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Diversity and Inclusion at World of Inquiry: Part II

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    April Hattori

Picking up where we left off in our December newsletter, three teachers at World of Inquiry #58 (WOIS) in Rochester, NY share their experiences on diversity and inclusion in the classroom. 

Rebecca O’Connor (RO) is a 26-year veteran teacher who has been teaching at WOIS teacher for three years. She has taught Chemistry, Earth Science, Living Environment, Global studies and U.S. History and Government in integrated and self-contained classroom settings.
Gina Porretta-Baker (GPB) has taught high school English for 13 years. Prior to teaching, she was an executive at USA Today in Washington, DC. She has been with the WOIS Crew since 2012.
Kerry Robertson (KR) has been a teacher at WOIS for 18 years. After 14 years in the classroom, evenly divided between third and sixth grade, she moved into her current role as an Instructional Coach. “World of Inquiry truly has always been my home away from home, my second family. So much so, my oldest son actually went to school here from kindergarten to fifth grade,” she says.

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Do you have any advice for your peers on how to create curriculum that is diverse and inclusive?

GPB: Read Fires in the Bathroom by Kathleen Cushman, incorporate EL Education Protocols, attend culturally relevant PD, build relationships with students to recognize the funds of knowledge that they bring with them into the classroom, know your students, love your students, introduce culturally relevant texts, and provide opportunities for students to engage in authentic assessments.

RO: Students can be successful without the rigidity of following the syllabus. In a watershed and waste management project, there was an open invitation to students who wanted to do a project-based alternative.  The biggest stars were two general education students who lapped it up and were leaders with students with disabilities. There are so many opportunities in our school for children to express their interests and follow their path. Capstone is a beautiful forum for this type of expression. Kids don’t hesitate hesitation to seek out adults and say, “I have this idea.” One student, London, wants to create a boy band. He is hearing impaired and is not afraid of risk taking. He is following his passion with fearlessness and is confident that adults around him will take him seriously. 

At WOIS, it is more of a “sure we can” mentality rather than a “maybe we shouldn’t” mentality.
For teachers, it may seem like a lot more work being at an EL Education school with things like intensives, expeditions, and case studies that require a great deal from teachers. Once you complete the experience though, I find that you have so much more new oxygen from it—it doesn’t deplete you. I hope all of my colleagues feel the same way. Big things are good things. 

At WOIS, as a teacher, I don’t feel like I need to know it all, I don’t need to be an expert. I don’t need to control the direction of every learning experience. The students and I can figure it out together. I can hand things over to the kids. They can and are able to manage their stuff.  

KR: When creating curriculum for your students, begin with them. What makes them tick? How do they enjoy learning? When I was in the classroom I began every year by giving the students a multiple intelligence assessment and an interest survey. I used the outcomes to help me determine what types of activities to incorporate more often that spoke to the strengths and interests of the majority of my students, and how to tailor small group and individual assignments to meet the needs of the variety of learners in my class. The best investment I made as a teacher the first few weeks of school was spending the time getting to know my students. This allowed me to create learning experiences were engaging for my students because they were as diverse and inclusive as necessary to make each one of my students feel like a valued and necessary part of our classroom.

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Is there anything else you’d like to add?

GPB: When I think about the EL Education model, I think of it as a pedagogical practice where students are at the center of the learning. It is a shared experience where teachers are guides who listen closely to their students in terms of: who they are, what they need, what they know, how they know, why they need to know, and what they do with what they know in order to learn more about what they have yet to know. WOIS provides many opportunities for students to grow their learning. R – recently, I took part in an outdoor experience where five WOIS teachers accompanied 32 high school students to Camp Pathfinder in Algonquin, Canada. Teachers are provided with a number of ways to get to know our students outside of the classroom, and this allows for greater risk taking in the classroom because of the trust that begins to develop between teacher and student.  It was life-changing for many of our students, and my life changed as well.  It allowed me to see a dimension of my students that very few are fortunate to see—together with our students we embraced an inner child to see nature at its most glorious and most grueling. How we handled each of moments was a testament to our great spirit.

I would like to finally say that WOIS is a school that has high expectations for its expeditionary learning, professional development, academic excellence, intensives, student-led conferences, Outward Bound, etc. It is a highly demanding place to work, and without the amazing crew of teachers at WOIS, I wouldn’t be the crew member I am. I have never worked with a more intelligent, creative, inspiring, encouraging, resourceful, energetic, and fun group of educators. This is the place.

RO: The beautiful thing about EL Education at World of Inquiry is you are not on an island. There are so many resources. That is part of the key:, everyone is willing to lend a hand, share ideas, share materials, share a classroom. We build each other up.  It is great for kids.