Imagine a 5’2 3/4” tall, cute, nice, 63 year old with great skin. And now add a homemade colourful fluorescent moo-moo with matching crocs and a big smile. My mom (and her twin sister) are ACTUALLY the sweetest creatures that have ever lived. She is always happy except for these 3 things get her mad:
- Cable TV and how there is never anything on
- She thinks that there should be a grandfather clause that allows people over 60 to still smoke at the beach, and
- She can no longer buy fabric at Walmart
She loves lays chips and the colour blue, buying tables, going to the dollar store, quilting and the beach. In fact, you will often find her at the beach with a table, wearing the colour blue eating lays chips and quilting under an umbrella that she bought at the dollar store.
Anyways, So her and I both live on Davie street, 3 blocks apart. She proudly declares herself as “living in the heart of the village,” and we will often meet at our neighborhood coffee local, Melriches.
One other thing about my mom is that she is very reflective and often bursts out profound one-liners. Like one time she called me up and left a message on my phone that simply said, “Shelley, I’M IN LOVE!” and then I made this face.
Only to find out later that she had recently watched a documentary about Leonard Cohen and convinced herself that he was her true soul mate. ANYWAYS…So one afternoon, as we sat at Melriches, and she declared, “you know, we could all learn a lot from the gays.” And then I made this face.
Before I could respond, however, she continued into a lovely monologue about how happy she is that she lives in a community that values diversity and how everyone is different and that it’s ok! And she’s right, people CAN learn something from people who are gay, and she CAN walk down the street in her fluorescent moo-moos and matching crocs, and the only people who turn their heads to stare, are women (and men) who want to know where they can buy a set.
She absolutely meant no disrespect to gay people, (or her daughter) by calling us an adjective, so I used this opportunity as a teachable moment.
“So ma, you know that gay is an adjective right?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I mean that you can’t call people adjectives when we are people, we are nouns!”
“Oh…. Well that’s what I meant.”
“I know ma, but what if people called you an adjective, like crazy?” (Which we have both extensively experienced in our lifetime)…this one got her.
So we de-constructed this a bit, and discussed different adjectives we had experienced and compared them with each other. What made some terms ok and not others? Some terms were adjectives. Some were nouns. Some were used grammatically correct and others were not.
And some were mean and should never be spoken.
We used the stem, “If we saw each other walking down the street, what would we say?” as our litmus test. We tried everything!
- Oh look, there is a gay (no)
- Oh look there is a crazy (no)
- Oh look there is a Danish (I am not a pastry)
- Oh look there is Shelley! (Totally)
- Oh look there is Shelley, who is crazy (ummm still no)
- Oh look, the Gay Danish! (I don’t even know what this means)
- Oh look! There is my mom! (Yup)
- Oh look, there is Danish Shelley (sure…at a Viking festival)
- Oh look, its BGS!!! (Big Gay Shelley) – (only on the August long weekend please and thank-you)
So we eventually agreed to just call each other by our names Ma and Shelley. My mom learned her adjective lesson, and we moved on to the next profound reflection.
BUT THEN!!! I started thinking (and we all know what that means) sleepless nights and multi-tasking through meetings. Labels! We all do it. We label and categorize our students all the time, well-meaning or not. Our days as educators are constantly FILLED with words associated with and used to describe kids.
I remember the days when I was a student and the words used to describe me. I thought about myself as a teacher, a consultant, a speaker and a person and the words I use to describe others.
… And then I started to make a list, and I have been adding to it…for 3 days.
Let me also just mention that the words I have listed have been heard in a variety of contexts including (some more surprising than others)– My UBC class, a special education conference, a collaboration seminar, IEP meetings, a staff room, the pub, coffee with a parent and dinner with colleagues, to mention a few. Regardless of setting, person, time, and/or tension, labels and categories were present, and I am just as guilty as any.
May I present to you… the list.
