- [A very old chapter I wrote circa 2009 during my fourth year of teaching for a book that never got published on Inclusive Education.] Revised in red (by me) 10 years later.
By Kass Minor, circa 2009
The question rose from the productive din of the classroom: “Miss, is this a special ed class?” The buzz of the classroom immediately stopped, and snickers arose from the discomfort felt in the classroom. “Yeah, are we in “the ED?!” blurted one of the boys in the back. For one second, I froze, remembering the horror brought on in one of my colleague’s classrooms after that same question was asked, and was answered with a “Yes.” Tales of the riots that ensued from those outraged seventh graders still linger in my school. I knew I needed to handle my answer with finesse, and I knew I didn’t want to lie. “Shut up, I’m serious!” yelled the same student who initially asked the question. “I know I have an IEP, but I don’t know what it is.” With all eyes on me [I am 23 years old in this vignette], my mind raced in a search for the best way to respond to what had quickly become a class-wide inquiry. I took a deep breath and calmly explained, “Different types of learners doesn’t mean “dumb” and “smart”. It means different ways of presenting information and different ways of doing assignments.”
The reality was that we were all, in fact, sitting in a special education tenth grade ICT class with all different types of learners, and the reason two teachers were in the class was to adequately identify and meet the needs of all learners. While that may be obvious to special educators, there are two things that seem to drive students’ understanding of themselves as learners: 1) how their peers feel about them and 2) how they feel about themselves [I’m sure I added “two things” for crafting an appeal, but yikes, I excluded SO. MANY. FACTORS. Namely, how narratives about who kids are are woven by structures, systems, families, and particularly teachers. I do not absolve myself]. At one point or another, most special educators have shared my experience described above. In the beginning of my career as a special education teacher in one of New York City’s Public Schools in Brooklyn, I found many of my students in complete denial of the fact they had an IEP., desperately trying to hide that there was anything “special” about them. As a secondary special educator, I found myself tip-toeing around the fact that I, too, was indeed “special” [Ten years later, not much has changed about the internalized hierarchies between general educators and special educators. Still, that co-existence is mirrored in schools]. As I gained more experience, I found the less I tip-toed, and the more I kept it real, students followed suit and began to take ownership of their learning disabilities. However, coming to terms with their learning identity and advocating for themselves was no easy task.
All of the students with IEP’s that I teach are enrolled in inclusive classrooms, Specifically, high school Integrated Co-teaching classes taught by myself and a general educator. Most people would never be able to tell the difference between an ICT classroom and a general education classroom. However, students seem to be able to smell the difference, and their reactions are not always so positive. Although the United States has come a long way since Willowbrook,* and the closet-special education classrooms of the past, we cannot deny there is still a strong social stigma that circles around the title of “special education” for our students with IEP’s. From the mildest case of dyslexia to the most severe case of ADHD, students in inclusive classrooms still feel anxiety from the ugliness of being called “retarded” by their peers, or hearing from their best friends that they are about to be sent to “The Ed”*.
The social stigma of special education impacts the ability for students to learn, and in order to counter that impact, educators must help them become aware of their learning identity and advocate for themselves. When students feel threatened by their peers socially, their academic awareness and success is immediately stymied. In inclusive classrooms [Here, I would say a lot more about all the iterations the terms “inclusive” and “inclusion” has gone through since. What began as a way to include folx with dis/ability, has sharpened and expanded rapidly to include all members of various groups, particularly those who have been marginalized and oppressed], students who have IEPs are often stigmatized from their sans-IEP peers, or from their warped understanding of what special education actually is. Part of fostering learning identity with our students means lifting that stigma from our classrooms. [In NYC, and many other spaces across the U.S., intersections of race and ability desperately need to be interrogated and acted upon. Stigma is entrenched, and special education is a covert trope used for communities to get away with structural AND interpersonal racism. See future post I write in 2019 called “Black Boys and White Educators” grappling with this issue].
When I am in the process of lifting that stigma and creating a more positive classroom community, I always try to remember the premise for inclusive education, which is that all means all. Translation: every child in the classroom, regardless of their learning style, learning ability, or temperament can learn and will learn, but educators must find the proper means to do that, working towards their own awareness of implicit biases, philosophies, and beliefs, moving towards a direction of cultural responsiveness. As classrooms become more and more varied due to everything from funding constraints to idealism, the learning spectrum within the classroom is pushed wider and wider. Now, more than ever, the urgency to empower [I would use “Equip” instead. The term “empower” implies saviour-complex] our students to feel positive about themselves and master their learning identity is imperative.
