The Program for Inclusive Education is grateful to collaborate with dedicated educators across the country who support and advocate for inclusion in Catholic schools. It is my privilege to welcome Katie Barrett from St. Mark Catholic School in Indianapolis, Indiana, as PIE’s guest author this month. Katie was a member of the PIE 3 cohort, and she has graciously agreed to share her thoughts about why she was called to participate in PIE. Thank you, Katie for your commitment to welcome, serve, and celebrate ALL students!
~Christie Bonfiglio, Ph.D.; Director of the Program for Inclusive Education
We all have people, events, and experiences that send us down certain paths in our lives. God must place these in our lives so we can come to realize His plan for us and begin to live out our vocation. One of the people who helped shape my vocation is, for the sake of this story, named “Dave.” Dave was a student of mine in my second year as a middle school science teacher. Dave was diagnosed on the autism spectrum. I had some experience with those on the autism spectrum, but with Dave, it would be the first time I spent at least an hour a day with someone with autism.
Dave taught me many lessons in my two years with him, but one sticks out more than the others. One Friday afternoon, I was teaching Dave’s class a chemistry lesson, and I thought making license plates using elements from the periodic table would be a fun way to engage the students. The elements were meant to spell a word or phrase. Students would choose a word for their license plate, draw the license plate on a piece of construction paper, and then research the elements they used to spell their word. Throughout the activity, I helped various students by prompting them to find creative ways to complete the assignment. Many were struggling to come up with a word. I noticed however, that Dave didn’t need help. I saw him grab a computer for reference, something he often did when the class was working on paper, and his focus would dissuade me from intervening. Moments later, he excitedly invited me over. “Miss Barrett! Miss Barrett! I’m done with my license plate!” I walked over, looked at his screen, and was instantly affected by what he had come up with.
“It’s me, Miss Barrett! It’s me!” Dave had spelled the word “autism” using the elements Gold (Au), Titanium (Ti), and Samarium (Sm). “Miss Barrett, do you like it? It has GOLD in it! How cool is that? And I did it on the computer because that’s how I learn.”
I could not stop smiling! It was a profound moment for me, and Dave was so proud of himself, too. It was after reflecting on this moment, and many others like it, that I felt called to join the Program for Inclusive Education (PIE). I wanted all students, disability or not, to be able to celebrate who they are and feel welcome enough to do so.
The road to inclusion of all students is not easy, and it is not always filled with what I call these “gold moments,” but nonetheless it is what we are called to do as Catholic school educators. We know that each and every human being is made in the image and likeness of God, and therefore has their own “gold” to celebrate, just like Dave did in science that day. Diversity is an integral component when it comes to embracing our God-given gifts and talents. Dave had felt comfortable enough to celebrate his differences, and he realized just how valuable they really were.
At the time I felt ill equipped to serve Dave’s needs. I did my best to differentiate, accommodate, and work with our special education teacher, but I still felt my pedagogy was inadequate. I needed something like the PIE program to build upon my foundational understanding of what it takes to break down the barriers for all students. Now, a year and a half later, I have the tools, knowledge, and evidence-based practices to serve all of God’s children. I joined a community of like-minded educators who are on fire for inclusion in Catholic education, professors who are willing to go the extra mile to help me in my classroom, and a newfound passion to welcome, serve, and celebrate all students.
My experience in the PIE program has shaped both who I am as an individual, and as an educator. Just the other day, I was teaching students about chromosomes and chromosomal disorders, one of which is Down Syndrome. Rather than skim past this topic, I stopped. I had a mature conversation with my eighth-grade students about why a person with Down Syndrome, or any chromosomal disorder, has the same dignity, value, and worth as someone without it. Then I felt called the next day to share a video of a woman with Down Syndrome giving a TED Talk on her experiences. Those two days of discussing the dignity of the individual, and how it intersects with science, have been my favorite part of this school year so far. I’m not so sure I would have had those discussions with my students before my immersive experience within the PIE program, but I am grateful I did. I’m thankful this program has transformed me as an educator, intrinsically shifting how I will support conversations like this with my students for years to come.
Do you feel called to serve ALL learners in your school? Join our PIE 5 cohort!