Creating Equitable & Culturally Inclusive Environments

by: Lauren Alva, Instructor (ESL)

Tuesday Teaching + Tech Talks: Week 2 – Creating Equitable & Culturally Inclusive Environments by Jane Waite – Creating Space for Everyone: Equitable Teaching and Learning Environments.

Imagine a group of students standing at the top of a sand dune. They’re lined up side by side, some with their arms up in celebration, maybe after managing to reach the top, or perhaps after achieving some collective feat. It’s one of those uplifting images you see that are supposed to represent success! That is, until you pick up on the lone student standing in the foreground at the bottom of the dune. Why is she there? Did she get left behind or did she choose to stay there? What’s going through her mind right now? And where is the teacher? That’s at least how I perceived the image when I first saw it at the beginning of Jane Waite’s talk Creating Equitable Teaching and Learning Environments. The image provided a useful visualization of what it might feel like for learners to be alienated in the classroom, to feel as though they don’t belong and that their learning environment is not for them.

To help us understand this situation and how to address it as educators, Jane first asked us to consider the link between who we are and how we teach and learn. Through this she helped us to see how education can be a two-way street with the teacher and learner often switching roles and sharing many of the same characteristics: vulnerable, passionate, intimidated, empowered, curious, powerful/less. Jane then invited us to consider what kind of learning environment encourages freedom of expression and participation from all learners. This equitable environment is one she defined as allowing everyone to feel “safe, validated, and supported while being challenged to learn and grow.” While this definition seems simple, it’s not necessarily something a teacher will find easy to achieve. It requires many considerations, one of which is the educational environment: instruction, curriculum, discourse, common knowledge, and physical setting. In considering these elements, we should also weigh how an individual learner’s cultural references may impact their experience of each aspect. Using an adapted 12-question guide to encourage self-reflection for creating an equitable and inclusive classroom (Barker et.al., 2016), Jane gave us the opportunity to analyze and discuss our own classrooms and teaching practices. This was a valuable learning moment for me because it raised my awareness of the ways in which I have the ability to initiate change in my classroom. I might have had some understanding of inclusivity in the classroom beforehand, but I wasn’t entirely sure on how I could work towards it.

After the talk, I used the 12 questions to reflect on my teaching and the educational environments I have created. From the question on how I could learn more about the diversity of my students, I was able to identify what I have done (e.g., student info gathering, icebreaker activities) and brainstorm other options to be explored (e.g., doing my own learning/research to better understand my students, inviting learners to communicate their goals and values). From the question on what my assumptions are of my students based on their cultural group or language/dialect, I acknowledged that as an ESL instructor working with learners from all around the world, I have formed many assumptions about my students, perhaps without realizing it. Knowing that they exist and understanding how they have come to exist seems like a key place to start in my reflection. The next question then was how those assumptions influenced my interactions with my students. I’d like to say that my assumptions do not influence my emotional, behavioral, or cognitive responses, but this is certainly something I need to monitor.

One idea I had was to keep a journal of my interactions with my students, which could allow me to reflect on my responses, what led to them, how my students responded and why, and how I could learn from these. In thinking back just on this past fall term, a few examples of interactions with students come to mind, and the fact that they’re still on my mind suggests I could probably learn a thing or two from them. In addition to my interactions with students, I could also use this journal to reflect on other strategies I apply to create a more inclusive classroom: using inclusive language and modes of address, encouraging open, honest, and respectful class discussion, and actively discouraging incivilities (Barker et.al., 2016). I would then make time to talk through my journal observations with a mentor or justice league. While just a small step in an ongoing course of working towards a more equitable classroom environment, this reflective process will have been successful if I can begin to cultivate a space in which my students feel heard, understood, and respected. In this space, there is no sand dune and no lone student – just a chill potluck picnic with a patch of grass for everyone.

Reference: Barker, M., Frederiks, E. & Farrelly, B. (2016). Creating a Culturally Inclusive Classroom Environment. GIHE Good Practice Resource Booklet on Designing Culturally Inclusive Learning and Teaching Environments (1st ed.). Retrieved from https://mccfulbrighthays2016.files.wordpress.com/2017/05/creating-a-culturally-inclusiveclassroom-environment-mcb2.pdf

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