Cultivating an Inclusive Classroom
Universities have many terms for speaking about their values and the nature of the communities they hope to foster. In recent years, we have moved beyond "diversity" (which, critics noted, implicitly assumed a largely white, male default) to "inclusion;" and again from "inclusion" alone (which might imply a mere formal commitment to access) to "belonging," which emphasizes our obligation as a community to make all people feel that they have a home at Harvard. What are some concrete moves that we can make to ensure that students feel like they belong in our classrooms? We have developed a list of inclusive teaching strategies based on the literature and our own experience in the classroom.
- Get to know your students. Ask your students to share with you why they are taking your course and what they hope to get out of it. Find out what their previous experience with the subject is. Learn their names. Encourage them to take advantage of your office hours by requiring them to visit you at least once in the first month of the course.
- Build rapport among the group. Give your students opportunities to interact with each other. Ask them to move around and work with different partners throughout a session. This is especially important for discussion classes, or sections that require a lot of participation; be sure to start with icebreakers to help the group feel comfortable. It can be as simple as having students introduce themselves to a partner and then introduce their partner to the larger group.
- Assess early and often. Assessment does not always have to be in the form of high-stakes midterms, exams, or papers, but rather can be simple check-ins throughout a semester. There are a number of low-stakes techniques that are easily implemented and provide you with quick information. For example, collect student information using index cards or polling software. You can ask them to write answers to brief background knowledge questions to get a sense of where they are starting. Once or twice throughout the semester, ask students to write down and pass in (anonymously) the “muddiest point,” or most confusing part, of the class.
- Vary teaching strategies. Rather than simply lecturing or running through a problem set, mix things up by getting students to come up with an answer as a group at their given table, or have students come to the board to provide an answer. For discussions, try to have students talk in pairs or smaller groups before opening up to the whole group. Be mindful of the various ways you present information. Some ways work for some, but not others. Consider using a combination of board work, slides, relevant videos, comics, etc. There are many ways to mix things up.
- Diversify course materials. Evaluate course content (for example, readings, images, examples) for diversity. Are multiple groups and identities represented and respected? Find ways to express that diverse backgrounds have a place in your discipline. For example, draw on diverse scholars and showcase their successes.
- Allow students to demonstrate their learning in various ways, when possible. Some students excel at articulating arguments in class; others may share deep insights during office hours. Encourage students to develop in all areas and forms of expression, but be open to and acknowledge the fact that students may not all be able to demonstrate their grasp of the material to the same level in the same ways.
- Be explicit. Be careful not to assume that your approach is obvious to everyone. Provide a rationale for what you are doing. Let students know what they need to do to be successful in the course.
- Address incivility. It is important to address classroom incivility as soon as possible, as it can have negative impacts on the classroom environment and student learning.
- Be mindful of language. Model for your students how inclusive language can be used in writing and speaking (for example, use "humanity" rather than "man"). Acknowledge evolving conventions regarding the use of pronouns in English. Keep in mind that the examples we use in teaching are often culturally-based, and can be alienating to students if they lack familiarity with them.
For more information...
hooks, b. (2014). Teaching to Transgress. New York, NY: Routledge.
Freire, P. 1998. Teachers as cultural workers: Letters to those who dare teach. Translated by Donaldo Macedo, Dale Koike, and Alexandre Oliveira. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Freire, P. 2000. Pedagogy of the oppressed. Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Continuum.
Giroux, Henry A. 2011. On critical pedagogy. New York: Continuum.
Steele, C. M. (2010). Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us. New York, NY: WW Norton & Co.
Wlodkowski, R. J., & Ginsberg, M. B. (2009). Diversity & Motivation: Culturally Responsive Teaching, 2nd Edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Navigating Difficult Moments
originally developed by Lee Warren
While there is no single "right" response to a hot moment, rehearsing the following four steps can prepare you to react to a disruptive moment in a way that feels intentional and demonstrates care for your students.
Attend to your own response. We often forget that in a hot moment a primary task is to find ways to manage ourselves in the midst of confusion. This means:
- Hold Steady. If you can hold steady and not be visibly rattled by the hot moment, the students will be better able to steady themselves as well and even learn something from the moment. Your behavior provides a holding environment for the students. They can feel safe when you appear to be in control; this enables them to explore the issues. Your behavior also provides a model for the students.
- Breathe deeply. Take a moment. Collect yourself. Take time if you need it. Silence is useful -- if you can show that you are comfortable with it. A pause will also permit students to reflect on the issues raised. Deep breathing is an ancient and highly effective technique for calming adrenaline rushes and restoring one's capacity to think.
- Don't personalize remarks. Don't take remarks personally, even when they come as personal attacks. Such attacks are most likely made against you in your role as teacher or authority figure. Remembering to separate self from role can enable you to see what a student is saying more clearly and to actually discuss the issue. It's not about you. It's about the student and his or her feelings and thoughts, though often articulated clumsily and from an as yet unthought through position. Don't let yourself get caught up in a personal reaction to the individual who has made some unpleasant remark. It's easy to want to tear into a student who is personally offensive to you. To do so is to fail to see what that student and his or her ideas represent in the classroom and in the larger world. If you take the remarks personally, chances are you will not be able to find what there is to learn from them.
- Know yourself. Know your biases, know what will push your buttons and what will cause your mind to stop. Every one of us has areas in which we are vulnerable to strong feelings. Knowing what those areas are in advance can diminish the element of surprise. This self-knowledge can enable you to devise in advance strategies for managing yourself and the class when such a moment arises. You will have thought about what you need to do in order to enable your mind to work again.
- Understand the situation. It is possible that, in the heat of the moment, a student has spoken poorly, or you have failed to hear what he or she has said. Your students may be in the same situation, wondering whether they've heard and understood correctly or not It's important, as you consider your response, to make sure that your understanding of the situation is both accurate (insofar as that is possible) and sensitive to the multiple different perspectives from which your students might have perceived the possible rupture. If it seems possible in the moment, you may wish to follow up with the student who has made the comment in question. You might try reflecting back the comment or its logical implications as neutrally as possible—not as an accusation, but to allow the student to clarify his or her meaning.
- Deliver a short-term response. Though it may seem daunting in the moment, you have an obligation to respond to the problematic comment or situation quickly and as clearly as possible. It's important, when doing so, to try to separate as much as possible the offending speech act from the speaker, and make it clear that the offensive act is unwelcome in your classroom without condemning the student per se. As noted above, the dynamics at play in a conversation of 15 people with many different perspectives is complicated, and you should not presume to know why or how a particular student came to make a hurtful comment. Perhaps the students did not understand why such a comment could be offensive. It is your job to try to make your classroom a place that is optimized for learning, and this generally requires reducing tension and keeping all students engaged.
- Consider your long-term options. While you have a duty to respond to hot moments when they happen, the words you say and/or actions you take in the moment needn't be your only response. Depending on the precise nature of the moment, it might be a good idea to meet the student(s) who precipitated the hot moment outside of class, to explain more fully why the moment was problematic. It's possible that a student who has made an unintentionally hurtful comment will feel harm him- or herself. Likewise, you may wish to check in with any students who felt harmed by the hot moment. Is there anything that you as the instructor can do to make sure that they don't feel singled out or unwelcome in the class?