In 2020, our son’s teacher chose to use Learning A-Z digital resources with her students. We’d never been exposed to the platform before, but like many families, we quickly learned how to work with distance learning, as the pandemic forever changed the way my son and his classmates learn. One of his favorite features of the platform is his digital avatar, which he can accessorize by reading books and earning stars.
One morning after breakfast, he was excited that by reading a story he’d just earned some stars he could use to get a cool accessory for his avatar: a wheelchair, so his avatar can finally look like him. Then he asked us, without malice, why he has to use more stars to make his avatar look like him, when his classmates don’t have to use stars for their avatars to have legs. We had no idea how to answer, but we told him we would find out.
Just so you know: our son has a physical disability. It’s far from the most important thing to know about him. He’s bright, curious, talkative, plays competitive sports, and is fun to be around in general. But for context, it’s important to know that he was born with spina bifida and uses some assistive devices to get around, including a wheelchair.
We ended up contacting Lisa O’Masta, the president of Learning A-Z, to ask her on our son’s behalf. She told us, to her immense credit, that she didn’t have an answer either, agreeing that he shouldn’t have to use stars to make his avatar look like him. Not long afterward, Learning A-Z made not only assistive devices wheelchairs but other items like hijabs available without stars, so all students can start off with avatars that look like them before they start accessorizing!
Because our son let us know how he felt excluded, and because Learning A-Z responded so positively to critical feedback, we’re all helping create a better foundation for inclusion and understanding for all people. Ever since, we’ve continued working with the team at Learning A-Z where we can. We’re particularly proud of our (very small) involvement in the Meaningful Conversations* project. Meaningful Conversations is a social-emotional learning (SEL) project Learning A-Z launched this summer, with the goal of helping students to be heard, to see themselves and others appropriately represented in the world, and to understand more fully the world we live in.
When we can create safe spaces to share, to be vulnerable, and to learn from each other, everyone can be enriched. Meaningful Conversations is a step toward that goal for students and teachers.
No one person can understand every human perspective on a situation, a text, or an encounter. That’s one of the things worth celebrating about humanity. We each capture different elements of what it means to be human, and we each experience the world through a unique lens. When we can create safe spaces to share, to be vulnerable, and to learn from each other, everyone can be enriched. Meaningful Conversations is a step toward that goal for students and teachers. Students across this country and this planet sometimes feel left out and excluded, for reasons both visible and invisible, and teachers have the opportunity to help them feel heard.
A dedicated SEL resource within Reading A-Z and Raz-Plus, Meaningful Conversations supports educators who are working on SEL and SEAD in their classrooms. Presenting culturally responsive content in multiple formats, this resource provides guided discussion activities to safely address difficult yet important topics through inclusive and respectful classroom dialogues. It’s one more way you can create a more inclusive, understanding classroom and help students develop into confident, empathetic individuals.