Everyone is Welcome: Establishing Inclusive Classrooms
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, January/February 2022 Issue
By Britt Jungck
The children need us. We are entering a very critical period in the field of education, and the responsibility to “show up” for our students has never been greater. Last year, as I witnessed the toll this pandemic was taking on my own kids, I realized that not only were my students hurting, but young people everywhere were struggling. It seemed like the perfect time for a change.
Teaching has been a part of my identity since 2003. I’ve taught in all kinds of different environments: a tiny village of 750, an urban district with systemic poverty issues, a middle-class town with little diversity—even community and private colleges.
In 2020 I started working for a new school district, right in the middle of the pandemic. As classes moved online and curriculum and basic routines became the sole focus, I noticed a light was shone on the inherent biases present in many schools. Within my own classroom, I was suddenly hyper-aware of how the lack of representative curriculum, combined with feelings of isolation brought on by the pandemic, was harming students. This became a revelatory moment for me, and I decided to make some changes.
In my new role as a high school literature and composition teacher, I had the opportunity to change up my units and examine the effect on students. The first thing I did was remove a research paper on technology and replace it with one on famous activists. Purposely, I crafted a list that included Latinx representation, non-binary leaders from the LGBTQ+ community, iconic Black Americans from the civil rights movement, Indigenous activists, etc.
These were new topics for a school that boasted a non-white enrollment of less than 13 percent and had a flailing Gay-Straight Alliance with less than ten members. However, when nearly 20 of my 94 students chose Marsha P. Johnson, I knew they were craving more diversity in their lives.
Two weeks later, during parent-teacher conferences, one mother thanked me because her child was excited about school for the first time in two years. She said I was their favorite teacher. I’d not yet had much one-on-one time with this student, so I actually found myself feeling embarrassed. But months later, the student confessed that my assignment had let them know they could be themselves in my room; it was the first time they hadn’t skipped English class in years.
After that, I continued to evolve my methods. Although some parents were not thrilled to have their kids learning about authors and historians who were from marginalized populations, many students would linger after school and whisper confessions like, “It is so hard to be Asian in this town,” or “I know some of my friends’ parents say I’m not welcome in their home.” It was my job to make sure those students knew they were welcome in my classroom.
Soon I began wondering how the entire system could change if all teachers at all levels adopted a more inclusive and affirming curriculum. A university in my area had recently added a “social and cultural studies” emphasis to its Education PhD program. In the spring of 2021 I applied to it and was accepted. With that, I started on a new path to changing how teachers create lessons for their students.
Now, I teach a class centered around social justice, designing lessons using counterstories, and developing representative perspectives for teaching elementary children. My students are future teachers, and the tides are turning in how education can involve both the essential skills for growth, as well as inclusive and diverse examples that reflect the fabric of our students’ communities.
What exactly does this look like? The opportunities are endless, but a few ideas are broken down here, by age-group, to consider when choosing lesson content, organizing your classroom, or approaching school-wide activities with an affirming and inclusive mindset.
Preschool and Elementary
Is age four too young to establish an inclusive classroom community? Absolutely not. During the formative years of elementary school, students are learning how to exist in the academic system. It is our responsibility as educators to communicate that everyone is welcome in our classrooms, everyone has value, and everyone has a narrative worth learning.
Have you ever thought about how gendered young classrooms can be? Items are colour-coded, princess corners are built, and many teachers still start the day by saying, “Good morning boys and girls!” Adopting more gender-neutral environments as early as preschool can set the tone for gender identity to be less prescribed for those young people who may be non-binary.
Inclusive literature can also go a long way. Children’s books featuring marginalized protagonists still represent a small percentage of those published each year, but there are excellent options available. Some great titles include:
- The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family written by Ibtihaj Muhammad and S.K. Ali, illustrated by Hatem Aly
- Sticks written and illustrated by Diane Alber
- Rainbow Boy written by Taylor Rouanzion, illustrated by Stacey Chomiak
- The Name Jar written and illustrated by Yangsook Choi
Introduce cultural exploration early on. Incorporate units like “Global Fridays.” Play music from other countries and cultures. Have clocks that show times from around the world. Share the weather in multiple languages. Explore holidays and foods that are not native to your community. Make sure appreciation for other cultures is a part of students’ lives from the youngest age possible.
Children’s concepts of identity begin to formalize in adolescence. One of the periods of development with the most anguish and progress, middle-grade teachers will tell you that these years are critical in developing students’ sense of self.
Recently, the number of preteens and young teens expressing self-loathing behaviors, showing the onset of eating disorders, and even suicidal ideations has increased rapidly. Access to social media has been blamed by some educators. Isolation and increased screen time brought on by the pandemic probably haven’t helped these feelings. In our classrooms and schools, we have opportunities to provide safe and inclusive spaces for young people to explore their identities and develop confidence and self-esteem.
Activities and clubs often start at this age. Did you know that students with disabilities are frequently left out when schools are marketing these clubs? Have you thought about how difficult choir can be for students with a reading goal? Is your school willing to get a sight guide for vision-impaired students? Clubs and organizations should be open to everyone, and often we say that is the case, but what barriers may be preventing all students from participating where you teach?
Middle school can also mean the start of homework. Not every child’s home is conducive to learning. Many of your students may be watching younger siblings while their parents work evenings. Food insecurity is a real issue in this post-pandemic world, and that can mean homework is not a priority in the evening for every student. Some students’ home language may be different than the one used at school, and they may not have access to help. Think about how inclusive your homework practices are and if your students are truly benefitting from them.
Does your school have a book club? Is it only led by reading and language arts teachers? How involved are your administrators, basketball coaches, and math teachers in promoting literacy and diverse books? Make it a point to start your math class with free reading and make sure all teachers are modeling inclusive texts and counterstories, not just school librarians. Rick by Alex Gino or Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart are both great choices.
Citizenship, responsibility, and respect are all character traits at the heart of secondary schooling. The pressure to develop these attributes along with academic aptitude is a big part of high school education. Children are mere years from entering the workforce, living independently, and becoming civically engaged. Ensuring our schools reflect a diversity of ideas, cultures, and experiences is critically important. Additionally, providing inclusive and affirming content for teens helps to alleviate anxieties about entering the adult world and embracing their independent identities.
Popularity votes. Homecoming. Prom. Winter formal. Any time we ask students to vote for candidates we are opening up opportunities for hateful dialogue and non-inclusive practices to arise. Titles such as “king” and “queen” enforce binary views of gender. What are your voting methods? Are they only in one language? Is this leaving students’ opinions out? How do students with disabilities vote? If the voting isn’t inclusive and the titles are not affirming, is this practice worth keeping?
Teaching marginalized voices is vital before graduation. High school students are moments from entering university or the workforce, and they need to understand the complex world they are about to dive into. Do you study the rights of Muslims in your government class? What flags are displayed in your geography rooms? How is the history of Indigenous peoples reflected in your work? Do you acknowledge the complicated relationship between Black people and the police? Great resources exist on all these topics.
Ultimately, as educators, we have a responsibility to ensure our classrooms and content are representative of both our students and the 21st century global community. The past two years have illustrated how one event can forever change our field, yet the foundation of our job remains the same: we must guide the students in our care toward knowledge. We can choose the path each day, however, and we may create remarkable impacts by making small changes toward more equitable, inclusive, and diverse content that recognizes and represents everyone, not just the majoritarian narrative.
Britt Jungck is pursuing her PhD in Education with a certificate in Education for Social Justice at Iowa State University. A career educator, she began as an English teacher in 2004, and has taught students of every age from 11-65.