When a Critical Friends Group takes on a “Circles of Identity” Protocol to help examine how perceptions around identity can hold people back and push them forward, an elementary school teacher reckons with a “lost opportunity” from his early teaching days and prepares to improve his practice for a challenge on the horizon.
In his sixth year of participating in a Critical Friends Group at his elementary school, Chris Simmonds is grateful for this safe space to reflect on the array of issues that influence the often complicated daily decisions he makes in his teaching practice. When a trusted colleague chooses a protocol* that provides the group with an opportunity to examine issues of identity, diversity, beliefs and values, Chris admits to being uncertain about what will “come up” for him. As a white male, he anticipates exploring how his identity has privileged him throughout his own schooling experiences and imagines that he will reflect on the work that he must continue to do in order to best create an equitable learning experience for all of his students. While issues of race and gender do arise during the first part of the protocol, when the group members are asked to “talk about a time when your perceptions of a student’s identity caused you to do something that held her/him back,” Chris painfully recalls his “abysmal failure” with Winston, a deaf student from his second year in the classroom. With “hands full” trying to figure out the dynamic of the rest of his twenty-four students, Chris shares that he largely depended upon Winston’s interpreter/aide to “get him through” the third grade curriculum. It was something that nagged at him throughout the year, especially as Winston became more of an “outsider” in the classroom dynamic. Chris regretfully admits that at the time, he did not perceive Winston as a kid who was as intellectually capable as his hearing peers.
Now ten years into his teaching career, Chris admits that he makes mistakes daily in his practice, yet his failure to acknowledge Winston’s abilities and be more pro-active in weaving his “deafness” into the fabric of the classroom continue to haunt him. Recently told that a deaf student would be joining his third grade class in the fall, Chris finds the CFG group exploration timely, as he is just commencing the process of humbly accepting this “second chance” to figure out how to honor his incoming student’s learning differences in a way that will support her and strengthen the classroom collective. With some research on his own* and a request for a professional development opportunity to explore how to work with inclusion students such as his incoming third grader, Monica, Chris banishes his false and dangerous assumptions about student capabilities from his early teaching years and begins to create a plan of high expectations for Monica’s success. He insists on a pre-start of school meeting with Monica’s family, her interpreter, and the aide who will work with her both in and outside of class. From what he has read, Chris understands that communication among the “team” supporting Monica is crucial to her growth. Tapping into the expertise of these educators, Chris gets some tips on where to place Monica in the classroom (near the front, but not so much that she can’t see other students), what he can do to help her feel less isolated (pair her with kids she can connect with socially, who may ultimately serve as “peer tutors” for her), include “lag time” in class discussions (allowing Monica and others to “catch up”), speak directly to Monica (not to her interpreter) and place tennis balls on the leg chairs (to reduce the terrible scraping sound that is amplified in Monica’s hearing aids).
Chris takes these early suggestions to heart, and further researches how he can include some sign language in every day processes in the classroom. He considers ways that Monica could teach sign language to her peers, to both provide a means of connection and a chance for Monica to feel valued in her abilities. Chris plans to spend time over the summer learning some basic sign language and has already begun reading about deaf culture. He is grateful to his colleagues for providing him support during the CFG meeting where he was challenged to reflect on an egregious assumption about how perceived identity can influence a teacher’s expectations of a student’s capabilities. With the renewed belief that “all children can learn” and that he must hold Monica to the same high expectations that he has for his hearing students, Chris hopes that the next time his CFG group takes on this reflection, he will be able to talk about Monica, and “a time when [his] perceptions of a student’s identity caused [him] to do something that moved her/him forward.” With support from colleagues and his school, Chris is eager and inspired for the challenge ahead.
- From the UNC School of Education, this informative site provides videos, transcripts, and articles that address such things as “deafness, self-esteem, and the inclusive classroom,” “deafness, language, and literacy,” and “the importance of collaboration.” The videos are linked to an article entitled “Deaf Learners and Successful Cognitive Achievement” which explores the history of attitudes toward deaf students’ potential and the current research around this. It also provides descriptions of helpful learning environments for deaf learners.
- From the Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center at Gallaudet University, “Deaf Culture: What a School Can Do” provides an extensive list of suggestions for making school a welcoming and inclusive place for deaf students and families. The recommendations are also valuable in helping a school to gain hands-on tools for embracing/celebrating deaf culture and honoring differences.
- This “Paseo or Circles of Identity” CFG protocol from the National School of Reform Faculty is a tool that helps initiate dialogue. This particular protocol is helpful for a group wishing to “examine issues of identity, diversity, beliefs and values . . . and make connections between who we are and how that shapes decisions and behaviors.”