The Tipping Point
DJ Nicholson and I discuss what the tipping point was for us leaving our positions in our school district, and how it made us better advocates for inclusive education.
I’m Tim Villegas, and you are reading or listening to my bi-weekly (or whenever we get around to it) newsletter, where I break down what is happening in the field of inclusive education and whatever else is going on in my brain concerning inclusion.
For this edition, I want to share an interview I did with DJ Nicholson from Inclusivology. DJ is a former public school teacher, like me, who left her school district because there were some philosophical differences like me. We chat about the tipping point for us to leave and what inclusive education really means. I think you are going to love this interview. Oh, and shout out to Tillie Elvrum at the Parent Exchange for connecting us.
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Just a quick note about the audio if you are listening to this edition. It’s not my best work, and it sounds pretty distorted. But it’s great content, nonetheless.
Here is the interview (edited for clarity).
DJ Nicholson: I'm DJ Nicholson I'm the director of Inclusivology, which I created in a way to support parents and teachers to ensure that they're including every child and learning, regardless of their disability or their learning difference or their need. And so this came about because I was a public school educator, I was a teacher for 20 years, and I was a coach and a trainer for six years. And I was experiencing quite a bit of frustration in the districts that I was working in when it came to ensuring that every child had access to really quality education, and was getting the tools and support that they needed in order to be successful. So you know, my vision and my path weren't necessarily matching that of my district. And so I decided to step away and create Inclusivlogy and support on a larger scale.
Tim Villegas: So I'm Tim Villegas, the Director of Communications for the Maryland Coalition for Inclusive Education. And I also am a former teacher, and public school employee, I taught for 16 years across California and Georgia. And the last three years, I was a District Support Specialist in the Atlanta area where I live. So I live in Atlanta, but I work for a nonprofit that's based in Maryland. So that's what happens when there's a worldwide pandemic, and everyone gets to go remote, I don't think that I would have this job if that didn't happen. So and my role for MCIE is I am in charge of all the external communications, and I get to meet wonderful people like you DJ and explain what we do and our services in direct partnerships with school districts, I'm working to more inclusive systems. And I'm also a podcast host, blogger, social media person, and development person. So all rolled into one sort of big job.
DJ Nicholson: Right, and it sounds like, you know, we did have very similar paths, before we decided to kind of jump into these situations we're in now where we're really supporting inclusion on an as I said, a much larger scale.
Tim Villegas: So tell me, DJ, was there like a moment that you decided? That's it. I need to get out.
DJ Nicholson: That's such a big question because there sure was. So what was happening is that you know, I felt like my primary area of expertise really was working with children with more cognitive disabilities and intellectual disabilities. And so in my department, in our district, we were having conversations about how we were going to support and coach teachers in providing foundational reading skill support for children with disabilities. And so, you know, I'm assuming that we're talking about children with all different types of disabilities and differences. And so come to find out that we were only going to focus on children with, you know, either specific learning disabilities, and children that were autistic, but were fully included in the general education setting. And we were not going to be focused on anyone that had, you know, an intellectual disability or more significant disability where we would have had to consider, you know, some alternate ways of, you know, filling in those deficits, those skill gaps and supporting those teachers. And so I said, well, in doing this as the special education department, we support all children with disabilities. So I'm confused about the message that we're sending. And you know, I was in a team meeting with the rest of my team and my supervisor, and I said, you know, the role of us is to support all teachers, and we say that we are a fully inclusive district. And that “all means all” was our hashtag. And I said, but if we're not meeting the needs of every child, then we're not really 100% we're not “all means all.” And so I had, you know, a supervisor tell me that I needed to stay in my lane and stop worrying about the 6%. The 6%, I feel like, was an arbitrary number. I don't know if it was 6%, but the point that I took was, you know, stop worrying about kids that are not going to make a large enough difference when it came to test scores. And so my response was, you know, the challenge is that I am in my lane, but my lane is not matching the road that we're taking right now. And so it had been kind of swimming around in my head that I would, you know, maybe take early retirement and look for different avenues. And so it was really in that moment that I said, yeah, this is hurting my heart, and it's hurting my soul. And I'm not able to be as impactful as I would like to be. So I took early retirement about a year and a half ago. And so that, in a nutshell, was my defining moment.
Tim Villegas: Oh, what a story. And what I really think is interesting about that story is, you said that your school district’s or the special education department’s motto was “all means all.”
DJ Nicholson: Right, that was a model across the district and our department.
Tim Villegas: It's one thing if that's not the message you're trying to send, right, but if that's the message that you're trying to send, and you're not following it up with actual, you know, support and practices for all learners, then? I don't know.
DJ Nicholson: Yeah, I almost have a feeling that, you know, it was cute as a hashtag. And it looked good on some backpacks and some stickers, you know, we did not follow up with it in practice.
