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Reflections on the 2021 Virtual Conference On Inclusive Education

Reflections on the 2021 Virtual Conference On Inclusive Education

By Anna Marcus & Leann Springer

Around the world, children are excluded from schools where they belong because of disability, race, language, religion, gender, and poverty. PEAK’s mission, as you probably already know, is to provide training, information, and technical assistance to equip families with strategies to advocate successfully for their children. As a result of these services children and adults will live rich, active lives participating as full members of their schools and communities. We know that an inclusive childhood leads to an inclusive life in adulthood.

Every child has the right to be supported by their parents and community to grow, learn, and develop in their early years, and, upon reaching school age, to go to school and be welcomed and included by teachers and peers alike. When all children, regardless of their differences, are educated together, everyone benefits—this is the cornerstone of inclusive education. Also, it’s the fundamental root of PEAK’s mission, it’s what all of us at PEAK advocate for, and it’s one of the many reasons we host our annual conference on inclusive education.

This was my first time at a PEAK conference and this year’s conference was unlike any other. Instead of gathering all together in Denver at a hotel’s grand ballroom or conference room, we came together via our computers, phones, or tablets. In other words, the 3-day conference was entirely virtual.

To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect.  I was apprehensive of an entirely virtual conference. Would several hundred people really be able to navigate our virtual conference platform? Would people stay engaged across many sessions and seminars each day? How would guest presenters and keynote speakers engage and interact with their audience?

In short, my fears were completely unwarranted. Any apprehensiveness I was feeling diminished the second Doug Fisher opened the conference with his presentation. He discussed strategies and tools that we all can use to better help students learn. My admiration and love for PEAK’s mission and the mission of every single person at the conference only grew over the next two days.  

And, across the rest of the conference, the need for inclusive education became unquestionable. For me, a senior in college with little experience in disability advocacy prior to working at PEAK Parent Center, I don’t think I fully understood the importance of inclusive education before this conference. After three days of watching presenters - who were students with disabilities, parents, educators, and advocates - I think I understand better.

I had chills throughout the entire conference. I was so inspired by Shelley Moore, that I facetimed my parents in the middle of the bowling analogy segment of her presentation. Further, I was particularly moved by one Friday afternoon session: “Self-Directed IEP Meetings, Students Lead the Way.” I loved hearing students that experience a wide range of disabilities take initiative and advocate for themselves! Kids can do it - and that presentation reinforced my faith in the power of youth.

In conclusion, the conference ignited a fierce tenacity inside me. This tenacity will push me - wherever life takes me - to advocate, engage, and educate my peers and community so that we all can do better in our efforts to support, include, and advocate for all people with disabilities.

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Thanks, Anna for your reflections and your contributions to a successful conference! For those of you who don’t know, Anna began her time at PEAK through the Colorado College Public Interest Fellowship Program last summer. I am so grateful to have had this time to mentor and help shape her thoughts and increase her knowledge in the world of all things disability. I relish any opportunity to positively influence up and coming young adults and share my enthusiasm for this great work we do!

Like Anna, my expectations for the 2021 PEAK Parent Center Virtual Conference on Inclusive Education were mixed. I kept asking myself how a virtual conference could compete with the connections and energy that I feel and expect from our in-person event. Would people participate? Aren’t we all feeling the weight of Zoom exhaustion? On the other hand, I knew that by conducting this conference in a virtual manner the door would open for people who previously could not attend. I also knew that I was not alone in my hunger for the messages that all of our keynoters and presenters would give. We all needed to fill our buckets full of hope after the last 12 months!

I was blown away by the enthusiasm of our attendees, our speakers, and our staff! We were more engaged than ever! In all of our sessions and keynotes, chat boxes were flooded with questions, comments, praise, and gratitude. There was so much back and forth communication between everyone and you could literally feel the support and encouragement.

Another worry I had about a virtual conference was simply working from my home. I am lucky to have a dedicated office space, but it also serves as a hallway to one of three of my son’s rooms.  I know many are working from their kitchen tables sharing space with their spouse/children. I do, however,  share my office/hallway with a year-old brindle Great Dane Mastiff mix who goes by the name of Hazel. Hazel sleeps her days away on the loveseat behind my desk. Her snoring can get quite loud!  A rather protective beast, she rarely leaves my side and when Amazon or UPS pay a visit (it happens a lot these days), she flips her lid with a rather alarming bark that will alert anyone in a mile’s radius. So Hazel combined with three teenage boys coming and going can be quite distracting.

Again, I was relieved and humbled by our PEAK community. Not only was Hazel on her best and quietest snoring behavior, and Amazon and UPS miraculously did not pay visits, but none of that would have mattered. I keep having to remind myself that we’re all in the same boat. Yes, dogs barked, children cried, and the lives that we are living together, yet apart, all continued to happen behind our screens. Through those moments, we all smiled in support with patience and grace like any good community does as we worked our way through juggling family and work at home. And isn’t it relieving to get a rare glimpse inside the lives and homes of others and recognize that perfection really doesn’t exist for any of us?

So yes, we remained connected amid the distance and the messy intertwining of home and work that COVID has created, but the conference programming also delivered. As Anna mentioned, the Mitchell High School Inspiration who presented on self-directed IEPs was powerful. If you aren’t familiar with self-directed IEPs or want to learn more check out this video. And yes, all three of our keynoters gave us profound thoughts, tools, and ideas. We now know the benefit of layer cakes over individual cupcakes thanks to Shelley Moore. Doug Fisher pushed us to think of the danger marginalized students will be in as the issue of learning loss is further emphasized. He also urged us to use the term acceleration over remediation. Hasan Davis told us to “demand the supports” students need to thrive. He also reminded us that when we plant seeds, sometimes we have to do a second or third planting - it’s no different when we work with kids. Plant seeds of hope and opportunity in their minds so they can learn to expect nothing less. 

I urge you all to keep planting seeds of hope for our youth - for their well-being now and for our collective well-being in the future. Thank you to all who took part in the 2021 conference - participants, presenters, sponsors, exhibitors - you made this a great conference! Mark your calendars for February 10-11, 2022. We can’t wait to gather again with you virtually, in-person, or however the time demands. It’s going to be amazing!

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