Surprisingly, it was not a professor, textbook, or educational institution that taught me about the importance of lifting social stigmas, learning identity, and self-advocacy-it was one of my students. [What I am talking about here is anti-racist pedagogy. I did not have language for it then. Also, that idea that a student has all the answers to our problems is absolutely UNsurprising to me now].
Angel and I met in a ninth grade ICT Life Science class four years ago. She was a special education student, and I was a special education teacher. It was her first year of high school, and it was my first year of teaching. Needless to say, the beginning of our student-teacher relationship was not always glamorous. Angel was a social butterfly. She was pretty, she was popular, and she was defiant. To her, school was all about socializing with her friends, and had little to do with academics or actually learning anything. I remember our first one-on-one encounter- it was at the very beginning of the school year in the science lab, and Angel was eating a bag of chips! Me, doing my best to fulfill the feisty-first-year teacher role, firmly demanded that she stop eating her Fritos and get back to her lab. She ignored me. I less firmly and more angrily demanded that she get rid of her Fritos. She flat-out refused. Dutifully following our school’s disciplinary process, I decided to *process Angel. [I’m horrified by my actions here. Through this action, I’m very much subjugating and stifling my student’s will to express themself, AND harping about a basic biological need. Ugh. The awful things we commit to when we try to fulfill the idea of “supposed to.”A few years later, I co-created classroom bio-needs with my students, and they were allowed to do the things humans do in class, like snack and drink water]. When I began to fill out the bright pink slip, Angel finally gave in. We had a long talk in the hallway, which would be the first of many, many conversations Angel and I would have about her role as a learner in the classroom.
It was clear from that very first conversation that Angel was an incredible communicator. From our mutual strength as good communicators, Angel and I were able to forge a student to teacher learning relationship for the next four years that would set the example for what, in my mind, student to teacher relationships should could be [I use the word should sparingly these days]. She helped me to understand what it takes to create a positive learning identity and to speak up for herself while growing up as a special education student in New York City’s Public School system. Not only did she help me understand what it takes in order to do that, she helped me understand why it was important. In return, I helped her understand that perseverance was key in fighting her academic struggles, and that she herself was the best person to articulate her needs clearly in order for people to know exactly how to teach her. The process was certainly not easy, and in no way did it go quickly.
The process of Angel becoming aware of her learning identity began way back in her fifth grade year, when her parents forced her to go to her first IEP meeting with them. She had incredibly involved, proactive parents who always insisted that Angel attend every single IEP meeting between her teachers and school psychologists. In fact, it was Angel’s parents who first recommended that Angel be evaluated because of their concern with her slow reading progress. Angel began her experience in special education with SETSS and counseling, and later evaluations recommended a more restrictive setting in Integrated Co-Teaching classes combined with counseling upon entering high school. Angel I have never talked in depth about her learning experiences in fifth grade or middle school [I really wish I had spoken to her parents because after teaching elementary school after my HS years, I know that the bulk of trauma around stigma and special education is birthed around 3rd and 4th grade] , but I do know that Angel has never hesitated to tell me that she is a “struggling reader” or a horrible speller.
In fact, there was never much hesitation at all from Angel. In ninth grade, after that first hallway conversation, Angel wasn’t exactly cooperative, but she was usually willing to try new things to help her learning. To combat Angel’s hyperactivity and reading struggles, [I also don’t use “struggle” to describe what kids are or are not doing when reading. That term does not help us know how to teach children to read]. I constantly assigned her a peer tutor, moved her seat around (always next to the quiet kids) [I probably wouldn’t have made that choice later in my teaching life. We know that being quiet doesn’t mean you’re doing better, or that you are some kind of model learner for louder kids to emulate], and gave her constant praise. While those actions helped, they only proved to be a temporary fix [ACK! Nothing about a child needs to be “fixed”. Now, I would say something like a temporary salve]. I couldn’t help but notice the mild sadness that exuded from Angel in my classroom, but never in the hallway or at lunch or at the school yard. I could tell that reading struggles was a constant frustration for her, and that her apathy towards learning shown at the beginning of the school year was growing.
