The *First Two Steps* Towards Setting the Tone for an Inclusive Classroom - (Vol. 1/5) - "Strategies For Hearing ALl Voices" Series
Wanting to make your classroom more inclusive, but don’t know where to start?
Take five minutes to try this with your students.
Earlier this month, in launching the series on Strategies For Hearing ALL Voices, we looked at collaborative & cooperative learning as one of the critical practices for anti-bias education.
But we all know that collaboration and cooperation don’t “just happen.”
So how do we cultivate the kind of environment where they can?
Try these 2 simple practices to set the tone for an inclusive classroom: a place where all voices can be heard.
#1) OPENING CIRCLE
"Opening Circle" is a powerful routine to gather in community.
A common misconception is that the opening circle is only for first thing in the morning. However, it can actually be used any time that an "opening" would be helpful-- it can happen at the beginning of a day, at the beginning of a class period, or even at the beginning of a new activity.
It's a time to reset, to focus the energy of the group, and to hear the voice of every member of the community before moving forward.
A FEW NOTES ON THE DETAILS...
The circle shape is key! It is important that this conversation happens in a circle so that every face can also be seen equally. A circle is symbolic in many ways, and it creates a completely different tone than rows or table groups. It gets everyone into a collective mindset.
The teacher is a part of the circle. When the teacher joins the circle as a participating member, it creates a united sense of community. Every person in the space is seen as a contributing member, none more or less than the other, no leaders or followers, just one collaborative community in this moment.
Setup: Ideally, to form the circle, students can sit on a carpet, arrange chairs (without desks), or simply stand in the classroom to be free from distractions. When sitting at their desks, their hands and eyes can be easily distracted to things other than the speaker.
For younger children it can be helpful to provide more guidance on how to hold their bodies while they are sharing and listening. For example, "sitting criss-cross applesauce" or "rooting their feet in the ground and folding their fingers."
Keeping it quick: With a group of new students that don’t know each other yet, everyone can simply say their names aloud one-by-one. If students are already familiar with each other (and if time permits), students can also share a short answer to a specific question along with their name.
Try limiting responses to a just one word, one phrase, or one sentence. That can help keep the energy and engagement up as the speakers switch from one to the next quickly.
It also ensures that every speaker has an equal amount of time to share, without turning the floor over for a longer period of time for a long-winded student (teachers, you know the one!).
And of course, it keeps the opening circle to only a few minutes of class time, while still reaching the same intended result of connectedness.
Question prompts: The kinds of questions you ask in Opening Circle are the sort that don't have a right or wrong answer. Rather than being a quiz, they're the kind of questions that create space to share a personal feeling or experience. This allows students to share about themselves and further connect with each other, without fear of embarrassment or failure.
Whole-body listening: Frame the expectation up front for "whole-body listening." It's helpful for students to know what to do when it's not their turn. Waiting is hard! Set them up for success with some modeling. Some language to use with younger students might be to "listen with not only their open ears, but also with their open eyes" on the speaker.
Throughout the opening circle, don't forget to verbally acknowledge those students that are listening with both their eyes and ears; it provides positive reinforcement for those that are holding space for other speakers.
And finally... The Opening Circle establishes the tone and classroom environment in which all the day's activities will take place. It conveys that there's room for everyone’s voice, and that every individual member of the classroom community is valued for their experience and perspective.
A few resources to help you set up and run your opening circle:
THINK *BEFORE* PAIR, SHARE
Picture how many times a day-- or even how many times within just one activity-- that we as teachers are asking questions of students and seeking out their responses. Wow! It's a ton.
Think-Pair-Share is a way to shake up the usual Q & A routine, adding a more inclusive and collaborative bend.
There's a good chance you've tried or at least heard of this one before.
...But wait, there's more!
Even if you have tried this one before, I want to encourage you to challenge yourself with emphasizing the Think part. That's the part we tend to rush, or skip over, or de-emphasize too often. What difference might it make in your classroom to regularly and routinely give ample think time?
After a question is asked by the teacher, students take a moment to first Think silently on their own about the answer.
This allows space for an intrapersonal learning style before engaging in an interpersonal learning style. Students have a chance to consider their individual past experiences or activate their own prior knowledge before discussing with a partner or contributing to a group.
Let students know up front how long they will have to think. Keep time on a stopwatch or visual timer, and set up a signal for when time is up (such as a chime or a verbal cue). Alternatively, you can ask students to “Put your Finger on your Brain, until you’re ready to Explain,” which gives you visual indicator of who needs more time to think before engaging in a group discussion or whole group response.
