Inclusivity in the Secondary English Classroom: An Inclusive Teaching Guide

Introduction

Prior to taking this course, my experience with inclusive teaching was very limited. As a result, I have only recently begun to question my own thoughts and attitudes toward inclusivity. While creating this guide I looked back on my own high school experience, which was not very inclusive. Because I attended a private, college preparatory school, there was very little diversity in respect to both socio-economic status and student needs and abilities. All of the English courses I took were lecture style with very little collaboration among students. At the time, I enjoyed this “college-style” type of classroom, but I can now certainly see how alienating this must have been for many students.

After spending the past few weeks thinking about inclusivity, my vision for my future classroom looks very different than it once did. I now envision a classroom in which students of varying abilities and needs can work together in collaborative ways. While I have always acknowledged the importance of classroom community, creating this guide has allowed me to better articulate exactly how I plan to make each of my students feel welcome and cared for and how to address each of their needs.

While creating this guide I kept in mind not only the material on inclusivity that I have read and discussed in this course, but also the materials from my English methods courses. The current best practices in English Language Arts coincide perfectly with inclusive teaching. An emphasis on collaboration, multimodality, and promoting literacy through multiple intelligences has been present throughout my methods courses. Creating this guide has allowed me to visualize how an inclusive secondary English classroom might look. That vision is described and reflected upon in the following guide.

Partnering with Families

Partnering with families is an essential component of creating an inclusive classroom. Peterson and Hittie (2010) argue that a family-centered approach to learning is superior to system-centered and child-centered approaches (p. 188). In a family-centered approach, “the child is considered in the context of the entire family” (Peterson & Hittie, 2010, p. 188). Meetings are scheduled at the family’s convenience and teachers and support staff strive to give support and assistance to families (Peterson & Hittie, 2010, p. 188). Rather than focusing only on what is convenient for teachers and support staff (as in the system-centered approach) or focusing only on the needs of the student (as in the child-centered approach) this approach understands that the needs of the entire family must be taken into consideration to ensure success for a student (Peterson & Hittie, 2010, p. 190).

I, too, believe that a family-centered approach is the best and plan to implement the practices that are involved in this approach in my classroom. The first practice is to engage families as partners in their student’s education (Peterson & Hittie, 2010, p. 191). From the very beginning of the school year, I will express to parents that, just like them, I want their students to succeed. I will let families know that I am committed to not only helping their students succeed in my class, but I am also committed to helping the students’ families find ways to help their students succeed. For an English class, this might mean helping students and families find leisure reading materials that will pique a student’s interest while also boosting his or her reading comprehension skills. The second practice of a family-centered approach to learning is to affirm and build on family strengths and gifts (Peterson & Hittie, 2010, p. 191). This means instead of viewing families for their deficiencies or weaknesses, looking for ways in which families are supporting their students and acknowledging how families can use these strengths to further support their students. The third practice is to honor cultural diversity of families (Peterson & Hittie, 2010, p. 192). I think this is particularly important for English teachers as we work directly with language, literacy and culture. It is important to include works of literature from a variety of cultures and to create an atmosphere that not only values diversity, but also questions the dominant ideologies that are often present in traditional works of literature. Inviting students and their families to share their cultural experiences with the rest of the class is another way to honor diversity. The fourth practice of a family-centered approach to education is to treat families with respect and dignity (Peterson & Hittie, 2010, p. 192). This involves being compassionate towards families who may be experiencing personal challenges or school-related challenges (Peterson & Hittie, 2010, p. 192). I believe the best way to do this is to always be empathetic and understanding and to let families know that I am available to listen to their concerns, whether the concerns pertain to their student or not. The last practice is to promote family choices (Peterson & Hittie, 2010, p. 192). I think this is a crucial step in building a partnership with families as it demonstrates that their opinions and input are valued, particularly when dealing with students’ academic or behavioral difficulties.