Like most [All kids with IEPs are smart. Usually, the way we serve them is the thing that’s not smart] students with an IEP, Angel was incredibly smart-she just couldn’t access information in the same way her peers could. Angel always had an innate sense of her learning identity, but in those very ripe years of coming to terms with what it entailed, she mostly only included the negative aspects of her learning ability, and failed to recognize what she could do. I remember a moment when I was working with Angel on assignment one-on-one during class. She was growing incredibly frustrated, and was ready to give up. She obviously needed a little TLC, so I asked her what was going through her head. She said:
I’m always trying not to give up. My fear of getting stuff wrong affects my giving up. People think you’re slow when you’re getting stuff wrong. I’m surrounded by smart kids, and I don’t want to be the weird one.
At 14 years old, Angel may have been comfortable talking about her learning disability, but that didn’t necessarily mean she was comfortable having a learning disability. If Angel was going to gain any academic success, I knew she had to stop feeling like “the weird one.”
Angel could find common ground with her peers in every other facet of school except for the classroom. As an educator, one of my favorite ways to solve problems with my colleagues is to share information [SAME!]. Because this was my first year of teaching, I was basically trying everything, so I thought, Why not try to solve Angel’s apathy towards learning by sharing some new information with her? I thought I would help her find a common link to her peers in the classroom.
In the middle of her ninth grade year, we had another serious conversation. This time, I framed it as more of a “heart-to-heart”. I asked her, “Did you know that you are not the only student with an IEP in the ninth grade class?” Her eyes grew wide. “In fact, in our Science class, there are ten other students with IEPs.” She replied, “I didn’t know that. I never knew that.” I asked her if she thought those students were aware of the fact they had an I.E.P She quickly replied, “no”, and when later asked if she thought if it would be a good idea for her fellow peers to gain awareness of what their learning issues were she said, “Yeah, because they would realize it, and then try to fix it.” While Angel could have been sincerely recommending that her friends become more academically aware, I believe her statement may be more indicative of the way kids perceive their learning disability: rather than learning how to deal with it, they want to learn how to fix it. To them, their I.E.P. represents something that is broken, that in some point in time is supposed to get fixed. Unfortunately, this is the deficit model upon which special education is based, and it was from their that Angel had to find a way to associate positivity to the way she learned.
At this point in time in her ninth grade year, Angel wasn’t necessarily jumping up and down knowing that she would be working with her learning disability for the rest of her life, but I certainly noticed a marked change in her attitude towards classroom learning. Throughout the rest of her high school career, she felt less isolated in her classes knowing that she wasn’t the only one who didn’t always understand what was going on. I think a little bit of the stigma Angel felt from having a learning disability was lifted from her shoulders, and she felt like she was sharing something with the rest of her peers who had similar issues. It was a turning point in her learning life, and the negative associations she had with her learning disability slowly began to dissolve.
Because the school in Brooklyn that Angel attended was a very small Neighborhood School, it was no surprise that I would be teaching Angel again in her tenth grade year. This time, I was the special educator in her tenth grade ICT Global History class. This is the same class that was described in the vignette at the very beginning of this chapter. While this class was extremely difficult, I have incredibly fond memories of them. I remember after that terrifying “Is this a special education class” question was posed, and was answered coherently (somewhat) by me, my students seemed to be mollified by my answer. While my mind raced and my body tried to remain poised, and the rest of the class sat in unruly anticipation, Angel was barely phased by such a rudimentary question. At that point, I noticed that Angel was miles ahead of her peers in terms of acceptance with special education. Researchers might say that her acceptance was mutually exclusive from the conversations that we shared, but I would argue that it was completely valid. Angel was accepting of her IEP and being in special education because she openly talked about it with her parents and someone she trusted, and she knew she was not the only kid in her school that had trouble reading. After she [was able to unpack]
accepted her IEP and special education , in the tenth grade, she moved on to articulating her learning identity. She warded off the negative associations towards special education that many of her peers still struggled with [by acquiring language to describe her needs].
In that second year of Angel’s high school career, we actively worked on her ability to define her learning identity together. We met often, and I learned so much from those conversations. In the beginning of her tenth grade year, after a homework help session, she was still having some problems understanding how to complete one of her history projects. I was running out of ideas of how to help her, and at that moment, I thought Angel was probably the best person to help me, so I asked, “What does your learning identity look like? If I were to stand in your shoes, and have to write a research paper and learn all this crazy stuff, what would it feel like or look like? Try to describe it for me.” Angel did not hesitate to respond, and said:
In reading, it’s hard for me to say and understand words. Once I understand it, sometimes I forget it and that’s frustrating. Trying to say it and trying to understand what it means. Trying to remember what words mean. Writing, spelling is very, very hard. I forget stuff very fast. And like especially I just stop because I feel retarded after a while. They put so many things in my head. And once I remember it, I get new information. The new information gets pushed out. Then it’s hard for me to make sense.
