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How Educators Can Uplift All Students by Focusing on Equity in Schools Around Neurodiversity

A conversation with Simmi Goomer, Chief Learning and Impact Officer at Eye to Eye
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Simmi Goomer, Chief Learning and Impact Officer, Eye to Eye, says she has had a unique career trajectory, walking a career lattice rather than a career ladder. A strategist, operator, and educator who has spent her career cultivating community in organizations across the country, her work is defined by the mission to help learners of all ages increase their self-advocacy, self-efficacy, and sense of agency. 

Ms. Goomer’s approach stems from her time as a special educator in a specialized, public PreK-12 school, where she developed a deep understanding of the challenges learners face and the transformative power of a caring and supportive community. In addition, part of her work has included leveraging technology to facilitate learning and learner autonomy. Working in the education+technology space at Kunskapsskolan and Altitude Learning (formerly known as AltSchool), Ms. Goomer focused on expanding programming, professional development, and partnerships in service of student-driven learning while leading a network of lab schools and then network teams. 

We sat down with Ms. Goomer to talk about her work in order to shed light for educators and administrators on how best to create and teach in learning environments that uplift both traditional and neurodiverse learners.

LD OnLine: Talk about what you learned about inclusive classrooms — or the lack thereof — when you first started teaching.

Ms. Goomer: As a bright-eyed 21-year-old fresh out of college, I started my career as a self-contained classroom teacher in New York City. Self-contained classrooms are led by a special education teacher responsible for the instruction of all academic subjects and are typically separated from general education classrooms but within a neighborhood school. In the district where I worked, if neurodiverse students could not get their needs met appropriately at their local school, they would be bused to a special ed school somewhere else in the city. And although I worked with and learned a great deal from the related services specialists, I didn’t think this kind of structure created the most inclusive spaces because, by design, these are separate special education schools. 

That said, because the classroom teachers and related service providers collaborated so effectively and because the students were generally involved in an immense amount of therapies, we were able to find what worked best for each individual student. It made me reflect on what it means for adults in a school setting to truly collaborate and center on what each student needs and provide that real-time support … to look at students as individuals and meet them where they are. Isn’t this something we should provide for every student in this country? And it’s not a new thing, right? Like Maria Montessori, there are thinkers and shapers of education who have done this work. From them, we can see what it’s like to honor the developmental yardstick and support students on their journey accordingly. 

LD OnLine: You worked in a charter school that was supported by a Swedish education technology company that also ran a network of schools across the globe. What did you learn about the effectiveness of personalized learning during that time?

Ms. Goomer: It was a fascinating experience; we were one of the first global companies to provide personalized learning that was enabled by technology, and was driven by personalized learner-centered learning. A lot of what we do at Eye to Eye builds from the concept of personalized learner-centered learning.

LD OnLine: Talk about what learner-centered learning environments look like. Can you paint a picture of one that you think is very successful?

Ms. Goomer: Yes. I think first and foremost a school community needs to celebrate the individual strengths of each student and turn away from seeing students as templates. A school with a learner-centered learning environment attends to the individual’s strengths as well as their challenges around, for example, specific executive functioning skills. Maybe every student has an individualized learner profile or a student-led IEP that they build along with their teachers, related service providers, and family members. That way they can be involved in how they explore their needs and passions and create goals and the steps needed to achieve them. That would be a big first step for schools to start conversations around equity for every kind of learner. 

Schools that support neurodiversity are ones that truly believe in the power of choice and voice for students to step in as owners of their own learning. It’s not that you unleash students into a classroom and say “go learn,” the adults provide the structure and opportunity for flexibility and choice and voice and ultimately a sense of agency. I think that’s critical when we think about cultivating a growing sense of self-efficacy. 

Teachers also need to be supported. They should be encouraged to build lesson plans or learning experiences that support the learner variability for all students in the classroom. If we start from a place of knowing what is right and best for students with identified neurobiological differences, you’re going to amplify the experience and opportunity for all students in the classroom. 

We all need to remind ourselves of that quote, “If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.”

LD OnLine: Teachers are busy people, juggling so much each day. How can teachers learn to support neurodivergence in a general inclusive classroom? Where can they start?

Ms. Goomer: Every teacher is going to have students in their classroom who learn differently. They may have a student with dyslexia, dysgraphia, ADHD, or all three. Teachers want to support all of their students no matter how they learn but sometimes they don’t have the training or ongoing support to create a classroom with equity and inclusion focused on neurodiversity. Our Professional Learning Program for Educators at Eye to Eye is an example of where schools can continue to help their teachers do just that. Our workshops are focused on applied learning and creating professional learning communities where teachers hear directly from students with learning differences and work to create inclusive learning environments with a deeper understanding of the civil rights of students who learn differently. The program is designed specifically for middle school and high school educators in inclusive classrooms.