Low, modified, bright, illiterate, adapted, gifted, slow, modified, special, low end, waste of space, gay, Deaf, learning disabled, bad, poor, handicapped, Queer, good, problematic, core, vulnerable, grey area, crazy, smart, problem, downs, normal, low and slow, mute, non readers, bottom of the barrel, Chinese, drug users, challenged, teachers pet, high flyers, special ed, behaviour kids, brown, life-skill, brain damaged, Tier 1/2/3’s, resource kids, risk takers, Natives, on the spectrum, Muslim… and lets not forget the acronyms!!!! A’s, H’s, G’s IEP kids, ELL/ESL kids, SPEDS AND of course the ever present – Those are “your” kids (which I realize is not an adjective).
NOW thank goodness I didn’t hear anyone say the R-Word because I may have tripped them.
I will let you decide which labels were used appropriately or not, but I will point out the discrepancy between positive and negative terms. Which labels were you called? Which would you add? I know you remember them; they are not words we forget.
Why do we do this? Why do we need to group people into categories? Is it more effective, efficient, shorter or easier to remember? Is it what we hear, or all we know? Or maybe we say them to harm. I have been told, that some people say them because they can’t keep up with the political correctness.
But I don’t know. Are these reasons good enough? I mean, would you ever see a person on the street and say, “Oh look, here comes a paraplegic” because it is efficient to say? NO!
Another important question that I ask myself all the time is, if you heard that, would you say something? And to be honest, I didn’t say anything anyone in my 3 days of listening. Why?
We (teachers, people, society) are SO focused on labels and categories. To be fair, however, I understand that sometimes they are helpful. They can define culture, build pride and even help bring to the table difficult and social justice issues. The “idle no more movement” is a perfect example of that. And if we are really being honest, labels and categories are the reason I even have a job! Categories are how schools get funding (although that’s not a lot presently!!)
Is there a point, however, where in our label obsession, we forget the person we are labeling? And additionally, how do the labels we place on others affect the people we are labeling? In the book “Choice Words” by Peter Johnston, he reminds us that the language we use creates us and defines the world we live in. The words we use also make a difference to how people see themselves and how they exist in our world. Words are powerful!
This issue has seriously got me thinking about how I use words my in my world. My friend Leyton also reminded me of an excellent point (as he often does) He gently asked me, “How many remarkable people in the world do not fit into ANY category, or into traditional systems and labels. Like you?!”
SO, with the help of colleagues, a few articles and my mom, here is some criteria and guiding ideas to assist you in the use of words.
- Everyone can read, write and communicate – expand your definition – try and argue this with me!! (examples: non-readers/writers, non verbal, etc.)
- We no longer use these words: mute, mentally handicapped, illiterate, brain damaged, the R-Word or any statements that starts with “they suffer from…”
- There are some groups that use labels to define their culture (for example Deaf, Queer, Danish, Muslim, Canucks, and some people with Autism.) If this is you, slap a capital letter on the word, put it on a shirt and wear it with pride because you were born that way baby!
- Say the following labels only if you want to get tripped by me. (Bottom of the barrel, low and slow, waste of space etc.) Just. don’t.
- PLEASE!!!!! Regardless of adjective or noun… Avoid “a/an or the”, followed by label and a period (For example, An Autistic. A Gay. The bright kids. The Queer. A gay daughter).
- And lastly, If your choice of words are not ones that you would say to a student or their mother’s face directly – complete the following procedure:
- Write it on a piece of paper
- Stick your gum in it
- Burn it
- Sweep up the ashes
- Put the ashes in a glass of diet coke
- Add Mentos to the glass
As an alternative, try these:
- There is a movement called person-first language that I encourage everyone to explore and reflect on. I have linked some articles below to help you do this. It is actually really easy, you do exactly what it says, use the person first (for example, a student with a disability, Joan who is Danish, Shelley who is gay, a kid who needs support, A student who has a learning disability, a teacher who needs a vacation).
- If you, by accident, use person-first language to someone who prefers the capital letter non–person first tshirt version – I PROMISE they will be less offended than the alternative situation. Referring to people first will never be politically incorrect – it’s safe.
- If the above option doesn’t work for you, you could just try calling them kids, students or people.