I remember being impressed, even a little shocked after listening to Angel so effortlessly tell me what being in her learning shoes was like. That small snippet of information alone told me more than any reading evaluation she had ever done. [Nowadays, interviewing kids is standard practice for any work I do with school communities. I had forgotten about this experience]. I was excited that I had more insight in terms of what I could do for her as her educator, but I was also concerned with the part where she says, “I just stop because I feel retarded after a while.” That’s the ugliness that comes from the stigma of special education that I was speaking about before. Even though Angel knows she’s not the only student with an IEP, it doesn’t necessarily stop the frustration from the constant struggle of reading and understanding texts. Angel felt “retarded” because she stopped understanding the material, and I really wanted that negative feeling to vanish from Angel’s mindset. I knew that in order to make any headway in developing an accurate learning identity for Angel that could be used as a tool for bettering her education, [I would change how I said this. Kids aren’t responsible for making their education better, but supporting their developed sense of learner identity can equip them with what they need to navigate oppressive structures, and people, in schools.] she had to be fully comfortable with the way in which she learned-even if took longer, looked different, or was a little frustrating.
In this second year with Angel, our relationship grew. She began to trust me, and she became increasingly open with me during our after school homework help sessions. Moreover, she started following directions, listening, and participating in my class. While her progress may have been tied to the trust that was building between us, I believe some of that active participation in class was a direct result of our conversations about Angel’s learning identity. The more Angel and I talked about how she learned, what activities she liked, and what teaching styles worked best for her, the more I understood about what kinds of lessons, activities, and accommodations she needed. Also, let me mention that these after-school homework help sessions were at first completely necessary for Angel to obtain credit for the class, but by mid-year, they were more of an excuse for Angel and I to learn from each other. In many ways, Angel was my saving grace when times got tough for me in my early teacher-hood. There were some days that I felt like no learning was happening anywhere-those were the days in my second year of teaching when I felt like walking out and pursuing a bohemian lifestyle. Angel always reminded me that I was capable of teaching, and that at least one student was learning in my classroom.
Most of the mutual learning that happened between us came from casual conversations about Angel’s classes [Our most powerful learning experiences come from organic connections. I’m always seeking to create an organic platform for authentic learning in school communities I’m working in]. I would ask her what kinds of things were going well for her in her classes, and then I would strategically use those same methods in my own classes. For example, when I asked her, “What kind of things have teachers shown you are taught you to make learning easier?” She animatedly replied:
Teachers let me stay upstairs with them for lunch and helped me understand the homework or class work for that day or let me stay an hour or more after school to help me with projects or work I didn’t understand.
I knew this much already, but she continued:
A teacher acted like she was the student and I had to explain to her what I learned that day and if I didn’t understand a lot she would teach me it and then I would teach it to her again. One teacher taught me by basing it on something I liked. And some will help by giving me the answer but not the whole answer. Like, “say you put the black sky equals the mood h is in.” I would have to look in the book and find something that sounded similar to what she said.
Angel had no problem identifying what kinds of teaching strategies she experienced throughout the day-as long as they worked for her. There were some days when she didn’t have much to say, and I could tell those were the days that were especially frustrating for her. While role-playing and scaffolding are certainly not surprise teaching techniques, the point of Angel’s response is that she was able to inform me, her teacher, as to what strategies worked best for her. There are about a billion ways to teach students literary symbolism, but none of them count if your student doesn’t understand or retain the information you are trying to give them. The importance of students being comfortable with their learning identity and articulating it is exemplified here: Angel knows how she learns, she tells her teacher, the teacher uses that method, and consequently, Angel learns more.
So, there were a couple of things that changed Angel’s academic world that year. She stopped feeling “retarded”, and she started to gain acceptance that her learning disability wasn’t the most horrible thing in the world. We started referring to her learning disability as her “learning identity”, which doesn’t mean that we hid the fact that she struggled, but it does mean that Angel took ownership of her disability. In fact, Angel began to take pride at being able to define who she was as a learner. Although Angel showed signs of learning pride, it still did not eliminate the hardships she would face in the future.
