How do we plan to meet the needs of all students?

Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

There’s this cartoon — it’s a group of children waiting to get into school on a snowy winter day. They’re crowded outside, watching an adult shoveling snow; in the cartoon, the adult turns around, shovel in hand, and tells the one child in a wheelchair: once I’m done shoveling the steps, I’ll get to the ramp.

The child in the wheelchair responds: But if you shoveled the ramp, everyone could get inside.

Think about that. Think about the lesson, the message: are the solutions for one group, for one person even, actually the solution?

When I was teaching kindergarten I was chosen to work alongside the deaf and hard of hearing staff — brought in, as we were becoming a designated site for deaf and hard of hearing students in the district. It was terrifying; I didn’t think I had the proper training to do it. Then it started, and I had an amazing team — a deaf and hard of hearing teacher, an aide, and a deaf and hard of hearing speech therapist. Together, we discussed individualized plans, modifications, accommodations, scheduling, etc. Together, we planned from their assigned students I shared with them, to the students that were technically on my roster only.

Fast forward 5 years and I am selected to switch gears. This time I would be in another realm of special education: GATE (Gifted and Talented Education). I was one of a team of teachers, one for each grade level, to pilot the Accelerated Learning Model (ALM). Each grade level teacher was the single ALM teacher for their grade level team, and each of us was asked to work with a GATE teacher, a digital learning coach, and/or an instructional coach.

For the bulk of my teaching career I had a team of adults walking in and out, co-planning, co-teaching, co-facilitating, in my classroom. This is highly unusual.

For most teachers, the classroom experience is insular. The domain is definitively your own, and aside from evaluative observations, another adult present is practically nil. I taught general education kindergarten my first year of teaching, and my second year of teaching began a trajectory that always welcomed and included other professionals — from all walks of the educator spectrum. It expanded my network, my purview, and my capacity to have speech pathologists, aides, resource teachers, specialists, coaches, in my room.

When you have specialized educators, particularly special education staff, in your midst, working alongside you, coming in and out, there is an infusion of pedagogy, targeted instruction, specialized talent, each and every day. From the get go, I had skilled experienced professionals in my room, and they were skilled in domains outside of my general coursework and training. So, I was not just exposed to great teachers, I was exposed to different kinds of planning, organization, and thinking — and when it came to special education, I was exposed to those that considered the atypical first, not the other way around.

The general education teacher focuses on just that: general education. They are given modes of instruction that are versatile, but framed within the context of standardized milestones, with the bell curve of “normal” as the gauge.

The average child can sit still and pay attention about double to triple their age in minutes — example: 6 years old = 12 to 18 minutes. The average child processes speech at the rate of 120 words per minute, while the average adult speaks at 160+ words per minute. The average child . . . the average child . . .

Average is just that: average. Typical is just that: typical. It bears no human value, it’s merely a guide to check-off, or a guide indicating a need to check-up.

Now, special education — those working with students who are gifted and talented, who have autism, who have physical impairments, who have health impairments — have a completely different lens. They are atypical, they think atypically.

And quite frankly this is what education, and perhaps every system, needs — a reframe: What if we decided to think atypically too?

The education system is slow to change — just as most systems and institutions are slow to change. When the pandemic and virtual teaching hit, I thought about the teachers who struggled to open a PDF, who were unable to copy and paste, who were sitting next to their walkman reading centers, in a classroom of rows, in a school chained to a schedule formed around a farming schedule. How is this going to work?

Miraculously, as teachers are regularly apt to do, they immediately responded with plans, packets, and procedures to ensure learning continued.

Now, after a few months they have been asked to continue on a frightening trajectory. A trajectory that exposed long-standing inequities — including but not limited to: a digital divide, a childcare gap, and food insecurity.

And while handing out devices, creating hotspots, and distributing lunches are commendable and much needed adaptations to combat inequity, to ensure some level of access, is it enough?

The short answer is no. So, I go back to my cartoon. I go back to what I learned as an inclusion teacher, and as an ALM teacher. I go back to my learning, to my notes, to the literature, to the training and knowledge I have on equity and I end up asking: What if we started planning from the outside in; what if started from the most in-need child, not the typical in-need child?

What if, as in my kindergarten experience, a deaf and hard of teacher shared that every video must have closed-captioning — it’s a mandated accommodation. And, what if, it turns out, that that accommodation is actually a powerful support for the English Language Learners in the room, and turns out to be an invaluable tool for all students learning letters and sight words? In helping a few, everyone is helped; the ramp is shoveled.

What if, as in my ALM experience, a digital learning coach modeled and facilitated several lessons on how to make a website because the GATE kids in the room were ready for this technological learning. Not every child was identified as GATE, and I certainly had no idea how to make a website, but this teacher brought this expectation to the room, and provided the support for everyone to rise to the challenge. They shoveled the ramp — not because it was needed, rather, they wanted to include everyone, and include them immediately.

It is in this thinking, in universal design, in these types of experiences, that I imagine our capacity to give and provide could be magnified — if only we reframed our planning efforts. If only we moved from the default, to the margin.

And there are plenty of non-education examples to this kind of thinking as well — speaking to the power of reframing. In Sweden and in Spain, as in the rest of the world, male is the default and city planning has been led, designed, and formed with this default in mind. Then, a reframe, considering the needs of women was introduced — it changed the snow plowing schedule, it changed the layout of cities — and entire communities, men and women’s lives, indicators of health and wellness, improved. They focused not on the steps, but on the ramp, and everyone, as a result, benefited.

What could we do if we decided to focus on ramps?

I have proposed, and even argued, that universal Wifi needs to be implemented. The most in-need families have no access — and a free and appropriate education is the law, and if school is only available online, it stands to reason that accessing it, through Wifi, needs to be free, needs to be universally accessible. And thanks to this reframe, such a plan and solution benefits every child, and every family.

I am going for the ramp; I am making sure everyone can get in, at the same time.

And if everyone decided to focus on the ramp, what else would be possible?

Perhaps, we could distribute more than textbooks and devices — maybe we could distribute carts of materials, create school pods, invent new platforms, install more tiny free libraries . . . maybe do something I haven’t even considered. I don’t know what’s out there, but I do know that if we considered something other than the default person, family, or child, we might find a better solution.

I know that educators have moved mountains over the past 6 months, and so have families, to ensure that kids kept learning. At the same time, I know we had existing gaps and gulfs that turned into canyons of inequities. So, as we move forward, as we press forward, let us look at who is planning and who is the default in that planning.

Let us ask ourselves: are we fully and completely equity-driven and equity-minded? Have we cleared the ramp, or the steps?

Educator, Gardener, Writer — IG @canonreclaimed

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