Meeting the Needs of Diverse Learners

Schools are charged with educating all students. That mandate requires more than simply providing an education to all comers, it requires meeting students developmentally ‘where they are’ and meeting them within the context of ‘who they are’. The ‘where they are’ may be derived from socio-economic background or rural versus urban geographic setting, as well as understanding their unique success or struggle in the journey though prior schooling. The ‘who they are’ acknowledges the diverse needs of diverse learners in a diverse society. Sex, gender identity, race, cultural background, mental or physical disability, sexual preference or the capacity for learning all flesh out the definition of diversity and add challenge to the ways in which schools meet a learner’s needs. So the mandate for equity of opportunity means starting from a very diverse definition of diversity.

Teachers are the front-lines of education and as such are at the fore of providing that equitable mandate. One of the easiest ways in which teachers maintain equity in education is by creating environments of respect and mutual support in the classroom. Teachers need to model inclusion by showing all cultures and backgrounds respect and equity. Classroom celebrations for example should be culturally appropriate and diverse, not simply centered on euro-centric, Christian or traditionally ‘white’ expressions of cultural identity. Teachers modeling cultural respect during lessons, while in school functions or during parent meetings may be teaching more in those non-lesson manners than in any other way. School leaders also need to expend this cultural sensitivity beyond the classroom and to the school at-large. School-wide activities should also model these values, not just for students but to provide a template for teachers to follow as well.

School leaders can expend this modeling of respect for diversity well beyond the assembly, celebration or school-wide activity. Leadership can mold a building culture that builds educational diversity right into the fabric of the school. This could be an eye towards hiring faculty and staff that greater reflects the school’s population or offering in-service training on language for a school with many non-English first language speakers. Greater fostering of ties with the wider community can also provide leadership and valuable resources in this regard. Local agencies or ethnicity-based community groups could provide guidance on cultural sensitivity or be a source of classroom helpers, guest speakers and be a sounding-board for the cultural appropriateness of lessons or activities.

Beyond cultural diversity, economic diversity may be a factor that leaders needs to acknowledge at a school-wide scale. Training teachers or providing community-based resources able to assist in understanding the diverse needs created by economic status. Schools needs to address inequity in things such as internet access by either limiting the need for access to complete assignments or by opening the school’s resources to the community during non-instructional times. Many schools such as Altmar-Parish-Williamstown in Oswego County have begun to take the addressing of economic diversity one step further and have begun to offer medical, dental and food-security assistance to area families directly out of the school. This addresses not only the diverse needs of less affluent population, but acknowledges the differing challenges faced by a rural setting as well. While these needs are not directly pedagogical, it is the very understanding of diverse needs to realize that all parts of student’s life and current status determine their ability to learn.

Students who feel that they are singled out or worse yet have their needs ignored are at a greater risk to not only fail to achieve learning but potentially are impacted on a deeply profound level. School leaders needs to create social just school settings that value each student and empower those students to be themselves. Socially just schools feature opportunities for open dialogue among not only students but faculty as well.  A high-school student questioning his or sexuality for example may find an unwelcoming school not only a threat to his or her education but their very mental well-being and self-worth under attack. While laws such as the Defense of All Students Act (DASA) provide a structural way for students and faculty to address complaints of discrimination, bullying or insensitivity, they do not inherently create an atmosphere of respect or comfort. Building leaders need to take charge in training faculty and staff not only to avoid discrimination themselves but in identifying and correcting it in the student body. Paying attention to language kids use, from calling out the use of ‘retard’ or ‘gay’ or respecting the wishes of students for pronoun preference, all model the behavior of mutual respect that a diverse school must engender.

Beyond the characteristics that define meeting an individual learner’s diverse needs and meeting them where they are and who they have become, schools need to meet the diverse needs of where they are going. This means attention to the outcomes of education, and how those educational goals will need to be differently expressed for different learners. Schools need to be structured in ways that provide a variety of definitions of success. Students with severe learning disabilities may have goals that are related to daily living and meeting basic needs while an honors student needs a college-preparation program with AP or IB offerings. Educational diversity means just that, different educations. There is no one-size fits all approach to learning. Alternative program offerings via BOCES or ‘School-Within-a-School’ models can work to shape and education to the diverse needs of learners. Support systems such as active AIS intervention or on-line credit recovery like APEX or PLATO programs allow students to meet graduation challenges in diverse ways.

In my 20 years of teaching I have seen the students that have passed though my classroom change and with that, their needs. All students need to see themselves in the curriculum they are taught and by failing to integrate lessons that openly embrace the diversity of students today, we would be doing them a great disservice. When I started teaching for instance I did not address the LGBT community in my lessons on civil rights. As my students reflected the more tolerant society and school that has transformed around my classroom, I too found myself looking to meet that growing need for students to see themselves in the lessons I taught. So now, I teach lessons that touch on much more LGBT history. The sexual diversity of 1800’s Utopian Communities, the ‘Lavender Scare’ when addressing McCarthyism of the 1950’s, the Stonewall Inn Riots and the rise of AIDS all now weave their way into my US History curriculum at various points. I also make a string effort to integrate them organically into the history and not treat them a ‘gay history unit’. I believe this is a good model for leading a school into a more diverse future, not isolating or spotlighting the diversity of a school but threading and weaving it into the very fabric of the school itself.

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