Located in the heart of Deep Ellum, Luna is definitely not a community school–most scholars drive in from other neighborhoods, sometimes from fairly far away. As a result, our school sometimes has difficulty finding its identity in its community–it’s often referred to as “that school in Deep Ellum” because people are shocked that it exists where it does.
The neighborhood itself, though, is known as a cultural center of Dallas, with plenty of restaurants and stores for scholars to visit during off-campus lunch or merit reward trips. This gives our school a culture that is distinctly its own.
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”Kim Malone Scott
Being a man holding a lot of privilege stemming from multiple of my held identities, it is not lost on me that the community I serve is different than the one I grew up in. While I do not come from a wealthy background by any means, I did have the privilege of growing up in a way and location that did not demand me to think about issues of identity, barring class. Exposure to diverse groups of people is vital to the healthy development of youth, and failing to accommodate all of those within the community is to deny all youth of that opportunity. Issues of inequity not only damage the wellbeing of those directly afflicted–primarily black and brown folks, who make up the large majority of my student population, and those who live with cognitive, physical, and developmental disability–but also everyone who shares space with those individuals: the teachers, the other students, and other community members.
Luna is a wonderful school to work in, and it takes active effort to make it a wonderful place to learn in. That active effort includes being aware of the gaps in opportunity and knowledge that have grown within in my scholars through inhabiting an education system that was not created for them and addressing those gaps directly through the use of culturally responsive texts and evidence-based practices founded in challenge, respect, and hope.
While I developed most of my methods in a SpEd classroom, I’ve found in my further experiences that the principles of teaching remain the same. Whether it be at Harvard, with some of the brightest high school students in the world, in my online classroom, with students ranging in age from 9 to 40, or in the same classroom that I first learned what it means to be a teacher, people respond to those values. By implementing these ideas in the classroom, we achieve Radical Candor, a term coined by Kim Malone Scott in her book Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss without Losing your Humanity. While Radical Candor was originally developed as a style of managerial leadership, it speaks to the human condition in a way that asks us all to be the best version of ourselves, which I believe is the mission of education. By encouraging each student to stand up for what they want, asking them to back their values with action, and helping them define their path, we all adopt a certain lionhearted nature that drives a productive momentum.
While I firmly believe that challenge, respect, and hope are essential to an ideal learning environment, shoving my own ethics onto all classrooms uniformly (especially when I claim to have some small understanding of diversity within education) would be hypocritical and ineffective. No, as with all situations in which there is a traditionally-reinforced power dynamic, it’s vital to ensure all parties feel welcome and heard. This does not mean every person must be conceded to, every idea must be implemented; there are bad ideas. It does mean, however, that each student must be granted the opportunity to pose ideas and questions that will be fairly considered. My role, as a teacher, is not to have a monopoly on information—it is to facilitate an environment in which everyone learns from each other. While I certainly hope to have mastery over the subject area taught, the reality is that teaching, as a form of leadership, does not flow in one direction exclusively. Only by spending the time to learn from each student individually can I find out how the course material relates to their lives and how I can show them the importance and value of the content.
The Demand for Differentiation
With this in mind, accommodating all people is more difficult than offering simple words of encouragement and inspiring authentic engagement–students with learning differences often require true differentiation of instruction to be included in the learning process effectively. This is not a “nice to have”–it is a must if one wishes to be even a mediocre educator.
Using “Rachel” as an example, we can explore how a scholar with learning differences can be properly accommodated using evidence-based practices. Assume that through a few conversations with Rachel, her family, and the SpEd team, you’ve learned the following:
- Rachel, a ninth-grade scholar, has been diagnosed with a seizure disorder and hydrocephalus
- She struggles with short term memory, word problems, and certain mathematics tasks
- She has stereo blindness, which impacts her depth perception
- While she is capable of succeeding in her general education courses, she requires significant help at home to complete her homework, which often takes her much longer than intended
- Rachel comes from a Native American family, and the fatigue resulting from the stresses of the long school day can cause her health issues
- Rachel loves animals and makes $2000/year pet sitting for a local company
When deciding how to best accommodate a scholar in one’s gen ed classroom, it’s important to take the whole person into account; any small foothold one can find in adapting the work to the individual can assist the scholar in overcoming their obstacles. While incorporating a scholar’s interests into the lesson might not be differentiation rooted in the barriers specific to their learning disability, it is still a valid path to take if it results in the same outcome as the enactment of an intervention that is crafted to address their disability specifically–all roads lead to Rome.
Given that Rachel struggles with short-term memory, it is likely that she struggles in a number of other areas too–deficits tend to lean on each other. For example, if Rachel is struggling to remember the name of a character in a discussed text, the cognitive cost of speaking in class on the book is going to be higher than for one of her peers who does not have the same deficit; tasks that require unprepared speech are therefore inherently inequitable for Rachel. While we could simply waive this requirement, it is better to see if Rachel can be successful in the task in other contexts. Is her short-term memory improved if she is able to connect the content to her long-term memory? Are there notetaking strategies that can make the task more manageable? If so, it is the responsibility of the educator to make those strategies accessible to the scholar so that they can access the original content of the course–removing content because it would be too difficult to adapt is, in a way, trading one form of inequity for another (even if the other is less egregious.)
Click here for an example of some strategies proven to be effective for scholars like Rachel.
Universal Benefits of Universal Design
By accommodating scholars up front, we create lessons that benefit not only the scholars who we are explicitly adapting for, but all scholars in our classrooms. This is because when we build new tools and new ways to access content into our lessons we, whether we intend to or not, conform in some way to the Universal Design of Learning framework. This framework posits that, by planning for the margins of our classrooms, we make curriculum that is more-easily accessed by all scholars. When a tool that is developed for a scholar who requires kinesthetic input is incorporated naturally into the classroom, for example, all scholars who are more receptive to that input can benefit.
While Rachel is an exceptional scholar, there are many like her in many classrooms–most schools. Any educator worth their weight in textbooks owes it to their entire scholastic body to differentiate according to the principles of UDL and live by the values of hope, challenge, and respect.