Prior to our Winter Break I was introduced to Forward Together: A School Leader’s Guide to Creating Inclusive Schools and the companion piece Forward Together: Helping Educators Unlock the Power of Students Who Learn Differently by the National Center for Learning Disabilities. These documents provided me with something I didn’t realize was missing – a scaffold. Throughout the recent journey of our school we have used observations, expert skills, data, and research to guide many of our decisions and to set our direction. I have documented some of this in my various blog posts. I knew this past spring, when one of our teachers wrote an excellent paper about the need for our school to fully embrace inclusion, that we were ready for the next step in our evolution.
After a lot of work, we applied for a three-year SET BC grant and have become a pilot school for the provincial Inclusive Schools Project. We began the year, as we regularly do, gathering information, setting goals, and planning how to meet the diverse needs of our students. In addition to this, the SET BC team came and worked with us in early October. We took our reams of data and feedback and began making plans about how to support each other to better meet the needs of our students. However, throughout it felt like we were all fumbling in the dark trying to figure out what to do; actually, I think it is more fair to say we were fumbling around to figure out what the right questions to ask were. We are a broad-based team of outstanding professionals from many different backgrounds and areas of expertise, but we are missing a framework. I am a firm believer in scanning the landscape, focusing our efforts, learning what’s needed, setting our goals, and then aligning resources, focus, and energy to achieve those goals. We did that but were missing a conceptual framework; which I didn’t realize but felt. One of our team-members – Christina Majcher, our school psychologist – introduced me to key research that I had missed: enter the Forward Together project.
Based on a plethora of research, the NCLD has created a guiding framework for creating inclusive schools and though it is American, the framework has significant applicability to our context. There are ten areas that the research indicates should be priorities and the document breaks them into three sections.
The first is establishing common beliefs. Throughout our Learning Community we need to share four key mindsets. Our educators need to know that we can teach all students successfully. We need to be positive about inclusion and feel personal responsibility for all students. We need to be confident that we can improve as professionals. And, we need to know that all students can learn through practice and hard work. The second belief is about the power of collaboration, not just amongst the professionals, but also including the families and caregivers of our students.
The second section focuses on developing an inclusive culture, and there are four areas to address here. We need to ensure that our practice is culturally responsible, uses universal design for learning, is guided by positive behaviour strategies, and that we utilize flexible grouping in our structures. The third section focuses on instructional strategies themselves. Instruction needs to be explicit, making learning processes systematic, overt, and clear. We need to use evidence-based content instruction in all areas, but most specifically in reading and numeracy. Finally, we need to deliberately teach learning strategies, cognitive and metacognitive, for all students to become successful learners.
While none of the above contains life changing realizations, it provides us with a framework for our work. I am very pleased to see that we have been developing our capacity in these areas over the past three year, but recognize that it has been in a haphazard way by focusing on a myriad of research, experiences, expertise and by putting student needs first. Our School Learning Plan reflects much of this but is too diffuse. The Forward Together work has provided support for our work and a structure for our next steps.