My husband and I have been renovating our home for the last few months. Our home is filled with almost 200 years of quirks and stories- needless to say nothing is straight forward.
We started with a plan and ended with something totally different, but so much better than imagined. It was easy for us to buy our home and set out to tear down walls, open up rooms, remove the old coal burning fireplace and chimney, and fix the crookedness. However, once we moved in, prior to starting our work, everything changed.
The crookedness that was so bothersome and made it a race to clean up every spill quickly, the useless old chimney that no longer works and takes up space, the plaster walls with tiny crooked door frames, and the small rooms all landed on the reno list. Fix these and the house will awesome. Guess what, it did not take us too long to figure out that fixing those areas would not only modernize the home, but it would steal the home of its quirks and its soul.
You see, our house has a history, it has a story, and it has a soul. If we got rid of (any of) these areas we would rob our home of what makes this home special. The chimney is at the very centre of home- and it always has been. It started out as the heart of the home that pumped out heat. Now, the chimney is an integral structural component of the home. If we ended up removing the chimney, we could open up the house easily and match modern floor plans. However, the house would be without its core. Opening up walls, removing the crooked floors, and straightening the door frames just seemed trivial once we moved in.
Viewing the house and making plans to renovate were based on what my husband and I wanted in a house- or thought we wanted: a historical house that has all the amenities of a modern one in the heart of the city. Sounds reasonable?! Well, once we moved into the house and 'got to know some of the quirks', the renovation talked moved from 'modernizing' to 'how can we make this house shine?'. Our aim became preserving the soul of the home while showing it in the best possible way.
The same can be said about teaching in today's inclusive systems. Our role is to view each student for who they are as an individual, as part of a group, and guide them forward. It is easy to look at our students and categorize them into two groups: those who can and those who cannot. These categories are based on our conceptualization of what students ought to be- if they do not fit in, then we will try to make them. Like my quirky 200 year old house that will never feel modern, students will never fit into a mould- and we should not attempt it!
Between standardized assessments and general curriculum, it is hard to push the one-size-student-mould point of view out of our mind (or our subconscious)- but it is necessary. I believe it is one of the greatest challenges our education system faces today: how to build an inclusive system in a system heavily based on standards?
Something we should keep in mind is the importance of individuality. Each student brings a story, a set of experiences, and a soul to the school community. We cannot expect that all students align with preconceived standards at specific ages- but this does not mean that they need an individual plan. Rather, they need an inclusive system that values and respects their uniqueness.
I have created a brief list of a few simple things you can do in your classroom and your practice to help ensure all students have a fair opportunity to be present, to participate, and to achieve.
1. Provide Choice: give all your students the opportunity to learn and present their knowledge in a way that is comfortable to them.
2. Make Materials Accessible: start to give students ownership over their learning by allowing them to be in control of accessing materials when they feel it is necessary.
3. Connect With Your Students: reach out to each student, find a common interest, and form a connection that is unique to the two of you. Appreciating & understanding each student is key in helping your students succeed.
4. Collaborate: work with your colleagues! Not only will they provide you with an alternative point of view, but they are a wealth of knowledge.
5. Ask For Help: you only know what you know....so ask for help!
6. Give Students What They Need To Learn: it is time to get rid of the mentality of 'this is how I do it', and ask yourself 'what do my students need to be successful this year?'. You will find many students will benefit from the same strategies, but not all. In your planning and reflecting, make sure you have included all your students. Think about the 7-10 split: plan for the 'outliers' and you will provide beneficial opportunities for all.
7. Take Risks: throw away the 'I know that', and push your boundaries. Inclusive classrooms throw unique and exciting curveballs almost daily. Make sure you are up for the challenge by being okay with lessons and activities not working quite the way you thought they should.
8. Celebrate Each Student: make sure each student knows they are a valued class member- this feeling has the power to move mountains.
This brief list is a helpful start in furthering your inclusive education journey. It is a journey- it is okay if your journey is slow, fast, or off-track because the journey to a fully inclusive system (in policy and practice) is never ending. The key is that you respect, value, and celebrate each student for who they are and who they can be and what they bring to your learning community.