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Back to School with PBS KIDS: Design an Inclusive Classroom

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If you’re like me, you’re anxiously awaiting the start of the new school year. You’ve probably been gathering opening week lesson ideas and trying to remember the best route to school. You are also thinking about how you’re going to make sure that every student becomes the best version of themselves. 

I think we can all agree that it’s a pretty big deal to feel welcomed and appreciated. It’s easier to be happy. It’s easier to be sad. It’s easier to learn and be productive. A safe community allows risk taking and encourages reflection after failure. No classroom can be successful without a sense of community -- and community only works if everyone is included. This doesn’t happen by accident. Community thrives in an environment that has been intentionally scaffolded. Inclusion is something that has to be designed.

Here are some ways to build your classroom community: 

Promote Empathy

If we’re able to integrate activities that promote empathy, we’re on the road to building a community that supports everyone. Empathy gives us the ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of others. 

There are three types of empathy: 

1. Cognitive empathy allows us to understand how someone might be feeling and thinking. This is helpful to know when guiding discussion or generally interacting in the classroom. It makes communication more efficient and meaningful. One strategy I use to begin the school year is to have each student design a birthday party for someone in the classroom.  To do so, students have to craft and questions to ascertain the likes and dislikes of a partner. Students get to know each other through the meaningful exchange of information. Afterwards, they create a sample invitation and a short description of the party that is given to the partner. Then, students conduct feedback sessions as to what they liked about the invitation and the party which allows them to create a better version of their work product.  Shows like Peg + Cat and Pinkalicious do a particularly good job of illustrating this concept. 

2. Emotional empathy allows us to be sensitive to others’ feelings as we interact. The way we are treated and treat others factors greatly into whether or not we have created an inclusive community. Employing active listening strategies is a great way to do this.  For example, when students work with partners, I have them listen for what I call “One Big Thing.” The “One Big Thing” is something that strikes them as interesting or important that their partner has said. They know that they are responsible for sharing this with the class or digitally.   *Arthur* has really good episodes that demonstrate the importance of emotional empathy. 

3. Compassionate empathy helps us to express our concern for others to spark action on their behalf.Using empathy to change things is always a goal.  Utilizing human-centered design helps students realize the power they have to change their communities and the world.  Last year, 3rd grade students engineered products that would help our kindergarten students learn their letters and letter sounds after observing a few kindergarten classes. They used their observations to find solutions to problems.   *Nature Cat* and *Dinosaur Train* help students realize that they have the power to change things no matter who they are.

Empathy through Shared Poetry

A particularly powerful strategy for discovering empathy is writing a “Poem for Two Voices.” Two students collaborate on poem and then determine a way to present it.  Through the process, they get to know one another and learn to appreciate how they are alike and different. I discovered these poems about ten years ago after stumbling on book called Math Talk by Theoni Pappas. It’s a strategy I’ve adapted to fit any content area.  

To get started writing, I suggest using video as provocation and “The Tiny-saur Train” episode from “Dinosaur Train” would be an optimal resource to stimulate ideas about empathy.  The episode discusses differences, celebrates these differences, and illustrates how inclusion benefits everyone. At the conclusion of the video, give students a chance to discuss what they saw.  If your students are anything like mine, students will talk about their own experiences and the video may foster a rich conversation.

After viewing the discussion, help students generate questions they’d like to ask others in the classroom. Allow students to write or sketch their questions on sticky notes or by adding them to a digital tool like Padlet, Google Docs, or Google Keep. This will give everyone the ability to contribute.  Once the questions have been established, pair students using a collaborative structure. I like to use “Peanut Butter and Jam” where students walk around the room to music until the music stops. They then give the closest classmate a “peanut butter” hi-five and become partners. 

It’s now time to interview a classmate. Each member of the group should choose 3 to 5 questions, choosing the questions without input from their partner. Give each member the opportunity to ask their questions and then record the answers.  Then, the duo will write a poem that they will deliver together. Give students options for their presentations. My students have recorded videos, recorded songs, and digital postcards in the past. 

Here are some templates you might wish to use if you’re interested in this activity.

Empathy gives students the agency to make decisions without fear of reprisal. It creates inclusion by allowing them to realize there are times you will fail during the learning process and it’s okay. That’s a powerful lesson. Empathic classrooms embrace ideas like flexible seating, culturally responsive teaching, and social emotional learning because they build community and acceptance. This is important for all students, but especially those who are just starting school or those that have not found a lot of success academically.

Everybody is a Genius

I try to “default to genius” in my classroom. Every student has an imagination which allows them to view the world in a special way. This is their unique genius and a view that should be respected.  I mention this because in order to have an inclusive classroom, everyone needs to feel valued -- not valued as an academic entity, but as a person. Each child needs to be valued as a person with their own story, strengths, and opportunities for growth. Not to be compared with another student, but to be celebrated for their uniqueness. 

The use of the arts and creative freedom encourages inclusion. Allowing our students some choice in demonstrating mastery gives students the opportunity to apply their genius to their classwork. Integrating visual arts opportunities opens doors for students that might not be your best writers to express their understandings of concepts. Allowing students to experiment with sound and music creation might be appealing to those that shy away from participating. