“Ms. Daughtery, I don’t know if I can do it,” he said.
“I’m sure you can,” I answered.
In kindergarten, this student was identified with a learning disability and put into special education classes, and he still kept his IEP in eighth grade. Because he excelled in my eighth-grade English class, I recommended him for ninth-grade honors English. I knew he was fully capable and I believed he would excel, just as he had done over the past year. I treated this student like the rest, figuring out ways to challenge him and include him in the “good” work, the hard work, the interesting work.
Inclusion—figuring out how to include others so they know they belong—has long been a theme of my career, and it extends beyond students. I have spent, and continue to spend, a lot of time figuring out ways to include as many people as possible, whether it be educators in conversational learning or students in academic spaces.
Questioning the criteria
In 2007, I moved from Detroit to Las Vegas to teach eighth-grade English and journalism, which had yearbook and newspaper students in the same class. A lot of my English classes were inclusion classes, meaning they were co-taught with a special education teacher and a percentage of the class included students with an IEP. My grade-level partner had the honors classes.
When I started at my new school, the student population was mainly comprised of upper-middle-class white students, followed by Asian and Pacific Islander students; Black and Hispanic students were the minority. By the end of my second year, in the middle of the first housing crash, my school district redrew some of its boundaries, resulting in a demographic shift. Between June and September, the Black and Hispanic population of my school significantly increased. I was excited for the new students.
At the same time, I went to my principal to see if I could vary my workload. I didn’t want to lose my inclusion classes, but I did want to switch things up and teach an honors class or two. He agreed.
As a Black teacher, it was unsettling to see Black and Hispanic students be systematically locked out of higher-level courses.
But when I looked at the current makeup of the honors sections, I was frustrated that the classes were almost completely white, middle-class students, though the demographics had shifted. Where were the Black and Hispanic students? Where were the special education students?
I asked my colleague, “How do students get into honors classes, anyway?” She rattled off the requirements: a high GPA; high state test scores; teacher and counselor recommendations; and good citizenship (e.g., good behavior, great attendance).
I could swallow the test scores. I could swallow the grades. I could even roll with recommendations, though each of those were problematic in their own right. I could not swallow citizenship being a gatekeeper.
“But what does citizenship have to do with honors English?” I asked. And she had the answer: “Good citizenship shows that students can behave well in class. Show up on time, you know, things like that.”
I pressed: “Isn’t honors English about academics? A student’s citizenship has nothing to do with their grades or ability.”
As a Black teacher, it was unsettling to see Black and Hispanic students be systematically locked out of higher-level courses. I use the word “systematically” intentionally here. No one individual’s conscious actions were intending to exclude students from honors classes. However, the system had been constructed by restrictions layered on top of each other, reinforced by teachers and counselors, left unchallenged by administrators until they were finally codified into policy that was just accepted. But the implications of citizenship for entryway, on top of assessment scores, teacher recommendations, and grades—all problematic in their own ways—left Black, brown, and special education students systemically locked out of honors courses, which had implications for their ninth-grade options and high school trajectories. This deeply troubled me, and I had to figure out a way to disrupt the system.
Disrupt the system for any kid who might, could possibly do well
The next day, I had a similar conversation with the school counselor. She gave me the same answers about how students got put into honors English. Since the counselor determined scheduling, I figured she would be the best place to disrupt the system.
“I would like you to find me any kid who could be a good fit for my honors class next year,” I said. “They don’t need perfect grades or test scores; they just need to be someone who you think could do it—and take citizenship out of the equation. Any kid who might, could possibly do well.” I asked her to ask the seventh-grade teachers and tell them my criteria: if they could maybe do well, recommend them.
She did. And, as a result, my honors section looked very different from any honors class before it. My one class had more Black and brown kids than all the other honors sections combined.
My students were given the same work and the same expectations, and many of them flourished. They read and analyzed Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies in Socratic Seminar, created rich and engaging portfolios in Writers’ Workshop, and led class discussions.
Around the same time, I was challenging the makeup of the yearbook class, also almost completely white, middle-class students. Yearbook, as you can imagine, is a fun, coveted class. Students get to use a camera, roam the halls, interview students and teachers, and show up to middle school events with a press badge. Yearbook students get the run of the school. Yearbook is also a small class, about 10–12 students.
Inclusion takes work, but as long as I was willing to take it on, a lot more kids got opportunities.
The criteria for journalism was the same as honors classes: high test scores, teacher recommendations, high grades, and exemplary citizenship. I once again found myself looking for opportunities to invite any student who could be included, offering opportunity to Black and brown students who were as much a part of the school community as their white peers.
Now, for yearbook, a citizenship requirement makes sense (you need a student who can be responsible with the freedom to roam the school every day), but I challenged the notion that high test scores and grades should be a barrier. As an inclusion teacher, I noticed there had never been a student with an IEP in these kinds of classes.
I went back to the counselor and asked for anyone that might, could possibly do well in journalism.
Together, we found a student. Honestly, the class was a challenge for her at first, but she soon began to find her way. She was excited to have the opportunity to be in a “fun” class and participate in the same experience as her peers. Much like the students in my honors class, she just needed a different kind of coaching and feedback from me. I tailored my instruction to meet her needs so that she could be included and she could be successful.
By asking the counselor to give me any student who could possibly be a good fit in these classes, it became my job to support them like an honors kid. Inclusion takes work, but as long as I was willing to take it on, a lot more kids got opportunities.
Since the criteria for honors sections and those “fun” classes was never official policy, the requirements were softened for future students. The conversations about inclusion were difficult, but it was worth the work.
As educators, we should always ask how we can include students in all available opportunities.
The same is true as a leader outside the classroom. As a literacy advocate, I listen to all voices, even those coming from places where I usually find disagreement. That’s how ideas come together and change happens.
I can’t do my job effectively if I just pick a camp and I am so dogmatic that it eclipses my ability to see what the bigger picture is. I am active on Twitter and even there, I try to include as many people in conversations as I can, even people who I know have opposing views.
Even if an educator I’m working with holds ideas very different from mine, they could still be teaching literacy to 180 students every week. I have to find a way to tap into them, support them, share best practices and research with them, and learn from them. We all have something to give.
My job is to mine the great ideas, the progressive ideas, the high-leverage conservative ideas, and then to amplify them for other educators.
I feel the same way about kids. How many of my students can I get included in as many spaces as possible? How many new things can I learn today? How many colleagues can I connect with?