Friday, January 11, 2013

Inclusion? What is inclusion?

A week or two ago I read a powerful post in a blog I subscribe to, KARE Givers, written by Sean Grainger, a teacher from Red Deer, Alberta.  Sean's recent post titled WHY EMPATHY caused me to reflect on what an inclusive education might look like in a school district.

Personally, I am a strong believer in striving to ensure our system is an inclusive school system.  I want my children, and their children one day, to thrive in an inclusive community.  I like where we are going, and to realize that reality I think we need to ensure our schools start kids off learning how to thrive within an inclusive school system.

I found it appealing in Sean's post how he helped weave together the different types of fabric that represent all of our students.  I think the case could be made that there is no normal anymore, is there?  Our students come from such diverse home backgrounds, and and bring so many unique qualities  whether they are FNMI students, have physical or cognitive issues, are gifted, etc.  My belief about inclusion is that it is a culture that embraces the goal of ensuring every student recognizes they BELONG exactly where they are when at school, and that our schools will do all they can to learn their needs and accommodate them to ensure  they have the most success possible.

As an example, several years ago when I was a vice principal and we used to convert our tests to audio cassette tape to support students with academic challenges, and it was hard work to convince students there was no need to feel self conscious when using the tapes.  Who wants to be different, even if we need it?  I shared that I chose to use audio books for a similar purpose, and I would share my experiences as a student with a 50% hearing loss who struggled to accept supports that could perhaps have helped me achieve more in school.  With our students then, we would talk at length about how each of us was different, and identify the MANY differences we all could have.  Based on that, wouldn't it be a shame if we didn't take advantage of those supports available to us?  When an advantage presents itself, it is our responsibility to take advantage of it.

At that time, we had an OUTSTANDING resource teacher (Tina, wherever you are these days I hope you are well!) and we had tremendous willingness to of our students to accept those supports.  It remains a source of pride that 'non-coded' students at that time would request the audio tapes as well.  Why not?  If it is good for one, couldn't it be good for all?  It was during that time, and in those conversations with staff and students, that my personal vision of inclusion began to be formed, long before Action on Inclusion kicked in.  Looking back I see, as Sean shared, the important role empathy would play in realizing that vision!

I'm a fan of consciously addressing empathy, and emotional intelligence, in our schools.  That was at the core of our vision at DTPS when I was principal.  Understanding emotions, and the role they play in building personal and community success, is effective at helping kids and parents understand how a school can be more effective for everyone in it.  Not everyone will show up at our schools having mastered empathy, but I believe they understand it at a foundational level and everyone has the capacity to develop it.  It is worthy of spending the time in our schools focusing on building empathy and helping people to manage/control their emotions..  As I continue to reflect on the heels of the recent school shooting tragedy in Newtown CN, and in the challenges faced by an increasingly divergent society, perhaps empathy needs to be explicitly identified as a key element at the core of our overall inclusive district vision?

From Sean's blog:  

A balance is struck in culturally diverse schools when students realize that being different isn’t a quality reserved for others, but rather a state that describes each one of them. 

Well put Sean.  Everyone is different, somehow, and is therefore deserving of understanding and empathy.  As a precursor, we have to first help students build deep understanding of themselves, and how they behave, make decisions, etc.  Once they understand themselves fully, I believe it will be easier for them to understand others and then to recognize the differences, some subtle and some more visible, and be empathetic.

I believe there is a strong connection between empathy and emotional intelligence.  I believe we need to talk about these as essential competencies/traits our students need, and I think perhaps we start here on our path to inclusion instead of focusing solely on the strategies to support those who are perceived to most need to be included.  

In summary, it is not just 'those students' that need inclusion.  We all need inclusion.   To be the best it can be, our society needs inclusion.


Music At Ancaster Meadow School said...

I just loved your blog post! Last year, I had two students with autism in my class, and over the year, we spent lots of time talking about equity versus equality. Students learned that they all need something different to do their best, and that the inclusive classroom allows for all students to have what they need. Not only did students (even mine as young as Grade 1) start to advocate for what they need, but they supported their peers as well. It was such a wonderful community, and one that I'm always striving to build in a classroom. I'll be sharing this blog post of yours for sure. I think that this is one that others should read too.

What would you suggest we do first to help create this inclusive classroom environment? How can students best start to learn about what they need?


Alexander (Sandy) McDonald said...

Thanks for the powerful comment Aviva! The idea of students advocating for what they need is a key indicator they are learning about themselves and others, isn't it?

To create an inclusive classroom environment, where students can effectively start learning about what they need, I wonder if we need to build their emotional intelligence as a first step?

When young students have the ability to consistently manage their emotions and make choices that support them later, instead of now, I think they have a foundation on which they can then begin advocating for their unique needs.