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Creating Inclusive Classrooms
March 17, 2013 - 10:34pm

6235421713_a6a6d948e5_mCarleen Carey is PhD candidate in Teacher Education at Michigan State University whose research explores how African American adolescents make meaning and construct identities through reading engagement in informal education spaces. You can follow her on twitter at @Carleen_C.

In the grand scheme of grad life, teaching responsibilities loom large. Teaching is an important part of the professor’s career and yet learning to teach every student well is a process. In academic spaces, mentioning the word “inclusion” to grads and faculty has eye-turning effects. Some faculty and grads do not glance over to the people of difference in the room to check if in fact, they are still female, differently-abled, bilingual, working class, homosexual, non-White, Jewish, immigrant, bi-racial, or atheist; yet many do. Combined with conversations on “managing diversity," this suggests that the academy is a place still struggling to make space for practical conversations on the impacts of identity on teaching and learning in university classrooms.

When these academic tensions crop up in our classrooms, all grads can feel the unease they create when a student, due to cultural differences, unknowingly plagiarizes, or, due to neurological differences, turns in incomplete class assignments, or, due to language differences, a bilingual student produces a paper rife with grammatical errors. It forces us to confront a very real question in teaching: are we going to teach equally, so that every student receives the same instruction and arrives at different points, or are we going to teach equitably, so that every students receives differentiated instruction to get everyone to the same point? Consequently, are we going to allow our students to show us the different parts of their lives that can teach us how to effectively build on their strengths for a more inclusive classroom? In these situations, it can seem like circumstances are preventing us from teaching every student well, but take heart, there are many moves grads can make to incorporate students’ varied experiences into the classroom to make it inclusive of every learner, including us.

As a first step, prior to the first class, introduce yourself via email. If possible, give an example of how your experience affects your teaching and learning. Because I am legally blind in one eye, fourteen-point Times New Roman is the standard font for typed assignments. In this email, ask if there are any circumstances shaping students' learning experience that you need to be aware of,  solicit emails from any students that have a Verified Individualized Services and Accommodations (VISA) form. At Michigan State, a VISA is a document specifying what workarounds, such as extended time on assignments or assistive technology, or a student will need to fully participate in class. You can repeat the request in person, as students often want to talk about their VISAs after class. Asking this question does two things: jogs the memory of students with VISAs to give you the form, and allows every student to see an example of an instructor and institution (responding) to the needs of the students they serve. Demonstrating that you are invested in the success of each student is key to students feeling comfortable enough to be courageous, open up, and allow learning to happen. In some instances, students will not email, but wait until after class to hand in the form and talk about what it means for their learning because you have created the space to talk about it.

Another easy step is to collect a short questionnaire about students’ learning styles, study habits, favorite/least favorite assignments, best/worst learning experiences, and learning philosophy. In reviewing these, you will come across a few examples where educational experiences are influenced by some aspect of diversity, and you can begin to ask students if they are comfortable sharing out in discussion. Follow up by affirming their experiences and inviting dialogue by saying “has anyone else had a similar experience?”, which allows the class to begin defining “shared community” as one aspect of people’s multiple identities. This gives students some ownership of the classroom, and allows grad instructors some relief from talking.

Finally, one of the biggest steps in creating an inclusive classroom is maintaining a dialogue of courage, where we recognize that respect for everyone’s informed opinion is the baseline marker of mature discussion, that there is individual risk involved in sharing about ourselves, and that the rewards are collective. Communicating shared responsibility for class goes a long way toward building trust. As an instructor, being as explicit as possible about the expectations for demonstrations of respect (i.e, “I expect us to use names as often as possible”), acknowledging our shortcomings (i.e, “I do not have personal experience with this but here ‘s what the research says; ”), and demonstrating a commitment to work together toward our shared learning goals with our students can help us on the way to creating inclusive classrooms.

Do you have any suggestions for making an inclusive classroom? Let us know in the comments below!


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