The Educator's Playbook

Supporting students in a changing school landscape

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For children to thrive as learners, they need to feel all aspects of their identity are welcomed in a school. Kate Kinney Grossman shares these ideas for building an “identity safe” school and classroom.

For too long, many people talked about diverse schools as if they only existed in urban areas. But look at our nation’s changing demographics. Schools in the cities, suburbs, and rural communities are now filled with students from an array of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, with different religious beliefs and sexual orientations. The data shows public schools are more diverse than the electorate or many workplaces.

For children to thrive as learners, they need to feel all aspects of their identity are welcomed in a school. Kate Kinney Grossman, Interim Director of Penn GSE’s Teacher Education Program, shares these ideas for building an “identity safe” school and classroom.

Help all students belong

Before students will engage, they need to see themselves as part of the classroom. This starts with welcoming students into a space where they can feel at home. Do classroom displays positively represent a multitude of identities? What about the materials you hand out? Do the books you use show there are a diversity of perspectives in the world and in your class? Provide opportunities for students to create materials that show their own perspectives either visually or in written form. Post these where students can see their own creations or have students share these with their classmates. Students will literally see and hear how they are a part of your classroom.

Communicate expectations for the class community

Students may enter school with different experiences, beliefs, and goals which frame the expectations they have about the roles of teachers and for themselves as students. Educators need to intentionally and explicitly communicate their expectations and goals for learning with students. This shared understanding builds community.

Teachers can ask students to do a short free write on what worked and what didn’t work for them in past schooling experiences. This works in any content area. Additionally, tell students your expectations for how they should participate in the class community. For example, use discussion structures that ensure all students can have their voices heard, while allowing them to positively grapple with differences in perspective. 

Get kids to collaborate

Educators can structure collaborative problem solving in diverse groupings as another means for community building. When students make or solve something together they are able to see how they can be successful together. Often, individuals take will take roles that highlight their strengths, showing how differences become assets. As students see how their individual tasks contribute to the team project, they will see the strength in interdependence.

Culture as capital

Teachers can create opportunities for students to share about their personal identities and find ways to validate these through making curricular connections. Planning instructional activities where varied and historically marginalized perspectives are represented allows student to see diversity as a resource. Engage students in activities that help them to see the world with an asset rather than deficit perspective. This enables students to understand the many different lenses the world can be viewed through. Allowing opportunities for students to communicate in preferred language styles (i.e. using first language, or slang) sends the message that being multi-lingual is an asset. 

Words matter

The concept of identity is complex, especially for students who are still figuring out who they are. That’s why it’s especially important that educators to use of inclusive language, such as gender-neutral pronouns. That signals to students not to make assumptions based on appearance. Additionally, teachers need to teach students about biased language and its impact on the individuals it targets and prohibit its use in the classroom. 

Want to learn more?

Kate Kinney Grossman will lead a panel discussion “Innovation Begins with You: Teaching in a Changing School Landscape” 9 am Oct. 29, in room 121, 3700 Walnut St., as part of Penn GSE’s Homecoming celebration.