January 12, 2021
Amplify Inclusion Podcast
Welcome to Amplify Inclusion, a podcast where we share authentic stories of inclusion in action.
Katy & Kerry join the host for a group chat focused on the benefits and challenges of using dialogue as a means for making positive change. Listen now or view the full transcript below.
This episode was produced by Aspire Inclusive Solutions and engineered, edited and mixed by Subframe Sound with music courtesy of Nealle DiPaolo.
Welcome to Amplify Inclusion. I’m Clare from Aspire. Thanks for joining us we share real stories and conversations about the power and importance of disability inclusion. As we continue our series examining inclusive mindset, we meet two final guests, who help us further our understanding by sharing their personal stories and joining in group conversation. The next two episodes feature two local educational professionals…
I’m Katy Fattelah and I am the senior program director for The Nora Project.
Hi, I’m Kerry Duffy. I am a fourth grade teacher in a public school in West Chicago.
Katy & Kerry are dedicated to starting the conversation about disability inclusion with kids, by centering classrooms around a culture of empathy and acceptance. Their experiences intersect through the work of a local non-profit called The Nora Project, where Katy works and Kerry is a collaborating teacher. As with our previous guests, I began by asking them to share their definition of an inclusive mindset….
So the Nora Project is a non-profit organization that provides social-emotional learning curriculum for students in preschool through high school. And our programs really focus on a few main topics, empathy education being one of them. And then also we have a big focus on disability awareness education and our goal is to help students and teachers understand that disability is a natural and expected part of human diversity. So an inclusive mindset to me is not just the way that we think but it’s also the way that we behave. So mindset is sort of that combination of beliefs and behaviors and at the Nora Project we have developed what we call an ability inclusive mindset. So there’s three beliefs and three behaviors that make up that ability inclusive mindset. The beliefs are first, that accessible spaces are better spaces. The second belief is that inclusive activities are richer activities. The third belief, is
that all human lives have equal value, equal dignity. And then the behaviors that go with those beliefs are first of all, intentional and creative planning. Another is stepping outside of your comfort zone, taking a risk. And then the third is demonstrating empathy and we think that that is critical in being able to be truly inclusive. We have to get to know people, we have to understand them better so that we can show empathy towards them.
I think mindset serves as a bridge to pushing the inclusion movement forward because it is part of what shapes student’s identities and we can teach empathy- that is something that research shows that we can teach students and adults, frankly. But I just think that once students adopt this mindset, it’s changes the way that they walk through their lives everywhere. And so what we hope, at The Nora Project is that students will participate in our programs over a number of years throughout their educational career so that they keep revisiting this education and keep coming back to this idea of shaping their mindset and shaping their identity as includers so that when they go off into the world, they are hiring a more diverse population, that they are legislating to support everyone to support people with disabilities, that they are welcoming in their communities and promoting that inclusive mindset in their behaviors and the way that they that they interact with everyone. So mindset is it’s not something that you can teach in a day off. Mindset takes time. It takes practice. It’s like a muscle you have to exercise it so that it really becomes a routine that you use it all the time. So Kerry Duffey is one of our legacy participants at the Nora Project. She is teaching the Storyteller project for the third year in a row. And Kerry has been a very dedicated participating teacher. She has been the project leader at her schools. She’s also been an ambassador in that she has expanded the Nora Project to two other schools in her district. And I know she has big plans for to continue to expand to others, as well.
So, as a teacher, of course, it’s really important for me for my students to have an inclusive mindset and with an inclusive mindset centered on disability, we’re talking about teaching students to think differently. Adopting accessibility and inclusive practices within our classroom. I want them to accept and value all humans. I want them to realize that every human has something to offer. I think that people underestimate kids, period. They’re willing to talk about just about anything and as adults were the ones that get concerned, I think, because we didn’t as children discuss the topics that were asking kids to discuss now this year. And so I think that the kids really are excited to talk about the topics and there really isn’t anything in the way. My hope for my students is that this curriculum isn’t going to just apply to their experiences with people with disabilities but to any marginalized group. I want them to value all people. And as they grow up and go on in school and into the workplace, my hope is that these lessons that they’re taught continue and that they’re standing up for all marginalized groups and wanting them all to be included. I think about it as these are our future leaders. And so, if we teach them now how to be good leaders, imagine what the world will be.
