I recently had the opportunity to travel to Johannesburg (known locally as Joburg), South Africa to attend the SENIA conference and learn from over 40 practitioners and 200 plus participants from across the globe about learning support, students with exceptional needs, and language learner programs. In addition to participating in the sessions, I also had the pleasure of facilitating a workshop on creating elementary student support programs in an international school context.
More and more, educators have begun to include the term neurodiversity in conversations of inclusion, and inclusion has evolved to include varying aspects of one’s identity markers that make you who you are. Identity markers include things such as race, religious affiliation, gender, and age. The conversations in Joburg centered mostly on the questions of:
How might we help our neurodivergent families and students when they embark on the learning journey? What about our multilingual learners, how are they included in the conversations about inclusion? Where does equity fit within this conversation and how can educators ensure that equity is embedded within teaching practices?
As I reflected on my learnings from this first inclusion conference on the African continent, I walked away with some key takeaways:
SENIA Africa offered an opportunity to lean into and explore indigenous African culture and its links to education through the keynote speech and workshop sessions offered by Estelle Baroung Hughes, secondary principal at the International School of Dakar. These sessions included: considering the role of greetings, building relationships, nature and the supernatural, role of the elders and community, and how that intertwines within the ecosystems of the international school. Estelle encourages students to own their learning differences, as these differences (which we all have) are what make our individual experiences worthwhile. She also added that while labeling can be useful, educators should strive to not make these labels damaging and harmful to the students that are in our care.
Holding the conference in Johannesburg, South Africa seemed fitting given the recounted history of the struggles for educational equity and equality for all, as well as the systematic changes that have come since Apartheid ended. Similar to South Africa, inclusion has come a long way and still has even further to go.
Inclusion Needs a Definition
I spoke with different educators of varying backgrounds and skill sets from across the globe. Engaging with them provided deeper insight into the systems that schools have created or have started to develop. Both international and national schools focused on inclusion. Among all my peers, there was an understanding that one of the first steps that should be considered when developing support programs is how a school defines inclusion within their contexts. As such, what does inclusion look like when students are supported with their academic, behavioral, or wellbeing needs? What barriers to access exist for students and how is information shared with families and educators who engage with the student so that families are an integral part of the experience?
Across the elementary and secondary divisions, each of the participants shared about their school’s student support, composed of personnel who look after the academic, social, emotional, and overall wellbeing of students. Inclusion, in terms of how students with learning differences are integrated into the classroom (or in some cases not), was visible through different professional development sessions where the faculty relearned, reimagined, and collaborated on best practices for creating an environment that accommodated all learning styles and learning differences.
Some practitioners shared about their board’s decisions to incorporate support as part of tuition, while others shared about extra fees paid for students learning English as a new language or for requiring differentiation in order to access the curriculum (a topic for longer discussion at another time). Practitioners recognized that a definition of inclusion should provide an entry into actionable steps and should be able to eliminate barriers to accessing the curriculum and, in some cases, the environment, so that all learners truly can feel a sense of belonging within their international school.
Multilingual Learners and Our Role as Educators
Intersectionality exists for students who are learning a new language and also present as neurodiverse. Translanguaging can be a way to support students who are learning a language and still honor their first language, which in some cases is their neurodiversity. Translanguaging is the act performed by bilinguals of accessing different linguistic features or various modes of what are described as autonomous languages, in order to maximize communicative potential (Ofelia García, 2009). Jon Nordmeyer spoke about multilingual learners and the need for educators to recognize the assets and contributions that they bring to the classrooms. Learning also needs to be centered on examining our own biases as it relates to multilingual classrooms and how students show up within these spaces. Students are young adults similar to who we were once. When given the opportunity to be looked at as individuals who are learning a new language and all the challenges that come with it, educators can begin to see students for the person they are.
Our role as educators is to then facilitate learning, using translanguaging to ensure that multilingual learners are included in the learning process, environment, and systems. Educators need to create classroom environments where equity is present and felt for students who are learning a new language, ensuring that they feel safe to revert back to their first language as needed.
Learning with educators across the globe, with the backdrop of Johannesburg, got me thinking about where to go with my learnings and what actions might be the next step. A few ideas are:
Along with any next step, it is important to pause for self-reflection. Ask yourself:
The more we take time to reflect internally on our equity practices, the better we are able to serve our students of varying backgrounds and learning styles.
Maymouna Sakho is the head of elementary student support programs and diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) coordinator at the International School of Dakar.