Take an objective look at your classroom. If you are teaching face-to-face, this includes your physical room. It also includes, especially if you are virtual, taking a look at the curriculum you are using, the books and texts available to your students, and your actual lessons.
Then ask yourself, “If I am _____ (enter student’s name here), can I identify with this content? Does it represent the gender, culture, interests, and/or language of ______?” And then we want to go through a mental list of all of your students. Are you leaving anyone out?
Here is a true story: when I first started teaching ESL, I thought that by adding in papeles picados and a sombrero my principal gave me, it would make my room feel at home for my students. And sure, I may have gotten some positive comments from my students from Mexico, but what about my students from Yemen, Syria, and Poland? And is including a sombrero really the best way to connect with my LatinX students? I missed the mark. Big time.
It may seem like a lot at first, but getting in the habit of making sure your students are represented within your teaching practice will show them that they belong, will build community and empathy, and give them inspiration for their own futures.
Why Representation Matters in the Arts
A sense of belonging
We know that building connections and a sense of belonging are important. Students, and especially our English Learners, may already be feeling that they don’t fit in. There is a lot of pressure for students to fit in socially in school, so we want to make sure that when they step foot into our rooms, it is a place they feel safe and welcomed.
When students feel that they belong, it’s no surprise that they are more successful in the classroom and form meaningful relationships with their classmates and teachers. On the other hand, students can feel just the opposite when they don’t feel that sense of belonging. Greater Good Magazine points out that because of the history in the United States of discrimination of certain groups, “feeling a sense of belonging in school is especially important for students from marginalized and groups, such as Black, Latino, Native, first-generation, and financially stressed students.”
One way to help students feel that they belong is by including decor such as posters that act as a mirror for our students. Amplifier Art has a large set of free posters that represent current events and causes that are relevant to some of our students today, such as immigration.
Building empathy and community
One way to build a culture of empathy and community is with culturally inclusive books. Valentina Gonzalez says that “the books we share with students can serve as windows into others’ lives.” They can also serve as mirrors for some. The important question to ask yourself is if your classroom books and texts in your curriculum do this.
When they do, something powerful happens. Students start understanding other’s cultures and points of view. They begin understanding where they came from. They respect the differences that they all bring to the classroom; this is what creates community and empathy. This, my teacher friends, is what makes the world go ‘round.
Inspiration for their futures
Think about your own childhood and where you came from. Maybe you grew up on a farm; maybe you lived in a big city. Maybe you are a Spanish speaker; maybe you were born in South Africa. Whatever your own unique experience was, did you read books that reflected where you came from? Could you see yourself in these books?
And let’s think for a second that you couldn’t. Let’s think that you grew up in a big city, but you wanted to live on a farm and ride in rodeos. If you didn’t see yourself in your books you read, would you ever think it was possible? You’d be more likely to continue that dream if you saw a character who looked like you in a book doing that too!
Building a representative classroom doesn’t mean just reflecting a student’s life. It can mean projecting a student into a world they never experienced before! Featuring groundbreakers and authors that have things in common with your students but who went above and beyond can open up a world of possibilities for them.
Evaluating your classroom
Let’s focus on our space that we can control. The place where you can show students they matter and feel safe. As you look around your room and think of your teaching practice, do an evaluation.
Start evaluating your classroom today by asking yourself:
1. Are my books, decor, and lessons inclusive?
2. How would I feel if I was standing in _____’s shoes?
3. Does my classroom make my students feel that they can be anyone and do anything?
Once your space reflects these things, your students will respect you for being the teacher that gave them windows, mirrors, and a sense of belonging. It’s also important to remember that even small barriers to entry can feel massive to students. Check out Jana’s article “ESL for Native Speakers?” to learn about how you can use ESL strategies with all students as an inclusive practice.
Embrace the Progress and the Process
The work of building a representative classroom is never quite done. Your students will change not just each year, but each day! Do your best to make the space they enter one where they feel heard, seen, and respected. Embrace the idea that you’ve not yet done enough to make that happen, and your students will take note.
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