Pursuing Educational Equity for Our Students
"Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better." I have always loved this Maya Angelou quote. There have been times in my life when I felt unsure, embarrassed or ashamed of my actions or beliefs, until I remember her comforting and inspirational words. They challenge me to do better, to be better.
The institute included an impressive lineup of remarkable students, educators and parents who shared their passion for full inclusion of all students with disabilities. Dan Habib spoke about his experience with his son Samuel and I thought of my own children. Jonathan Mooney spoke about his experiences in typical classrooms and I thought of the students who sit in front of me each day. I was impressed with so many of the presenters who spoke of their own experiences with special education, but it was the presentation by Jenna Mancini Rufo that really sparked my thinking. She asked us to consider a few questions about educational equity. Are we OK with segregating students by race? By gender? By religion? If we are uncomfortable with these questions, and we know from research and history that separate is inherently unequal, then why are we still segregating students by disability, ability or IQ scores?
Inclusion isn’t just an education issue. It is a civil rights issue. This is about educational equity. Rufo’s questions made me realize that, with all my experience in special education and years of curriculum work in human rights, I had overlooked students with disabilities who are segregated in schools.
When I started as a special education inclusion teacher 22 years ago, I helped students with learning disabilities complete the tasks assigned to the whole class. Years later, I landed in a district in which human rights education and educational equity was a priority and it became a personal and professional passion. I developed new curriculum for my classroom, engaged in and led professional development opportunities, and eventually co-authored Rock Your World—a free web-based human rights curriculum. I am now co-teaching English with a wonderful special educator. We attended the Syracuse Institute this summer with a cohort from our district. Those three days transformed my thinking about special education and provided a moment of clarity that married my history as a special education teacher and my passion for human rights education.
Inclusion, as I have seen it, is for students with learning disabilities, speech impairments or students with other health impairments that could be easily managed within a classroom of one or two teachers. Students with more severe disabilities were down the hall in self-contained classes, sent to district programs or to specialized private schools. I started to question why. Why are we not providing students with disabilities access to education that we provide to all of their typical peers? Why are we not offering more special education services within the general classes? The only reason I could come up with is: Well, we’ve always done it this way. That is not good enough.
Until this summer, two words always came to mind when thinking about special education: adaptation and modification. Curriculum planning was always for the general population, then we carefully and thoughtfully made adjustments for our learning-disabled population. Initially, we build steps for the general population; then a wheelchair ramp is added later, as needed—an afterthought.
Now, the word I am thinking about is access. What I learned was that by making access the priority, everyone could benefit and far fewer students need to be segregated. Special education is not about making adaptations, it is about providing access. I am trying to think proactively in planning, side by side with my special education co-teacher, rebuilding lessons with scaffolds and structures in place at the start. Instead of modifying existing assignments to make it easier for students with learning disabilities, I need to rebuild lessons with multiple access points so that everyone has what they need to succeed. It may seem obvious. It is a subtle shift in my thinking; however it has been a game-changer for my students, my co-teacher and me. I am working on building steps with the ramps embedded from the start.
Though I am sure it exists, I haven’t seen fully inclusive schools/classrooms in my 20 years of teaching in five different states. We need to start believing the extensive research that all students are successful together, and provide everyone with the same education rights we offer our “typical” and “gifted” students.
I challenge you to read and learn the achievements of Zach Anner, Jonathan Mooney and Mikah Fialka-Feldman and not wonder what other students with disabilities, who have been segregated in the past, might have within them when they are given the same access to education and services that all of our “typical” students receive.
Teachers want to do the right thing, and we know how. What gets in our way is often the requirements of our jobs that come from state, administration and other outside forces. We do have control over a small part of the world that is our classroom. We can think about access for every student.
I am working on this and have a lot to learn. But now, I know a little more than I did before, and I am working hard to do better in my classroom.
Educational Equity Resources
- A great article written by Julie Causton and George Theoharis, the leaders of the Syracuse Institute, in which they make the case for full inclusion clear and indisputable.
- If at Birth You Don’t Succeed by Zach Anner. Anner’s memoir will have you laughing out loud and thinking in new ways.
- A thought-provoking Ted Talk by Dan Habib about inclusive education.
- 30 Days to the Co-Taught Classroom, by Julie Causton and Paula Kluth is a step-by-step guide to making co-teaching more effective and more fun.
- Strategies for Presuming Competence, by Douglas Biklen. A one-page PDF that reminds me to assume that all students can learn together.
- A few motivational reminders from the notebook I used at the Syracuse Institute this summer:
Here are some educational equity resources I plan to access in the near future:
- The resources of Kids Included Together, an organization that “helps others meaningfully include kids with disabilities through inclusion training, policy development, and sharing our best-practices information and research.”
- This article and this article by Celia Oyler that discuss full inclusion as a democratic responsibility.
- Dan Habib’s full-length film Intelligent Lives, coming soon in 2018. A preview of the film can be found here after entering an email address to receive information.
If you know of other resources, please share in the comment section of this post!
Carolyn Shilinski is a middle level educator with two decades of experience working in public schools from New York to Hawaii. She is certified in special education, literacy and English, and has held positions in all three areas. Additionally, she has co-authored the Rock Your World curriculum, presented at national conventions of the National Council of Teachers of English, led numerous professional development workshops, and consulted for nonprofit organizations, including Creative Visions and KidsRights. She is currently co-teaching seventh- and eighth-grade English in Westchester County, N.Y., where she strives to know better and do better.
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