I believe all of these practices of a family-centered approach can be achieved if communication with families is open and frequent. Brandvik and McKnight (2011) suggest a variety of methods for ensuring success when communicating with families. These include sending a welcome postcard or email before the school year begins and inviting families to a back-to-school night during which the teacher’s philosophies and goals for the class are expressed (Brandvik & Mcknight, 2011, p. 246-8). One method that I certainly plan to use is to make phone calls or send emails out to draw attention to positive student achievements. Brandvik and McKnight point out that by communicating with families about positive student behavior and achievement, a good relationship can be built and if problems do arise, they will be easier to bring up (p. 250). In my classroom, I plan to fully utilize technology to keep communication with families open, frequent, and positive. Many teachers utilize official school websites, such as Blackboard or Moodle, to post grades and update assignments. For English classrooms, I think it is also beneficial to create a class website that acts as a portfolio for student work. This not only shows that students’ work is valued, but it allows families to observe the work their students are doing and feel more involved in their students’ academic lives. Another way to utilize technology to enhance communication with families is through social media such as Facebook or Twitter. By creating a Facebook group or Twitter account for each class, teachers can update information on class projects and assignments, praise student achievements, and frequently let families know what is going on in class.

As Peterson and Hittie (2010) mention, for families of students with special needs, additional care should be taken to let families know that their students are welcome in our classroom (p. 194). All of the other mentioned practices, such as keeping communication open and frequent and valuing families’ choices, are also essential in building partnerships with families of students with special needs. By working to create a classroom environment that treats each family as unique and valued, families of students with special needs are likely to feel welcome as well.

Classroom Design and Assistive Technology

Another important component of creating an inclusive classroom is the design of a classroom and assistive technology used in the classroom. In my classroom, I plan to utilize the concept of universal design. Peterson and Hittie (2010) describe universal design as a conceptual revolution that seeks to create products and environments that are usable by all people without the need for adaptation or specialized design (p. 218). They mention a few examples of universal design that I plan to use in my own classroom, such as talking software and audio books that can be used by all students, not just those with special needs (Peterson & Hittie, 2010, p. 220). Talking software and audio books fall under the category of assistive technology, another important element in an inclusive classroom. According to Peterson and Hittie (2010), assistive technology is “technology that helps a person with special needs learn or perform a task he or she could not otherwise do” (p. 251).

In the room design that I created [Figure 1], the classroom is intended to adhere to the principles of universal design and to incorporate assistive technology for reading and writing, two skills that are used intensively in an English classroom. Each person who uses assistive technology should be matched with the tool that best serves their purpose, so my classroom is designed to accommodate a variety of assistive technologies (Peterson & Hittie, 2010, p. 254). Because computers can be used in a variety of ways as assistive technology, my classroom design contains four computer stations. Stanberry and Raskind (2009) highlight some assistive technologies that can be used by students with various special needs who struggle with writing (p. 1). These include alternative keyboards with graphics to aid comprehension; graphic organizers to help students physically maneuver information into a coherent structure; proofreading software programs; speech recognition software programs; and word prediction software programs (Stanberry & Raskind, 2009, p. 1). Stanberry and Raskind (2010) also highlight some assistive technologies to that can be used by students with various special needs who struggle with reading (p. 1). These include audio books and publications for students to listen to in lieu of reading or to listen to as they read; optical character recognition, which allows a student to scan printed material which is then read aloud by a screen reading system; and speech synthesizers and screen readers that read aloud texts on a computer screen (Stanberry & Raskind, 2010, p. 1). The computers in my classroom will accommodate many of these technologies that aid students in reading and writing. The computer stations are situated near the student tables and allow students to face the rest of the classroom so that they can view the entire room and be more fully included.

Mobility is another aspect of universal design and inclusive environments. Instead of constricted rows, my classroom design has students seated in heterogeneous groupings at round tables with ample floor space to promote wheelchair accessibility. The round tables also encourage student interaction, an important component of an inclusive classroom (Peterson and Hittie, 2010, p. 233). The round tables can be used as activity centers during certain lessons and can easily be moved to create more floor space. Instead of working from a desk, I plan to interact with students, moving around their tables and the classroom. In place of a desk, my room design features a chair that can be moved around and shelving for resources and materials. One carpeted area of the classroom is surrounded by bookshelves and offers comfortable chairs and a couch for students to sit in. A second carpeted area is offered as a collaborative space or alternative writing area with comfortable chairs. By providing these alternative reading and writing areas, it is hoped that students will be able to work in an environment that is most comfortable and productive for them and an environment that suits their learning style and intelligences.