Angel and I met again during her junior year in an ICT English and Language Arts class. For the third year in a row, I was Angel’s teacher. I was the special educator team-teaching with a general educator. I would say that Angel’s eleventh grade year was definitely her most challenging, as it is for many students with special needs. At our school, there is a special focus on *Performance Based Assessments (PBAs). Essentially, PBAs are research papers that take place of state testing, presented in front of a panel of teachers and peers. PBAs are hard. In addition, they are a graduation requirement. They require all the necessary pre-college reading and writing skills, and there are no short cuts. It’s a snapshot of college: Strong thesis. Strong, research-based support. Strong, articulated answers. Long, long hours spent on a creatively produced power point. Although there is a modified rubric for IEP students, it the rubric still maintains strict guidelines, and if students don’t understand their research fully, the PBA is almost impossible to pass.
In our ELA class, my co-teacher and I had an incredibly rad curriculum planned. The content of the class, (like most ICT classes in our school) was the brainchild of my co-teacher. However, we met constantly to adapt the curriculum to make it flourish and work for all of our students. The theme: Dystopian literature. The goal: All students were to compose a 6-8 page comparative literature essay by the end of the semester. We were met with extreme reactions from our students. Basically, they either loved M.T. Anderson’s Feed or they hated it. They thought Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron was the most amazing, creative short story they ever laid eyes on, or the silliest compilation of sentences ever written. Unfortunately, Angel hated almost every piece of literature presented to her in that class. [I would definitely consider a different text selection to be more reflective of our students]
By this point in time, I had three years of teaching experience under my belt. And while that certainly doesn’t make me an expert, I think we can all agree that when a student says they don’t like something in our class or that they “hate” it, that means they are confused and don’t understand it. [ACK! what a bold claim I make here. There are about a billion reasons kids say they “Hate” what they are learning, and it definitely doesn’t mean they don’t understand it. I’m doing that whole ladder of inference thing here]. Dystopian literature can be super interesting, but it’s also somewhat daunting for students with dyslexia or processing delays. There is a lot of double talk, abnormal events, and fantastical ideas that can be challenging. are difficult for even the above average reader to make sense of. Even though I knew this kind of literature was hard for Angel, I really wanted her to be able to work it out. I wanted her to overcome the challenge and do the same kind of work her peers were doing. She would ask for help, I would help her, and push her even further. The farther I pushed her, the less she asked for my help, and that was my error. [Operating outside of ZPD and ignoring an emotional connection is a TERRIBLE idea].
Angel never completed her PBA for our class that semester, and part of that is my fault. I believe I subconsciously stopped listening to Angel’s needs, while she, on the other hand, very consciously stopped asking for my help. There’s a constant pressure coming from above that tells us, as special educators, to keep the standard high. For whatever reason, I couldn’t get that out of my head. My work with Angel in that ELA class became more about the demands of the school, and less about the real work that needed to be done with her. She would patiently ask me about various literary devices Anderson used in Feed, and I would tell her to read a specific section of the book that had already been assigned. There were many times where it was evident that Angel had not done her reading assignment, and I would grow frustrated by her homework neglect. When I would ask her why she didn’t do her homework, she would say that she didn’t understand it. There’s a huge disconnect between not understanding the text and searching for symbolism. We were operating at a deficit in that class. I was trying to tell Angel about all the political undertones in Feed and dissect its symbolism with her, when she hadn’t even read the book because she didn’t understand it. I remember a conversation I had with Angel regarding her PBA in our English class after the semester was over. I asked her why she never finished her PBA, and she said:
I would work on it, and then I would just stop because I didn’t understand and give up on it, and be like, whatever. And then, I was like, I don’t know. People would just keep bothering me to write it. I did it before, but I didn’t write a lot, so I would just say I did it. And that’s it. Like, I get the whole concept in my head. I’ll help other people, but when it’s my turn to do it, I’l be like oh my G-d, I don’t know what to do.
In retrospect, Angel had spent the past two years informing me on how she learned best, but because I was so entrenched on “raising the standard” I subconsciously ignored the wealth of information I knew in regards to Angel’s learning identity. If I had more teaching experience, or would have been more grounded, Angel probably would have been much less much frustrated in that English class, and could have finished her PBA on time.
After that class was over, I reflected upon my relationship with Angel. She had given me everything I needed in order to teach her well and I didn’t use it. I knew that Angel would face many similar situations throughout the rest of her life-and that it order to sustain her growth as a learner, and exceed her own expectations, it was essential that she become her own academic advocate.