Next, students are prompted to Pair up with another student nearby, share their thoughts with that person, and listen to their partner's thoughts.
Pairing up before sharing out in a large group ensures that every single student has the opportunity to engage with a peer and have their voice be heard (even if time does not allow for every single voice to be heard by the entire class).
It also allows students take a risk and “try out” and discuss ideas that they may be unsure of in a small, safe setting with just 1 person before being vulnerable enough to share them with the whole group.
Just like back in the Think step, you can again keep time on a stopwatch or visual timer during Pair work. This time, though, it is helpful to signal the halfway mark with a chime or verbal indicator to ensure that both students have an equal amount of time to share.
And remember those "whole-body" listening expectations from the Opening Circle practices earlier? Pair time is another good opportunity to model, remind, and reinforce those. Being a good partner means not just telling, but also listening.
Finally, students come back together as a whole group to Share out the ideas that they had thought of independently and discussed with their partner to further refine.
What makes this better than the usual Q&A routine?
Giving students independent think time can be a game changer for our slower processors and our introverts. An inclusive learning environment makes space for all learners!
The Opening Circle and Think-Pair-Share (again, emphasis on the *Think* part!) may be simple, but these two simple practices have the power to transform the tone of a classroom.
The Opening Circle can quickly become a ritual that students look forward to everyday, knowing that the first thing they will do after morning announcements is to gather together and take a moment to connect with each other.
Think-Pair-Share (or variations of the structure) can become the go-to format for any Q&A time, building a habit of thinking-before-speaking and making equal space for another’s voice.
Give these 2 strategies a try and let us know how it goes!
We want to hear from you:
What quick and simple rituals have you set in your classroom to ensure that every student feels seen and heard every single day?
Let us know in the comments!
Last month, Stacey Abrams made history. Not just local GA history, but national history. The whole country was talking about the first black woman to become a major party candidate for governor (...in the year 2018...in the entire United States. While that is indeed progress and a milestone, it is still rather shocking that it hasn’t happened before now).
Guys, this matters on so many levels. I immediately think about our young female students of color all over the country. As the saying goes, “you can’t be what you can’t see.” Now they see they can run a whole state one day. It’s about damn time!
College junior and co-president of the Young Democrats of America (YDA) at Spelman College, Makailah Pempleston said to Teen Vogue: “Her primary win gave hope and broke the glass ceiling for more possibilities, and that's what it meant to me. To Atlanta, this means liberation. Keisha Lance Bottoms as [second ever black female] mayor of the city and Stacey Abrams as governor of Georgia will change the whole political atmosphere for the better.” Representation matters.
At a recent event I attended, I learned about the term “windows and mirrors.” We were discussing the show Sesame Street and the role it played in shaping parts of our racial identities. We learned that for many suburban white viewers, the show served as a “window” to see perhaps for the first time, an urban setting and a racially diverse array of actors. On the other hand, for viewers of color, the show served as a “mirror;” an opportunity to see themselves reflected on the tv. As shamefully underrepresented as minorities are in the media today, the problem was even worse back when Sesame Street launched in the 1960s. As Newsweek put it:
Perhaps the most radical part of the Sesame DNA has always been its social activism. From the start, Sesame targeted lower-income, urban kids—the ones who lived on streets with garbage cans sitting in front of their rowhouse apartments. The show arrived on the heels of riots in Washington, Baltimore, Cleveland and Chicago, and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Windows and mirrors are the key to building understanding across the lines of identity divisions. What do the Stacey Abrams election and Sesame Street have in common? Making history, pushing society forward, and giving us the gift of windows and mirrors. How can we bring more windows and mirrors into the classroom for our students?
CREATING THE SPACE FOR CRITICAL ENGAGEMENT
In the traditional education system, the teacher is seen as the giver of all knowledge and the student is then the receiver of that knowledge. We know that this process of giving and receiving has worked when students can correctly regurgitate the facts they have been given on a multiple-choice test - a test in which only one option is right and the others are wrong.
With this as the measure of success, it is no wonder that students understand their world to be right/wrong or always/never. And it is no wonder that the process of learning then is rote memorization, often with the assistance of meaningless mnemonic devices. It is no wonder that education is based in simplicity over multiplicity.
