In diverse classrooms, certain institutionalized pedagogical practices can reinforce the marginalization of certain students. By considering the social aspects of teaching and learning in an exceptional needs classroom in a model school, specific pedagogical practices and ways of interacting with students can be illuminated, which can then reveal the institutional aspects of teaching and learning that often go unnoticed in “regular” classrooms.
By analyzing the relationship between the institutional and social, I was able to identify two significant ways in which this teacher interrupted this cycle of marginalization: by acknowledging the fluidity of students’ identities; and by maintaining high expectations.
For example, when I asked the teacher whether knowledge of her students’ identities influenced her decisions about curriculum content, she mentioned two grade five students who were excited about researching their ancestral heritages for the Ancient Civilizations unit. Yet, when I asked if all of her students were interested in studying their own heritage civilizations, she said,
"Like, María was quite excited that she did learn about Ancient Mexico. And one of the other girls ... Like, Parvati, like she wanted to do Mexico too, because of María Like, that kind of stuff. So, I – I thought she might have chosen, uh, India … I think she was born in Bangladesh, but her family background is Indian… But then again, that might be why she didn’t choose India."
This example shows that it is problematic to employ pedagogical practices based on the assumption that the identities that society deems to be the most salient are the same ones that students deem to be the most salient; this is because they don’t take into account students’ understanding, interpretation, and expression of their multiple subject positions. In short, they deny students’ agency and right to self-determination.
Several times during our conversations, the teacher often mentioned that one of the most difficult things about her job was finding relevant and academically challenging materials for her students. She described the materials available at some of the professional development conferences she had attended as
“... All those, sort of, Level 2 thinking stuff … you don’t want that.”
This teacher was not interested in those resources largely because she had higher expectations of her students:
"[If they need] to make a correction […] Like as I said, I could underline it, leave them… Or, I could go through and make all the changes for them, but then they’ll never learn it. Right? So […] you’re scaffolding it for them a little bit. You’re making it easier for them. You’re telling them, you know, “Look here. You’ll find that information here” … plus, it’s immediate and meaningful. It’s from their personal writing… or whatever we’re doing. Like, it’s their responses. So it’s personal, it’s immediate, it’s something they’re gonna learn.… And it put the ownership back on them, so that they’re responsible for their learning."
The dearth of suitable curriculum materials and resources for exceptional students reinforces a deficit view of their needs and abilities. Therefore, individual teachers need to develop pedagogical practices that make up for this lack. These practices need to be contextual and engaging, so that the curriculum content is meaningful for students and allows them to develop a sense of agency.
The grade team meeting that occurred before the beginning of each term was a key institutional feature of this teacher’s practice. At these meetings, all teachers from the same division would discuss which units had to be covered, which expectations needed to be met, the key texts to be used, the key concepts for students to learn, and the forms of authentic assessment that could be employed. Using a backwards-design format, the teachers then developed a pathway for a given unit, which was integrated across multiple subject areas. A primary focus of the grade team meetings was on how to recognize and reflect the students’ identities, heritages, and agency throughout the curricular activities.
Having observed some of those team discussions, and then analyzed the resultant pathways, I have found that these meetings are integral to bringing about and maintaining improved quality of education for marginalized students. They allow for teacher innovation, professional support, and the development of an infusion of equity-minded practice throughout the curriculum.