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Now that the flurry of conference mania has settled at PEAK Parent Center, life has returned to normal. We continue our daily work of ensuring inclusion in our Colorado communities and beyond. The parent advisor line is ringing as we prepare for the spring IEP season to commence.

Let’s take a few moments to reflect on the 2019 Conference on Inclusive Education. What are some of your favorite takeaways?  How will you implement the tools you took home? What moved you the most?

Opening the conference was Paula Kluth. Her energy and expertise on all things inclusion is infectious. She understands, from a teacher perspective, the challenges and barriers that educators face daily. Yet, she instinctively knows ways over, around, and through them. One key moment from Paula: monkeys thrown across the conference ballroom! Yes, plush monkeys were being tossed from person to person with a few martyrs getting dinged from behind, unaware in the crossfire. Paula encourages ways for students to leave anxieties at the door. She asked, “Are kids smiling and laughing at school? Are they connecting with each other? That’s engagement, or at least part of it.” The monkeys thrown across the room created a way for all of us in the audience to connect and engage. You see inclusion is all about connection, creating community in the classroom, and ensuring belonging for all.

That sentiment was repeated in a breakout session by Dominique Smith, Vice Principal at Health Sciences High & Middle College in San Diego. Dominique came to us to discuss restorative justice, more specifically for this session “Creating Positive Relationships Through the Use of Restorative Practices.” He opened by acknowledging that most of us are not accustomed to give or receive compliments, but we can definitely express our dismay when things do not go as we’d like. We were charged with finding 3 people and expressing our appreciation for something about them. Key emphasis was placed on nurturing culture, building relationships, and ensuring students are given the message, “We don’t see you as a problem. We see you as an opportunity.” When relationships are properly nurtured and meaningful connections are made between teachers and students, students are motivated to behaviors and actions that maintain that relationship.

Jonathan Mooney gave an animated midday keynote detailing his own experiences growing up with a learning disability. Repeated messages that made him feel “broken” because of his struggles in school ultimately led to suicidal feelings. With the encouragement of a few key teachers who took the time to build a relationship and get to know him and his strengths, Jonathan flourished with a degree in Literature from Brown University. We were reminded that normal is a standard we create, “Normal is something we impose on others. And it has a dangerous past. Normal has been put to use to marginalize and denigrate whole swaths of human beings.” Normal has no place in today’s classrooms or elsewhere. It is in our differences that we blossom — each contributing something different to the community.

Rosemarie Allens Photo

We were again reminded of the danger of our perceptions of “normal” and the constructs we create based on our own implicit bias with Rosemarie Allen. Rosemarie spoke to us on “Early Childhood Suspensions: An Issue of Equity.” We learned that preschool children are suspended at a rate 3 times that of K-12 children combined. Furthermore, boys, children of color, and children with disabilities are disciplined disproportionately; African American girls make up only 20% of the preschool population, yet make up 54% of girls suspended! Rosemarie discussed the cultural disconnects that exist within schools. We are afraid to speak about that which makes us uncomfortable i.e. another culture or disability. It is that disconnect that allows our implicit biases to form and leads to inequities in discipline because we lack understanding and empathy for the individual. Rosemarie urges the implementation of culturally responsive practices. These include conversations about differences, ensuring the school experience for the child is representative of their differences, and acknowledging the positives each individual brings.

Conf Pic 2

The 2019 Conference on Inclusive Education concluded with a heartfelt keynote from Dan Wilkins. Dan’s own artwork was the inspiration for this year’s conference graphics and theme, “Within the Heart of Community, Everybody Belongs”. Dan opened with the idea that “everyone needs community and community needs everyone.” He went on to describe the loneliness and isolation that many individuals with a disability experience. He explained disability as a “gift of living differently” and detailed some of the numerous contributions people with disabilities have brought and questioned where we would be as a society without them.

The common theme among presenters: everything starts with relationships. Foster connection, create community and inclusion comes natural. Many heartfelt thanks go out to all of our speakers, presenters, conference attendees and all who worked to make this event happen to promote cultures of inclusion. After all within the heart of community everybody belongs!