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Strategies for Building an Inclusive Classroom

Photograph of a circular metal sculpture.

Circles” by Susanne Nilsson (CC BY-SA 2.0).

This fall, the DePaul Teaching Commons is hosting a workshop mini-series on creating inclusive classrooms. Inclusive teaching is a timely topic, particularly in the context of the controversial article on trigger warnings and microaggressions published in The Atlantic in September, the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement, and the recent protests at the University of Missouri. While at the POD Network conference earlier this month, I encountered a helpful framework for thinking about my approach to building a learning environment where students are welcomed and engaged.

Beverly Tatum, dressed in a grey suit and seated in an armchair, speaks with her arms open towards the audience.

Beverly Tatum speaking at the 2015 POD Conference. Photo by Jake Jacobson (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

The conference’s plenary speaker, Beverly Tatum, is President of Spelman College and author of Can We Talk about Race? And Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation (2007). In her talk, Tatum outlined what she termed the “ABCs for creating a climate of engagement.” While Tatum’s emphasis was on students of color, these three concepts helped me to connect the dots when it comes to inclusivity strategies for a range of students who experience discrimination, such as international students, first-generation college students, transgender students, and students with disabilities.

Affirm Identity

In her book Can We Talk about  Race? Tatum explains that affirming identity “refers to the fact that students need to see themselves–important dimensions of their identity–reflected in the environment around them, in the curriculum, among the faculty and staff, and in the faces of their classmates, to avoid the feelings of invisibility or marginality that can undermine student success” (pp. 21-22). Here are a few examples of classroom strategies for affirming students’ identities:

  • Choose readings, guest speakers, and course materials that represent a variety of backgrounds and perspectives. When the only voices students hear in class represent a single racial, gender, or religious identity, this will send a message to students about which perspectives are and aren’t valued.
  • Invite students to connect their life experiences to the course content, without forcing individuals to be a spokesperson for their group.
  • Give students an opportunity to share their preferred name and gender pronoun before you make assumptions based on the roster or their appearance. You could do this by sending out an online survey before the first class, asking students to fill out and submit index cards with information about themselves, passing around a sign-in sheet, or asking students to introduce themselves to the class.

Build Community

Building community highlights the importance of students’ sense of belonging to their learning and well-being in college, a theme that DePaul faculty and staff explored at the 2014 Fall Forum on perseverance and first-generation college students. These are just a few ways that instructors might build community among students:

  • Set community ground rules in courses.
  • Build in opportunities for students to get to know one another. Do an icebreaker at the beginning of the term that is connected in some way to the course content. Incorporate small-group active learning exercises into lectures and discussions.
  • Encourage student-to-student discussion. At last year’s Teaching and Learning Conference, DePaul physics professor Mary Bridget Kustusch shared a few best practices: model behavior that values student views, deflect questions back to the group, and remove yourself from the conversation at key points.

Cultivate Leadership

For Tatum, leadership in the twenty-first century requires the ability for students to interact effectively with others from different backgrounds. On an institutional level, DePaul offers students leadership-building opportunities through the Steans Center, the Center for Identity, Inclusion & Social Change, and the Office of Multicultural Student Success, among others. One concrete way that we can cultivate leadership among students at the classroom level is to model leadership behaviors ourselves:

  • Actively seek to uncover the unconscious biases that you may hold about students. Kathy Larson and Christina Gamiño helped participants in their 2014 Teaching Commons workshop investigate their assumptions about international students and what they know about academic culture in the United States.
  • Kindly point out when students, however well-intentioned, say something in class that is discriminatory and hurtful. In their Teaching Commons workshop on Tools for Addressing Microaggressions in Academic Spaces, Charee Holloway and Michael Riley provided a wealth of ideas and resources for attending to these derogatory slights.
  • Address stereotype threat, which occurs when individuals are at risk of confirming a negative stereotype about their racial, gender, or cultural group. Stereotype threat interventions can help educators reduce the negative effects this predicament can have on students’ academic performance.
Don’t miss the second workshop in the Teaching Commons mini-series on creating inclusive classrooms. On December 10 and 11, Joy Ellison from the Women’s and Gender Studies and Peace Studies departments will lead The Welcoming Classroom: Strategies for Transgender Inclusion and Equity. Register now for the Thursday session in Lincoln Park or the Friday session at the Loop campus.

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