This past week I received an email from the Special Education Council of the ATA inviting me to participate in the Blue Ribbon Panel on Inclusive Education. They are asking for stories from teachers around the province about how inclusion is working in their schools and classrooms.
I have spent several days pondering how I could respond to that question. After all, is a pull-in program inclusive? Given the highly diverse population that I am working with, trying to find ways to support all of their needs even in a congregated setting has its challenges. Am I meeting their learning needs? The programming that I provide has been designed with the needs of gifted learners in mind, it offers considerable choice, challenges and opportunities to explore their strengths as well as addressing the social/emotional piece. Am I meeting their learning needs? I see them eight days a year and during that time I work to build relationships. I help them grow the virtues like flexibility, cooperation, self-discipline, tact, trust, trustworthiness, orderliness, courtesy, perseverance, unity and more as I guide them through creative problem solving exercises. I try to get to know them as unique individuals with something to offer. Am I meeting their learning needs? After all the work that I’ve done researching, planning and trying to get to know and respond to each learner, I have to trust that I am. But still, every year, a few students drop out of the program.
I have also had the opportunity to work with many teachers in the district in developing IPP (Individual Program Plan) goals and strategies for working with their gifted students in their classrooms. The tension between creating specific (SMART) goals and creating learning environments in which gifted students don’t feel singled out has been an interesting one to navigate for all of us. The challenge of accelerating and allowing for flexible pacing in a classroom where some students are struggling to keep up can feel daunting. The struggle to enrich in a meaningful way when students are feeling disenchanted or disengaged can feel futile. Are we meeting their learning needs? We put strategies and goals in place and trust that we are making a difference. Last week I got four high fives and two calls for help.
Beyond curricular outcomes, learning strategies and measuring outcomes, there is a much bigger question than “Is Inclusion Working?” I think it sounds something like this: “Is it possible to create an educational system that works for all students?” I could add up the numbers each year, like how many students dropped out of the pull-in program vs how many stayed in? Or how many IPP goals did we meet successfully? I could work out the percentages to prove my case one way or the other. But I sense that there are going to be a lot of variables that will change each year and cause us to re-evaluate how we are approaching inclusion, notwithstanding the number and variety of coded students who arrive on our doorstep each year.
So how do I answer the question, is inclusion working? I guess I have to look at how I have changed as a teacher. What I’ve learned from this diverse group of students who come to me with all their unique needs. What it’s made me learn about teaching, curriculum and learning. How it has changed my practice. If John Hattie is correct and that 30% of student success is based on who I am as a teacher, then that is definitely the place that I’m going to need to start.
John Hattie’s seminal work in the meta-analysis, Visible Learning, pulled together what we have learned about learning through educational research over the past few decades. His article Teachers Make a Difference is a great read and provides some excellent food for thought as we move forward with inclusion. And the good news? We will have the opportunity to learn more from him when he visits our district this coming August.