Now, Katy & Kerry share more about their personal journeys. First, here’s Katy…
I absolutely loved being a teacher. I taught for five years. It was a wonderful experience, but it was also a really really challenging experience. I had kind of a love-hate relationship with teaching. I think a lot of teachers struggle with that, but I also felt an affinity for working with other adult educators. So I went from being a classroom teacher to a technology coach and then to an instructional coach. I really liked
the broad impact I could have on helping push teachers practice forward and helping them to find ways to make their work more efficient and more effective. And I loved the broader impact that had on on the wider student body. So when one of the co-founders of the Nora Project came to me and asked me to step into this role, it was good timing. I was feeling ready. So it feels like an “if we can dream it, we can do it” kind of situation which is so freeing and so exciting and to know that the work that we’re doing is so important and meaningful to so many people, providing an education in disability awareness that most adults and most children do not ever receive in their lives in their educational careers, and that most teachers don’t receive in their teacher preparation programs- that is so important to me. And I really think we’re having such an important impact on the people we’re reaching and I’m really hoping to always expand that reach so that more people can benefit from that education. I grew up going to an in-home daycare and one of the neighbors across the street was a wheelchair user. She had experienced a spinal cord injury when she was a teenager and was a wheelchair user from then on and so growing up, I guess for myself, I understood disability to be sort of an expected part of life and she had kids and a job. She had all of the things that everyone else had and so I didn’t think much of her disability as being a hindrance to anything. And so I think that was a really important experience for me to frame the way that I thought about disability growing up. I actually had I think more memorable experiences with peers with disabilities than most people do and I don’t know how to account for that because I went to a pretty typical public school with typical public school structures for the nineties where students with disabilities were learning in different classrooms, and I actually had a number of friends with disabilities growing up. But what I do remember about my peer relationships is while it wasn’t particularly remarkable to me, I do remember having the sense that it was remarkable to the adults in my life that I had friends with disabilities as a kid and I remember having a sense that the people around me particularly the adults around me but probably other peers too, had this unspoken belief that having a peer relationship with a peer with a disability was somehow doing good. And I didn’t think about it like that when I was a kid, but there was definitely that feeling in the air, you know, when adults would get involved in those relationships. Just looking back on that. I kind of cringe thinking about it because it’s just so anti- what I have come to understand as an adult about disability, which is that there is no reason to feel any sense of pity or inspiration or anything other than neutrality around disability.
Katy’s referring to the common yet misguided belief that people with disabilities should be considered heroic or exceptional solely on the basis of their disability. Sensationalizing people with disabilities in this way undermines the complexity of the disability experience as a natural form of human diversity. I asked Katy to recall other formative moments that influenced her mindset around disability.
So I think that the moment that I decided that disability inclusion was going to be a bigger part of my professional life was when I was working in my last job as an instructional coach, there was a program that served students with emotional disabilities, and those students were sort of segregated into a separate classroom and it was often referred to as the “Behavior” classroom. I think we see these in a lot of schools. And there were a lot of challenges around that setting and what I noticed was that students coming in from this outside setting would often come in after the lesson had started because it took a little longer for them to transition, they had to come from a different part of the building sometimes transitions were really challenging for them. And often times the general education teacher wouldn’t wait to start the lesson so they would come in and the lesson had already started. They would
come in and the students in the general education classroom had already paired up so they might not have an obvious partnership. It was clear that the student coming in from outside was an outsider to the other students in the classroom. They didn’t seem like a part of the community. And then oftentimes they would have to leave before it was over. And all of those experiences made me feel really strongly that we weren’t providing adequate opportunities to build community to offer like peer support, right? It always seemed to me when I was working in that setting that by helping all students to socialize with one another that they could help co-regulate. And we’ve seen that happen at the Nora Project. We have seen that as a result of our work that once students really get to know each other and they have the ability to share with one another what their wants and needs are, that they can really co regulate within the classroom setting and that is so so powerful. And so, I think it was it was with that experience that I realized that something really really needed to be done to help teachers understand how to create inclusive classroom environments. It is our responsibility as educators to find ways to do that- to help kids not be more accepting of each other. I mean, yes, that’s a by-product but, to help kids understand that they’re responsible for one another, that there’s community that they can build and that it doesn’t matter who’s in your class, it doesn’t matter who comes into your class, that we have a responsibility to one another to be inclusive. And so that experience, I think made it so easy for me to transition to the Nora Project because I already had this passion around making sure that all kids felt welcome in the school and had access to the curriculum, that there was equity, like truth equity available. I had a steep learning curve, as so many of us do. But I quickly realized that a little information goes a long way, and I have continued to learn and evolve in my thinking over time, but what’s been most fascinating to me is that knowing just a little bit like an hour long presentation can really start to change the way that you see the world and so that’s been something that has driven a lot of our programming for adults in particular is – let’s just start the conversation and hopefully people will come back for more and start, you know, paying attention and looking at the world differently. But what has impacted me, I think the most has been paying more attention and listening more attentively to people in the disability community who have disabilities or work on behalf of folks with disabilities and really really listening and paying attention and trying to take what’s being shared and apply it to the work that we do at the Nora Project. As I do not identify as having a disability, I feel a strong responsibility to be representing the views of the disability community as accurately as possible. And the diversity of those views, as well, because they’re not a monolith. So making sure that we are adequately and accurately representing all of those views is really important to me.
