Towards a culture of inclusion: teaching to bell hooks

By Olivia Karaolis

 “If we are to reach our people. All people, if we are to remain connected…we must understand that the telling of one’s story provides a meaningful example, a way for folks to identify and connect” 

bell hooks (2014, p. 77) 

The words of the incredible bell hooks, who died in December last year, remind me of the importance of sharing our stories and of their potential to bring about understanding, promote change and encourage new ways of thinking. Her work asked us to consider education as a “practice of freedom” one that could lead to a community for all, irrespective of our differences. 

Too often, students who experience disability are not part of this education. Their stories remain only of their difference, untold and unrecognized for their own uniqueness. Classrooms that continue to separate some students from others, denying the variation of our experience cannot help but deny the individuality of everyone. A practice that seems at odds with our teaching standards and in particular, “know students and how they learn”. Unless I missed the memo, this asks us as educators to be open to every student and to embrace the complexity of who they are, their culture, their language, their history and their disability. 

Research tells us that teachers, for the most part, support the idea of inclusion. Research also tells us that teachers who teach inclusively provide all students with rich learning environments. Finally, (yes, all things come in threes) research shows that inclusion benefits us academically, socially and economically. Young children in my study developed their creativity, self expression and spontaneous, imaginative play. Teachers learned to use drama and puppetry as tools to support inclusive practice, opening up the possibility for every child to be part of their learning story in a way that was uniquely their own. By observing the children, often through a puppet, teachers were able to gain an appreciation and insight about the children, particularly children with a disability.

My story speaks to this, it is a story that is inspired by children, children who showed adults that disability is natural. I happened to be at the right place, at the right time, having just piloted a school-based teacher professional learning program that placed me alongside a primary school teacher in a “collaborative” class. Collaborative being the terminology for a class that included children who did and did not experience disability. The response to the professional learning was incredibly positive, with teachers introduced to new ways of seeing, listening and knowing their students through the creative arts. The most powerful place to see was the playground, watching children that have never played together…play together. Los Angeles Unified School District asked me to become their Inclusion consultant.  

I continued to see, listen and soon know my students and their teachers. We communicated with drums, feathers, watercolors and tuille. We danced and made short films, films that told their story and the story of their teachers, teachers with strong opinions about the possibility of inclusion. Teachers’ beliefs about inclusion are formed from a variety of sources, including personal experience and teacher education, they are reinforced by schools, policy and society. Their beliefs are highly variable and may be inconsistent with their practice. For many teachers, a huge shift in thinking is required to become an inclusive teacher. I encourage my pre-service teachers and the teachers I work with in schools to consider the scope of disability, to think about anyone they know who has a disability, to share their stories of disability, to explore their attitudes, and how they were formed. We explore these ideas with image work, drama, with questions, visible thinking routines and by sharing our stories. Stories that become the foundation of our beliefs.

Inclusion appreciates our differences and considers this difference as natural and a resource in the classroom. Inclusion is not a choice, a place or a privilege. Inclusion is a way of thinking, a belief in the value and contribution of every student. Inclusion does not label students or place them in boxes. Inclusion is the story of every child, an education that is “practice of freedom”.  

 And again: “If we are to reach our people. All people, if we are to remain connected…we must understand that the telling of one’s story provides a meaningful example, a way for folks to identify and connect” 

bell hooks (2014, p. 77) 

Olivia Karaolis teaches across the School of Education and Social Work at Sydney University. She completed her research at USYD after working in the United States in the field of Early Childhood Education and Special Education. Her focus has been on creating inclusive communities through the framework of the creative arts.

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