customs and traditions made me feel like Alice in the Wonderland. I had mixed feelings of excitement to be in such a "world" and sad to feel that I might never see my native land again. However, my feelings changed when we had to return to Nigeria at the end of my husband's studies. I was sad to leave wonderful friends I met in the U.S. When we got back to Nigeria, I started my university education. I obtained my B.A. with Honors and received the best student academic award in Education/ History and Visual Arts from the University of Ife, Nigeria.

I returned to the U.S. in 1974 for graduate studies. The first couple of years were filled with constant cultural shocks, the type I never experienced during my first trip. This time I was all on my own, far away from my husband, children and the big family. Since I was living in the university dormitories, in big cities of Philadelphia and Manhattan, not close to familiar people I met in my first trip, I realized what a sheltered life I had. The type of diversity and inclusive education I had earlier experienced when I was a child in the Catholic boarding schools in Nigeria were to no extent comparable to the magnitude of diversity I found myself in on my second trip to the United States. In the college dormitories, dining rooms, classrooms, etc., I was mingling, eating, sharing, and chatting with people of different races, ethnicities and socio-economic levels. Some people were accepting me and my background and some were not. The homeless people I often passed by in Greenwich Village on my way to classes at New York University were the friendliest and most accepting people I encountered at this time. Thus, while I was quite familiar with European customs, I found remarkable differences among Americans. I found them to be quite liberal, free and full of energy. The English language was spoken and written differently. For example, "t" as "d" as in Rita, biscuits for cookies and sweets for candies. Also, Americans tended to speak faster. A lot of misconceptions about America, like the streets being lined with "gold," were soon dispelled, to say the least. However, because of the diversity of American culture, my adjustment was not too difficult or long.

After completing my graduate studies, I went back to Nigeria, but soon returned to the U.S. with a Fulbright-Hays award as a consultant in social studies in south-eastern Virginia and then western Pennsylvania. The petals kept on dropping from my rose flower as I was exposed to more and more diverse experiences, giving me more opportunities to develop a commitment to inclusive education. As a Fulbright consultant, I was involved in out-reach programs, giving workshops and in-service training on African history, cultures and traditions to classroom teachers in southeastern Virginia. I observed that the classroom teaching methods allowed for more student interaction with teachers and peers, but the classroom curriculum was not very inclusive of international or non-American cultures. Many of my colleagues and teachers in schools where I was invited to talk about my continent were friendly and kind and curious about Africa (perhaps to clarify misconceptions). A classroom teacher once asked me if Nigeria was in North Africa. However, there seemed to be no effort to permanently change the curriculum content to make teaching and learning truly inclusive.

After living and teaching in the U.S. these past twenty plus years, I have become bi-cultural. That is, I see myself with a lot of American traits while holding on to my Nigerian cultural values. My mannerisms have changed; I speak and write English more like an American. I know more about the diverse cultures that comprise American society. For me, living in America is like traveling to all the continents of the world and learning different cultures without having to make the long trip. I now have a much broader outlook on life and a better understanding of this planet's diverse people and ways. To-day, nothing gives me more satisfaction and pleasure than having the opportunity to expose my pre-service teachers to the fruit of my cross-cultural experiences and commitment to inclusive education. Even-though their backgrounds are not culturally diverse as mine has been, they do have opportunities to be exposed to diversity within this country, which is a microcosm of the world. Consequently, in order to raise the sensitivity levels of my pre-service teachers to multicultural and global issues and problems, I expose them to teaching and learning content that is inclusive of cultural, socio-economic and educational differences while encouraging cultural immersion in multiple communities with children of different backgrounds.

Over the past twenty years, I have become more aware that understanding and appreciating cultural differences is a journey for all who live and work in this society. Many of the students I teach and have taught are raised and educated in mono-cultural enclaves although they are products of a widely diverse society of cultures, social and economic classes, and languages. Many of these students who are preparing to be teachers may eventually have teaching assignments in schools with children unlike themselves. Thus they need multidimensional experiences to help them develop into effective teachers. Of course, it is also essential that even if they get assignments in suburbs or communities with children of like background, they must be effective in preparing these children to work in a diverse American society. Thus the need for inclusive education is crucial for teachers who are entrusted with the education of children who are the future of this society.

Inclusive education, as I define it, is not content, it is a process by which the teachers use the cultural, ethnic and social backgrounds of students as a springboard to making learning meaningful. It is a process of helping the teacher and the learner dispel stereotypes, reduce prejudices and appreciate rather than tolerate differences. This process of education is one part of the whole village that raises a child in this society and others.

In classes that I presently teach, Social Studies Methods and Concepts of Teaching, inclusive education is a significant part of my instruction and I tend to model the expected behavior for my students. I have developed a working and respectful relationship with teachers in urban schools and I also have a strong relationship with the teachers in the laboratory school on the college campus. I have demonstrated for my students the appreciation I have for the work that each group of teachers does with the population of students that they teach. I demonstrate with the language I use to describe the school settings, a respect for the 'culturally different' rather than the 'culturally deprived' and 'special education' rather than the 'remedial education' class.

So in my Social Studies Methods course, my students are exposed to concepts and strategies of teaching and are exposed to culturally relevant materials. In addition and more importantly, they have cultural immersion experiences in two different settings - one in the inner city and one at the laboratory school. The cultural immersion experience in the inner city allows them to expand their experiences beyond the school into the community. Not only do the students visit local places in the communities, they read the local newspapers, and share, when possible, in some of the cultural activities. These help them further understand and appreciate the differences and how to include them in what and how they teach the social studies. In fact, for the social studies, the community becomes the curriculum.

My pre-service teachers often comment on how the communities are so socially and economically depressed and yet the children, when taught effectively, seem to be learning and find learning meaningful and fun. As a part of the social studies requirements, they have opportunities to reflect on the two different experiences and to challenge their own stereotypes and negative beliefs about those different from themselves. During reflection times, they also have the opportunity to identify the curriculum and strategies they observed which reinforced the cultural identities of the students and gave them an appreciation of other cultures.

In my Concepts of Teaching course, the students are exposed to the technical skills of teaching. They learn various teaching models and classroom management strategies for all children, including the atypical/exceptional. They also observe classroom teaching and learning in urban, suburban and rural schools. However, the content of the course is supplemented by their participation in an after school program that allows the opportunity to understand the dynamics of an urban environment, which includes understanding and appreciating the vast resources for schools in the urban areas.

The values of this approach to inclusive education have benefited my students in many ways. They are much more open in their discussion of beliefs and stereotypes about children and learning. They are much more confident in their abilities to provide instruction that is meaningful to all children. They are less fearful of the inner city and the 'minorities' who populate the city and its schools. At least in their reflections, they seem less eager to 'blame' the students in the inner city for being poor and socially and educationally ostracized.

My journey prepared me well for the commitment that I have made to prepare teachers who appreciate diversity and to ensure that none of them teach in a way that makes one child feels isolated or detached from the content that he or she is exposed to in the classroom. As I continue on my journey, I feel I have been given another rose flower and the more I see my students grow and expand their appreciation of diversity, the fewer petals I seem to lose. Although not all of the prospective teachers I have exposed to this process of inclusive education have used it to dispel the myths, the stereotypes and the prejudices or to make the curriculum more meaningful to the children they teach, I know that my journey is continuing and the effect it will have on many children will have been worth it.

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Page last updated: March 15, 2006