Finding the "I" in Inclusion

How do you find the "I" in inclusion? Removing the Stumbling Block

I had the opportunity to learn about Israel education with my colleagues at the Association of Reform Jewish Educators annual gathering. I felt fortunate to learn among friends who care so deeply about the future of Reform Jewish education and I eagerly sought new ideas and gleaned significant insights.

For me, one session had greater impact than the others. Rabbi Yehudit Werchow, the Director of Israel Engagement for the Union for Reform Judaism, led us in a conversation about what it can mean to find the "I" in Israel engagement. The focus of our dialogue was on what each of us brings to the conversation; our personal narratives, our personal journeys, the deeply personal stories that shape our understanding. Our discussion was rich and meaningful, and I was impressed by Yehudit’s choice to use poetry & music as the tool to explore our memories, experiences and connections to Israel.

Almost immediately I found myself wondering what it would mean to engage in a conversation about finding the "I" in inclusion. How do our personal stories and journeys inform the way that we feel about and teach about inclusion? How can these stories help us to shape our personal and professional practice?

Jewish and secular education professionals have long known that our work is built on relationships. It is critical to honor each personal story and experience to make room in the process for every stakeholder. When we celebrate personal journeys, we acknowledge that each of us can make a valuable contribution to shaping and driving successful inclusive practice.

How does YOUR personal story and journey inform the way you feel about and teach about inclusion?

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Do We Over-Emphasize Learning Styles?

EVERYONE has the ability to learn; Removing the Stumbling Block

There is no doubt in my mind that EVERYONE has the ability to learn. 

We just each go about it differently. From Proverbs, “Teach a child according to his/her own way,” but how do you discover a learner’s “way”? One thought is that a child’s “way” is his/her learning style.

Learning style is defined as an individual’s preferred mode of gaining knowledge. There are three basic learning styles that are most widely utilized; visual, auditory and kinesthetic. However, four additional categories are also generally accepted; social, logical, verbal and solitary.

I know that I am primarily a visual learner. How do I know this? When one of my children yells out to me, “Hey mom, what does I-N-S-U-R-M-O-U-N-T-A-B-L-E mean?” I will usually reply, “Come here…I need to see it.”  Similarly, when attending a lecture or a workshop, I take notes or tweet about what the presenter is saying. For me, the writing (kinesthetic) and then being able to see the information helps me to retain what I have learned.

We all use every learning style, but have dominance in certain areas. I demonstrated a blend of two learning styles above, despite first asserting my dominance as a visual learner. Further, our dominance is not fixed and can shift given the experience, and it is possible to learn or improve dominance in any given area.  Using a student’s preferred learning style is a logical and effective way to differentiate instruction and improve student motivation and achievement.

However, not everyone embraces the practice of teaching to preferred learning styles. In an interesting article by Reed Gillespie called “The Pitfalls of Learning Styles and How We Got Duped Into Believing in Them” he states, “Today I cringe when my well-meaning peers talk about using – sometimes even paying for – learning style inventories…”  He goes on to assert that not only is there no proof that understanding learning styles improves learning, but that using them could actually be dangerous. He says, “Labels shape expectations, lead to exaggerations and perpetuate the notion that a student is not capable – or not as capable – of success.” Rings true for those of us involved in special education...

My daughter handed me her most recent spelling test where she missed five words out of twenty. When I asked what happened she replied, “I’m not good at spelling”. Compare this to Reed’s story of John who struggles with reading and writing. Throughout middle school John is given opportunities to express his learning through art and drawing, as this preferred modality is where he excels. Yet, when he arrives in high school, John is ill-equipped to handle high school writing assignments and suffers poor grades. Reed argues that we have set John up for failure. And as I tell my daughter, being “bad at spelling” isn’t an excuse, but rather a wake up call, to improve her skills.

What do you think? When we strive to teach children “according to their own way” are we missing the mark? Do we deprive our children of the opportunity to strengthen areas of weakness when we seek to cater to their strengths?

How Do We Find the Balance Between Multi-Sensory and Sensory Overload?

sensory play; Removing the Stumbling Block
When children are small, they instinctively learn about our world through their senses. Stimulating the senses sends signals to the brain and strengthens the neural pathways for learning. The more of his senses a child uses and the better he becomes at using them, the more he can learn. And yet, once a child enters school, she is often expected to rely most heavily on hearing and seeing as a means to acquire new information. There is significant value in engaging students through all of their senses, yet this is an area often ignored once children leave preschool.

I believe that all students benefit from a multi-sensory approach to learning; an approach to education that engages all of the senses. Some of us learn best by listening; some need to write something down to commit it to memory and others won't remember well unless they repeat it back out loud. Still others will benefit from connecting their learning to a smell or a taste. Utilizing multiple modalities can increase the likelihood that learning will be meaningful, relevant and lasting.

It should not come as a surprise that our best lessons involve more than just reading or listening; they incorporate hands-on projects such as cooking, artwork, skits, videos, and of course, music.

There are many sources to bring these elements into a Jewish classroom. Behrman House and Torah Aura offer complete lessons incorporating multi-sensory approaches. YouTube is a good source for relevant videos and can serve as examples for students to create their own. At you can search Jewish recipes, holiday crafts and more.  And of course, accessing Jewish music isn’t hard from sources such as LowellMilken’s Music Archive and Jewish Rock Radio.

But what happens when you plan the “perfect” multi-sensory lesson and the multiple stimuli are too much for a student? How do we find the right balance between engaging all of the senses and sensory overload?

The truth is that we have to know our students and recognize when they are approaching their limits. We have to be aware and sensitive, acknowledging that sensory issues are real. Too often we shrug off sensory issues as “not real” or as behavior issues that a child can control. An excellent article about the upcoming holiday of Purim called When Hearing Haman Hurts explains this concept further. Purim is a holiday of joy and merriment; costumes and noisemakers. It can be the ideal holiday for wide array of developmental levels, but it can also be extremely challenging for a child with sensory issues. “It is estimated that 5-10 percent of the population suffers from sensory imbalance. This means that sensory input may be felt in the extreme. So loud noises and scratchy costumes are perceived to be, or simply are, unbearable.” The article goes to offer concrete suggestions for both managing and enjoying the holiday.

In the end, we need to find balance in our teaching just as we hope that our students and families will find balance in their lives. We will be our most successful, our most inclusive, when we teach in ways that engage the senses while remaining sensitive to the wide range of challenges our children may face.

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