- If the above two options don’t work for you, you can always call them Shelley, Kate, Leyton, Carole, Gillian, Faye or (insert name here).
Here is the bottom line because I have discovered that people like them. After my reflections and readings and discussion, I have come to this conclusion:
The only label that we should use before a students name is ‘ours,’ except for my mom, because she is mine.
OH! And…. Sign the R-Word pledge. So I don’t trip you.
Person First Resources
Here we are again. Stuck in between the two historical and political silos: the government vs. the BCTF. I’ve been stocking up on Kraft dinner and hotdogs and watching this saga unfold for months. I agree with all things teacher, but there is one point, at the forefront of this debate, that I have been waiting for someone else to address … and frankly I’m tired of waiting.
The class size and composition battle has been ongoing. Personally, I don’t even know why teachers are negotiating this…you don’t see doctors striking for the rights of patients??? Regardless, there is ample research supporting the teachers’ demands of lowering class size and I have no (nor want to have an) argument to counter this.
The other one though, ‘composition,’ leaves not only a bad taste in my mouth, but makes me wants to convince both the BCTF (along with every teacher in every school district) and Christy Clark (and EVERYONE in the ministry) to take a Shelley Moore seminar about the actual implications of the word.
I have tried daily to (unsuccessfully) convince myself not read twitter; and/or Facebook; and/or the news; and/or (and especially) the comments and government propaganda. All I see are graphs, opinions, false statistics and creative M n M visual metaphors describing the horrors of this strike, including class composition narratives.
The true horrors, however, are what fill my screen: Tweets screaming the atrocities of having “7 special needs students in a class…..SEVEN!!!!!!!!!” A website devoted to collecting the compilation ratios of teachers classes and graphs with the increasing population of students with special needs and English language learners in classes, displayed like these kids are a spreading disease with no cure. Another, BC teacher supported blog, carries a headline, “BCTF says class composition the worst it’s ever been in the province!” An additional Vancity Buzz article actually ranting about the disruption of special needs students in classrooms. And my favourite, a parent tweeting, who wants their kid in a class with special needs kids anyway?
The kicker, a Vancouver Sun interactive resource, where parents can go in and find the exact composition atrocities of their own child’s class online.
Ok everyone, enough is enough.
For some reason, class composition, has become synonymous with impossible teaching arrangements and a pessimism toward individuals with special needs that is rooted in the conviction that these students are incapable, and worse, a burden, to other students and teachers in public classrooms. Before these negotiations, the word composition did not just refer to ratios of diversity and ability.
In writing and art, the word ‘composition’ is used to describe “the plan, placement or arrangement of the elements of work.” In music, it is “creating and arranging an original piece of music.” In the digital world, composition refers to “the practice of digitally piecing together a video.” All of these have one thing in common – planning and arranging pieces together to create a whole. Another common theme? In every definition, compositions are original creations.
For too long, we have been aiming to teach homogenous groups of students who, as Ken Robinson so eloquently described, “have only one thing in common…their age.” I guarantee that more than just my music, writing, and digital composing friends agree that … “all the same” is not enough; it’s undesirable. With these homogenous standards, it is not just students with special needs who don’t fit the mold. More and more students (including me) struggle to find success in a teaching career that focuses on deficit rather than ability.
The educational shift towards inclusion has attempted to counter this attack, by embracing diversity and creating classrooms that are not just geared towards the status quo. THIS is what we all should be fighting for (student, teachers, governments, parents, and tax payers). A shift in education to embrace all… not just some. Somehow though, this value shift has been left for the teacher’s to carry alone. It is because of this that inclusion (and composition) has become a contaminated practice, rather than a philosophy that binds us, and brings us, together.
My lovely hairdresser, Missy, cut and coloured my hair yesterday (in exchange for an IOU) and in our chair/mirror discussion, she described her choir and their (sold out!) performance this summer. My ears perked when I heard her casually mention, “we have so many tenors this year!”