A true understanding of our world (and the complexities that exist within human and natural systems) necessitates a release of the tradition of rigidity and an embrace of multiple perspectives. It demands an acceptance of evolving definitions and often an acknowledgement of the unclear or unknown. It demands that we value asking meaningful questions and seeking varied perspectives and solutions more than we value memorizing the one right answer. It demands that we create space for multiple truths to exist simultaneously - a space with the flexibility to think in “both/and”s rather than “either/or”s.
GRADUATING FROM LITERATE TO CRITICALLY LITERATE
Once we create a space for critical engagement in the classroom, we are ready to critically engage with texts. In this way, individual texts are not simply accepted as “truth.” Rather, texts are read critically in a practice of exploring the author’s perspective, seeking diverse perspectives, and reflecting on how it resonates with the student’s own way of seeing the world.
There are a few key questions to ask when developing critical literacy:
1. Who is the author and what is their perspective? (Understanding the Text)
In traditional literacy, the focus is on the text itself and developing the pure skill of reading in a vacuum devoid of context. We dehumanize books-- we pay little mind to the author aside from some cutesy “P.I.E.” charts and perhaps a brief look at that author’s other literary works.
In critical literacy, on the other hand, the author of the text is not overlooked; rather, we seek to understand the author as we view reality through their point of view. We analyze the work to see how the author’s identity and experience influences the content they create. Writing is a human act; considering the humanity of the author re-humanizes the reading experience.
2. How does my perspective affect my interpretation? (Relating Text-to-Self)
“Making connections” is a common reading comprehension strategy taught in a traditional literacy classroom-- connecting text-to-self, text-to-world, and text-to-text/other media. Critical literacy builds upon this practice and takes it a step further by calling us to examine where our interpretation of a book is coming from.
We weigh the author’s perspective against our own experience and create our own meaning from it. In the process, we develop an understanding that a text can have many interpretations-- students may discuss with one another the different meanings they made from the same text. The meaning depends on the lens through which the text is read and on the context in which it is read. We value all understandings of a text as true to the individual.
A few helpful prompts at this stage could be:
In sharing different perspectives and understandings, the student-teacher partnership is strengthened. Students become teachers, and teachers become students.
3. Whose perspective hasn’t been heard? (Relating Text-to-World and Text-to-Text)
Once we have examined the author’s perspective and our own, we are ready to venture beyond those immediate perspectives into imagining or discovering the lived experiences of others. We challenge the commonly held assumptions, and we seek out the perspectives that are not represented in the text.
There is usually a “default” or commonly adopted interpretation of a text. In critical literacy, we engage in the practice of not only analyzing the default interpretation, but also examining gaps and contradictions that typically go unexamined. Where did this default view originate? Why? Whose perspective does it reflect? How does that differ from my perspective? Whose perspective does it ignore or leave out?
When building text-to-text connections, we consider how the ideas are similar and different from texts we previously explored, and how that understanding shapes the evolving meaning we are creating together. We compare and contrast the perspectives of two or more authors and how their content varies accordingly.
Next, we connect the text or texts to the broader world context. What was going in in the world at the time the book was written that might have shaped the content and influenced the author’s perspective? Why does this matter?
Prompts for this stage might be:
JUST AS HOW WE READ MATTERS, WHAT WE READ MATTERS
In the Western world, the perspective of the white male has manifested as “universal” for so long that it seems invisible -- in all modes of media and culture, the white male reality permeates. This creates a problematic mirrors/windows scenario that shortchanges everyone. White males are surrounded by mirrors that reflect back their lived experience, but encounter too few windows to develop understanding on the experiences of others. Conversely, women and people of color are hungry for the opportunity to see themselves mirrored in media, but find only windows to gaze through.
As educators, we have the opportunity to change that. All students deserve a curriculum that mirrors their own experience back to them and validates their reality. The fresh air of “windows” breathes life into the curriculum. However, this can be a challenge when we lack representative resources. Each year, the Cooperative Children's Book Center (CCBC) of Wisconsin curate and publish statistics on diversity in children’s literature. Hannah Hehrlich of Lee & Low multicultural book publishers analyzed the CCBC’s findings to shed light on the diversity gap in children’s book publishing, summarized in an infographic:
The gap is startling and troubling. One glimpse of hope though, as the graphic indicates, is the statistics are finally showing signs of progress, and we are starting to have more options to draw from.
A few of our favorite sources include:
Lee & Low
A Mighty Girl
Critical Literacy in the 21st Century
What We Do All Day
What are some of the ways you help students hone their critical literacy skills?
What are some of your favorite sources for diverse and/or socially conscious children's books?
We'd love to hear from you!