Back to School Basics for Inclusive Classrooms

For some reason, Labor Day Weekend always says “Back to School” to me. It’s probably because during the 13 years of my teaching career, I always spent that holiday weekend getting my classroom ready. It’s strange to me because here in Texas, school has been in session for a few weeks already. This post is designed for those teachers starting class in the next few days. But whether you teach in Washington or Texas or another part of the country, it’s never too late to take steps toward making your classroom a more welcoming place for all students.

Some of this is new and some of it I’ve said before, but I think it bears repeating. Plus, I thought you might like it all in one place. So here goes:

1)Nix the phrase “boys and girls” and “ladies and gentleman”: There’s no better time than the start of a new year to practice new habits. When calling your class to attention, refer to them as “students,” “scholars,” or “friends.” Call them by their room number or grade level or school or class mascot. It may seem like a small thing but it’s an intentional behavior that honors the gender diversity of your students. While you’re at it, avoid grouping students in a way that forces them to make gendered choices (e.g. “Boys line up here and girls line up here.”). You can just as easily group alphabetically or by number or birth month.

2)Say their names right: As you prepare nametags and folders and the dozens of items with students’ names on them, take a walk down to the prior year’s teachers’ rooms to find out what students go by. If your attendance database has a space for a nickname, make sure you check it out. If you don’t know how to pronounce a name, ask right away. For transgender students, it’s essential that you honor the student’s preferred name and correct pronouns. For more on the important of names, check out the My Name, My Identity campaign (https://www.mynamemyidentity.org/). Take the pledge to respect students’ names!

3)Reconsider your classroom décor: I understand all too well the allure of Pinterest, but recent studies indicate that it might not be a bad idea to scale it back a bit. Research shows that in a highly decorated classroom, children are more likely to be distracted by the visual environment. The teacher store is a magical place - yes – but students aren’t likely to use commercially produced materials when they have no connection to them. You’re busy getting the classroom ready, so why not kill two birds with one stone and celebrate diversity by replacing your pre-made or handmade bulletin boards with student-produced artwork that honors their identities? Here are two projects to try:

Self-Portraits: http://www.kimmiefinkconsulting.com/blog/2016/2/19/lessons-that-honor-identity-self-portraits

Coat of Arms: http://www.kimmiefinkconsulting.com/blog/2016/3/4/lessons-that-honor-identity-coat-of-arms

4)Revamp your classroom library: Fall is a great time to get some new books. Make sure your classroom selection features diverse authors and diverse perspectives. Students should have access to books that provide both windows and mirrors. This goes for your read-alouds as well. Your choices send a strong message to students about what’s valued in your classroom. For ideas on great books, check out this hub from Welcoming Schools: http://www.welcomingschools.org/resources/books/. From here, you can link to more specific book lists on topics such as family diversity, bullying, and gender.

5)Make sure all families feel welcome: Family structure is a sometimes overlooked area of diversity. If we want families to be involved, they need to feel welcomed. As they walk into your classroom for the first time, do they see themselves represented? Let’s refer back the last two bullet points. We want to be very selective about what we put on our walls so as not to overwhelm; therefore, any posters we do choose should reflect diverse family structure as well as cultural diversity. Ideally, families should also see themselves represented in the classroom library. Be inclusive in your language. Not every child is raised by a parent, so direct your home communications to families. Have families fill out a student profile so you can get more information and be sensitive to adoption, foster care, and other situations. As you plan for the rest of the year, think about ditching Muffins with Mom and Donuts with Dad for Fritters with Families. Speaking of welcoming all families…

6)Reach out specifically to non- English speaking families: Due to cultural differences and the language barrier, teachers sometimes underestimate the ability of immigrant families to contribute to their children’s school success. However, research shows that parental involvement has a positive impact on student learning. So how can we bridge the gap? Have interpreters available at school functions, especially those first Open House or Meet the Teacher nights. Putting together packets for the first day? Translate those materials for families. Most districts have common documents translated and available on their websites and some even have an option to see the entire website in another language. Put your family communications through Google translate. It’s not perfect (my former school, Pope, is translated as Holy Father Elementary!), but you can generally get the message across. Coordinate with the foreign language teachers at your local high school and see if they’ll offer extra credit to advanced students for translation (I did this as a senior!). Not only will you engage families, you will also set a tone of respect for language diversity.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. There are hundreds of ways we can make our classrooms more inclusive at the start of school. What’s important is that we keep in mind throughout the year how we can make schools more welcoming places. My colleague Gerald Denman describes it this way: If you’ve ever played high school sports, you know what it’s like to play a home game. There’s the band, the dance team, the fans, the mascot, students, parents, and teachers decked out in the school colors and cheering for you. But an away game…it’s just you, the team, the coaches, and maybe the cheerleader who drew the short stick. Well, some students come to school every day feeling like it’s an away game. I’ve given you some ways to start the year off in an inclusive way. Now what will you do to make sure every kid arrives at school the first day (and every day) feeling like they’re playing a home game?