Quick Fixes for a More Inclusive Classroom

If you’re anything like me, professional development can seem overwhelming. Even when I’m excited about the new learning, I get stressed thinking that I have to completely overhaul everything I’m already doing. I have found that if I pick a few “take-aways” to implement right away, I’m more successful. In that spirit, I’ve compiled a short list of changes you can make that are both easy and impactful. Any one would be a great step toward making your classroom a more welcoming place for all.

1)Calling Students to Attention: I’m the first to admit that I used “boys and girls” for years. I never gave it a second thought until a trainer explained that not only does that phrase put boys first every time, it also reinforces the gender binary. It’s a hard habit to break, but once it’s done (conventional wisdom says it takes 21 days to break a bad habit), you don’t have to worry about it anymore. You also have plenty of options! You can address your students as “Class,” “Room 25,” or “3rd Graders.” Colleagues have used “Friends” or “Scholars.” Those weren’t a good fit for me, but I had another option thanks to being a No Excuses University school. College symbolism is important to the NEU program, so each classroom adopts a university. I simply called my students “Jayhawks.”

2)Routines: Organization is key to any elementary classroom, and we as teachers often find the need to sort our students. However, if we want to be inclusive, we can no longer do this by gender. Fortunately, there are many other ways to group students. When lining up, you can dismiss students by table group or by who is wearing a particular color. They can line up in alphabetical order (first or last name) or by birth month. Instead of a boys and a girls closet, number your students (which we all do anyway) and make an evens and odds closet. Most of us have class jobs assigned to students to help them learn responsibility. I liked to give them names that reflected real world jobs like receptionist, librarian, custodian, etc. I let my students indicate their top three preferences, and by assigning boys and girls to each position (one each trimester), I was able to send the message that certain professions do not belong to specific genders.

3)Extracurricular Activities: Students need to receive the message that extracurricular activities are open to everyone. That means that when I send home flyers for cheerleading workshops, I don’t just hand them out to the girls; likewise, wrestling camp brochures don’t just go to the boys. This may mean you have to make some extra copies, but it could also mean encouraging a child who really wants to try something new. (As we move away from paper, it’s easy to advertise different activities to everyone on classroom websites…but you may need to specifically say that all children are welcome.) I try really hard to give kudos to my students for their interests and hobbies, whatever they may be, but especially when they may not conform to gender norms. For example, my school had an after-school sewing class. One of my boys signed up for it, and he would bring me things that he had sewn as gifts. I always made a big deal of thanking him in front of the class and emphasizing what an important skill it was. After this happened a few times, another boy asked me about signing up for sewing!

4)Read Alouds: As the granddaughter of a librarian, I have always loved to read aloud. No matter how busy my day was, I made time to sit in my rocking chair and read to my students as they sat at my feet. I loved the bonding time as well as the freedom to select which books my kids would hear. When I took a class in diversity for my master’s program, we were asked to analyze the authors and points of view of the books we chose. To my embarrassment, I discovered that most of the protagonists in my chosen books were white and male. I went to the school librarian (a resource you simply must utilize if you don't already) to set about fixing this. She suggested Becoming Naomi León by Pam Munoz Ryan. It is the story of a young girl living in a trailer park in California with her grandmother and brother. Her mom, who struggles with alcoholism, tries to regain custody of Naomi, but not for the right reasons. The family must travel to Mexico to find see if her estranged father will help. That year, I had three Spanish-speakers, a student who lived with her grandparents, another going through a custody battle, and yet another living in a trailer with no heat. I still love classics like Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and Where the Red Fern Grows, but the discussions around Becoming Naomi León were much richer and the characters and situations more relevant to my students.

5)Reader’s Theater: This is a proven strategy that helps students develop oral reading fluency. I think all teachers have the cup full of popsicle sticks with student names on them (or the technological equivalent). I always used mine to randomly assign roles for Reader’sTheater. Unfortunately, it wasn’t truly random because I assigned female roles to girls and male roles to boys. When I realized my mistake, I decided to allow my students to pick their parts when I pulled their popsicle stick. I made it clear that anyone could choose any part, and we ended up having a lot more fun that way! It’s also nice to share the fact that in Shakespeare’s day, as well as in modern Kabuki theater, all roles were played by men.

Sometimes I worry that my students will have trouble adjusting if I make changes mid-year, but then I remember that they are actually much more flexible than I am. January is also a great time to try something new. I have found that kids and adults are more open to change at the start of the calendar year. Hopefully, these ideas help you press that reset button, strengthen your classroom community, and make your school a safe place for kids to be who they are!