More than a buzz word, inclusion is a moral and ethical cornerstone of any healthy environment, including schools and classrooms. As educators, we strive to create and sustain a feeling of welcome for students and staff. In fact, AMLE includes as a key characteristic of successful schools that they provide an environment that is “welcoming, inclusive, and affirming for all.” We know that middle school students are developing through a critical time in their lives as they begin to think about the change agents they are and will become.
Schools that are rooted in the principles of inclusion see it as integral to their mission, vision, and values. These schools have embedded inclusion in their core documents and are dedicated to putting theory into practice. For example, at the Vientiane International School where Megan teachers, the inclusion statement reads:
“Inclusion is a commitment to welcome, embrace, value, and educate a diverse range of learners. We believe diversity enriches our community and creates a learning environment that reflects the natural complexity of our world. Inclusion fosters opportunities for all members of our community to grow and thrive.” (vislao.com)
However, for inclusion to be truly embraced at all levels of an institution the ideas must live and breathe or else they become paid lip service only. This is not simply the imperative of the individual teacher but is a community responsibility that is really a co-construction between administration, teachers, students, families, and other constituents.
What is Inclusion
Cobb and Crownapple in their book, Belonging Through a Culture of Dignity: The Keys to Successful Equity Implementation, define inclusion as “engagement within a community where the equal worth and inherent dignity of each person is honored. An inclusive community promotes and sustains a sense of belonging; it affirms the talents, beliefs, backgrounds, and ways of living of its members.” Inclusion can be applied to students with diverse abilities, students who are neurodivergent, as well as students whose lived experiences intersect with a range of ethnic, racial, gender, linguistic, sexual, and religious/spiritual identities.
What are the ingredients of an environment like this?
We believe there are four key components that must be present for an environment to be truly inclusive.
- Spaces where voices are heard and valued.
These include student voices, parent voices, teacher voices, and community activist voices. In her article, “Language Contexts: Neurodiversity in Schools,” Kristen Pelletier writes, “Working closely with parents, listening actively, compassionately, and responding with humanity and humility is a foundational tenet of true inclusion which serves students well.” Attempting to do inclusive work alone defeats the purpose and fails to capture the essence of what it means to be welcoming. What’s more, listening is a first step as administrators and educators attempt to hear a multitude of perspectives, including those of families. Only then can understanding be fostered.
In Jason’s classroom, this begins with a critical commitment to kindness as a primary expectation. This is a practice we wish to embody in our classrooms, modeling humanity and compassion for our students.
Megan seeks to value student voices in her classroom, and to give students opportunities to share their unique viewpoints and truths with each other. One way to do this is through regular structured discussions, such as the Harkness Method, which allows for the creation of a student inquiry circle of “Power and Respect”, and an “Inclusive, Sacred Space.”
- Spaces where critical dialogue can occur without fear.
Part of what it means to be a listening and understanding community also includes a willingness to engage in critical dialogue. This idea of criticality is essential and has been the subject of literacy research for decades. Bound up in the notion of critical dialogue is the willingness to go beyond hearing and be challenged in our thinking. As educators and teacher leaders, we can then embody this kind of process for our students, including admitting that we perhaps did not have all of the information, that our initial perspectives are open to revision, and that the policies we make can benefit from insights gathered through listening and reflecting.
Schools where critical dialogue can occur are places where the discomfort of disagreement can be embraced. Disagreements are framed outside of a win/lose paradigm and instead focused as a community on exploring multiple perspectives. Harvard’s Project Zero has developed several thinking routines devoted to perspective taking. The one that Megan likes best is called “Step In-Step Out-Step Back.” In this routine, students develop empathy by “stepping into” someone else’s shoes and considering what the world might look like from that person’s perspective. This routine is especially powerful for considering how people from marginalized or minority groups might feel in different situations. It also allows for stereotypes to be uncovered and examined. By actively engaging in routines such as this, an inclusive mindset can be cultivated amongst students.
- Classrooms where a variety of experiences are represented.
Perspectives and dialogue are part of inclusivity, how representation occurs can also be critically considered. From books to assessments to curriculum to public artwork, inclusivity begins with conversation and then becomes actions.
For example, in Megan’s school student work is displayed on the walls in many languages. Students are encouraged to write not only in English but in their mother tongues too. There are Safe Space signs to show allyship to members of the LGBTQ community. There are posters celebrating influential women in history. And so on. Public artwork is one way to visibly demonstrate a commitment to inclusivity. But, of course, it is so much more than just that.
The classroom is only one microcosm of a much larger organism. All places should be safe places. By reconsidering the voices that are heard in school and classroom practices, educators can work with stakeholders, including students, to ensure that a variety of experiences are represented in daily aspects of school life – and that these representations are authentic and respectful. Learning for Justice’s standards recommend that, “students examine diversity in social, cultural, political and historical contexts rather than in ways that are superficial or oversimplified.” Not all representations are created equal, and being critical consumers and active thinkers means (re)considering the ways ideas are expressed.
- Schools where collaboration occurs and staff are onboard with fostering a restorative and strong community.
Expanding from the classroom, we note that the result of inclusive work is not only found in carved-out spaces for students and staff. Rather, the ideal is that this sense of welcome and commitment to inclusivity permeates the entire school. This can often mean embracing new frameworks and initiatives. In Megan’s school this is evidenced in a recent school wide commitment to Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Schools that implement UDL understand that each child is an individual, and that one size fits all classroom approaches are not sustainable. According to the International Disability Alliance, “UDL can support teachers in changing the ways in which they view learners who struggle with learning or learners who learn “differently.”
In this article, we have touched on some ways that an inclusive environment can be nurtured in schools. However, this list is not exhaustive. The path to inclusion is not linear. Inclusion requires a critical examination of the traditional structures underpinning schools, and it will not be achieved without focused, systemic change and a multi pronged approach.
We hope that this article has given you some ideas for how you can promote inclusion in your own organizational context. And, perhaps, we have also sparked some wonderings and questions about next steps. Let us know what you think in the comments section below!
Megan Vosk and Jason DeHart are both members of the AMLE Teacher Leaders Committee.
Jason D. DeHart, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Reading Education and Special Education at Appalachian State University. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonDDeHart1 or he can be reached at email@example.com.