What didn’t follow, were these statements:
– “The tenor population has increased so drastically because we are so much better at identifying them”
– “Ugh, this choir year is IMPOSSIBLE, these 7 tenors are taking up SO much extra time”
– “We found an app that alters a tenor’s voice so we can fit them into our choir now…kind of”
– “We needed to compose a whole new piece for them! I don’t have time for that, so we found a piece that was similar that they can sing quietly at the same time.”
– “The tenors should probably just be in their own choir, they require a different set of skills that I am not specialized to compose.”
Or my most favourite:
– “We already have three tenors, sorry.”
AND, you will definitely never find a circle graph of current choir composition on Google images used as a strategic and political scare tactic.
The difficulty with these statements, more than just the obvious “oh, those poor tenors,” is that a composer would NEVER say this! Choirs NEED tenors! A choir filled with only sopranos would sound like shrill elevator music on repeat. I love you sopranos, but I feel like you appreciate the compliments of some tenor love as much as I like to turn up the bass in my car when I listen to Beyoncé.
What Missy continued to describe (pay attention to this part) was how the choir, responded to having a lot of tenors. This choir commissioned a piece to suit their chorus. In the choir world, a piece is commissioned with the chorus’ strengths in mind. So, for example, if a choir has a strong bass section, the piece chosen highlights lower notes. Alternatively, if a soprano section of a choir is smaller, or developing, the piece won’t include an extraordinary amount of high notes. In other words, the structure of the chorus is manipulated to respond to the COMPOSITION of the group. Missy’s choir created an original piece so that the tenors (and everyone in the mix) could feel “included and have a contribution.” They didn’t make the tenors change their voices, they didn’t make them sing a different piece, they didn’t turn them away… those tenors were as a part of that choir as anyone else. There unique presence, however, informed them to the piece that was created for them for them. The composition utilized their strengths, for the benefit of all. At the end of the day, this choir performed an AMAZING piece (did I mention it was sold out) AND I bet not one person in the audience knew that there was an above average tenor population. The goal was met. Objective achieved!
Strength based teaching is not a new phenomenon, and there are many frameworks that can support the spectrums of language, culture, gender and every other unique identity marker you can imagine…including cognitive ability. These supports are effective in both challenging AND creating access for everyone, and I encourage you to read other entries on this blog if your curious.
There are teachers all over this province trying to create learning opportunities for all their students because of this diversity, not in spite of it. This is inclusion. These classrooms, however, are having a harder and harder time. There is an expired expectation that teachers simply teach, to a homogenous group, in isolation. How hard can it be right???? There are many difficulties with this longstanding image of classrooms, especially classrooms trying to move towards a place of inclusion and access for all. Inclusion cannot happen alone.
Inclusion needs time for collaboration to create a plan that can highlight all abilities.
Inclusion needs assistants and specialists to provide multiple pathways for success.
Inclusion needs resources and funding supports to make a plan acknowledging alternate ways of knowing and understanding the world.
Inclusion needs time and space for teachers to grow and change their professional practice to respond to the changing structures of their classes.
Inclusion needs a government that supports the efforts of teachers, who are caring for and facilitating the growth of the next generation of our society that will require the skills and experiences of learning from, and with, diversity in all its forms.
These are not teacher ‘benefits;’ they are the blueprints of inclusive education. Let us not lose track of what we are fighting for. There is a bigger picture to these negotiations.
There is one more factor for inclusion to be successful. And I argue, the MOST important one! Inclusion NEEDS a diverse composition. Without this, we are simply cookie cutter assembly line workers. Without this, teachers cannot be the creative composer. This is our career, this is our skill, and regardless of how many massages or fertility treatments we require per calendar year, we are skillFULL composers.
Lets look to our teachers as composers. Let us all consider them the skilled professionals that they are, collaborating together and delicately weaving the diverse abilities, interests, and characteristics of our students into creative, original and carefully planned arrangements. Professionals that need support to exist. From everyone…even you.
For all of you who scrolled to the bottom to find the answer, here it is.
Instead of fighting for class size and composition, how about we fight for class size and SUPPORT for class composition. BOOM. That was easy.