Since starting in education, I have always had a general understanding of what inclusion means. What has been more challenging over the years however, is knowing where and how to start, in order to move from theory to practice. It’s easy to say that we must be inclusive in schools, and that we must value all learners, but how do we go beyond simply believing this? Where do we start, and how do we live by this philosophy in our day-to-day teaching?
Studying inclusive education this year has allowed me to begin answering these question. I have gained a better understanding of Social Role Valorization (SRV) theory and inclusion, as well as a better idea of how to start living by this theory. This more recent learning, combined with prior learning experiences, helped me to decide on an implementation project, one that would allow me to get my feet wet, and put into practice some of this new learning.
A few years ago I began learning more about attachment theory. I have never forgotten something that developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld shared during his presentation, Making Sense of Anxiety. He said, “We (humans) are creatures of togetherness” (personal communication, May 30, 2016). This really resonated with me, and since then, I have made sure that building positive relationships with students is always at the foundation of my teaching practice.
It is no surprise then, that I immediately liked Jennifer Katz’ Three-Block Model of Universal Design for Learning (2012), especially the first block which focuses on social and emotional learning, and “teaching to the heart” (p.28). I felt there was a strong similarity between both of their messages. I also loved Shelley Moore’s (2016) interpretation of inclusion. “Teaching to diversity and inclusion is where we value the characteristics that are diverse, and not try to homogenize them” (p. 5). I felt that her message was so in line with the purpose behind the Respecting Diversity (RD) Program from Katz’ (2012), aforementioned model. Everything was coming together!
Wolfensberger (2013) refers to the negative experiences often lived by devalued individuals or groups, as “wounds” (p. 107). Reflecting on theses various “wounds” also gave me a clearer picture of the negative experiences some of my students may be living, and I wanted to change this. I felt that Katz’ RD Program (2012) could provide an opportunity to build connections with and between students, and that it also connected to Moore’s message that we are all different, and that we should embrace and value this diversity. Finally, I hoped that it would encourage SRV for all, and allow all students to achieve ‘the good things in life’ (Race, 1999).
I feel that implementing the program helped me to achieve these goals. It also helped students to better understand themselves as well as the importance of diversity and SRV.
Although in some ways, it feels as though I have come full circle and back to my belief that building relationships with my students needs to be at the foundation of my teaching practice, what has changed is that I have added to this, the importance of fostering student-to-student connections and relationships for all students. For every student to feel valued and included, they need to have that human connection with their peers. They need to feel an attachment to their group. The RD Program definitely encouraged this.
Throughout the process, students easily built connections with peers similar to them, but they also built connections with students that were dissimilar to them, and that they could learn from. Wolfensberg (2013) explains that those belonging to a group likely to be devalued, are less likely to be devalued when they hold valued social roles. The RD Program (specifically Lesson 5/6 which focused on interdependence and valuing diversity) allowed all students to identify their strengths, their role and what they can contribute to the team.
Another powerful outcome of the program was the self-awareness and self-confidence that students gained, particularly the students with disabilities. Equally powerful was the awareness that the other students gained in regards to the specific disabilities experienced by their peers, and the empathy and support that they displayed as a result. Students spoke openly about their disabilities and the challenges that come with them, and their peers suggested ways in which they could support them with these challenges. This told me that I had successfully created an environment where students felt comfortable enough with their peers to be vulnerable and share their challenges.
A wonderful scenario played out after reading a book about autism to the class as part of the lesson on the brain and disabilities. A boy in the class with autism shared that he, like the boy in the book, is also sensitive to noise. He explained openly to his peers what this is like for him and why it makes things hard for him. Another student spoke up and said, “I could be a noise control monitor, but I am sensitive to noise too, so if I need to leave the class, someone else will have to take over for me.” Many other similar situations played out during other sharing sessions. These were music to my ears, and real evidence of the success of the program! I was continually amazed at what students were taking away from the experience and how open-minded and curious they were throughout the program.
Although completion of this project has taught me a great deal about SRV and inclusion, I still feel as though I have really just set sail on this journey from theory to practice. What has changed though, is that I have a clearer picture of where I am going and an increased confidence in how I’m going to get there!