Although the concept is not new, culturally responsive teaching has gained a great deal of traction during the last decade-plus. School leaders and teachers are working to make their communities and lessons more responsive to the specific needs of students, notes one Understood article. They put in work to learn about the cultural and personal backgrounds of their student communities and how those factor into the learning experience. By catering to their students’ backgrounds, they create a more meaningful and relevant classroom for all students.
The University of Southern Maine (USM) Master of Science (M.S.) in Special Education with a Concentration in Data Directed Student Progress in Special Education online program equips educators with the necessary knowledge and awareness to build culturally responsive classrooms.
What Is Intersectional Thinking?
That underlying goal also holds true for intersectional instruction. However, intersectional teaching breaks these ideas down a step further. Intersectional education not only accommodates student backgrounds at large but also addresses the unique identities of individuals and how those identities intersect in ways that affect their learning experience.
A post from the education nonprofit NWEA uses English language learning (ELL) students as an example of intersectional thinking. Of the approximately 10% of the U.S. student population that are ELL students, 93% are students of color. This means that “although not all students of color are emergent bilinguals, we cannot talk about emergent bilingual students without also talking about race and intersectionality.”
Qualities like race, culture, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion and more impact students’ personal lives but also their education. Students with special needs or exceptionalities are no different. These students not only deserve a culturally responsive environment but also one that goes a step further to recognize, respect and accommodate their own exceptionalities.
Representing Different Exceptionalities in Students
One of the best ways to make exceptional students feel welcome is to have those discussions in the open, as this post from the equitable education blog Think Inclusive writes. Whether your school uses “special needs,” “disabled,” “exceptional” or another term, there is power in being able to articulate these identities and normalize them for all students. For instance, “we can teach our students to ask their disabled peers how they would like to be identified, and practice naming — not hushing — disability talk when our students engage in it.” This helps prevent exceptional students from being “othered” and fosters inclusion.
This can also apply to classroom materials. Be careful to create curricula and provide learning materials that are broadly representative of all types of exceptionalities and disabilities, including those that are “physical, emotional, sensory, mental, intellectual, developmental, communicative, health-related, or neurological.”
Be Respectful and Frame Differences as Assets
Regarding teacher engagement, exceptional students are usually like non-exceptional students. They want to be respected and seen as individuals as well. Taking a genuine interest in their lives and abilities is a good way to do that. Start small: by learning about students and their identities, teachers can not only get students to open up but also help showcase the elements that make those students unique, notes the Understood article. By demonstrating a rich curiosity and modeling acceptance toward these students, teachers can cultivate those same attitudes in their classrooms.
Work Across the Spectrum of Abilities and Backgrounds to Create Intersectional Practices
Differentiating lessons for exceptional students can be time-consuming, but the rewards are vast, both for students and teachers. By considering the background of their student population, teachers are already offering a level of specialized instruction that students might not otherwise receive, notes the NWEA source. This can mean providing additional visual tools for students with low vision or using audio enhancements to ensure all students can hear. It can mean flexible seating arrangements for students who are restless or need additional room to work.
The more teachers accommodate the needs of exceptional students and bake those into their lessons as the standard, the better. Teachers often discover that accommodations can benefit a variety of intersection identities among students, not simply those with disabilities or exceptionalities.
The tenets of culturally responsive teaching and intersectionality are integral to learning outcomes. Graduates of USM’s M.S. in Special Education program will gain a broad understanding of how to create a culturally responsive teaching environment and how to manage the intersectional points for students with exceptionalities.