Building Inclusive Spaces For Our Students

by | 02.9.17

Connect with Cornelius on Twitter @MisterMinor.

My teaching life started in central Brooklyn as a seventh grade English teacher in a highly segregated district, where extreme poverty was a block away from extreme wealth. That district encompassed everything that was powerful and inspiring about American education – and America itself – but it also represented everything that’s problematic with it.

Those experiences teaching in Brooklyn inform every part of the work I do today as a teacher educator, visiting schools and classrooms around the world to help teachers ensure inclusive classrooms and equal outcomes, specifically for African American students.

Black History Month, as it’s celebrated today, has gotten away from its original, monumentally important intention: building inclusivity. The focus in classrooms during February is on history rather than what’s in front of us, on everything that remains to be done. We can’t change the facts of a history that’s largely been exclusive. But how do we make the space we can change – our classrooms, our schools – more inclusive? I think there’s no better way to celebrate Black History Month and its original, powerful purpose than by trying to answer that exact question. Here are a few tips to get started:

Build inclusive systems. In my work, I try to help teachers understand that confronting inequity isn’t about changing a personality trait. It’s about changing a system – a rule, procedure, practice or policy – that’s preventing equal outcomes in the classroom.

I recently worked with a principal in Seattle who noticed that some of the black students in the sixth grade were experiencing far less of a reading gain than the rest of their peers. Together we identified all the non-readers – about three to four in each classroom – and made sure they each had an extra hour of reading time with an adult in the building. Some students met with the librarian, others with a favorite coach, but they all had someone helping them find books they loved and a space in which to read them. After just four months, these students who used to never be seen reading were now enjoying putting real effort into it.

It doesn’t take much to identify a system that’s not working, and in its place build a new one that allows for equal outcomes.

Be culturally responsive. In architecture, the strongest structures are built on already strong foundations. The same holds true in education. Black students will bring a different kind of culture to the classroom than their peers, and as teachers we’ve got to honor that culture – see it as intelligence and build on it.

As an educator, I can’t walk into a classroom unless I have cultural literacy. With old-school literacy, there’s this idea that you’re not smart if you don’t know Shakespeare. But as a teacher today, you’re also not smart if you don’t know about Pokémon or hip-hop – the cultures that matter to your students. Don’t hesitate to give yourself permission to restructure your lessons so they leverage the skills your students come to class with – even if they aren’t academic skills. Meet students where they are and build upon their individual foundations from there.

Don’t be afraid to engage. Teachers often stay silent on race or ethnicity for fear of saying the wrong thing. But we are too advanced a society for that. We as teachers may not be able to change world literacy or eliminate racism – but our realm of influence is still an entire classroom. It’s still a grade team. It’s still a group of young humans. And in those spaces in which we have influence, it’s on us to identify, confront and change anything that’s preventing inclusivity.

Every day we ask kids to do brave things. They read tough books and write long essays, and do it all while under the scrutiny of their peers. So put your own fear aside and engage, because that’s what pushes the profession forward.

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