A sheet of paper rests on the table top. Two opposing teams lob legal jargon back and forth across the table, staying laser focused on the document between them. The plaintiff makes their case, and the defense makes theirs. The nonstop clickity-clack of fingers on keys fills the air as the recorder captures every word, every detail.
For a moment I forgot where I was. Was this a courtroom?
No. It was an IEP meeting.
It was the first one I’d ever attended, so I was shocked by how legalistic the whole thing was.
Weren’t we talking about a child? A real-life person who we all knew and cared about?
There was no human aspect to the meeting; it was sterile, rote, mechanical. We were dissecting a document. It had become all about the sheet of paper.
Well, that and making sure no one pulled any fast ones on each other. Which everyone seemed fully convinced was going to happen. There was no trust, and we’d forgotten all familiarity.
Perhaps as a coping mechanism, I caught myself daydreaming back to what felt like a past life, where students with disabilities were treated like humans, and where educators and families partnered together to collaboratively meet the needs of the child. Where students took an active role in advocating for their own needs, sitting at the same table as the adults if the conversation was about them. (It was their education, after all.)
It felt so far away. I let my mind take me back there for a moment.
Flashback to another place and time...
Being part of a school start-up team was one of the most formative experiences of my career. We had the unique opportunity to build a school basically from scratch, designing every aspect of the experience to reflect what we believed to be best for our students.
The school we were building was specifically purposed to serve students with a range of disabilities-- ADHD, Autism, and other learning differences.
Instead of IEPs, students got to know themselves by creating Learner Profiles that captured their unique learning style, regulation strategies, strengths and challenges.
Instead of high-stakes standardized testing, they curated portfolios of work that they showcased at Celebration of Learning events.
Instead of stuffy formal menus of accommodations and modifications (that rarely get followed correctly), class size was small enough that teachers could truly know the students and tailor the experience to their needs.
Instead of students with differences being suspended or expelled at disproportionate rates, we designed a school-wide positive behavior support system that met students where they were and helped them acquire the skills they needed to find success in a school setting.
But, doesn’t that sound a lot like the things that would be good for ALL kids?
It doesn’t take a diagnosis to benefit from a humanizing, student-centered education.
The only trouble with the environment I just described is that it technically wasn't "inclusive" by definition. In fact, it was purposely exclusive-- a whole school built just for students with disabilities. But I wanted more kids to have access to that kind of education. I knew it was time to try scaling up and sharing it in the public school world.
As you may have noticed in the first vignette above, I was a little naive with my ambitions and clueless about what it would take to bridge the gaping canyon between education as I'd known it in my tiny bubble, and what was going on in the wider public education world.
Regardless, I still haven't given up hope and I never will. I believe education can be better and can serve all kids well.
So how do we do it?
We co-create an inclusive experience.
Let's start with some definitions. At Co-CreatED, we define inclusive a little more... well... inclusively, to be frank.
We're talking differences in any of the dimensions of identity and culture.
Because inclusive means just that: it includes everyone.
(PS: Rosetta Lee, who made that model, is awesome!)
There are three particular elements of inclusion that if approached differently, could result in radically different outcomes for our students.
Whether you lead a classroom, a school, a district, or otherwise, these tips will help you do the self-work necessary to reframe your mindset around inclusion. Change comes from within. That's not to disregard the systemic factors at play-- trust me, I rack my brain about those pieces all the time, too. I know individual change can only go so far without systemic change. But ya gotta start somewhere, and looking inward is an important first step.
TRY THESE 3 INCLUSION POWER PLAYS:
1. Want to be inclusive across ability differences?
Learn more HERE.
2. Want to be inclusive across racial/ethnic differences?
Try this activity to discover your own cultural identity:
3. Want to be inclusive across socio-economic differences?
Buy Eric Jensen's book, Engaging Students With Poverty in Mind.
You won't regret it. See:
Make no mistake: leading a classroom or a school full of widely diverse learners is Really. Hard. Work.
One teacher trying to reach students across a range of ability differences, racial/ethnic differences, socio-economic differences, and more is a BIG undertaking, not for the faint of heart. Then throw co-teaching in the mix and you get a whole other set of challenges to navigate ("you mean I have to share my classroom with another grown up?!").
At Co-CreatED, we don't believe there are easy solutions to complex challenges. Inclusion is a big deal, and we'll only improve it by combining the necessary self-work with the necessary systemic and policy work.
To continue the self-work, check out:
To get involved on a systemic level, check out:
What's been the biggest mindshift for you in making your classroom or school a more inclusive space?
Breaking down the 4 "secret ingredients" that make up a co-created education, starting with #1:
It is an empowering experience
THE 4 SECRET INGREDIENTS IN A CO-CREATED EDUCATION
At Co-CreatED, we are in relentless pursuit of making education humanizing and equitable for all students. To do that, we think there are 4 big “secret ingredients.”
A co-created education is:
These BIG FOUR are where the magic happens. They are the make-or-break difference between education that maintains the status quo and education that disrupts it for the better.
The question is, what do we mean by those 4 terms, exactly?
This week, let’s take a look at the first ingredient: empowering.
How can you tell whether a learning experience is empowering?
There are two key features to look for:
Students are empowered when their learning is student-centered, and when their learning leads to greater awareness of and action on critical social issues.
I. Empowering through a student-centered approach:
II. Empowering through critical pedagogy:
Self-assess: How many things on the list above are you already doing in your classroom? Calculate your "empowered classroom score."
Student-Centered Learning visualized! Everything exists on a spectrum, including learning. Check out these continuums, ranging from teacher-centered to learner-driven. In my experience, aiming for the happy medium on the continuum provides a developmentally appropriate balance. What do you think? (Credits: images by artist Sylvia Duckworth; content by Barbara Bray & Kathleen McClaskey)
MAKING IT PRACTICAL
While theory, conceptual understanding, and definitions are all necessary, they don't exactly paint a clear picture of practical application. This next section will shed light on what an empowered learning experience actually looks like and sounds like in action, including resources and tips that you can try out as early as tomorrow (well...except that it's July... anyway, you know what I mean!).
What does an empowering education sound like in real life?
The learning goal I set for myself this unit is to get better at trying when my work is hard instead of giving up.” said Levi.
SEE IT IN ACTION:
First off, The Teaching Channel is such an awesome resource! They have hundreds of videos showing techniques and best practices put to use in real classrooms so teachers can learn from each other. I used it all the time when I was an academic coach, and it was super helpful!
Here are 3 Teaching Channel videos that show what some of the key components of an empowered education look like.
*DOABLE* 1ST STEPS YOU COULD TAKE TODAY:
In closing, we want to hear from you:
What have you found most frustrating about trying to make your classroom more student-centered or critically-engaged?