In addition to the more practical classroom design elements, Peterson and Hittie (2010) describe additional qualities of healthy learning environments. They mention that a classroom should be a place of joy, safe and aesthetically pleasing (Peterson & Hittie, 2010, p. 220). I believe that round tables create a feeling of equality and foster collaboration among students. My classroom will be decorated with plants, student work, and inspiring and thought-provoking literary quotations. Books and media are also part of the design. Having bookshelves filled with general interest and young adult books is essential in an English classroom, as it promotes recreational reading and can spark students’ imagination while writing. I believe there is also a place for music in an English classroom, as it can help students create a mood while writing, can enhance reading, or offer a calming break during class. Film and visual media are also important for aiding students’ comprehension of material and in fostering creativity, so my room design also includes a projector.

By creating a stimulating, accessible, adaptive and comfortable classroom, I hope to be able to meet the needs of all of my students with as few modifications as possible. By anticipating different needs, strengths and learning styles, I hope to achieve a universal classroom design.

 Building Community and Responding to Behavioral Challenges

Building community and anticipating behavioral challenges are two more important components of creating an inclusive classroom. Peterson and Hittie (2010) question whether a school’s purpose is to create competition or to create community (p. 278). Like the authors, I believe that the purpose of schools is to create community and this idea is at the heart of my teaching philosophy. The topics of building community and responding to behavioral challenges are introduced together because they depend upon each other in an inclusive school. Schools and classrooms with healthy and welcome communities are better able to handle behavioral challenges. Having fewer behavioral challenges in a school or classroom creates a healthier community.

Peterson and Hittie (2010) explain that a school or classroom community involves belonging, inclusion, support and care, contributions and responsibility of all members, democratic problem solving, and reaching out (p.280-1). There are many ways to build community in a classroom, such as involving students in goal-setting, having students establish classroom rules, developing meaningful relationships among classmates and teachers, and participating in respectful communication (Peterson & Hittie, 2010, p. 292-7). I plan to incorporate these and other more English-specific community-building aspects into my own classroom. In high school courses it can be difficult to create a sense of community due to the relatively short class periods and number of interactions in a day. However, I believe an English classroom offers many unique opportunities for building community. Writing assignments that ask students to share their worldview or opinions are a great way to promote empathy and understanding among students. I agree with Peterson and Hittie (2010) that literature is also a powerful tool for helping students understand difference (p. 305). By reading about people from other cultures, belief systems, socioeconomic groups, genders, and sexual identities, students can better understand their peers and become more compassionate toward them. Similarly, Peterson and Hittie (2010) discuss the importance of emotional intelligence and how it is essential to meet students’ socio-emotional needs in addition to their academic needs (p. 285). The goal of the humanities, such as English, is directly related to this. The humanities help students become more compassionate and better understand their fellow human beings, while simultaneously sharpening their academic skills, such as critical thinking. A successful humanities course, such as English, will not only help students become more skilled writers and critical readers, but will help them become more thoughtful human beings.

Fully addressing students’ needs is important not only for building community, but also for responding to behavioral challenges. Peterson and Hittie’s (2010) approach to behavior is student-centered and focuses on helping students meet their needs rather than controlling their behavior. The authors suggest that teachers try to understand the underlying reasons why a student is acting out, rather than focusing on the behavior itself. Traditional behavioral management, which focuses on rewarding or reinforcing good behavior and punishing bad behavior, does not address needs or motivations behind behavior and is, therefore, not effective and can even be detrimental to students (Peterson & Hittie, 2010, p. 315).  I plan to instead use the positive behavioral support model, which is proactive and needs based (Peterson & Hittie, 2010, p. 317). This approach directly addresses students’ needs and requires positive relationship building with students. The authors note William Glasser’s theory of five basic needs: survival, love and belonging, power, fun, and freedom (Peterson & Hittie, 2010, p. 332-3). By creating a community that addresses these needs, I hope to be able to better address behavioral issues.

In addition to building a community that focuses on students’ needs, I plan to additionally address behavior by using restorative justice in my classroom. With restorative justice, instead of arbitrarily punishing students, students are required to fix or heal whatever negative outcomes their behavior caused (Peterson & Hittie, 2010, p. 324). Rather than segregating a student through detention or some other form of isolation, the student is given a chance to make amends and to be welcomed back into the community. I think this is a powerful way to handle behavior and one that helps meet the needs of all students, not just the students who are harmed by others’ behavior. Through community building and positive behavioral support, my inclusive classroom will focus on the needs of all students.

