Monday, May 11, 2015

Cap & Gown

Micah walking across the stage with a big smile.
On Thursday, May 7, 2015, Micah wore a cap and gown, he crossed a stage when his name was called, received a pin and certification for his work toward earning a noncredit certificate in Disability Studies, his name was listed in the Syracuse University College Graduation program, his classmates, friends, trainer, college professors, and family cheered when he walked. In the official remarks opening this commencement, Dean of University College, Bea Gonzalez, confidently and enthusiastically acknowledged the significance of Syracuse's InclusiveU program (the program Micah completed) and the students' participation in this commencement. 

Micah returning to his seat with his friends and family. 
I have spent a lot of time this school year trying to unpack the social and academic elements of inclusion -- in a classroom where what I want, what I can do, and what may be "possible" conflict and meld together. It has been exhausting and rewarding. I have worked hard to figure out and think through what it takes to ensure that "all means all" -- from recess, friendships, counting, story problems, reading, telling stories, making mistakes, having consequences, and celebrating successes. 

 As I sat at Micah's graduation, I couldn't help but wonder about some of my own students. How do all families know what is possible for their child? How do peers know what their classmates are capable of? How do my individual students learn to dream, build determination, and constantly advocate for what they need to show what they are capable of? 

Micah with me (his sister!). 
After Micah's graduation, I went to a house party where dozens and dozens of people flooded the home. I knew maybe a handful of people. This was Micah's world. This was Micah's community -- his friends, his professors, his students he had when he co-taught courses in the School of Education. These were people he cooked with, people he went to bars with, people who he had mock dates with, people he stayed with when he was worried about his heart surgery last winter, people who felt loved, supported, and respected by Micah. No pity. No "buddy." No charity. Simply friends and community.

Micah reminds me over and over again that this work -- this work of creating the beloved community -- must involve intentional and authentic inclusion. Micah is who he is because inclusion (and Micah!) is working at its very best. 

Micah at his graduation party, looking at his phone.
His inclusion has authentic age-appropriate experiences like wearing a cap and gown (he wasn't allow to wear when he attend Oakland University), like walking across the stage (some students with intellectual disabilities aren't allowed to walk across the stage for their high school graduations because they can't get the diploma until they age out of the system), like drinking alcohol to celebrate his accomplishment. These moments are not necessarily about an IEP Goal or about growing academic or job-related skills. These are moments that allow Micah to see himself as a valued and respected member of his community. These are moments that allow his community to see his full participation.

His inclusion has intentional experiences like attending an inclusive university program that facilitates academic and social interactions on campus, like creating circles of support since he was in elementary school so that when Micah moved from Michigan to New York he knew what he needed to feel supported without his parents nearby, like having parents that constantly, lovingly, and fiercely keep expectations and possibilities high so that phrases like "he's not capable of that" or "that's not within his IQ" doesn't limit him, like using technology so that he is learning what he wants to learn about both possibilities and injustices in the world. These are moments that allow Micah to travel interdependently in his community. These are moments that allow Micah to see that learning is truly a life long process. 

Micah with his parents who are smiling and laughing.
They both just received "Syracuse Dad" and "Syracuse Mom" shirts.

So as I continue to work at better understanding inclusion, now as a teacher and not just as a sibling to Micah, I hold Micah's story. 

I hold on to the moments where my students need opportunities to grow academically as mathematicians, readers, scientists, writers, and artists. They need intentional academically rich experiences. 

And equally, they need opportunities for authentic experiences. They need opportunities to wear their caps and gowns and cross the graduation stage. They need opportunities to "get in trouble," to learn how to annoy and not annoy their classmates, they need to learn how to stand on stage with their classmates and perform at the music concert, they need to ride a bike (however they do and whatever their "bike" looks like), they need to go to nurse when they fall and go to the nurse when they're bored in class, they need to eat school lunch and sneak in the lunch line to grab a second slice of pizza,  they need to share their writing in front of the class, and they need to have friends and community members who constantly help them and their family know what possibilities exists (and have yet to be imagined). 

What happens if we don't make inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities intentional and authentic? We limit possibilities and potential for people and deny their (and our) humanness. That's a lot of power. 

I don't know what the world will look like for my 1st & 2nd graders in 10 years when they are leaving high school. My hope, like my hope has always been for Micah, is for them to surround themselves with people who challenge them -- people who believe that a sense of safety, confidence, and growth comes from taking risks -- people who see that inclusion must both be intentional, authentic, and always, always on-going.  


Ann Turnbull said...

Thank you, Emma, for sharing this mountaintop experience of Micah's graduation. Through your words and photos, I felt such kinship with him and all of you. Micah is a pioneer for us all in the inclusive heights that he is experiencing and so are all Fialka-Feldman family members.

I am thrilled for the first and second graders that you are teaching and for their families. I have every confidence that you are their Sherpa for climbing the inclusion mountain and reaching the top following Micah's path in light of their own preferences, needs, and strengths. Lucky kids. Lucky you.

Dan Habib said...

Wonderful blog Emma! Heartfelt and insightful.

Unknown said...

Congratulations, Micah! And thank you, Emma, for reminding me of the importance of authenticity in the work of educating children and adults.

Miriam F said...

You took me right in there...Thanks!

Two in Transition said...

So happy to see this. Congratulations to Micah and his entire family. You have been a tremendous inspiration for us as we support the hopes and dreams of our own "two in transition," our son and daughter, who are both traveling different postsecondary paths. Micah has helped many of us redefine independence and see what's truly possible.

Kellyanne Doherty said...

Hi Emma! Your blog was linked in Micah's graduation email chain and I just wanted to add a little something. Micah has a tremendous gift in the way he is able to create a community. I had to laugh at the picture of Micah holding his cell phone - he is always checking it :-)