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Bank Street Releases Occasional Paper Series #36

Posted by Bank Street Communications on November 14, 2016 Alba Somoza

The new Bank Street Occasional Paper Series #36, titled "Life in Inclusive Classrooms: Storytelling with Disability Studies in Education," launched today to provide educators with a closer look at the complexities of teaching and learning in inclusive classrooms.

The series contains nine essays that utilize the art of storytelling to inspire a broader dialogue about inclusive classrooms, school communities, and how teachers, parents, and advocates can work to help create meaningful learning environments for students with disabilities.

Occasional Paper Series #36 guest editors Joseph Michael Valente, Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education at Pennsylvania State University, and Scot Danforth, Professor of Disability Studies and Inclusive Education at Chapman University, provide additional insight into the topic of inclusive classrooms and advocacy for children with disabilities:

Q: In the introduction to this issue, you state: “More than ever before, there is an urgent need for dialogue about inclusion and the implementation of inclusive classroom practices.” Why are disability studies so important right now? Are educators and families ready to take further steps toward inclusion and, if so, why?

A: During the 1980s and 1990s, the field of special education argued over whether inclusive education would become a central plank of the profession’s platform of ethical commitments. The field ended up taking a lukewarm stance supporting some inclusion under some circumstances while rallying behind the profession’s science of interventions. Essentially, special education opted to champion research and practices seeking normality while sidestepping the main political goals of the disability rights movement. This approach elevated special education researchers and the special education bureaucracy while leaving disabled persons and the parents of kids with disabilities stigmatized and marginalized. Meanwhile, America today is becoming more diverse and accepting of human diversity. Disability Studies in Education (DSE) scholars are working in the gap left behind by special education by reigniting conversations about inclusive education as an approach to democratic education and ethical living. Around the country, teachers and parents want young people to grow up in diverse communities that enact and teach respect and mutual valuing.

Q: When reading the essays, it is clear that challenges remain inside inclusive classrooms and the solution seems to be multidimensional and therefore hard to overcome. What are some of the biggest roadblocks to more inclusive classrooms and how can storytelling help create a space for change?

A: Stories are always rich, complex, conflicted, and open to a range of interpretations. They don’t dictate what to do. Instead, they open up vistas of insight and create moments for conversation across lines of difference and disagreement. We are committed to the notion that only through thoughtful and cooperative discussions about complex issues can we improve our schools and communities. In this sense, the biggest roadblocks to schools becoming more inclusive and caring are the conversations that we do not currently have—the discussions among educators, researchers, families, and students about how we want to live and learn together. Stories foster those productive, useful conversations.

Q: One of the most moving aspects of Occasional Paper Series #36 is that often the students taught the teachers how to proceed in difficult situations. Is this scenario more often the case than not, and if so, how can educators use that to help further inclusion?

A: There is often a generational difference in the kinds of cultural hang-ups that trouble adults versus the concerns and worries that matter most among young people. For example, many of us grew up in an era when the legalization and widespread acceptance of gay marriage was unimaginable. Many young people are now growing up in a youth culture where issues concerning the identity and acceptance of LGBTQ persons are not significant questions. As John Dewey told us long ago, we tend not to solve big social questions. We simply get over them. If we pay attention to the spoken desires and wants of young people today, they are more ready than the adults to get over the so-called social problem of disability. They are more prepared than the adults to embrace and accept one another regardless of bodily or mental variations. For this reason, we educators need to actively turn to children and youth to guide us as we lead their classroom and school communities. We should make space for student leaders to set the tone and direction for the creation of the school communities young people want and need. We might be surprised at how quickly they get over our hang-ups and anxieties about human differences.

Q: Several of these essays include a parent’s perspective and bring a distinct voice to this issue. What is the most effective way for parents to be better advocates for their children?

A: The research literature unfortunately shows how often inclusive education relies on the moral pressure and constructive involvement of parents. When overworked parents step back to take a break, schools often begin devolving to the default segregation mode. What has been most effective for parents advocating for inclusion is alliances—collaborative working relationships with other parents and with educators. Both kinds of relationships can reduce the loneliness and suffering of the advocacy journey. Working with other parents provides social support and creating a combined political voice can help influence schools to keep the inclusion agenda alive. In the past, this typically meant the creation of alliances among the parents of disabled students. Today we believe that many parents of nondisabled students are ready to be active allies in this effort. Working with educators facilitates the actual inclusive arrangements in the classrooms. Ultimately, teachers and students make inclusion happen or not. Parents are external voices intervening to send messages of ethical priority and put pressure on schools to not revert to the default practices of segregation.

Q: What do you hope readers will take away from these essays?

A: We hope that these essays and stories inspire and annoy, creating hope for new possibilities while simultaneously delivering a nagging awareness that we have much work to do. In recent years, schools have seemingly become places where high stakes testing dominates the discussion. These stories hopefully remind us to push past the veil of inhuman numbers, the accountant’s greenbox ledgers, to return our moral attention to real children and families living real lives. We hope to inspire people to ask: How can very different people live together and help one another learn? Confronted with differences that seem to be sources of social division, how can our schools become communities of solidarity, love, and compassion? The Occasional Papers Series is a forum for work that extends, deepens, and challenges the progressive legacy on which Bank Street College was built. The biannual series seeks to promote discussion about what it means to educate in a democracy and to meet the interrelated demands of equity and excellence.

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