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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!
You may have noticed by this point in the series that the 4 secret ingredients of a Co-Created Education are all words you’ve heard before.
In fact, they’re often terms that get overused, misused, or vaguely used, which is unfortunately a pretty common phenomenon in the education world. We get these buzz words stuck in our heads, we throw them around too much, and they lose meaning.
I really hate it when that happens, because some of them are such good words!
So instead of spending time hating on these watered-down words or scrapping them altogether, we want to give them new life. We’re taking them one by one and defining them ourselves so that we can all work off of a shared set of definitions and a common language for the Co-CreatED community.
And we welcome your input on these!
Because another thing you might have noticed is the “co” in Co-CreatED. We know that nothing good happens in silos, and that we all have a lot to learn from each other.
We also know education is complex, and we accept the need for varying ideas and perspectives to co-exist if we have any hope of moving the needle. So each of the 4 secret ingredients requires not only a collaborative approach, but also a healthy dose of “both/and” thinking.
For an empowering education, teachers partner with students to co-create the learning path together.
For an inclusive education, we challenge educators to hold space for multiple truths. I.e., educating students who are living in poverty works best with an asset-mindset coupled with a poverty-aware, trauma-informed practice. (Both/and.)
The same holds true for a “rigorous” education. It takes collaboration, both/and thinking, and a clear definition of “rigor” for us to work off of.
A learning experience is rigorous when it pushes students to think deeply, to stretch their thinking in new directions, and to lean into their curiosity, knowing that the adults around them fully believe in their high potential.
In this article from Edutopia, Brian Sztabnik calls out some of the common misconceptions about rigor. It doesn’t mean MORE work. It doesn’t mean “harder” work (whatever that means).
These misconceptions have led to what the author cleverly describes as “push-down and pile-on syndrome,” such as college-level work getting pushed down onto highschoolers, or where Kindergarteners and even Pre-K’ers are expected to be reading fluently before they’ve even hit the developmental readiness window.
Or-- a "pile on" example I observed when touring schools-- an admissions professional from a prestigious, elite private school brags about the 2 hours of homework students complete each night, starting as early as 4th grade. Because "rigor."
These “push-down, pile-on” efforts, while perhaps well-intentioned, are misguided and can even be harmful, squashing the love of learning right out of overburdened students.
Luckily, there are ways to reach the pinnacle of Rigor Mountain without overburdening learners and without extinguishing their spark for learning.
TOP 3 WAYS TO MAKE “RIGOR” A REALITY IN YOUR CLASSROOM OR SCHOOL
Rigor Rule 1: Create a culture of high expectations for all.
Ever heard of the Pygmalion effect or the Golem effect? They are two psychological principles about our tendency as humans to rise to the expectations placed upon us.
The Pygmalion Effect explains that when others anticipate high performance from us, that’s what we tend to deliver. On the flip side, The Golem Effect shows that the opposite is also true-- when someone expects low performance from us, that’s what we tend to deliver.
Others’ expectations of us often become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This is why it is critically important for us as educators to believe wholeheartedly in our students’ capabilities. Our students need to know that they are surrounded by caring adults who hold them accountable, push them to their highest potential, and believe in their capability fully.
Our expectations must communicate the message, “I believe in you! I know you are capable! I care enough to push you, and I’m here for you every step of the way! I see your potential and I see you becoming the best version of you!”
You can't have high rigor without high expectations.
So how do we do it?
I got you. Use this free guide.
Rigor Rule 2: Focus on HOW to think, not WHAT to think.
In the digital age, how students think matters far more than what students know. They have nearly infinite information at their fingertips-- they carry tiny computers around in their pockets (that's what smartphones are, really).
I had a rule of thumb in my classroom: I’m not going to ask you to memorize something you can easily Google. That’s a waste of brain space.
Instead, I’m going to challenge you to think critically, to think creatively, and to apply what you know (or what you Google) to solve authentic, meaningful problems. Because that’s what today’s world and tomorrow’s workforce demands.
