Over the past few weeks, I've been reading articles on gang violence, watching videos on people with disabilities, and discussing misunderstandings that can happen in the classroom when students encounter difference and do not know how to respond to it. In trying to figure out how to respond to my students' questions about difference, I began thinking about what the teachers role in responding to difference is and what it means to have inclusive education.
The United States is like a salad bowl; everyone brings a unique flavor and taste without losing itself (or assimilating) to the greater whole. We are a nation that speaks English, Spanish, German, Greek, Chinese, Italian, Korean, Navajo, and many many other languages. With so many languages and cultures mingling and interacting, students will definitely notice differences and similarities in the classroom. Whether it be the type of food friends bring in at lunch (rice, chicken nuggets, pita & hummus, etc.) or the way friends dress, students are acutely aware of difference and similarity. In fact, we as educators teach them how to observe, describe, record, sort, and organize at the most foundational level of education, elementary school.
We teach them how to recognize patterns while also helping them communicate what they see. These skills can be applied in nearly every subject, from math to science to social studies. What is crucial at this point in development is how they react and respond to comments and questions about difference.
"Why does Johnny have black, curly hair?"
"Why doesn't Stella celebrate Christmas?"
"Can boys wear purple?"
"Why does she need a translator?"
"Is she hurt because she's using a wheelchair?"
These questions can bring up questions about heritage, culture, religion, gender norms, disability, learning English as a second language, and many more connected subjects. I think it's very important that teachers do not silence questions about difference or turn a blind-eye when students are being teased for being different. The classroom must be a safe learning environment because learning only happens when you know you will not be mocked or scorned for your opinions. The teacher sets the tone for what students will soon recognize is intolerable or tolerable behavior and it is the teacher's responsibility to create a safe environment.
As students forming their values and judgments about the world around them, it's important they have a place to explore their ideas and questions without feeling silenced, marginalized, oppressed, or alienated. The classroom I hope to create is one of respect and care. It will be inclusive of all students and their voices will be heard. Every student is important and teachers should value them for who they are and respect them, their background, and their culture.
Teachers must find a way to promote open dialog to help students understand difference and not fear it. The best way to get rid of confusion, misunderstanding, and mistreatment, is talking about it openly in a way that respects differences and supports understanding of other people's perspectives. It seems simple enough, but it is difficult even for many adults to engage in respectful dialog when so much difference exists.
As a teacher, I help my students be informed, critical, and caring citizens of the world. The first step in actualizing this goal is beginning with the way they communicate and listen respectfully. A small step, but one of the most important steps to get right in education.
The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and do not reflect those of institutions, organizations, or employers associated with me, past or present.