Improving Inclusionary Practices to Support All Learners

by Amanda Armstrong, Teachers and Leaders division at the Tennessee Department of Education

We cannot improve outcomes overall without improving outcomes for our diverse students and those of historically underserved populations. In this second of four teacher leader action briefs, Improving Inclusionary Practices to Support All Learners, four teacher leaders in Knox and Blount Counties share how they are taking action to ensure that all truly means all.

The following is an excerpt from the second action brief, released on May 3 and written by Brandy Barton, Hailey Elrod, Joe Michalski, and Cory Minzyk. Click here to read the complete brief.

Action 4: Cultivate and Maintain a Growth Mindset

Joe Michalski of Knoxville, TN

Joe Michalski: Consider a classroom with a blind student, a mildly autistic student, a student who has previously failed the course, a gifted student, an English Learner (EL) student, and several other students with different personalities and ability levels. Imagine working through a math problem in this room. The blind student needs to hear everything explained in detail at a slower pace to visualize what is taking place or be able to put the problem in braille as other students write. The slower pace will also help the EL student, but vocabulary words might need to be explained in different ways; facial expressions help me to determine the level of understanding. The autistic student may need to have every detail and step written out and explained thoroughly so that those exact steps are repeated again on a similar problem. The student who has previously failed will have to discover what has been done incorrectly and might require me to work out problems with mistakes. The gifted student may need to work on a similar problem later, but with added difficulty. It is likely that other students may have to hear the explanation in a variety of other ways and be supported individually at some point in class.

Differentiation definitely presents challenges, but it is critical to inclusion, and supports in the development of growth mindsets for our students. Recognizing and adjusting for each student’s differences help students feel supported and confident, setting the foundation for cultivating a growth mindset.

As students gain confidence and their fears of being wrong diminish, I work to establish a Socratic type of community in which students share thoughts and opinions and ask questions. Positive feedback toward their questions helps to establish such a community of learning without formally stating it as a goal. I show interest and excitement for their questions. I sometimes pretend to ponder deeply, even if I know the obvious answer. I thank the student for asking a question that often someone else in the room wanted to ask. I make sure they see that all of their inquiries are important and taken seriously. Ultimately, the goal is to show students that the power lies within themselves.

I believe the learner must first feel comfortable to inquire when they do not understand a concept. There can never be a penalty or moment of embarrassment for not understanding. My goal is to empower my students to utilize their ability to question and build their own knowledge.

Finally, and perhaps most important, is to never accept or allow the “I can’t” or “it’s too hard” attitude. We can find a solution and sometimes it starts with asking a question or expressing what is misunderstood. The analogy I use in the classroom is a hypothetical situation; if one’s car breaks down on the side of the road, there are two options. One is to accept fate and do nothing but succumb to bad fortune. The second is to look for possibility and figure out the next move to get home. We must train ourselves and our students to choose the second option. Regardless of one’s disability or gift, every student can learn and make progress when we look for possibility. This requires students to be courageous enough to speak out and voice their thoughts and concerns. The reality is that we will face obstacles in life and in education; our job is to empower our students to appreciate the challenge and identify solutions.

With a grant from Chiefs for Change, teacher leaders across the state are partnering with the department to develop four action briefs, slated to be shared over the course of this spring, that focus on four key areas:

Stay tuned to our blog for more information on our action briefs coming in May!