Angel’s senior year in high school was the first year that I did not officially teach her in any of her classes. For that reason, as well as more social, coming of age reasons, Angel’s independence grew. She began her senior year with gusto. She was still the social butterfly she was three years ago, but this time, she used her socialization skills to her advantage-she needed to make up a few credits, and still had to complete her English PBA that remained incomplete from her junior year. There was no other option in Angel’s mind but to graduate on time with the rest of her class, and this is when her advocacy skills really began to develop.
Although I no longer taught Angel in the classroom, we still worked together and maintained the learning relationship we began building four years earlier. Whenever I saw Angel, I always checked on her and persistently asked about her academic status. I was still concerned about her uncompleted PBA, and perhaps for my own benefit as well as hers, I wanted to make sure that it got done. All teachers want to see their students succeed, and through three consecutive years of shared classroom experience, I had a special investment in Angel. I encouraged Angel to seek one-on-one help, and reminded her that she had a keen sense of her learning identity.
Angel took my advice and ran with it; she developed a tenacity for soliciting teachers’ help that I had never seen before. After asking her in passing what she was doing to make graduate happen on time, she said to me:
I go to my teachers after class and tell them what I need help on. I’m not scared to ask them for help in front of students. I stay after school, also I tell the specific stuff I need help on, it’s not like I ask them about the whole lesson. I’m not scared anymore on how weird the question is. I still ask. I ask if we can meet at lunch for them to help me or after school. I try not to get distracted with other students in the room too.
Angel definitely had here her eyes on the prize, and while she still encountered learning obstacles along the way, she no longer saw it as an option to give up, or accept the fact that she wasn’t learning. Instead, she readily sought out her teachers’ help, and asked tons of questions during class-even if they were considered to be somewhat outrageous by others.
In her previous years of high school, she learned quite a bit about herself-both emotionally and academically. Because I have served as one of Angel’s educators for the past four years, it’s clear to me that her growth is immense. Earlier, she stated that she didn’t want her learning disability to deem her as the “weird” one in class; above, she states that she isn’t afraid of being “weird” or asking “weird” questions anymore. The natural evolution of teenage maturity certainly owns some of that growth, but I firmly believe that because of Angel’s deep involvement in her IEP process over the years and the numerous opportunities for her to articulate her needs amidst her parents and educators, she has become self-aware, has a strong grasp of her learning identity, and now advocates for herself in a way that allows her to be a more successful academic achiever.
After delving into the past four years of her high school career, it is evident that she has grown into an exceptional young woman. Three months before this chapter was submitted, Angel graduated high school, and is off to college in the fall. Because of the strong sense of who she is as a person and who she is as a learner, I do not feel the same sense of fear that I feel for other students with similar learning issues. Every year, our school sends a new batch of kids with I.E.P.s to college, and I always wonder how they will fend for themselves in the classroom and whether or not they are going to tell people what they need. I’m not worried about Angel; I know she’ll speak with her instructors, go to tutoring, or visit the learning resource center whenever she needs to. I would like to have this same feeling with more of my students when they leave the safe haven of high school.
I feel privileged to have known Angel during her high school years, and to have had the opportunity to teach her. Looking back, much of who I am as an educator has sprouted from relationships with students similar to the relationship I had with Angel. Students teaching educators is a unique [this is actually ubiquitous. The part where educators are actively listening is more unique] experience, and cannot be duplicated in textbooks, institutions, or lectures. It can only be replicated in a classroom, [really any space where grown ups are listening to youth] and that it what I recommend for [all educators] other educators teaching in [all learning spaces] inclusive classrooms. Experiential learning is top notch, and there are many things that I have learned from my experience with Angel that will always stay with me.
Angel, along with her classmates, taught me that the social stigma of being in special education carries weight, and that weight is a heavy burden to carry in an extremely judicious group of pubescent peers. Angel taught me that when people, especially educators, don’t keep it real in the classroom, it is impossible for students to keep it real. With the simple nudge of conversation that Angel and I had about her not being the only student in the class having an IEP, and my blatant response to her tenth grade class about inclusive education, Angel was more willing to come to terms with her learning disability and come up with a more positive, working definition of her learning identity.
