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Let’s Face It, Your Students Need New Friends, Part 2

In a previous post, I wrote about the importance of adults – specifically teachers - expanding friendship circles and leaving behind assumptions about certain groups.

How are you doing with that? Please share in the comments below. I really want to know.

As educators though, we have a responsibility of doing more than just expanding our friendship circles, we have to create environments where are students feel comfortable crossing invisible boundaries as well.

My high school was populated predominately by African-American and Latino students. And by predominately, I mean, I think I had one white person in my graduating class. I wrote about my high school experience last year during the 60th Anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision.

Instructionally, it was both comfortable and - frankly - necessary for us to study literature and current events that connected to our experiences. In my English courses, I inhaled novels such as Their Eyes Were Watching God and Black Boy because the authors were speaking my language and experience.

However, I still cringe when I think about barely making it through the reading of Stephan Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. I didn’t feel like I belonged among those pages. At the time, I didn’t understand Crane and he didn’t understand me. To be honest, I didn’t have to try to understand or connect because I could always go back to the familiar. I chose not to get out of my comfort zone or try to see the world from a different point of view.

What does this mean for us as educators? Think about what “embracing diversity” means in your own classrooms now.

Are you stretching your students to understand or connect to someone or some experience other than the life they live daily?

If your students are mirroring their daily existence in your coursework, how are you preparing them for interacting with the many different people they will interact with once they leave the safety of your classroom?

Are your students allowed to hold assumptions about others because they aren’t asked to see the world from a different perspective or practice empathy?

Obviously there won’t be any quick fixes or magic bullets when it comes embracing diversity in the classroom or in our society, but there are things teachers can do that will gently nudge students away from stereotypical thinking - even if the classroom and the surrounding community are homogenous.

  • Expose students to counter-stereotypic images of different groups. Teachers can do this through literature, images, current events, music, etc.
  • Incorporate cooperative learning in lessons. Be deliberate about getting students engaged with each other on an equitable playing field – the classroom. If students aren’t even working together in classrooms, how can the work together to solve the problems of the future?
  • Teach the speaking and listening standards. Students need to talk to one another, but more importantly they need to listen to one another. Make room for it in your classroom. 
  • Value all students and model it so that other students can see it and imitate.

Again, these answers are not a silver bullet to the complex problems before us, but they are things that must be tried. Don’t wait.

Let’s face it. We can both expand our friendship circles and help our students expand their friendship circles by crossing invisible boundaries through targeted practices in our classroom, or keep perpetuating a society that repeats the same mistakes.

We have to make a decision. Indecision is not an option. Our students are depending on us. 

4 Comments

Cammie Williams commented on February 10, 2015 at 10:23pm:

French & Spanish - diversity opp

My students in a small town in SW Virginia have easy access to diverse cultures in nearby cities. However, some are afraid and this increases with current events. Film is a good way for me to bridge the gap- Persepolis, El Norte and Le Havre are some that are eye-opening and perception changers for many.

Barry Derfel commented on February 11, 2015 at 7:05pm:

Administrator working to promote affirming classrooms

The internet provides us with access to culture-generated resources and voices that were previously hard to come by in textbooks and other print media.  These resources provide one way for us to routinely diversify the classroom beyond the limits of who is in the room.

Bill Ivey commented on February 11, 2015 at 7:25pm:

I struggle with these questions...

... more or less continually, sometimes in the foreground, sometimes in the background. In the end, I find the only way I can live with myself is to decide that I only have these kids for one year out of their entire lives (well, my Humanities 7 students - I'm on my sixth year with one of my Rock Band students!), we only have time for six units, and there's only so much I can do. But for sure, it never seems to be enough.

My kids, as you know, choose their own books for the units they design. That said, I work to ensure the books I propose (many of which end up getting adopted) reflect diversity along a number of axes - race, nationality, gender (though I need more books with non-binary and/or transgender people in them), sexuality, abledness and, to a lesser extent (unfortunately), socioeconomic class. As a girls school, we also work to ensure the students see themselves reflected in texts and among authors, so there's that, too. But it's hard to hit all those axes of diversity in a given year - which is why I have to remind myself there is more learning to come.

I can, though, within the context of whatever books they do choose, work hard to pull them out of themselves and live within the characters they see depicted, the better to understand them. So there's that. and hopefully, in the process, they learn the importance of considering other people's perspectives, especially since I reinforce the concept in other contexts when appropriate. Plus, of course, their individual research work takes them in multiple directions, and even when two of them end up picking the same question, there's not usually a ton of overlap. So those experiences, too, add to their notions of diversity and perspective.

How am I doing in my own life? About the same as last time, honestly. I tend to spend vast quantities of time working when school's in session, and focus as exclusively as I can (while still meeting my minimum work responsibilities) on my family when we're together on breaks. I'm a workaholic hermit, basically. But at least my online PLN is pretty diverse, including politics. So... there's that.

Brianna Crowley commented on February 11, 2015 at 9:48pm:

Again, Pushing My Thinking in ALL the Right Ways!

Since your first post, I've been having a lot of conversations and personal reflection about the way I address race, priviledge, stereotypes, and differences in my class. I haven't come to any easy-to-type answers, but I'm sitting with the discomfort and ambiguity--letting it work on me. Pushing myself to embrace the responsiblity I have to create an equitable and color-conscious (not color-blind) learning environment. 

But two resources I've been relying on heavily to help me in this pursuit are Teaching Tolerance and Facing History and Ourselves. They offer texts, perspectives, and activating questions that help me switch my focus from what I know to what I can learn and how I can create a learning environment that reflects diversity--of thoughts, experience, perspectives, and values. 

Another way I've been promoting a culture of inclusion is to continue to ask my students to generate their own questions, share their own experiences, and make choices in their learning. If I can facilitate elevating their voices while assuring them that our classroom is a safe place, I am inviting the wealth of experiences they bring. I'm inviting them to learn from each other. 

I'm excited to see what others are doing and learn from them through this thread. 

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