Tim Villegas: I'm not exactly sure if I have such a great story, as good of a story as yours. I have a lot of little moments. That all added up to me wanting to leave the school district. The ones that really stick with me, and the ones that I truly regret are where I played a part, in more segregation for learners. I already had a mindset that inclusion was the right thing to do. And there were certainly times where, especially one on one, you know, I would advocate for inclusion, but I do remember certain meetings where the team was convincing a family to move their student to a more restrictive environment. And, I don't think I did enough, you know, that always sticks with me.
DJ Nicholson: Well, and I think that you know, it's in those situations, it's challenging to when you have an entire IEP team, and it doesn't sound like even in those situations that the entire team was open to having conversations that are, you know, built around data to kind of guide those discussions.
Tim Villegas: Yeah, well, sometimes the data is an excuse and something that the team hides behind to be more restrictive, you know, right? I was having a conversation yesterday with someone about this. And I was saying one of the things that my supervisors would coach, either teachers or people who would go to meetings to represent the district, is how always to go back to the data because the data isn't emotional. The data doesn't have any pull or sway. And in a very emotional situation where a parent wants something, and the district disagrees, you go back to the data, right? But I always thought like, well, data can be skewed. And data doesn't tell the whole story. Do you know what I mean?
DJ Nicholson: So often, data can be created in the 10 minutes prior to a meeting. Yeah, you never want that. There's almost like a fear of the unknown when it comes to deciding to provide inclusive opportunities for kids, that if, you know, the general education teacher doesn't know, if the special education teacher doesn't have enough background to be able to, to provide and be that kind of school level expert, then it's almost the default to have children be in a separate environment.
Tim Villegas: Yeah, that's true. And so much of it is the mindset. Because if you already have the mindset that certain students with, you know, that have particular learning profiles belong in a particular place, then it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter what the data says because you're always going to view it, you know, with that lens.
DJ Nicholson: Right, and the word mindset, you know, the very first piece really is having conversations about, you know, having that growth mindset and an inclusive mindset, knowing that, as an educational system, we're here to serve all learners. And so it's not our place to kind of pick and choose who belongs and who doesn't. We have to know that every child is capable of learning. And I say that to teachers and parents all the time, every child is capable of learning; we have to find out how to do that. And that really involves, you know, having conversations talking about, you know, a possible bias, talking about solutions on how we can make this effective for a child rather than always looking at the barrier. And the fact that it's well, it's just easier to have him in the special education classroom because that's where he belongs. It's 2023. They don't belong there, just like they didn't belong there in the 70s. But we're still having those conversations.
Tim Villegas: For sure. So let's talk about what inclusive education means to you. I personally think we're probably very, very much aligned. But just for conversational sake, how would you define inclusive education? Because sometimes that means different things to different people.
DJ Nicholson: Right. So to me, being inclusive is providing every child with the resources and the tools to engage in learning authentically. And so, in thinking of it like that, I would love to live in a world where we're not continuing to label children. And I think you and I have talked about this before the idea that you know, well, he has a disability, so he belongs in that classroom, or she has an intellectual disability. So she goes over there to the access classroom, the alternative classroom, and then, you know, we stop to take it a step further, to remove the labels of, you know, sometimes when people say, high performing and low performing. The labels that fall inside of the different. When we talk about inclusion, I wrote a blog about this last year of the difference between doing inclusion and being inclusive, and those were very different things. I remember, when I was working for the district, and I was supporting schools, I would have principals that say, oh, we're doing inclusion. And I said, Well, okay what is what does that look like? Well, we have all the kids that have a disability, they all get services in the classroom. Okay, well, but what does that look like? How does that look different when you're trying to meet the needs of every student? So there's a difference between doing inclusion to say that you're doing it for the sake of, you know, the notoriety, or whatever word we're going to use for that versus truly being inclusive, where you're looking at each child as an individual, and considering what they need. And I think when we do that, we're able to offer kids what they need in the classroom. And we get away from, you know, general education versus special education because I've heard enough times, you know, from general education teachers, like, well, that's not my kid, that's your kid. But so much of that comes from just simply a lack of knowledge and a lack of understanding and not having an opportunity to have those conversations about what it could look like and what it should look like to include every child.
Tim Villegas: Yeah, yes, absolutely. I think that when, when I was in the school district, and I was trying to get people on board with changing their minds, they often would be like, yeah, but what does it look like? And how do you do it? And I had a hard time answering that question because I had only experienced it at a very basic and preliminary level. You can read books, and I can watch videos. And I can talk to people. This is exactly why I created the blog because I knew I wanted information and I thought it was the right thing to do. Like, just inside of me. But I just couldn't conceptualize it and be able to communicate it to people. So I just was eating up as much information as possible. And so especially in those early conversations, I'm like, isn't, you know, isn't this great? Isn't this the best thing? And they're like, yeah, but what does that really look like? I remember, one of my friends and colleagues was like, so are you basically trying to, you know, advocate yourself out of a job? And I was like, no, just because a learner is in general education doesn't mean that a special education teacher isn't involved, you know? And what if, like, what you said, DJ, what if those labels were removed, and we were just educators, right? And the learners were just learners. And, you know, maybe I have training in how to differentiate instruction. But I can support any educator, no matter their label, to support a student, you know, and so those labels, I think, really trip us up.
