Celebrating Diversity, Building Successful Classrooms

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Educators know that students carry what is on their minds with them—right into the classroom. Building solid relationships involves finding out about your students, as well as what is on their minds, and diffusing tensions even when you don’t have the right answer. How we connect this process with the ugly intolerance of the polls and political campaigns of the past year is important. American demographics are becoming more diverse, and this societal atmosphere will surely spill into the classroom.

Even those who follow politics avidly admit that the 2016 election season has been a watershed moment for incivility. Data suggests that children were becoming fearful and anxious near the end of the 2015-16 school year, due to repeated comments and media clips suggesting deportation, discrimination, or anger towards immigrants or people of color. They’re not alone; a July survey from the Associated Press suggested 81 percent of the electorate had some fear regarding the presidential election.

So how do we overcome such difficult emotional and psychological challenges as we return to schools? In these opening days and weeks of the new year, focus on setting your tone (and your goals for improvement) early and clearly with students with these four big ideas for celebrating diversity.

Big Idea 1: Rethink your assumption that differences don’t matter.

Someplace, early in my career, I received the message that teachers should make a conscious attempt to think of all children as being the same, which was euphemistically called "becoming colorblind." Upon reflection, that seems pretty naive; I have rediscovered the importance of culture. Norms for appropriate behavior may not match your expectations (some cultures don’t look adults in the eye; others find speaking out to be uncomfortable). For some ethnic traditions, belonging means not leaving the family for a distant job or college. Religious backgrounds may play a role in parent-school or student expectations for group work. Gender expectations may be uneven, with boys encouraged to achieve more academically. In contrast, grade pressure by parents is often adjusted upward for those with new immigration status. By ignoring the idea that differences exist, education can retreat to a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality. That’s not about grit; instead, it is thinly-veiled classism.

Big Idea 2: Tap into the power of stories and storytelling with your students.

By engaging in visual storytelling with students about their daily lives, we activate the empathy center of the brain and release oxytocin. Individual stories matter, and the associated feelings, words, images, or a combination can be stored into long-term memory. We all have our own lens of understanding, but sharing in the classroom can give us insights about experiences we haven’t had ourselves. Not all students get to school the same way, eat the same food, or follow the same routine on a weekend. A corollary to this concept is the idea of bibliotherapy. Bibliotherapy has long been advocated by gifted and reading teachers to simulate a variety of experiences without the long-term consequences. Videotherapy, its more recent sibling, also has an important place in a classroom, and is easily accessible through a selected TED video or student-gathered clips of making a meal or talking about a holiday tradition. To really cement new understanding, students need to chew on the implications of stories, actively processing or conversing about the ideas involved to break down barriers.

Big Idea 3: Set clear expectations for respect.

Educators must have clear rules about boundaries when conversations are no longer about understanding, but devolve into opinion without evidence. That’s tricky, but necessary. From bathroom bills to religious freedom, questions about American values have been on display for months. Just as racism in schools has well-documented effects (including absenteeism, unhealthy clique formation, and lower academic achievement), schools without a positive culture of respect can be seen negatively by parents and the community. Our students notice how we treat others, especially if we let casual bias replace evidence. Outside experts, found via Twitter hashtags such as #educolor or #globaled, can help us with suggestions to deal with religious intolerance, xenophobia, or cyberbullying. One easy start is celebrating a diverse array of historical contributors in our curriculum (resources like A Mighty Girl can help), so students can see powerful role models they can emulate and respect. Be honest with your students about your limits and the difference between tolerance and acceptance, but hold violators of your policy accountable. Jackie Robinson’s quote holds true here: “I'm not concerned with your liking or disliking me ... All I ask is that you respect me as a human being.”

Big Idea 4: Admit that students need a village of stakeholders.

Kids struggle, for a variety of reasons already mentioned. Add in a wounding summer of high-profile racial violence, juvenile mass incarceration, and recent reports of inequity and segregation in schools, and cynicism about division can become rampant. Tackling these very real problems requires positive partnerships with our community, to move beyond that boundary of brick-and-mortar that makes schools separated silos. How are you acting to share in the work of gathering together students and teachers with parents, local leaders, outside mentors, and political activists? Healing segregation and division means bridging the gap, bringing outside stakeholders in, and moving the school beyond its traditional campus.

Finally, as we work together to see diversity as a strength, we need to take the time to set a concrete goal (or several) that will allow us to build successful classrooms that reach out to capture the potential of each learner. Setting goals now keeps us accountable for the work throughout the year. This allows us to come back and reflect upon the uniqueness of each and every learner to acknowledge if we were able to shift biases towards respect. Ideally, the active struggle to celebrate and honor diversity has created not only a richer and more successful classroom, but a more tolerant school that models civil behavior for our communities.

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