In a couple of weeks, I’ll be presenting at one of the largest educator conferences in our country, #ISTE19. I’ll be presenting a 45-minute, interactive lecture about Using Edtech to Promote Inclusion and Diversity in the Classroom. And as I continue editing my slideshow and talking points, those poignant moments when kids were brave enough to bare their souls and share about the labels and context this world had already put on them, flood my mind. When I get nervous and doubt that I’m the right person to be sharing this message, I have to remind myself that I’m doing this for them and others like them. Doubts that a white, privileged middle class American woman could offer anything that would help anyone else understand, well that’s a hurdle in my mind. I’m glad for it though, it will keep me humble and away from a know-it-all attitude.
There were times in my career when I wish I was recording conversations about race and culture so I could share with those, like me, who had no clue that young students were developing poor esteems based on their melanin levels. Once during a guided reading lesson, an eleven year old told me he was Mexican but he didn’t like how his neighbors called him Mexican. He said it made him feel bad. This led a conversation around the table about the labels these kids were carrying. One boy shared he didn’t mind being called black or African American. Those were nice labels. One boy said he just wanted to be called Abraham, his name. We chuckled when he said that because it lightened the mood. I listened. Honestly, what did I have to offer? I was super green as a teacher in a diverse classroom, and it was my turn to learn from my students. If others could just hear them, too, maybe they’d see how lethal words could be, how devastating the n-word is for children developing into young people.
Safe spaces aren’t for sissies or snowflakes. Young people need to share and we need to listen. It is the greatest professional development…greatest people development that our profession can offer. We can call it a classroom community, but kids who feel secure and loved will open up and allow you into their lives in transforming ways…for all involved. My students were excellent teachers.
Diversity in education isn’t just about skin color or ethnic background. There is diversity in learning styles, teaching styles, preferred communication, and levels of voice to name a few. That’s why I love edtech. It reaches beyond the habitual hand-raisers. It gives everyone an opportunity to shine and share. (My favorite teaching tools are Nearpod and Flocabulary!) But to reach students, and for them to desire to give us their best, that safe space needs to be in place. It’s not for sissies and snowflakes, it’s for young people using their voices, learning how to speak up, and feeling comfortable to dust off after failure and keep trying.
This may be old news for you, but if not, and you are wondering how to grow that safe space, I want to put forth some considerations for you:
- What are the assumptions you have about people of color, people who have a different religion, or people with preferences you don’t understand? Even when we don’t say a word, our assumptions speak volumes.
- How comfortable do you feel being around people who are unlike you? Do you avoid it at all costs or do you embrace moments where you are in the minority?
- Mellody Hobson, in her TED Talk, suggests us to not hide from what makes us uncomfortable but to tackle it head on so we can get “comfortable with being uncomfortable” as that is where growth and success take place.
- Lastly, are you open to talking about current events that are weighing heavily on your students, even when you don’t understand the reasons? When we listen, I mean really listen, we will learn so much about our students.
From personal experience, growing up in white America, we are taught to be color blind, keep away from talking about race relations, and thank God that we live in a better time where everyone is treated equally with the same opportunities as anyone else. But talking and learning from others who grew up with a different perspective of America, we have a lot to learn.
For minorities and marginalized people, the opportunities aren’t always as plentiful and more walls have to be climbed for victory. For many, using their voice to fight inequality gets them labeled with all sorts of stereotypes, and it’s easy to grow weary in the process. If we allow ourselves to own this reality of different perspectives, yes in this great land even, then it’s easier to see what our students need from us. We can help them achieve what they need to for the success they are looking for. When we care enough to see past our assumptions, and our minds grow too large to house the dangerous misconceptions about others, we will naturally want to form that safe space for our kids. It’s not built from physical materials, it starts with the connections we allow ourselves to form when we can see a child for the beautiful being in front of us with God-given talents and abilities. We will do anything for that child. We will give that child a clean slate on a daily basis. We will teach our hearts out. We will water his/her dreams by creating moments and opportunities that ignite curiosity!
We will build that safe space for them.