Lean in and Listen: Shaping Inclusive Schools With Youth
As a special education professor, I often reflect on how much my time as a teacher continues to shape my research. My last few years of teaching were in an inclusive classroom in a predominantly Latinx community where my co-teacher and I worked together to try to figure out what it meant to create an inclusive classroom. We knew it was more than just having students with disabilities in the general education classroom, so we worked together to plan lessons and implement co-teaching structures while we figured out how to create classroom communities attuned to histories of exclusion (i.e., disability and racial) while drawing on students’ interests and experiences. Our efforts to create inclusive learning communities took many different shapes while simultaneously navigating the complexities of the classroom. Yet, one practice in particular has carried over from pedagogy to research method to help me think about equity and inclusion—listening deeply to what youth have to say.
I was fortunate to teach in a dual language school that provided me with wonderful mentorship that emphasized attention to language and cultural differences. My teacher colleagues (and friends) Carmen and Silvia brought the assets-based pedagogies I had read about through the work of scholars such as Guadalupe Valdés (1996) along with Norma González, Luis Moll, and Kathy Amanti (2005) to life every day in their classrooms; always pointing out what students could do and countering deficit-narratives with counter-narratives. I repeatedly saw that the source of their assets-based understandings was rooted in paying attention to the youth. Watching them confer with individual students was like watching two people sit at a table solving the mysteries of the world with deep intensity. I knew something special was happening in those classrooms, so I followed suit in the practice of listening deeply to youth.Sarah Hudelson and Karen Smith, professors that gave their time to work alongside me and other teachers in the classroom, deepened my understanding of listening in the context of literacy instruction. They taught me to put writing skills on the back burner and to first respond to the human then to the scholar, which is more easily said than done, in a room hustling and busting with students. Yet, it made a world of difference for “struggling” writers and youth who had seldom had their literacies affirmed. Thalia, a seventh grade student, is my constant reminder of why listening matters. Thalia was frequently absent, so when she was at school I was often in a hurry to catch her up. On one of these catch-up days, she willingly sat down and joined her classmates in drafting a memoir. Towards the end of class, not knowing if she would be back the next day, I pulled her aside to confer on her writing. Thalia sat with me and showed me her paper. No punctuation, no capitalization, but words filled the page as if they had been poured there. As Thalia began reading her memoir, I moved my burning desire to address her first sentence needing capitalization and punctuation to the back burner, and instead I just listened. In return, those words poured onto her page lifted and began to weave a story about a quiet early morning when she caught her father leaving the house before everyone else awoke. Thalia felt lucky that morning as the child that got to join dad on an early morning errand. Her story transitioned to sitting in the doctor’s office lobby; her head leaning on her father’s shoulder as she dozed in and out of sleep. Thalia awoke to her father telling her that the doctor said he had cancer.
I remain deeply appreciative that Thalia and I had that moment together, but I am also very aware that I could have easily missed that moment had I not prioritized listening. What if I would have stopped her at the first sentence to point out needing a capital letter or a punctuation mark? What if I would have stopped her halfway through the page thinking this was a random morning with her father instead of understanding how powerfully she turned the mundane into one of the most important moments in her life? What if I never understood why Thalia’s life outside of school was understandably taking priority over her year? Instead, Thalia allowed herself to be fully vulnerable at school and in return she was heard, and that moment sits in me like an anchor. Thalia and I were able to also discuss using capitalization and punctuation as tools to make sure people were reading and understanding her story the way she intended, and she eagerly used those tools. But more importantly, Thalia shared a story with me and I responded to that story with the human reactions that it deserved. Thalia is my constant reminder to listen deeply to youth as human beings first, because being heard is a critical part of creating inclusive spaces where youth can more accurately narrate their experiences.
As a researcher, I now draw on research methods that allow youth to narrate their experiences and understandings while adding complexity to the adults’ understandings of educational issues. Many schools and researchers are invested in creating more equitable and inclusive schools through a range of foci and at different levels of the educational system (i.e., practice, policy, research, community; see Kozleski & Smith, 2009; Kozleski & Thorius, 2013) but oftentimes those understandings are limited when they do not include youth perspectives. This is why I have turned to collaborative research methods as a viable means of centering youth perspectives and contributing new visions of equitable and inclusive schools.
