How to Create Inclusive Classrooms: Practical Strategies for Teaching Diverse Students
A quick look at the mission statements for school districts across the United States reveals a common goal: to help all types of students succeed. In Los Angeles, for example, the city’s school district promises that all teachers and staff “believe in the equal worth and dignity of all students and are committed to educate all students to their maximum potential.” In St. Paul, Minnesota, public schools, the mission statement is simple yet broad: “to provide a premier education for all.”
It makes sense that public school districts would seek to embrace diversity—after all, the nation's population is changing fast. Within a few decades, researchers expect that the U.S. will become a “plurality nation,” meaning no one ethnic or racial group will constitute a majority. This will be especially true for the nation’s children, who are expected to represent a broader swath of backgrounds than ever before by the year 2018.
Now and in the future, it seems clear that teachers will need not only mission statements about teaching diverse group of students, but practical strategies for doing so successfully. Fortunately, some excellent approaches are emerging. Here’s a look at some of the highlights:
Psychologist and project-based learning proponent Thom Markham recently wrote an essay for the education blog Mindshift, a project of San Francisco’s KQED public radio station. In an essay titled “Why Empathy Holds the Key to Transforming 21st Century Learning,” Markham listed the many reasons empathy may be an essential tool in today’s classrooms and described empathy as the “fundamental glue that holds humanity together.” He contended that helping students practice empathy and making sure it is included in the curriculum is important in part because empathy has the ability to “unite” students in a world that is becoming more global all the time. Drawing upon his psychology background, Markham promoted student-led projects that require collaboration and group work, thereby encouraging students to continually work at getting along and understanding one another.
For P.S. 89 in New York City, the secret to success lay in creating classrooms with more of a family feel. Also featured on KQED’s Mindshift blog, the public school's staff embraced the idea that all students are indeed different and worthy of special attention. As KQED's Katrina Schwartz reported, keeping class sizes low through a co-teaching model that puts both a special education teacher and a general education teacher in each classroom facilitates more focus and connection between the staff and students. This connection—in which students are seen and heard—has led to improved academic outcomes, with one parent reporting that her daughter who once deeply disliked school is now on the honor roll.
Concrete classroom strategies
At a 2015 conference on effective teaching for college-level instructors, Stanford computer science lecturer Cynthia Lee shared a list she had created called, “What can I do today to create a more inclusive community in computer science?” The list, which was full of practical strategies and targeted to busy new teachers, caught on like wildfire, and some have argued that its “actionable items” could be applied in all kinds of classrooms.
Drawing upon the fact that women and minorities have long been underrepresented and even absent from the computer science field, Lee put together her list out of a desire to change that, but as the nation’s classrooms undergo a rapid shift in population, her recommendations could have an impact far beyond her field. One tip? Encourage students to focus on their “slope,” or growth, and not their “y-intercept,” or the “advantages or deficiencies” they started with.” Another? Provide students with “clear and timely feedback,” as those traditionally excluded from academic success tend to worry and fear the worst.
There is no one way to address the increasing diversity present in classrooms throughout the United States, but following the examples of the teachers and researchers working to build relationships and actively reach out to all students may be a good place to start.
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