LD OnLine: Eye to Eye started 20-plus years ago with its flagship Near-Peer Mentoring Program. Can you explain what that program is and what teachers can learn from that mentor-mentee relationship?

Ms. Goomer: The program is about the power of mentorship, of feeling seen, heard, and valued by someone who gets you. We pair middle school students who learn differently (fifth through eighth grades) with local high school and college students who also learn differently in a supervised, school-based setting where they navigate a fun and engaging weekly curriculum of projects proven to develop the most critical skills students who learn differently need to thrive in school and life. Each week’s arts-based project includes one or two main objectives like a sense of agency, metacognition, building community, or self-advocacy. Projects range from making a sculpture of strengths to utility belts with useful “tools” that directly relate to the mentees’ challenges and supportive strategies/accommodations at school.

Teachers can learn from what both the mentee and the mentor draw from their relationship. The young mentees get to see themselves in older students who have struggled but who have also found ways to be successful in a system that wasn’t designed for them. The mentors get an invaluable opportunity to further develop their leadership skills and a stronger sense of responsibility and community, while helping younger students develop a brighter vision of the future and themselves. Big picture, all these kids are playing a role in an important movement — one that helps the world understand, respect, and value people with learning differences. I think teachers can learn a lot from seeing the power of such mentorship and can also find ways to incorporate some of those skills in their classrooms.

LD OnLine: Equity should be an action not just a slogan. Can you talk about what equity by design looks like in practice?

Ms. Goomer: Pedro Noguera, PhD was the one who said that equity isn’t just a slogan, rather equity should transform the way we educate kids. My interpretation of that is that equity in education is all about impact not intention. Kids come to school with different needs and neurodiversity is a fact, plain and simple. 

I believe that most of us know that we have to grapple with the hard truth that our K-12 and higher education systems in this country are fundamentally not designed to support all learners. So, our work then should be to create spaces where we address the needs of each of our students — which is not easy — but to achieve equity, we have to acknowledge students’ differences and provide for them the structures and supports needed for them to be successful academically and developmentally. 

Unfortunately, most of the time, teachers have not been trained to understand the neurodevelopmental variability that’s in their classrooms. So, as our teachers have more and more kids with identified differences in their classrooms, the system doesn’t necessarily match that growth with the right support and professional learning to the teachers. This is all very challenging for educators. I know from being a teacher myself that you can often feel like you’re in this catch-up mode — asking what can I do to support every learner because I have that desire but knowing that don’t have the time. That is why a framework like Universal Design for Learning (UDL) makes so much sense to us at Eye to Eye.

For equity in schools, administrators and educators — whole-school communities — need to ask ourselves, what are the operating practices and standards in place for everything that we do? For example, we can say we’re an inclusive school, but does that inclusivity carry over into every space in the school? Are we training our office staff on how to support students with neurodivergence so that every kid has a chance to have the class job of going to the office to drop off papers? Are we supporting our cafeteria teams to understand how to communicate best with students with different speech or communication needs so every student has the opportunity to say here’s what I want, here’s what I need, and my belly needs to be nourished today? Are shared spaces like the gym, the playground, or the cafeteria prioritized for equity and inclusion?

For me, equity is about how we ensure that there’s opportunities for deeper learning for all students. That means building from the margins in rather than from the center out.

LD OnLine: At the beginning of our conversation you talked about how when you were a teacher it felt like you were always trying to catch up. Teachers just have so much on their plate at one time. What advice or encouragement would you give to teachers about juggling everything on that plate while still looking to make adjustments so that every child, no matter how they learn, can succeed?

Ms. Goomer: First, I always acknowledge that, hands down, teachers have one of the most complex and challenging jobs. Having conversations with teachers and whole-school communities about systemic change can be overwhelming. “What do you mean I need to change the way I do assessments? And now I’m being asked to do station rotations and you want me to differentiate that experience for every student?” So, yes, pondering big changes is understandably overwhelming. 

Experience has shown me that starting small is a good strategy. What might it look like, for example, to set a goal for a curriculum unit to offer students choices to showcase their learning? Maybe it’s a five-paragraph essay, maybe it’s a video montage, or a voiceover with still images … whatever the medium, it focuses on the outcomes of learning and the process of that learning and not on the product. Giving choice offers students one way to chunk their learning, build habits and feel a sense of positive learning momentum while getting support from their teachers along the way. When teachers give students who learn differently choice and voice, they help them own how they learn — a critical building block for educational success.

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