Breaking for Belonging: Empowered Inclusion

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For our fourth installment of the Ally Inclusive Learning blog series, we chatted with Dr. Sean Turner. Dr. Turner has been teaching high school, undergraduate, and graduate students in New York City for over 20 years. He currently teaches at a transfer high school for over-age, under-credited students. He is also a graduate teacher of education courses at Hunter College, Mercy College, and Long Island University. In all of his various teaching roles, establishing a sense of community and a feeling of belonging through collaboration and inquiry are central to his instructional practice. 

You’ve taught in a lot of different educational contexts across age groups and with varying kinds of needs. Are there any guiding pedagogical principles related to inclusion and belonging that inform your teaching across these unique contexts? 

I think as a teacher, you always need to adjust your practice based on each learning context. Each class is its own unique community, and that community emerges and evolves in different, even unexpected ways. Part of fostering a sense of belonging as an instructor is being mindful of the dynamic nature of a learning community – the unique personalities of students, how those personalities intermingle and form relationships, and unexpected events that happen in the classroom or outside the classroom. We sometimes talk about the art of teaching, and I think this artfulness appears in the spontaneous adaptivity required to be responsive to the changing needs of individual students and the learning community as a whole.   

At the same time, there are several key principles that underpin my teaching philosophy, which I apply in my practice regardless of the age of my students or the course delivery model. The work of Brazilian educational theorist Paolo Freire has been fundamental to my teaching practice and specifically, how I think about an inclusive learning community. Freire emphasizes the importance of a “problem-posing” model of education, which challenges the idea that the instructor should be the ‘center’ of the community and the sole source of knowledge. Instead, the problem-posing model focuses on the knowledge students bring with them into the classroom, and encourages them to use this knowledge to identify and solve relevant problems in their world. As the instructor, my role is to facilitate dialogue among students to effectively leverage and build upon their collective knowledge. I also have to ensure that this peer dialogue is equitable and empowers all voices in the learning community. It’s in this community dialogue directed to solve relevant challenges that students discover and affirm their sense of belonging. 

The connection between Freire’s critical pedagogy and inclusive education is an interesting one, especially in relation to the idea of student agency. Certainly, empowering students is central to Freire’s work, but inclusive teaching is about more than just providing students access- it’s also about empowering them to be actors within the learning community.  What kinds of strategies do you use to design inclusive experiences that serve to empower your students?

I believe we can empower students by encouraging them to break things! By breaking, I mean, critically analyzing different types of media, deconstructing their representations of people and the world, and who are excluded from those representations. In my online teacher education course, through Guided Inquiry I curate different media artifacts- videos, texts, web pages- related to a particular course theme or topic, and then have students work through those materials in groups. 

I provide several Essential Questions to help guide their activity through the materials, and encourage groups to develop their own critical questions as they engage in dialogue about the materials. I then offer several options for a group final product. In one of my classes, groups created a media exhibit of a culturally-relevant curriculum using PADLET, where they curated media artifacts, made connections between artifacts, and offered analysis. After sharing and discussing their group projects in a synchronous video conference with the rest of the class, students wrote an individual reflection about the experience, the media they created, and how they could use the curriculum projects with their own students. Projects are part of their evolving teacher portfolios so they represent a living archive of resources they can use in their teaching practice. 

Your emphasis on different types of media, both in the instructional content you provide students and the project they create, as well as how you offer them choices, also echo key principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Is UDL another framework you draw from in your teaching practice?

Absolutely. I think many of these pedagogical frameworks have similar points of emphasis and overlap, especially those concerned with equity, access, inclusion, and social justice. For me, UDL helps me think across the different parts of the learning experience, from how I represent learning content for my students, to the ways my students interact with each other, to how they demonstrate their understanding of the material. Across those multiple layers of representation, expression, and engagement, students can find their voice and carve out their space in the learning community. 

It’s my role as an instructor to guide students to help them discover their space and their voice. And to equip them with the tools and techniques to break things so that they are empowered to remake the world as a more just and more inclusive place for all.

Check out the other posts in the Inclusive Learning Series using the links below.