A rigorous learning experience is one where students either deepen or build thinking skills-- they use their brains in new ways.
No matter your starting point, here's a full buffet of options for you to start from exactly where you are with increasing rigor via thinking skills:
Rigor Rule 3: Go Deeper. Aim Higher.
Bloom’s Taxonomy first came on the scene in 1956 as basically a ranking system for ordering cognitive processes, then it got a makeover in 2001.
For reasons unknown, it is often visualized as some version of a colorful pyramid.
When we use the term “higher-order thinking,” it usually means the upper tiers of Bloom’s pyramid; the higher a thinking skill falls on the pyramid, the more complex it is.
Bloom’s goal was to give educators a tool and a language for setting rigorous learning goals, and then assessing students’ mastery of those learning goals with the same level of rigor.
A second and relatively newer framework for ranking cognitive demand is Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (D.o.K.), developed in 1997.
Webb’s goal was actually very similar to Bloom’s-- to help educators align our assessments to our expectations. In other words, are we actually measuring what we think we’re measuring about students’ learning?
To figure that out, let's first break down the most basic structure of teaching and learning into its 3 component parts:
Sometimes when we go
from point A (goal) → to point B (activity) → to point C (assessment),
the rigor can get lost in translation like a bad game of telephone.
Instead, we want to focus on aligning the three, and keeping them all as rigorous as possible. Both the D.o.K. framework and Bloom’s Taxonomy can help with that.
A note about verbs...
One very ironic thing that has happened to both Webb's framework and Bloom's Taxonomy is reducing them down to a list of verbs to match each level. In fact, some people only ever know them to be menus of verbs.
When you stop to think about it, how could a tool about complexity have possibly gotten so oversimplified over the years?!
Good, now that we got that part out of the way, we can move on to a few tools that don't come with PSAs.
The 3 tools below are intended to be simple enough to be usable, yet meaty enough to maintain the complexity that is measuring cognitive rigor.
The bottom line is, we want all students thinking deeply and doing work that challenges them to grow.
Deepen Rigor Across Subject Areas
Wondering how to tell how rigorous an activity is within a certain subject? There's a tool (or 2) for that!
The first is a menu of learning activities, arranged by increasing Depth of Knowledge for each of the 4 main subject areas. This handy chart is basically a visualization of Webb's 2002 article "Depth-of-Knowledge Levels for Four Content Areas."
The second is Dr. Karen Hess' Cognitive Rigor Matrix, which overlays Webb's D.o.K. and Bloom's Taxonomy. This particular version combines her 4 subject area matrices into one master tool.
The trouble is, those matrices are still a bit dense as a starting point. To help use them more purposefully, here's a nice "decision-tree" type accompaniment. Together they make a perfect pairing!
Ask these 3 "more than one _______" questions
The 3 "more than one ___" questions hone in on the main factors that distinguish one Depth of Knowledge level from another. These questions do not stand alone, by any means, but they do help make D.o.K. more approachable!
Turns out rigor is a pretty daunting topic to try to cover in just one article. It is HUGE!
So to recap:
A learning experience is RIGOROUS when it pushes students to think deeply, to stretch their thinking in new directions, and to lean into their curiosity, knowing that the adults around them fully believe in their high potential.
To make rigor a reality:
How will you step up the rigor
in your classroom or school this year?
A sheet of paper rests on the table top. Two opposing teams lob legal jargon back and forth across the table, staying laser focused on the document between them. The plaintiff makes their case, and the defense makes theirs. The nonstop clickity-clack of fingers on keys fills the air as the recorder captures every word, every detail.
For a moment I forgot where I was. Was this a courtroom?
No. It was an IEP meeting.
It was the first one I’d ever attended, so I was shocked by how legalistic the whole thing was.
Weren’t we talking about a child? A real-life person who we all knew and cared about?
There was no human aspect to the meeting; it was sterile, rote, mechanical. We were dissecting a document. It had become all about the sheet of paper.
