The Need for Inclusivity in Education
Picture this: Michael Faggella-Luby, a first-year ACE teacher juggling the multiple demands of teaching high school chemistry and English, opens the door to his ninth grade English class. There, among the crowd of students, is Thomas—a tall and wiry freshman brimming with energy. Unlike his classmates, who are seated in the rows of desks, Thomas—shoeless and shirt tails untucked—has shimmied up the support pole of the classroom. Michael’s gaze follows the pole upwards, to meet Thomas’s confident grin: “Hi, Mr. F!” Michael’s immediate reaction: a silent thought to himself, “There’s a lot going on here.” Those who know Michael now might be struck by the prescience of that silent observation. After all, Michael’s adventures with Thomas in the late 1990s in Jacksonville, Florida, formed the seeds of what has become Michael’s life-long career as a scholar of Special Education.
Thomas proved to be an enigma of sorts throughout Michael’s first year of teaching. Like most first-year teachers managing the unwieldy rambunctiousness of a ninth-grade boy, Michael went with his gut reaction: He moved Thomas to the front of the room, the “surveillance zone” in close proximity to the teacher. But Thomas, eager to know the goings-on of his classmates, spent the majority of his time turned around, with his back to the chalkboard where much of the instruction was taking place. When Michael moved Thomas to the back of the room, where Thomas could simultaneously see his classmates and the instructional activity, things changed. Thomas raised his hand. He asked questions. He participated in the learning that was taking place from this new place of comfort.
However, Michael hadn’t yet solved the puzzle of Thomas. Thomas continued to perform well below average on tests. Thomas struggled with auditory processing, so Michael—determined to help him succeed—committed to creating outlines for Thomas’s notes. And yet, Thomas struggled to copy things off the board, so Michael, unperturbed, committed to typing the notes for Thomas. Not even a fully typed set of notes presented the solution Michael hoped for though, as Thomas—a ninth grader—was still reading at a 4th grade level. Thomas, and the array of learning needs he and other students brought to the table, propelled Michael into the depths of one simple but confounding question: “How do kids learn?” Throughout the next year, Michael would continue to ask himself how literacy, a linchpin for educational success, could look so different for so many students.
Feeling these were questions to be lived more than answered, Michael called Dr. Mike Pressley, an esteemed literacy scholar, and ACE’s academic director at the time. That phone call, which Mike answered at 9 pm on a Friday evening while serving as a game-day manager for the soccer team, proved one of the most magical and important phone calls in Michael’s life, as it initiated his process to applying to Ph.D. programs. Graduating from the University of Kansas with his doctorate in Special Education in 2006, Michael began his career as an Assistant Professor at the University of Connecticut, and now serves as an Associate Professor at Texas Christian University.
Michael’s research interests run the gamut, but his work in special education, learning disabilities, and literacy has as its common denominator three units of analysis: the pedagogical principles of teacher-student relationships, reading comprehension strategies, and the systems that support the success of teacher-student relationships. Though he studies these units of analysis more formally now than he did as a ninth-grade teacher, they were already at play the moment Michael set foot in his classroom to find Thomas hanging from the top of the classroom’s support beams. His quest then, was the same audacious quest that drives his teaching and scholarship today: to see to it that all students have a seat at the table to learn. In a literature review Michael recently conducted with colleagues from across the country, he noted only 21 studies of post-secondary students with disabilities across 13 categories of disability, teach students to become self-regulated learners. Post-secondary education was where Thomas was heading next, and Michael has to wonder what became of Thomas in the realm of higher education where so little has been done to meet the needs of learners like him. Michael’s memories of that lanky ninth grader, grinning and shoeless, high above the classroom floor, are the impetus he needs to say, “21 is not enough”—and to be a force for audacious change in the realm of inclusive education.
Interested in learning more about what ACE is doing to make sure all students have a seat at the table? Visit ace.nd.edu/inclusion, sign up to receive email updates, or apply to become part of the Program for Inclusive Education.