Trying to Build A Great Classroom Culture For All Students? Here Are 5 Things Anyone Can Do.

I just got back from an amazing professional learning session delivered by Kentucky State University’s Dr. Roger Cleveland. In the session, he had us do an equity activity that absolutely made my jaw drop.

Here’s how it worked. We were each given five index cards and were instructed to write different labels that identify ourselves, like race, faith, sexual orientation, gender, and generation. On my index cards, I had these labels: White, Christian, Heterosexual, Male, and Millennial.

After we all had our five labels, were were asked to pick the one that meant the least to us and rip it up. I scanned through my five, decided that “Millennial” was the least important identifier out of my five, and ripped it up. With one label gone, Dr. Cleveland asked us to repeat that process again, and then again, and then again a final time, until we were each left with one label. That label was the only identify we now possessed; we had given up everything else important to us.

What Dr. Cleveland said next got to me. “Now, what identities do your students have to give up to be successful in your school?

We spend a lot of time talking about how important equity is, but talk is cheap. If we really want fair outcomes for every student, it’s going to take a lot of hard work to build climates where every student feels respected and valued. While this is by no means an exhaustive list, here are five things that will certainly help build that foundation.

1. Recognize The Different Styles of “English”

Hang out in the hallways of just about any public school and you’ll hear a variety of dialects and types of English being spoken. It’s called code switching, and it’s what happens when students from diverse backgrounds switch between their cultural vernacular and standard English.

When my rural students approach my desk to tell me that they “ain’t got no pencil,” they’re communicating more than just information. They’re demonstrating the cultural capital that they bring into the classroom every day, and it’s on us as teachers to accept and embrace our students’ cultural identities. That doesn’t mean that teachers’ should stop teaching standard English, but we should be mindful about students’ backgrounds and think twice before correcting them.

2. Representation Matters

When Marvel’s Black Panther hit theaters, its cultural impact was more pronounced than any critic could have imagined. It was a downright celebration of Black culture, and it’s had a tremendous impact on the self-image of Black students across the country.

So why not make every public school feel like Wakanda?

As teachers, we must think critically about the communities in which we live and work. What’s important to the residents in our communities? What do they look like, and what backgrounds do they come from? Representation matters, and embedding these values and backgrounds within our kids’ education is crucial to getting them engaged.

3. Don’t Be Silent About Injustice.

Among all of Dr. King’s wisdom, I find his teachings on complacency to be especially convicting. “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,” he argued, and teachers aren’t exempt from this.

When injustices arise, teachers who are serious about equity don’t sit around on their hands. Charlottesville gave us an opportunity to be frank and open about the dangers of equating White supremacists with anti-racism protesters. Childish Gambino gave us the chance to talk about gun violence and what it means to be an American in 2018. Colin Kaepernick continues to provide teachers with rich discussion questions about racial injustice and police brutality.

You don’t have to bring politics into the classroom to acknowledge that racism, bigotry, and hatred of any kind is wrong. And if you can’t do that, you’re complicit.

4. Give Students’ Voice

Equity is all about fair outcomes for every student, but teachers can’t know what their students need unless they listen first. Isn’t there some irony in the fact that schools are supposed to serve students, yet students get the least input in making decisions?

If teachers and school leaders really want equity, they build student voice from the ground up. Sincere engagement with students helps them establish trust and relationship with adults in their schools, and gives them a sense of belonging. If you want great schools, you have to build great school climates first.

5. Hold High Expectations

George W. Bush once said that there’s a soft bigotry in holding low expectations. It’s called the Belief Gap, and it refers to the disparity between what students really can achieve and what we believe they can achieve.

Students’ capabilities are as high or as low as the bar we set. For better or worse, our expectations influence their outcomes. If we want equity to flourish in our schools, teachers and school leaders must maintain high expectations for all students.

It doesn’t take any special training to do these five things in our classrooms. And for our students’ sake, we can’t afford not to.


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