Instructional Strategies

My inclusive classroom will utilize both reading and writing workshops. As Peterson and Hittie (2010) note, workshops are an important part of an inclusive classroom because they allow students of different levels and abilities to work together, yet each student is also motivated to set their own personal goals (p. 433). Workshops are a natural fit for an English classroom because they offer authentic and active opportunities for students to develop skills in reading and writing (Peterson & Hittie, 2010, p. 360). Workshops typically begin with an engaging introduction and then a mini-lesson to teach particular skills (Peterson & Hittie, 2010,p. 392). Students then work as individuals and in pairings or small groups on an end product, typically a piece of writing or a project that demonstrates reading comprehension.

In addition to workshops, I will use the following instructional strategies:

Literature Circles can be done within a reading workshop and are a great way to allow students of varying ability levels to work together (Peterson & Hittie, 2010, p. 417). In this strategy, students meet in small groups of 3 or 4 and take turns reading assigned literature aloud and discussing different elements of the literature. Teachers can provide prompts of certain passages that students might want to discuss, or they can allow the students to take the lead. As students take turns interpreting and discussing portions of the text, they learn about each other’s perspectives and opinions. Brandvik and McKnight (2011) note that literature circles can be created according to interests, so that students who might not normally interact with each other will find they have interests in common (p. 177).

Learning Logs, or Reading Journals, can be a helpful strategy for teachers to track student progress and a helpful study tool for students. With this strategy, students take notes while they are reading, observing unfamiliar vocabulary, main ideas, interesting symbolism, and more. According to Brandvik and McKnight (2011), “Writing during reading encourages students to consider the kinds of questions that take readers further in understanding than they might go on their own. It helps them gather information, reflect on it, and make connections between what they are learning and their own lives” (p. 183). With this strategy, teachers typically model a few different Reading Journals for students so that they can pick a format that will work best for them. By checking in on students once a week or so, teachers can utilize Reading Journals to see what student’s strengths and needs are and to adjust instruction accordingly.

Jigsaw is another collaborative learning strategy that allows each student to act as expert and teach his or her peers. With Jigsaw, students are placed into heterogeneous groupings and each group is assigned different portions of course material, such as a book chapter or a character in a novel. Each group discusses their content and decides on the key points. The groups can either present the information to the entire class or can assemble into new groups so that each “expert” teaches their content to the other new group members. Jigsaw is an effective inclusive teaching strategy because it depends upon cooperation and it allows each student to act as an expert on his or her particular material.

Open-Ended Group Projects can be used to allow students with various abilities and skills to work together on a project. For English, the possibilities for this strategy are endless as reading, writing, viewing, listening and speaking are all skills that can be incorporated. Additionally, students with different intelligences and strengths can contribute as their skills allow. For example, students could produce a video of a play so that some students act, others paint scenery, others direct and organize the production, and other film and edit. Another example could be the creation of a news or creative writing publication in which students write material according to their interests, some students edit the writing, others create artwork to accompany the writing, and others format the layout of the publication. With Open-Ended Group Projects, the success of the project depends on having students with different skill sets involved, so it teaches an important lesson on the need for diversity in classrooms and in the workplace.

To further address multiple intelligences and multimodal thinking, my English classroom will not only utilize books and traditional forms of literature, but also digital and computer technology; films; music; audio recordings of books and plays; visual art; drama; and dance. By recognizing that each student can bring something special to the subject of English, I hope to incorporate these inclusive strategies.

Support and Collaboration

An inclusive classroom depends upon support and collaboration for success. Good relationships between general education teachers and support staff — such as special education teachers, Title I and bilingual teachers, counselors, social workers, and psychologists — are essential (Peterson & Hittie, 2010, p. 160). In my future classroom I will collaborate with support staff to ensure that our students’ needs are being met and that all students are able to succeed and feel welcome in the classroom. Support staff should not only “push in” but should be involved in the educational planning process. I think that coteaching is a strategy I would like try in my classroom so that both the support staff and I can utilize our particular strengths to support the success of all of our students. I hope to promote open communication with support staff and act out a philosophy that students’ needs come first. I plan to work with support staff to find ways that I can better teach all students and hope that they can teach me some strategies for doing so. As mentioned previously, organizing my classroom so that students are grouped heterogeneously will also support inclusion in my classroom.

