I have never taught in a classroom in which I am the same race as the students. I have only ever taught in Vietnam at Vietnamese and Korean public schools. So I’ve always been the “odd one out.” Up to this point, fostering diversity has meant making students comfortable with me: the ethnic American teacher that has suddenly landed in front of them, speaking a foreign language, and trying to get them to learn.
Seeing the mixed reactions to me, the foreign teacher, it’s easy to see the importance of developing a safe and open atmosphere to make learning happen. Creating a positive classroom environment can reduce conflict, stave off bullying, and provide an atmosphere where deeper learning can be achieved. Not to mention, schools have seen improvement in academic achievement from students who have been taught social and emotional learning, and a huge part of that is empathy for one another. So how do we create that environment?
In my experience, the best way to make students feel comfortable is through developing a fun culture in the classroom, and making the students feel like we are in a community where everyone is open to express their ideas. How one creates that environment can be tricky, but it’s all about starting at the beginning, specifically, in the first few weeks of school.
First, it’s important that students know how to treat one another. Below are the key points that I think should be taught on the very first day. These ideas are taken directly from Teaching Tolerance’s brief entitled “Critical Practices for Anti-bias Education.”
- Listen to each other. Deeply listen to what others say and to the feelings, experiences and wisdom behind what they say.
- Be humble. Recognize that, however passionately we hold ideas and opinions, other people may hold pieces of the puzzle that we don’t.
- Respect. Trust the integrity of others, believe they have the right to their opinions (even when different from your own) and value others enough to risk sharing ideas.
- Trust. Build a safe space to explore new ideas and work through conflicts, controversy and painful moments that may arise when talking about issues of injustice and oppression.
- Voice. Speak the truth as we see it and ask questions about things we don’t know or understand, particularly on topics related to identity, power and justice.
A lot rides on those ideas and it’s important to discuss them with the class. How does it make them feel? Are any of these words new to them? I think that first allowing individual students to reflect on these ideas, then speak with a group about their thoughts, and lastly making this a class discussion is key to fostering the welcome environment of your class in the first few days of school.
Following this activity: introductions! Who are you and who are they? As a class, you will be working together throughout the year, and you will get to know each other more and more as the year goes on.
I like to hand out a graphic organizer that asks students questions such as: How many brothers and sisters do you have? Where do you live? Where were you born? What is your favorite book? Who is someone that inspires you?
The organizer allows students to respond to each question with words, pictures, or both. At the center of the organizer: a picture of themselves.
The next activity – hang the organizers up around the room and let the students read about each other and ask each other questions so they get to know everyone in a warm, friendly, and open environment. In the words from Teaching Tolerance, “It is…important that students have opportunities to learn from one another’s varied experiences and perspectives” (Critical Practices for Anti-bias Education). I like to draw on those varied experiences and perspectives to build the classroom community at the very beginning of the year. The teacher should walk around the room and do the same. This will help the students identify the teacher as a facilitator for open dialogue.
This activity also sets a tone for the year. It illustrates a few key components of what we will be doing for the year:
- Communication. We will be doing a lot of talking! Students will have to discuss content, issues, and interesting tidbits to connect more deeply with the material we’re learning. At the beginning of the year, the material is them.
- Collaboration. We are all in this together. It won’t be one teacher and a lot of students. It won’t be every student for themselves. We will be one class, as a whole, learning and growing together.
- Social and Cross-cultural Skills. It doesn’t matter where the other students are from, or where the teacher is from, you will need to discuss with at least five other students to find out more about them.
In these activities, the teacher’s role will be huge. For one, this gives an opportunity for the teacher to find out personal details about each of the students, learn how to pronounce each of their names, and find out more about their family or home life. Additionally, it allows the teacher to get a sense of the different cultures that are present in the classroom. This activity can help guide the teacher in selecting activities to be used throughout the year that can combine content learning with tolerance, cultural awareness, openness, and social and emotional learning.
For example, as students will be learning about different cultures throughout the year, why not investigate a little bit more about the cultures that exist in the classroom. In my last class, we had a mix of Korean and Korean-Vietnamese students, with me, as the American teacher. I developed a lesson that had students learn and teach each other about each others’ culture. They discussed popular foods, popular (and simple) phrases, and the countries flags, and condensed the information into posters and videos for the class to watch.
While watching the video, students noted down similarities and differences between the cultures, and discussed them as a class. Next, all students learned popular phrases in each language from the language “experts” (native speakers), then practiced them in class together. Finally, students were encouraged to praise each other in a new language and continue using those phrases throughout the year.
The students were very engaged and found it fun to learn more about culture in general. the more they saw one another say things like, “cool,” or “that’s awesome,” in different languages in response to differences in other countries, the more excited they became. They were amped up to continue learning about other countries throughout the year.
What’s the outcome of these exercises? Hopefully, for students to learn more about who they are and be proud of who they are. Also, to respect the diversity in the classroom and learn more from others differences and similarities, and to connect with experiences and perspectives of students from the same or other cultures.
Critical Practices for Anti-Bias Education. (2014) Teaching Tolerance. Retrieved from February 11, 2016 from
Fry, M. (December 16, 2015.)What? Retrieved from https://prezi.com/wtmynrmopg3a/what/
Framework for 21st Century Learning – P21. (n.d.). Retrieved February 13, 2016, from http://www.p21.org/our-work/p21-framework