So my vision for an inclusive world is- I always start by thinking about school. I feel like what happens in schools is often mirrored in the larger community. It’s a world that presumes competence and challenges students to high expectations. And one where we make time and space for kids to get to know each other, regardless if they’re learning in the same classroom all the time. I guess for me an inclusive world would be one where we don’t think twice about a person’s abilities. We just treat them like a human and accommodate what needs accommodating – because that’s what we do. Inclusion is not rocket science, but if you have never received an education in it, it means that you can’t necessarily act in the best possible way, right? So when we know better we can do better, and I think that’s what the education that particularly the adult education and professional development aspect of the Nora Project is all about. It’s equipping people with the knowledge and the skills and the language to be better and more inclusive in their communities.
And now, here’s Kerry…
I’ve been teaching for over 20 years. I started in 1997. I’ve taught in the same school district for all of those years. I’ve taught first grade, second grade, third grade, fourth grade. I’ve taught gifted education. So I’ve moved around a lot. In the district that I work in, inclusion has always been a part of my classroom. Students have been typically fully included. However, that didn’t necessarily look like it does today, twenty years ago. You would have a student in class, but they may not be fully integrated in all of the activities that you’re doing. And as time has gone on and we’ve learned more and we do better, we do more to make things accessible for students to participate fully within our classrooms. About five years ago, I had been teaching at the same school and I was just kind of getting stagnant in my teaching and looking for something new, something different, and so I left teaching gifted education, which I had done for ten years and switched buildings and landed in a building where they had a cross-categorical classroom for multi-needs learners and disabilities. And so that happened to be my partner class. And so, I was a second grade teacher at the time and partnering with a class of nine or ten students all with varied needs from students with Autism to students with physical disabilities. So, I ended up really learning from those teachers what it meant to teach my students to be includers. So just watching them really impacted me. At the same time my own kids at home were volunteering at our church for a program that provided respite care for families affected by disability. And so, my son encouraged me to volunteer there. So it was kind of like the perfect storm. Both of these things were happening in my life and I was meeting lots of different families who had been affected by disability. And I think that proximity, you know, really breeds care and empathy and takes away that fear that I think we’ve all been indoctrinated to feel- that we don’t know about disability it’s the scary fearful thing. And it’s not. And so I met several moms and these teachers in my building, and I think that just kind of changed my perspective and then I saw a commercial on the Nora Project or an interview on WGN and that took us to the next level.
Kerry’s speaking to how moving outside of a comfort zone, whether through volunteering or engaging with new networks, can allow us to learn more about diverse perspectives. Gaining that insight can help us discover our own role in advancing inclusion.
So I saw the clip on WGN and I immediately started calling The Nora Project and emailing and asking how we could get involved. So this really to me was like taking it to the next level. We didn’t provide curriculum for the students. We just modeled what it looked like to be friends with a person who was different than you. And this took it to the level of- oh now we’re going to teach about disability, and we’re going to teach about empathy, and we’re going to teach about what it means to be a good friend. So it really, I was just so excited to have curriculum that helped me to navigate all of those lessons with the students. I was more excited than anything.
So we start learning about disability together with our Nora friends and then we start doing activity days. And before we do the activity days, we we create a space for the kids to ask questions, so that it isn’t scary and it’s okay to ask about these friends that they’re going to be spending time with. So I think they just are really honest and they just come right out and say it. If they- if given the opportunity and given the space to do that. They really just want to learn more about a friend and when you put it in a way that they can express themselves and ask questions in a safe place, they do! One of the parts of the curriculum that is great is that the kids journal after every lesson. And so I always go back and read their journal entries. I’ve had some students just- they’re shocked that we wouldn’t include everyone at the
table and everyone should be included! “These are going to be people we work with later on in life” and they are what we want to see in the world really, you know, they’re the change that we hope to see. You know, when the kids are doing something that meaningful and adults in the school hear about it, I think it’s contagious as well. I think it’s been across these three years and just all of the experiences together really shaping my perspective. I would say that I had already had an inclusive mindset and I was an advocate for others, but I think I really see people with disabilities much differently now. You know, it wasn’t until I heard some activists this summer talking and talking about, you know, ADA being only thirty years ago, like some of that is just shocking and it’s education and it’s not something that I was educated about. And so, I think some of that has really changed my perspective. So I would definitely say that being part of The Nora Project has really challenged me and pushed me to be even better. You know, I would have said three years ago that yes- I include all students and I think everybody is of a value. But every year that I’m part of the Nora Project and we participate in the summer training, we’re really pushed to think differently and just be better at what we do which is teaching the kids to be better humans. I hope that the lessons my students are learning they take with them through life and I want them to stand up for all marginalized people and I want them to be the future that we’re looking for.
I’d like to thank Katy & Kerry for sharing their stories with us. Next time, they’ll join me again for a group conversation about how productive dialogue can move inclusion forward. Until then, stay connected with us at aspirechicago.com – and be a part of the inclusive movement by rating and subscribing to Amplify Inclusion. Thanks for joining us! This episode was produced by the Inclusive Solutions team and co-produced and engineered by Subframe Sound.
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