We’ve all heard the saying and seen the political cartoon- Equality is not Equity. If everyone is given the same tools, that’s equality, but it doesn’t help those who need a different form of support. It’s a nice concept in theory, but what does it look like in practice?
In my experiences as a teacher education student in the Urban Communities Cohort at the University of Ottawa, I was placed in a school program called CNX (pronounced “Connex”). This alternative program was part of a push to meet students halfway, approaching them on their terms and developing assessments that lined up with their strengths and their interests. This program was fairly small, as parents had to request enrollment, but naturally, the class was full to the brim with neurodivergent students — that is, students with learning disabilities or other conditions that impact the way they processed information. As a neurodivergent learner myself, I fit right in. The students all had a sense of frustration directed toward this system of learning that wasn’t designed for them, and I certainly shared that opinion. A great number of them were also racialized students, which only further added to the frustration and helplessness they experienced. CNX was their ‘break’ from the education system. That’s not to say they didn’t work; in fact, their time in CNX was by far the most productive part of their day. We would determine what credits they needed to work toward, and work together to figure out a project that demonstrated learning in those areas. A student needed their English credit, but disliked writing? They decided to start a podcast instead, in order to demonstrate their communication skills. Working with them to establish their script and analyze the topics they wanted to cover resulted in a much more enthusiastic process than a more generic assignment would have. The main goal of the program was to have the students do something they loved, instead of seeing education and learning as something to dread.
Sensoy and DiAngelo’s Is Everyone Really Equal? explores several different perspectives on equity, justice, and critical awareness. One aspect that became particularly relevant to my work in CNX was the discussion of how personalities and perspectives are formed — “…not objective and independent, but rather the result of myriad social messages and conditioning forces” (Sensoy 43). As any educator can tell you, children rarely have a strong sense of identity. Personality, yes, but no firm identity. Instead, they’re essentially just a bundle of experiences and patterns from the environments they grew up in-home, school, and extracurriculars. One of our jobs as educators is to help those children sort out those experiences, and offer them the opportunity to discover which ones matter to them, and which ones they would rather disregard. It’s important to remember that no child is raised in a vacuum — every single mannerism, every moment of rebellion or emotional blowup — is a result of their environmental input. However, one lesson that can be hard for educators to learn is that we are meant to offer the tools for students to form the identity they want to have — not mold them into the identity we think they should have. It’s a difficult line to walk. There were many times when I found myself pushing against a student because of my own personal beliefs, and I had to step back and ask myself why I felt so strongly about it and why the student didn’t. Typically, the answer ended up being ‘this is important to me and my identity, but it doesn’t need to be that way for anyone else’. Thankfully, I had students who would not hesitate to keep me honest in those situations.
A big part of what made CNX tick was the lack of labels. Nowadays, education (and as a result, teacher education too!) is an unsustainable mess of buzzwords, trendy perspectives, and other ultimately unhelpful jargon. In CNX, there was no distinction between auditory and visual learning styles. There was no determining whether something was assessment OF, FOR, or AS learning. There was just learning: on the students’ terms. That’s not to say those assessment concepts didn’t apply, of course, but the focus wasn’t on dividing them up- a singular project could have elements of all three forms of assessment. We didn’t need to spend time identifying a student’s learning style when the student had creative input on how they wanted to develop their projects. We didn’t need to differentiate the types of assessment because they all applied in various ways. Granted, we were lucky to have the level of freedom that we did (and a much higher teacher-to-student ratio), but the results spoke for themselves. Students would attend CNX far more regularly than their other classes, would get more work done, and would be more invested and energetic, ready to come back the next day. It’s well known that for many students with unstable home lives, school can be a safe space for them to express themselves without fear of retribution. CNX was a safe space for students who felt unsafe even at school, for whatever reason. There was never any judgement or ultimatums, simply a conversation about ‘what is going to work for you today?’ Breaks were abundant, but even taking them into account, students displayed a remarkable level of productivity — because they were working in the way that made the most sense to them.
A big part of neurodivergency in education that often gets overlooked is isolation. There are many other struggles that minority students face at school, but as a young neurodivergent student, it is easy to feel totally and completely alone. I know this from direct experience, as well as many years of third-party observation. My entire elementary and most of my high school experience was spent alone, though I wasn’t always sure why. Even though I knew there were other students with learning disabilities in my school, they had different diagnoses from me or faced different problems. We couldn’t relate to one another. There was no sense of community, and no opportunity to commiserate about the trials we faced. Through this lived experience, I’ve realized the desperate need for neurodivergent teachers. It’s no secret that representation matters. Many, many studies have been conducted on the effects of children seeing themselves represented in books, in tv shows, as authority figures in their lives, and so on. Teachers with learning disabilities can engage with students who feel that sense of isolation, and can say ‘No, you aren’t alone, and here’s why.’ Communication can be a big struggle among children and teenagers, but with neurodivergent teachers building bridges between the students, a greater sense of community can be established, and the students can thrive.
In classrooms with a large percentage of neurodivergent students, one of the first aspects that need to adapt is the power structure. Though I certainly can’t speak for all students with learning disabilities, there is typically a huge amount of friction between educators and students when the educator tries to assume authority over the class. “…we must be able to recognize that relations of unequal social power are constantly being negotiated at both the micro (individual) and macro (structural) levels” (Sensoy and DiAngelo 199). An understanding of this concept is key to making CNX work: the teachers never gave ultimatums; they offered choices. Putting control in the hands of the students, while still keeping everything on track, allowed us to avoid head-to-head conflicts where the student simply opposes whatever they’re being told to do. When offered a choice, the student then has greater autonomy. Not only will they often willingly choose to work with no further encouragement, but they will also be much more motivated than they would be if they had been forced to work. Even the layout of the classroom supported this mindset. In a typical classroom, there is a very clear divide between the student desks and the teacher’s area. In CNX, there was no teacher area. We would simply set up and work alongside the students at different tables, arranged throughout the room for ease of movement between them. These decisions, and many more besides, were all in the service of creating an environment where the students felt like equals, rather than subjects. Where they could have a say in how their day was planned, rather than being ‘put to work’. Of course, the system wasn’t entirely perfect; no method is. It certainly worked for these students, though.
This post has been a bit all over the place, but what I want to emphasize is this: My experiences may have been with a majority of neurodiverse students with various disabilities, but the observations that arose apply to all students. They don’t know who they are, and they want to figure it out. Beyond just teaching, we need to give them the chance to figure themselves out, to grow into a person that they can be proud of. As a child and as a teenager, they’re constantly being bombarded by messages about who they should be. Be the one source in their life who asks them “who do you want to be?”
Sensoy, Ö., & DiAngelo, R. J. (2017). Is everyone really equal?: An introduction to key concepts in Social Justice Education. Teachers College Press.