In the Teachers College Inclusive Classrooms Project, we spend a lot of time thinking and talking about how to foster inclusivity in schools and classrooms. But what exactly do we mean by inclusivity? How do we work toward greater inclusivity in classrooms?
Inclusivity means that students have full membership in the classroom. This means, for example, that the child who does not have money for a field trip, still gets to attend the field trip because the school or the teacher have made provisions for everyone to go regardless of their ability to pay; it means that the student who does not have grandparents living in town still has someone to be with them on grandparents’ day, because the teacher has reached out to adults willing to volunteer; it means that the student with food allergies has something to eat during class parties, because the teacher has spoken with parents and caregivers to find out what the child can eat safely.
Inclusivity also means honoring students’ desires to be included. Take, for example, a hypothetical incident from a New York City school from a few weeks ago:
It was picture day at P.S. 000 and students and teachers were dressed in their finest clothes. Groups of children were ushered into the auditorium, waiting their turn to go up on stage with their classmate for their class picture. Mrs. Smith’s class was arranged in three rows on the stage, but Alonzo was sitting in the auditorium seats and had not gone up to join the rest of the class on stage. Someone passing by asked Alonzo why he wasn’t on the stage. He answered that he didn’t want to be in the picture. Then, after thinking for a moment, Alonzo looked to the side and said, “It’s not fair, I want to be a part of the picture.” The passerby called out to the teacher before she reached the stage to ask why Alonzo wasn’t joining them and was told something to the effect of, “He’s a part of Ms. Mateo’s class. The administration said he can’t be in the picture because he spends part of his day in the self-contained classroom with Mrs. Mateo.”
While Alonzo does spend part of the day in the self-contained classroom, he also spends part of his day with his chronological peers in the 5th-grade general education classroom with Mrs. Smith. He is part of a program in which a special education teacher pushes into the general education class and when she is not there, there is a paraprofessional to provide additional support as needed.
Soon, the passerby noticed that tears were trickling down Alonzo’s face. She didn’t know what to do and could not understand why he couldn’t go up on the stage to take a picture with the children with whom he learns English, mathematics, social studies, and science. After asking unsuccessfully for Alonzo to be included, she took the only action she could think of and invited Alonzo to go for a walk and talk about his feelings. This walk was an attempt to honor Alonzo’s full membership in the school and acknowledge his valid feelings. While he was structurally impeded from participating in the class picture, an inclusive approach attempts to re-center Alonzo — at least by providing a listener who can affirm his right to be up on that stage and can confirm that he has every right to be included.
Clearly, we are working for a day when Alonzo is already included in the class picture and doesn’t depend on a passerby to notice him. But teaching inclusively means that we are always alert to opportunities to step in and disrupt the normalized exclusion of so many children.