In addition to creating good relationships with support staff within my own classroom, I believe it is important to build good relationships with all teachers and staff, in order to further promote inclusivity. Because high school students move around to so many different classes in a day, it is important for teachers and support staff to share their own classroom and student experiences with each other so that they can better address a student’s needs and strengths. For example, if a student writes better essays when he is given multiple small deadlines for parts of an essay instead of one deadline for an entire essay, his English teacher should communicate this to the student’s other teachers so that they can better understand why he might be struggling to complete assignments on time. Teachers and support staff should work as a team to support all students in all areas, not just the students in a particular class during a particular semester. If all teachers and support staff are able to communicate about students’ needs and abilities, a more cohesive and inclusive learning environment can be achieved.

Further, I believe that schools shouldn’t just support students academically, but that teachers and support staff (such as counselors and psychologists) should also work together to support students emotionally. Because behavioral challenges and students’ emotional lives play a role in a student’s success in the classroom, I feel it is important for teachers to be aware of any challenges or issues that students are facing. I would like my students to feel that I care about them as people, not just as students, and I think that open and frequent communication with counselors will allow me to be sensitive to my students’ lives outside of my classroom. Additionally, fostering good relationships with counselors and school psychologists is important for the instances when a student may come to a teacher for help. Counselors and psychologists are the experts in this area and I feel that much can be learned from them on how to handle these instances.

I believe this academic and emotional support can be best achieved through collaborative consultation. According to Peterson and Hittie (2010), collaborative consultation is an effort by teachers and support staff to develop strategies to provide students with ongoing assistance in general education classrooms (p. 119). I would like to develop this approach in my own classroom as it promotes inclusivity of all students and requires teachers and support staff to collaborate proactively to determine a student’s needs, rather than merely reacting to problems that arise when a student’s needs aren’t being met.

Strategies for Change

In order for a school to be inclusive, all teachers and staff must be active in working towards inclusivity. I plan to encourage inclusive education in my school in two main ways. The first is through the promotion of a Response to Intervention (RTI) program. Fisher and Frey’s (2011) case study on implementing an RTI in a high school opened my eyes to the benefits that an RTI possesses. Within two years, the school documented in the case study saw radical transformations in student academic progress and student and teacher motivation. By focusing on quality core education and using course competencies to monitor progress, the teachers were able to design needed supplemental interventions for students on an almost daily basis. Special education referrals reduced dramatically as an effect of this responsive instruction. Aside from the academic gains that were evident in this case study, the attitudes and motivation levels of the students were quite impressive as they were able to visually monitor their progress. The teachers, too, were motivated to continue implementing the RTI program as they saw their students making progress. I would encourage my fellow teachers and administration to consider RTI for our school. Aided by other case studies that show tremendous progress in high schools that have used RTI, I believe I could make a convincing argument for RTI implementation (Fisher & Frey, 2011).

The second way that I plan to encourage inclusive education in my school is by promoting a student-centered positive behavioral support model, as previously discussed. This behavioral model directly addresses students’ needs and helps build community, rather than isolating students. While RTI implementation can have an incredible impact on students’ academic progress, their emotional well being is just as important. I will begin to promote this approach in my own classroom and hope that other teachers and administrators will observe the benefits of a behavioral approach that is proactive and needs based (Peterson & Hittie, 2010, p. 317).

These approaches both depend upon good relationships among teachers and staff as well as an understanding that the school is a community whose many parts have a significant impact on each other and are dependent upon each other. In order for these approaches to work, all teachers and administrators must understand the importance of inclusivity and value how it can transform a school. I plan to work to build a strong community within my school — through both daily interactions and more organized efforts such as retreats — so that everyone will feel equally responsible for promoting inclusive education.

References

Anderson Gibson, C.S., & Coffey, D.J. “A Biography Study: Using Role-Play to Explore Authors’ Lives.” International Reading Association. Retrieved from: http://www.readwritethink.org

Brandvik, M.L., & McKnight, K.S. (2011). The English Teacher’s Survival Guide: Ready-to-Use Techniques & Materials for Grades 7-12 (2nd ed.) San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2011). Implementing RTI in a High School: A Case Study. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 46, 99-114.

Peterson, J.M., & Hittie, M.M. (2010). Inclusive Teaching: The Journey Towards Effective Schools for All Learners (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Stanberry, K., & Raskine, M. (2009). “Assistive Technology Tools: Writing.” Retrieved from: http://www.readingrockets.org/article/33078/

Stanberry, K., & Raskine, M. (2010). “Assistive Technology Tools: Reading.” Retrieved from:http://www.greatschools.org/special-education/assistive-technology