Start the school year out by creating welcoming and inclusive classrooms
Address issues of race, gender and other differences.
Teachers and other school staff have important roles to play in creating classroom and school environments that are welcoming, positive, safe and inclusive. And while research shows that young people benefit academically, emotionally and socially from these kinds of settings, they don’t just happen. Creating positive environments requires intentional time in order to foster settings that are physically, verbally and emotionally safe for all youth (and adults).
An important part of creating these climates is inviting young people to bring their whole cultural selves into the classroom. Rather than denying or dismissing aspects of race, gender and other differences, teachers can encourage sharing and discussion about these critically important aspects of kids’ lives. Here are some suggestions and resources to help you do that:
- Start the school year off by taking the time to foster healthy relationships with and among your students. Set the tone by doing activities that encourage dialogue and discussion so that everyone has the opportunity to get to know each other on a deeper level. You can find several engaging group activities designed for doing this with 11-14 year-olds in Michigan State University Extension’s curriculum called Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments. The activities in Be SAFE invite sharing and discussion focused on issues of race, gender and other human differences—as well as make important connections to issues of bullying, bias and harassment. Take the time upfront to create a climate of openness and inclusion and continue to have these discussions throughout the entire school year.
- Address issues of race and racism. Increase your comfort level with talking about the realities of human differences — and don’t deny the issues by saying things like “I don’t see color” or “all people are the same.” Pretending that race and racism don’t exist is not helpful to addressing issues that impact the lives of both white students and students of color. When educators ignore race they reject important dimensions of their students which negatively impacts teaching and learning processes. Interrupt stereotypes, racial slurs and racial jokes and invite conversations about the historic and current realities of hurtful, hateful, hostile words and behaviors that target people of color. You can read more about these issues in a new book by Shayla R. Griffin, Ph.D. called Those Kids, Our Schools: Race and Reform in an American High School. You can also learn more from a pre-recorded MSU Extension webinar that features Dr. Griffin called “I don’t see color” and other harmful statements: Moving toward climates that support positive dialogue about race.
- Establish a foundation of gender inclusion in your classroom by encouraging understanding and policy changes related to gender identity and gender expression. According to Gender Spectrum, gender inclusive schools recognize that gender impacts all students—and they interrupt binary (either/or) notions of gender, normalize gender diversity, question limited portrayals of gender, support students’ self-refection and teach empathy and respect. You can download a toolkit that includes definitions of key terms such as sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression—as well as sample registration forms that include gender inclusive language. The toolkit also provides “12 easy steps on the way to gender inclusiveness” which helps you update your language and classroom practices.
- Take sexual harassment seriously. Understand the legal responsibility that schools have to address sexual and gender harassment. Don’t confuse bullying with harassment and use the more comfortable term “bullying” to address bias-based harassment based on gender, race and other differences.
- Take a social justice approach to education. You can find many ideas and resources at Rethinking Schools to help you learn more about ways to integrate social justice issues into your classroom practices.
To learn more about creating welcoming and inclusive environments, visit Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments, which is designed to help adults and young people work in partnership to create positive relationships and settings that address bullying, bias and harassment.