From the Great Wall to a Great Inclusive Classroom

by Stephanie Wasta, Margaret Grant Scott, Nancy Marchand-Martella, Robert Harris
From Teaching Exceptional Children, July/August 1999

Successful Unit in Inclusion Classroom

This article tells of a third grade classroom, engaged in a study of Chinese folk tales and eventually writing and publishing their own "folk tales" that incorporated information about the Great Wall and other aspects of life in ancient China.

But this was no ordinary unit, and no ordinary classroom. It was an integrated unit; and the classroom included gifted children, children with learning and behavior disabilities, and children without disabilities.

Make up of Class

The third-grade class included learners with a wide range of abilities. Of the 22 students in the class, 2 students were identified as gifted; 2 were in the process of being tested at the time of the unit. Two students were identified as learning disabled, 2 were identified as having an attention deficit disorder (ADD), and 2 were classified as having behavior disorders.

Prior Knowledge

These third graders had been studying the topic of communities for 5 months in social studies, investigating their school, local, state, and national communities; now they were ready to explore a community representing a culture different from their own, rooted in ancient cultural traditions. The students were experienced with a literature-based, writing-process approach to literacy instruction, following the stages of prewriting, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing/sharing. They had not yet studied the genre of folk tales (i.e, stories from oral tradition that carry lasting messages). The study of Chinese tales lent itself well to the combined study of ancient culture (social studies) and folk tales (language arts).


To provide a framework for the unit, the teacher examined and incorporated performance expectations from both the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) and the National Council for Teachers of English/Internationa1 Reading Association (NCTE/IRA). For example, the unit followed the NCSS Standards (1994) as follows:

  • The folk tale unit addressed elements of all 10 suggested thematic strands.
  • The children gained an understanding of how people in different times and places viewed the world differently.
  • The children learned how various factors contributed to one's personal identity, as exemplified in the characters of the stories.
  • The children gained an understanding of how these stories, which represent aspects of Chinese culture, facilitated global understanding.

Scaffolding of Integrated Studies

As a part of the writing process, students engaged in integrated learning strategies at combined social studies content with literacy skills. As Figure 1 shows, the strategies can be seen as separate and discrete. But as we found in the classroom, a part of the overall scaffolding process, the strategies build on one another as a growing framework of knowledge--somewhat like the Great Wall of China!

Figure 1. Scaffolding of Integrating Strategies

Develop the K-W-L chart

Immerse students in the reading of Chinese folk tales

Provide experiences and materials about life in ancient China

Engage students in dramatic experiences pertaining to Chinese folk tales

Chart important information to assist students in writing folk tales

Plan folk tales

Draft folk tales using response groups

Polish final versions

Share final products

K-W-L- Chart

To provide a knowledge base for the students' study of China and to determine their areas of interest, the teacher developed a K-W-L chart with the students as opening activity (Ogle, 1986, 1989). The K stands for "What We Know or think We Know"; the W stands for What We Want to Know"; the L stands for "What We Learned."

Reading Chinese Folk Tales

The classroom teacher read to the students one folk tale a day for approximately 10 days. Students named the personal traits of the main characters, including their strengths and weaknesses, and identified messages they saw embedded in the stories, such as loyalty, courage, or self-sacrifice. They also identified the elements of ancient Chinese culture woven into the stories, such as emperors or the Great Wall. In addition, students had access to many different folk tales to read during their free time.

Life in Ancient China

The teacher provided students an opportunity to read resource books such as The Children of China and Ancient China (see Cotterell, 1994; Pitkanen & Hakonen, 1990); to listen to Chinese music and Chinese guest speakers; to participate in a "trunk" activity in which they pulled Chinese artifacts from a trunk and described or researched their item more fully; and to view slides from the region. They also practiced the brushwork of calligraphy and watercolor; learned simple Chinese vocabulary; and tasted representative foods. Students wrote questions they had or information they had learned in their individual discovery journals (notebooks) for future discussion in class. With teacher guidance, students created starter phrases to use in these discovery journals as one way to learn the information. Some phrases included: "I learned that .." or "I found out...but still wonder about. . . . " Students referred to this acquired information and incorporated it later into the folk tales they wrote.

Dramatic Experiences

Students worked in pairs to create a flannel-board story of the origin of a Chinese festival. This activity required that students determine the key elements and characters of their tale, create those objects out of felt, and present their story to the class. After the pair gave their presentation, the audience discussed the folk tales in terms of its characters, plot, and lifelong messages. In this activity, this pair became the experts for their story, with questions directed to them rather than to the teacher.

Chart Important Information

Throughout the unit, the teacher and the students recorded much of the China knowledge on the K-W-L chart and in the students' discovery journals. As the time came for writing their own tales patterned after the Chinese models they had been studying, the group synthesized all the data they had collected. While the teacher recorded their ideas, they charted their data, focusing specifically on ideas they could use in their writing.

Plan Folk Tales

The teacher introduced the planning stage by asking the students to brainstorm the key elements they would need in their stories. Together, they generated the following elements: setting, characters, plot, key message, and details reflecting ancient Chinese culture. They also looked again at the many ways the various tales began and noted how the stories used repeated patterns, magic, or suspense.