DJ Nicholson: So I just want to go back to what you said about when you were in the classroom, and people were asking you, well, how do we do this? And so it makes me think, you know, we have teachers out there wanting to be more inclusive. And so when, when you have conversations with teachers, and you hear them say, well, I don't know what this would look like, or I don't know how to begin the conversations with my administrators. What's the first thing that you suggest?
Tim Villegas: Well, I think we, we have to have a shared understanding of what we mean when we talk about inclusion. So that's the first thing I say and, and how we define it, as you know, an organization is really four things. We talk about placement. You know, learners have to be actually physically in a general education classroom to be included. That's how the law defines it. That's how school districts are accountable for reporting. You know, there's the least restrictive environment percentage, 80% or more of the learners time in the general education classroom. So, there's that, and I'll explain to you later why placement is so important. And then membership, participation and learning and those last three, we've borrowed and use with permission, from the Beyond Access Model from Cheryl Jorgensen and Michael McSheehan. So with those four things, participation being the first step, membership is really belonging. So how is a learner a member of the community of the classroom? Are they missed when they're gone? How are they included in the life of the classroom? Do they have friends? Do they feel like they're included? Is there a place for the student? So that's membership. Participation is what the learner is actually doing in the class. You know, do they have a classroom job? Just like everyone else? Do they have a chance to be the line leader? Do they pass out papers? Are they doing the same activity that everyone is doing? And then the final thing is learning. Is there an expectation that they are learning the same thing as everyone else? Even if they're approaching or at an entry level point in our grade level standards? You know, are they learning about the Civil War, just like any other fourth or fifth-grade student, so those are the kinds of things that we look for. And placement is so important, because a lot of times, like, and this is how I explain it, you know, when I was learning about inclusion in I was in a segregated, self-contained, disability-specific class. You know, we'll just go to that membership, participation and learning my classroom. Everyone felt like they belonged. Right? I felt like I was a good teacher. So I tried to build a community in that classroom. And I made sure everyone had a chance to participate, in the life of the classroom. And, and I was giving access to grade-level standards, you know, not every self-contained special education class, is working on letters. I really tried to give access to, you know, if they were a fifth grader, they were learning fifth grade standards, you know, so all of those things are really good things and good practice, you know, and I thought that I was being inclusive. But really, you can't have a school say they're inclusive and yet continue to have disability-specific programs where kids are sent it, not their neighborhood school, in special classrooms, where the expectations are lower, and you have multiple grade levels in that class. I taught a kindergarten through fifth grade class, how am I supposed to teach kindergarten through fifth grade standards? It's impossible.
DJ Nicholson: I love that you listed off those kinds of four key components because, you know, to me, the key components are the membership, participation and learning, because you can have a child placed into a general education setting for 80% of the day. But that does not mean that they feel that sense of membership and belonging and that they're engaging in a meaningful way. And they're learning at that grade level, because I've seen it where, you know, the child is included for that 80% or more of the day, but yet they're pulled to a table in the back of the classroom, and instead of working on the Civil War, they are counting the number of hats that the soldiers wore? You know, those are not the same thing. Again, it goes back to like learning about numbers and letters. It's not the same.
Tim Villegas: Right? I think that's confusing. I really do. For educators who are not used to thinking about universal design and how they can adapt a lesson, so that anyone can access it. It's hard and that's a skill that I think educators can learn, though, you know, even if it's just kind of like baby steps, they still can get there. You know, they have to be taught that there also has to be an expectation that it needs to happen.
DJ Nicholson: Well, because if the expectation is held for teachers, then that also shifts the expectation that teachers have for children, and you know, that goes back to presuming competence. Are we making the bold assumption that everyone is capable of learning if we figure out the right supports in the right tools?
Isn’t DJ great? Make sure to check out Inclusivology and sign up for her newsletter.
And in case you missed it last time, if you are interested in hearing the MCIE’s pilot episode of Inclusion Stories, our five-part narrative podcast series about families and school districts committed to fully inclusive schools, it is available for Think Inclusive patrons at patreon.com/thinkinclusivepodcast.
A huge thanks to all our sponsors for Inclusion Stories: Communication First, the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, Roots of Inclusion, iSecurePrivacy, and the Thompson Policy Institute on Disability.
That’s it for this edition of The Weeklyish. I’ll be back in a couple (or a few) weeks with more inclusion stories and ideas to ponder.
Thanks for your time and attention. Have a great week, everyone!
The Weeklyish is written, edited, and sound designed by Tim Villegas and is a production of MCIE.
Our intro stinger is by Miles Kredich.
Additional music by REDProductions.
For information about inclusive education, visit mcie.org and check out our flagship podcast, Think Inclusive, on your favorite podcast app.
Thanks for reading The Weeklyish! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.