Well, that and making sure no one pulled any fast ones on each other. Which everyone seemed fully convinced was going to happen. There was no trust, and we’d forgotten all familiarity.
Perhaps as a coping mechanism, I caught myself daydreaming back to what felt like a past life, where students with disabilities were treated like humans, and where educators and families partnered together to collaboratively meet the needs of the child. Where students took an active role in advocating for their own needs, sitting at the same table as the adults if the conversation was about them. (It was their education, after all.)
It felt so far away. I let my mind take me back there for a moment.
Flashback to another place and time...
Being part of a school start-up team was one of the most formative experiences of my career. We had the unique opportunity to build a school basically from scratch, designing every aspect of the experience to reflect what we believed to be best for our students.
The school we were building was specifically purposed to serve students with a range of disabilities-- ADHD, Autism, and other learning differences.
Instead of IEPs, students got to know themselves by creating Learner Profiles that captured their unique learning style, regulation strategies, strengths and challenges.
Instead of high-stakes standardized testing, they curated portfolios of work that they showcased at Celebration of Learning events.
Instead of stuffy formal menus of accommodations and modifications (that rarely get followed correctly), class size was small enough that teachers could truly know the students and tailor the experience to their needs.
Instead of students with differences being suspended or expelled at disproportionate rates, we designed a school-wide positive behavior support system that met students where they were and helped them acquire the skills they needed to find success in a school setting.
But, doesn’t that sound a lot like the things that would be good for ALL kids?
It doesn’t take a diagnosis to benefit from a humanizing, student-centered education.
The only trouble with the environment I just described is that it technically wasn't "inclusive" by definition. In fact, it was purposely exclusive-- a whole school built just for students with disabilities. But I wanted more kids to have access to that kind of education. I knew it was time to try scaling up and sharing it in the public school world.
As you may have noticed in the first vignette above, I was a little naive with my ambitions and clueless about what it would take to bridge the gaping canyon between education as I'd known it in my tiny bubble, and what was going on in the wider public education world.
Regardless, I still haven't given up hope and I never will. I believe education can be better and can serve all kids well.
So how do we do it?
We co-create an inclusive experience.
Let's start with some definitions. At Co-CreatED, we define inclusive a little more... well... inclusively, to be frank.
We're talking differences in any of the dimensions of identity and culture.
Because inclusive means just that: it includes everyone.
(PS: Rosetta Lee, who made that model, is awesome!)
There are three particular elements of inclusion that if approached differently, could result in radically different outcomes for our students.
Whether you lead a classroom, a school, a district, or otherwise, these tips will help you do the self-work necessary to reframe your mindset around inclusion. Change comes from within. That's not to disregard the systemic factors at play-- trust me, I rack my brain about those pieces all the time, too. I know individual change can only go so far without systemic change. But ya gotta start somewhere, and looking inward is an important first step.
TRY THESE 3 INCLUSION POWER PLAYS:
1. Want to be inclusive across ability differences?
Learn more HERE.
2. Want to be inclusive across racial/ethnic differences?
Try this activity to discover your own cultural identity:
3. Want to be inclusive across socio-economic differences?
Buy Eric Jensen's book, Engaging Students With Poverty in Mind.
You won't regret it. See:
Make no mistake: leading a classroom or a school full of widely diverse learners is Really. Hard. Work.
One teacher trying to reach students across a range of ability differences, racial/ethnic differences, socio-economic differences, and more is a BIG undertaking, not for the faint of heart. Then throw co-teaching in the mix and you get a whole other set of challenges to navigate ("you mean I have to share my classroom with another grown up?!").
At Co-CreatED, we don't believe there are easy solutions to complex challenges. Inclusion is a big deal, and we'll only improve it by combining the necessary self-work with the necessary systemic and policy work.
To continue the self-work, check out:
To get involved on a systemic level, check out:
What's been the biggest mindshift for you in making your classroom or school a more inclusive space?
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