The lessons we teach our students – whether overtly and intentionally or mindlessly and inadvertently --- are what will shape the world… Our goal cannot be to mirror the injustice and inequities of the broader society (and the world) but rather to provide students with the skills, attitudes, and confidence they need in order to actively transform the world.
Mara Sapon-Shevin is a professor of education at Syracuse University. She teaches, writes, and lectures all over the world on the value of inclusive education, not just as a way to help students learn, but as a tool for building strong communities and promoting social justice.
Sapon-Shevin's experiences as a student shaped her approach to education. She notes that the competitive structure found in schools can be detrimental to students: "As a student who 'did well' academically, I often felt like I had to choose between high achievement and having friends. That's a choice I don't think any person should have to make, and from that experience came my commitment to inclusive, cooperative education and my deep appreciation of community building."
Sapon-Shevin's father was a linguistics professor who traveled to study and teach languages. As a result, she moved often as a child, and her encounters with other cultures became crucial to her current work. "I grew up all over the world -- first grade in Spain, second grade in Scotland, and then three other states after that. I think that living out of the US was really important to my understanding that it was a BIG world and it was full of exciting differences. By the time I got back to the US at eight, I was already on my way to speaking five languages. Living all over the world was really important to my understanding of the importance of diversity. I really value differences and I love traveling and learning about other people and other cultures."
However, she also learned at an early age that not everyone appreciates difference: "I also suffered quite a bit of bullying and exclusion for some of the ways I was 'different' from other kids, and that fueled my belief in the importance of teaching students to be allies -- standing up for others who are being bullied or mistreated." Today, Sapon-Shevin's workshops do just that. She trains teachers in multicultural education, inclusion, and anti-bullying strategies.
After earning a bachelor's degree in elementary education and psychology, Sapon-Shevin went on to earn a Master's degree in Applied Psychology and a doctoral degree in Curriculum and Instruction. Over the course of her career, she has published more than 150 books, book chapters and articles. Her book titles include Educational Courage: Resisting the Ambush of Public Education (coauthored with Nancy Schniedewind, 2012); Because We Can Change the World: A Practical Guide to Building Cooperative, Inclusive Classroom Communities (2010); Widening the Circle: The Power of Inclusive Classrooms (2007); and Playing Favorites: Gifted Education and the Disruption of Community (1994).
Sapon-Shevin continues to broaden her own horizons. In 2013, she spent two months in Chile, which gave her the opportunity to see education through the lens of another culture: "I was working on issues of inclusion and anti-bullying and doing all my work there in Spanish. Working in other countries is so important to me because it helps disrupt the idea that the United States of America is the only country and that English is the only language! The more I travel and work in other places, the more I learn about what truly IS universal (important to understanding our shared humanity) and what is TRULY different (important to broadening my knowledge of multiple ways in which the world works)."
In addition to expanding her knowledge of other cultures, she plans to further develop the arts as a strategy for sharing her work. "I am very interested in continuing my work in community building and teaching for social justice through the arts. I give workshops on using music, dance and movement to teach about oppression and liberation and I hope to continue this work with more people of all ages and backgrounds."
What makes Sapon-Shevin's work particularly valuable is that it travels beyond the K-12 classroom and into the world. Inclusive education is not just about making education a better experience for students; it is about making those students peaceful, kind citizens of the world. "I have a deep commitment to a vision of the world as a cooperative, peaceful and just place. I reject violence and war as solutions and I believe that we cannot have peace until we also have justice. My work with adults -- teaching them to stand up to oppression -- is just like my work with young people around issues of bullying. It's all part of the same commitment -- to a world in which people can live together in loving community, working together to make the world better."
Sapon-Shevin, Mara. E-mail Interview with the author, Rachel Mack. June 25, 2013.