I have most recently been able to push my own understandings of equity inclusion through an interdisciplinary research project with my colleagues Mel Bertrand and Sybil Durand using Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) methods (see Bertrand, Durand & Gonzalez, 2017; Gonzalez & Bertrand, 2017). We have been able to engage in collaborative research with youth at a school site to better understand and take action on the inequities youth feel impact their educational experiences. In the spring of 2015, we started a YPAR after-school club open to all seventh and eighth grade students, while purposefully inviting students with learning classifications that have historically resulted in inequitable participation and outcomes (e.g., youth with disabilities, youth classified as English language learners, indigenous youth).
Adults at this school were committed to advancing equity and inclusion by implementing project-based learning as a school-wide initiative. While this curricular goal was an important step toward creating more equitable learning opportunities, it was also missing the perspectives of youth. During the 2015-2016 academic year, the YPAR youth identified internalized racism as an equity issue impacting their educational experiences and developed research questions and data collection tools to further study the issue. They interviewed peers, teachers, and community members to better understand where people learned about their racial and cultural histories, where they thought it should be taught, and the role schools should play. They also surveyed 120 of their peers on this same topic, and found that their peers were not learning about their racial and cultural histories at school but thought that they should. and findings to an audience of their teachers, administrators, and parents with a call to action for the school to include their racial and cultural identities and histories as part of the curriculum. The youth offered the adults a missing piece to their school change efforts, and youth-centered perspective of equity and inclusion. (For other examples of how other researchers are using YPAR, click here and here.)
As schools and researchers commit to pursuing equity and inclusion, it is critical to also ask whose notions of equity and inclusion are shaping the work and whose are missing? What opportunities do youth have to collaborate and contribute missing and sometimes opposing notions of equity? How can adults restructure their school change efforts to include youth? In what ways are youth afforded opportunities to represent their own educational experiences and take part in improving them? Youth are well aware of many of many of the inequities that limit them in school. We can learn a lot from youth about creating more equitable and inclusive schools if we lean in and listen deeply to them.
 Latinx is used to refer to people with Latin American roots without using the gender binaries that accompany “Latino” and “Latina.”
 Pseudonym used to protect privacy
Bertrand, M., Durand, E. B., & Gonzalez, T. (2017). “We’re trying to take action”: Transformative agency, role re-mediation, and the complexities of youth participatory action. Equity & Excellence in Education, 50(2).
Gonzalez, T. & Bertrand, M. (2017). Youth advancing equity and inclusion: The role of after school spaces in school change in Advancing educational opportunities through inclusive education: Community based research in special education. Symposium paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Antonio, TX.
González, N., Moll, L. C., & Amanti, C. (2006). Funds of knowledge: Theorizing practices in households, communities, and classrooms. Albingdon: Routledge.
Kozleski, E. B., & Smith, A. (2009). The complexities of systems change in creating equity for students with disabilities in urban schools. Urban Education, 44(4), 427-451.
Kozleski, E. B., & Thorius, K. K. (Eds.). (2013). Ability, equity, and culture: Sustaining inclusive urban education reform. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Valdés, G. (1996). Con respeto. Bridging the distances between culturally diverse families and schools: An ethnographic portrait. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Taucia Gonzalez, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education. Her program of research, grounded in equity and inclusion for culturally and linguistically diverse learners, is twofold focusing on 1) opportunities for Dual Language Learners (DLLs) with learning disabilities (LDs) to learn in inclusive literacy communities and 2) preparing teachers to work at the intersection of language and ability differences. Dr. Gonzalez’s work bridges general and special education and has been featured in journals such as the Journal of Multilingual Research and the European Journal of Special Needs Education. She currently serves as an advisory board member for the Wisconsin Education Research Advisory Council. Dr. Gonzalez has spent over 15 years working with Latinx communities as an educator and educational researcher. While teaching in urban dual language schools she was honored as an exemplary Latina educator with the Chicanos por la Causa Esperanza Award.