Educators can take a more assertive role in defining the shape of their inclusive classrooms to the students they teach. The definition doesn’t have to be some kind of acerbic pronouncement like, “THIS IS SPECIAL ED”, but rather, an honest definition that provides depth and insight for students who are searching for understanding themselves. Without shining my star too brightly, I’m pretty happy with the response I gave to my students at the very beginning of this chapter: Different types of learners doesn’t mean “dumb” and “smart”. It means different ways of presenting information and different ways of doing assignments.” In that moment, and throughout the rest of the year, it made sense for them. They were no longer confused by having two teachers, they were comfortable with it, and most importantly, some of the students with IEPs felt less anxiety about harboring their “special ed” secrets.
The most valuable lesson Angel taught to me that it was possible, and that it was important for students to understand how they learn [I would argue now the onus is more upon teachers to understand and demonstrate cultural dynamics and how those permeate learning identity within a school space], to accept it, and to tell their teachers about it. I am not the first educator to talk about learning identity; however, it certainly isn’t a buzzword [identity markers are certainly in the ed lexicon now, but talk about ability is still quiet] in the social circles of the education world either. It’s so important! It is vital to the life blood of our students’ academic careers! Students need to be able to identify their learning needs in terms of their reading and writing abilities. They need to know their learning modalities, articulate what kinds of teaching works best for them, what kinds of assignments make them tick, and what doesn’t work for them. With that student knowledge, the effectiveness of inclusive education could really pop. All of that guess work that inclusive educators are forced to do could be eliminated, and student success would shine.
More than anything, cultivating student learning identity and advocacy comes from nurtured, patient learning relationships between teacher and student. Skeptics might say the mere communication of personal learning information to a teacher from a student is no guarantee that students will become more academically successful. However, I would argue that this process includes more than that. It allows an emotional outlet, a coming to terms with, an acute awareness of an otherwise stymied learning identity. Students are not only communicating personal learning information. By communicating their needs, and by listening to their educator speak to them about their I.E.P., they allow themselves to openly come to terms with their learning identity, which equips them with life long learning tools necessary to become successful in future academic arenas and social circles. This process will not only increase learning in the classroom, it will increase learning in life. Rather than trying to fix or cure their learning disability, they will be equipped with strategies to work with their learning identity.
In addition, educators should not ignore the two essential components of building learning identity: 1) learning and 2) identity. Angel showed me that one did not happen without the other. She didn’t really learn until she figured out who she was, and she didn’t really know who she was until she learned. I remember how exciting it was for me when that concept finally clicked in my teacher brain, but when it did, during Angel’s ninth grade year, it was so exciting! Angel’s learning blossomed after she was able to accept that she had a learning disability, and it was evident that her self-love grew as well. When acceptance and confidence were in place, it wasn’t that difficult to get Angel talking about how she learned. I truly believe that with the right dose of intervention from their educators, many other students could follow in her footsteps.
Hopefully, with this bit of direction for educators, students will. I would have liked a step-by-step guide on how to cultivate learning identity with students, so I made one:
- Develop a positive learning relationship with your student-For anything to happen between you and your students, you have to have some kind of relationship with them, and it has to be positive. Otherwise, there’s no way they’re going to open up to you.
- Have a private conversation with your student acknowledging the fact that they have an IEP, that it’s okay, and they’re not the only ones. Talk it out with them, and work on them gaining acceptance and ownership of their learning disability.
- Learn from your student! Don’t be afraid to learn from your students-this is one of the most important parts of your student developing their own working definition of their learning identity. Use what they tell you about how they learn, and validate them-confidence isn’t exactly bursting from the seams from student with special needs.
- Ask your students what works for them in the classroom on a regular basis. You’ll be surprised at how easily you can incorporate what they need in your classroom.
- Talk to your student about advocacy, and stress its necessity throughout life. Encourage your student to tell their other teachers what they need. Always check up on them. NEVER ignore your student’s needs.
I do not anticipate that the process of helping a student become aware of the fact they have a learning disability and helping them shape a learning identity will be easy as following a five step guide, and I do not expect that it will go smoothly. However, I do have strong faith that this process is vital for students to have the ability to become independent life long learners both inside and outside the classroom.
Angel’s acceptance of her learning identity began in the ninth grade, understanding who she was as a learner spanned between her tenth and eleventh grade years, advocacy started in the twelfth grade, and it all came together during the last half of her senior year. In addition, I was lucky enough to be her teacher for the first three years of her high school career. Overall, it took four years and a lot of TLC for Angel to gain a positive awareness of her learning identity and become her own academic advocate. However, it did happen, and it can be done.