Draft Folk Tales

The students worked on their stories over a period of several days. During this time, they worked independently, conferenced in pairs and with the teacher, and engaged in several whole-class discussion sessions of the writing process, with the teacher using stories as learning models. Students met in a class circle to listen and respond as students volunteered to share details of their tales. After students read portions of their pieces, students discussed strengths of the stories, noted the Chinese "flavor" of the tale, and asked questions to assist their peers in clarifying and improving aspects of their writing. The writers caoched one another on using information accurately, using the folk tale format, developing the story line, choosing words to deliver specific meaning and style, and clarifying the messages their stories were to project.

Final Versions

After they completed their drafts, students worked with peer partners and also conferenced with an adult to polish writing conventions, such as spelling and punctuation. To add balance to the hard work of editing, the children designed covers for their stories, using their earlier practice with Chinese artwork and calligraphy. Then, the students shared their final products with the rest of the class.

Assessment of the Unit

The students were assessed on their K-W-L charts, their discovery notebooks, their dramatic presentations, and their folk tales.

Role of the Special Education Teacher

The classroom teacher worked closely with the special education teacher, who came into the classroom half an hour every day to meet the needs of the students with special needs. The special educator served these students in a variety of ways, depending on the curriculum needs of the day. For the Chinese folk tales unit, she provided reading lessons in which the students reread and discussed the folk tales read aloud in class, coached them as they rehearsed dramatic presentations, and provided modeling and guided practice throughout the stages of the writing process. She also monitored small groups at work, reinforced group participation, and made sure tasks were completed as directed.

Challenges and Accommodations

Throughout the unit, some students needed special assistance to complete the various tasks. The classroom teacher or special education teacher would intervene and assist students with specific strategies to help them be successful. The following are some examples:

  • As students prepared the flannel board presentations, the teachers used individual or small-group "teaching moments" for (a) mini-lessons on skimming the folk tale; (b) reviewing phonics and contextual reading strategies; (c) identifying key elements of the story; and (d) brainstorming the steps to complete their folk tales.
  • During writing conferences, the teachers would coach these students on specific concepts, such as (a) expanding word choices, (b) writing with clarity, and (c) using sequences for organizing their writing .
  • Teachers also used individual conferences for mini-lessons on conventions, such as quotation marks and other missing punctuation in the piece. The teachers structured the mini-lessons as opportunities to show the students what to do and to provide authentic reason to practice individual skills on their own. Because all students conferenced with either of the teachers, students with special needs did not feel singled out; yet the teachers were able to address their specific writing needs.
  • The teachers also relied on student collaborative efforts when academic or behavioral struggles emerged. Students learned specific skills for contributing to the group learning process and followed conflict-resolution strategies when problems arose. When someone lacked an academic concept or skill, members of the groups coached him or her. When the teachers were busy in another part of the room and a student writer had a question, peer-response and peer-editing strategies gave every student handy resources for solving his or her writing problems. For those who had difficulty listening and gaining information the first time it was offered, a repeated set of directions was available from a partner. At first the teachers modeled these techniques and provided opportunities for students to practice. Eventually, the students mastered the collaborative strategies, which then became incorporated into the classroom routines.
Benefits of the Use of Integrated Strategies in a Social Studies Class

The study of Chinese folk tales met the needs of a diverse array of learners by using an integrated approach to instruction. In this regard, we highlight four benefits of this approach.

  1. Offering best practices to all students. To benefit the student population as a whole, regardless of student ability or experience, an activity should incorporate the following characteristics, as noted by Freagon et al. (1995): encourages active participation of the students, excites and moti vates the students, requires the students to think and problem solve, allows for the accommodation of individual learning styles, provides students with the opportunity to learn from and teach one another, provides students with a balance of content and process, assists students in making "connections" between content areas and previously learned knowledge and skills, considers student interest, and involves different methods of student "output" and evaluation, e.g., authentic assessment. (p. 15)

  2. Using literature to engage all students. The variety of literature within this study provided a common entry point through which all students could become part of an inclusive atmosphere: the sharing of stories. In so doing, everyone was engaged in responding and learning according to the background knowledge, interests, and abilities they brought to the text. The folk tales selected ranged from the simpler text of Demi's (1995) Stonecutter to the complexity of Lattimore's (1990) The Dragon's Robe.
  3. Scaffolding of strategies for all children to learn. Brophy and Alleman (1996) noted that activity level difficulty can be altered by adjusting the complexity of activities themselves or by adjusting the degree to which one structures and scaffolds those activities for his or her students. Through a series of scaffolded learning strategies, the group built on each phase of learning to accomplish the next. One can see the scaffolding at work as the students moved from listening teacher read classic folk tales to the children preparing their own stoorytelling of legends with flannel boards. The scaffolding continued as the class charted many dimensions of learning in readiness for writing own tales. Teachers can use similar scaffolding strategies in other content, such as math and science.
  4. Honoring diversity through cooperative learning experiences. Another key dimension of an inclusive classroom is that "students recognize each other's individual differences and strive to support one another's efforts" (Porter, p. 26). To meet this goal, our students needed to be in a learning environment that fostered a sense of community and made use of cooperative learning strategies.

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