School start days in some schools in Nebraska and Colorado and Kansas were staggered through this week and the next. In other areas, year-round schools are finishing a three week break, and other states have adopted start dates that range from August 24 to sometime around Labor Day. Procedures will be set, students will get ready, and that all-important process of belonging is restarted for those who have been out-of-touch for the summer, or have migrated to a new school. That raises an important question for me, namely:
How can we make the classroom a place where all kids can belong, and can feel that they fit?
Step 1: Acknowledge experiences as ‘different’ but don’t rank them from best to worse. In today’s society, that’s magnified, because there is less overlap than ever among different interest groups.
For example, I am from a county that has a large county fair as a summer highlight. Students who participate in this event shave their goats, give their pigs baths, and sleep in the barns alongside their sheep and cattle. (No, I am not making this up. Cots and coolers are stacked next to straw and show animals.)
Contrast that with someone who has spent their summer participating in two or three college sports clinic, and a huge gap in understanding exists. Or explain a great summer to a student who has been cooped up in an apartment and compares himself or herself to a peer whose vacation covered multiple venues in several states.
Step 2: Reframe the conversation by thinking differently.
Instead of asking, “What did you DO this summer”, try instead for something that will elicit different emotions and not give the advantage of privilege center stage, as so often happens. After that child that discusses a lifetime trip that includes four weeks in the English countryside, my marshmallow roast at a local park can seem a bit underwhelming. Here are some alternative questions:
- Think of a time in the last few weeks when you were with a favorite person. Explain what you did and why you remember it.
- Loud noises often happen in summer because of weather, construction, or holidays. Think of a time this summer when you heard a big noise and give us some details.
- Tell us about a moment when you helped someone else without being asked.
- Estimate how many words/day you read for one week. Include text on video or games, boxes of food, billboards or magazines. Show your work.
- Describe a meal that really made you happy this summer, and the place where it was cooked.
- Exercise helps make strong minds as well as strong bodies. What was a favorite way to get your body moving this year?
- Find three to five photos that describe this summer to you. They can be your own, taken from a magazine, or found on a website. Explain each.
Step 3: Draw the circle wide enough to value all experiences.
We live in a diverse world with more than 7 billion other people. Poverty mixes with affluence, the colors of our skins make a variegated rainbow, and we are more alike than different. I would love to hear about your experience making bread or tamales with your aunt , and my family time was spent playing Munchkin, Othello, and Clue. Before bed, stories may have been told around a campfire or in a living room when a game system was turned off.
Perhaps it is just my thought, but couldn’t we leverage all those experiences as a way to share background knowledge? Laughter, movement, food, and the need to value multiple viewpoints can bend that line of belonging into a circle of inclusion. That, I think, is the foundation of hope and respect in our classes.