It started when I was in kindergarten. My teacher believed I was a “delayed learner” and “fell behind” most of my peers. “She can’t even use scissors to cut shapes,” my teacher told my mother. Instead of finding ways to support and enhance my learning, my teacher wanted to hold me back. Try telling that to a Haitian mother. She brought the novel “Wuthering Heights” and had me read a few pages aloud to the surprise of my teacher. “Oh, she can read.” My mother marched me to the principal’s office, and I don’t know what was said, but I was going to the first grade.
Throughout my schooling, I never had extra support from teachers and my lessons were never modified to match my learning level. My mother helped me discover my learning style. She sat with me and my textbooks for hours. She would highlight important details, repeat them to me, break down information, define vocabulary words and prompt me to use them in sentences.
By the 5th grade, I knew my learning style. I wasn’t going to fully understand the lessons that were taught; but I was going to sit with my teacher during my recess for reviews, followed by re-reading and highlighting information in my textbooks when I got home.
My difficulty in the classroom caused extreme stress and anxiety. I had constant stomach aches and only wore dark colors so nobody could see the sweat marks I accumulated throughout the day.
When I was in middle school, our family, who lived in Colorado, adopted my 16-year old cousin from Haiti, JB, who was born deaf. Through this experience, I learned at a young age that within developing countries there’s not only prejudice against people living with disabilities, but also very limited resources to help these citizens thrive in their communities.
In 2017, the non-profit organization Travel & GIVE was born. Our mission is to educate teachers and communities about ways to include people with disabilities in everyday activities within the classroom and community. We travel to Haiti and Kenya annually and have provided professional development courses for over 60 teachers, caregivers, and medical staff. This has been an exciting journey as we have also learned so much from educators in Haiti and Kenya.
Through my personal experience as a “delayed learner” and 7 years of professional experience as a Speech & Language Pathologist, I’ve created 5 essential strategies as a baseline to promoting an inclusive learning environment within the classroom setting:
- Learn your students’ learning styles. Provide a multi-modality and diverse learning environment. Some students learn visually, auditorily, or through movement. There are ways to implement all of these learning strategies within each lesson.
- Learn as much as you can about your students — their background and homelife. The more you know about your students, the better you can support them. If your student doesn’t have access to the internet or a laptop at home, it’s your duty to provide other options for the student to complete an assignment. You must consider how your student’s home life is affecting her academic/classroom performance and work around finding the best strategies for that student to achieve.
- From graphic organizers to tiered-level worksheets – individually modify lessons for students and provide supports as needed.
- Preferential seating and grouping: assign student seating based on a location that is most beneficial for learning in the classroom. If the student has a hearing impairment, have him sit up front. For students who have difficulty focusing, provide a separate room for testing with fewer students. Group students based on mix-skilled levels so that they can learn from each other.
- Most importantly, give your students an opportunity to advocate for themselves. For your students who are struggling, allow them to voice their needs and support them to the best of your ability.
Whether you work in education or not, I encourage you to research diversity and inclusion. There is a plethora of articles with information on how to include diversity and inclusion in any setting – from the classroom, to the workplace, and in your community. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilization.”