Studying With Auggie

Like a lot of people – particularly educators – I read and was touched by Wonder.  The 20128290048 bestseller by  R. J. Palico has inspired schools and parents to take a hard look at themselves and take the moral litmus test that lies at the heart of the book:

How would we respond if Auggie showed up tomorrow?

As a school leader, the question was, “Is my school a place where Auggie would feel safe and loved?  Would he succeed here?”

Gross Schechter Skypes with real-life "Auggie" Gabriel Hafter.
Gross Schechter Skypes with WonderKid Gabriel Hafter.

This past week, I was re-introduced to Auggie through a real-life “Wonder” by the name of Gabriel.  Through the power of social media and six degrees of separation, I was made aware of Gabriel – a real-life, Jewish “Auggie” who has begun sharing his transformative story with Jewish day schools, including Gross Schechter a few weeks ago and the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston last spring.

It made me ask myself, as a leader of schools, “Are we providing our schools with the resources and support they need to tackle issues of difference in ways that accord with our highest Jewish values?”

I am not sure that we are.

As I continue what I feel is still my self-introduction to the field in this new role, I wanted to do some thinking together about another issue that I have a great deal of passion for – inclusion – and my enthusiasm for Schechter’s growing ability to become the inclusive Jewish day schools our community and families deserve.

We recognize that Schechter schools, Jewish day schools, private schools, etc., are not always capable of handling each and every situation appropriately. It does not mean that we are, in fact, the “best educational setting” for each Jewish child of difference or with special needs. It is hard to imagine any (private) school that can possibly claim to be that – there is way too much variation in resources, mission and children for any one school to be the “best educational setting” for every child.  It does mean, however, that we are interested in helping our schools learn to better work with families to determine if they are the best setting, to prepare a structure for children to be successful when they enroll, to establish processes to evaluate successes and failures, and to maintain healthy communication to take next steps as they occur.

[Disclaimer: My wife is a special needs educator whose academic and professional experience is with “special education inclusion”.]

In preparing to write the blog, I reviewed my research in this area I think this link from the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) provides good definitions, a concise history of inclusion, decent explanations of federal law, a fair framing of the debate between “full inclusion” and “resource room”, and examples of academic research. I encourage you to read the whole thing. But for my purposes, let me quote a few highlights:

Inclusion is a term which expresses commitment to educate each child, to the maximum extent appropriate, in the school and classroom he or she would otherwise attend. It involves bringing the support services to the child (rather than moving the child to the services) and requires only that the child will benefit from being in the class (rather than having to keep up with the other students). Proponents of inclusion generally favor newer forms of education service delivery.

This would be an accurate expression of our attitude and aspirations for the children in our schools with special needs. (Please understand that GIFTEDNESS is a SPECIAL NEED. “Inclusion” includes our philosophy of how we strive to meet the needs of gifted students as well.)

I am being this descriptive because I want to address a common concern of parents – how will having special needs students in my child’s class impact the experience of my child? Or, won’t the teacher have to spend so much time focusing on the special needs students that s/he won’t be able to provide my child with the individualized attention we expect in private school?

First the research…

There is no evidence that the inclusion of special needs students has any negative impact on the academic experience of the other students if the classroom is structured and staffed appropriately.  This is why the conversation about whether or not a school is the “best educational setting” is so important.  We have to be honest with parents about our resources and abilities.  We should never bring in a child with needs we are not confident we can meet – that risks harm to the child and to the class.  Each child and each situation is different and is handled case by case.  But with the right attitude, support, and training – we are moving to be more capable with more students.

So if there is no impact on the academic experience of the other students…might there be other extremely important and positive outcomes of having special needs students in the classroom?  YES!

While researchers are cautious in their conclusions, there are some positive signs. In particular, students in special education and regular education showed several positive changes, including:

  • A reduced fear of human differences accompanied by increased comfort and awareness (Peck et al., 1992);
  • Growth in social cognition (Murray-Seegert,1989);
  • Improvement in self-concept of non-disabled students (Peck et. al., 1992);
  • Development of personal principles and ability to assume an advocacy role toward their peers and friends with disabilities;
  • Warm and caring friendships (Bogdan and Taylor, 1989).

Do these not seem like the kinds of values a Jewish day school ought to live by?  Would this not represent our highest aspirations for the moral development of our children?  Does this not seem like a good way of making menchen?

Schechter has a passion for meeting the needs of Jewish children – special or otherwise. One doesn’t have to choose between meeting the needs of special needs children or the highly gifted (or the overwhelming majority of children who are neither).  Our schools’ work with children of difference and their families does not detract from their work with all of their other children and families – it enhances it.

To repeat, how we deal with difference in our schools is a moral litmus test…

When my daughter graduates (please God many years from now) from her Schechter school and I watch her walk across the bimah to receive her diploma, my wife and I will surely be proud of her academic achievements (whatever they may be).  But we will be even more proud of who she will have become having learned to love and respect all her classmates no matter who they are, what they know or can do, or however quirky their personality traits might be. And we will be blessed for having had the ability to have her educated in a place that didn’t require families to have to choose between.

Gabriel Hafter is a 12 year old from Las Vegas, Nevada. He has Treacher Collins Syndrome. Gabriel has been appointed a WonderKid, by the national Children’s Craniofacial Association. Gabriel speaks to schools around the country, via Skype or in person, about being different, the book, Wonder, by R.J.Palacio, and his anti-bullying campaign to Choose Kind, inspired by the book.
If you would like Gabriel to present his 7 Wonder’s of Choosing Kind campaign to your school, please contact Jackie Hafter via phone at 702-845-3731 or email at [email protected].

Author: Jon Mitzmacher

Dr. Jon Mitzmacher is the Head of the Ottawa Jewish Community School. Jon is studying to be a rabbi at the Academy for Jewish Religion and is on the faculty of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) as a mentor. He was most recently the VP of Innovation for Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools.  He is the former Executive Director of the Schechter Day School Network.  He is also the former head of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, a K-8 Solomon Schechter, located in Jacksonville, FL, and part of the Jacksonville Jewish Center.  He was the founding head of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Las Vegas.  Jon has worked in all aspects of Jewish Education from camping to congregations and everything in between.

2 thoughts on “Studying With Auggie”

  1. Thanks Jon for addressing an important issue that requires much more discussion and attention.

    But you forget the E word in your post.


    And while Jewish values are obviously very important, the reason that parents should would classrooms that are inclusive is because it builds empathy and that is an extremely important skills to succeed in BUSINESS in the 21st century.

    As this Harvard Business Review blogger noted:

    “This is a big “ah ha” to many folks when they first hear it; but when you really boil it down, the true power of this is in giving people in business a frame with which to exercise empathy. In fact, both Akio Morita of Sony and Steve Jobs were famous for never commissioning market research — instead, they’d just walk around the world watching what people did. They’d put themselves in the shoes of their customers.

    And for those businesses whose executives are incapable of it? Well, they are subject to the ultimate stick — disruption. No better example of this exists than the story of Blockbuster and its competitive tangle with Netflix.”

    If Jewish families want their Jewish children to succeed in the 21st century workplace and not have their jobs or companies Netflixed, they need to master empathy.

    Living and learning in a diverse classroom is one great way to do that.

    We can be very takhlis about why inclusion matters in addition to appealing to Jewish values.

    Thanks again for raising this critical issue.

    1. Very true…

      …do you think empathy can be taught? Or mastered? How?

      I know how much time we put into “Community of Kindness” at MJGDS and I hope it had (and has) impact…but explicit teaching or mastery of empathy…is that part of the implicit or explicit curriculum?

      Would love to see concrete examples and share success stories…

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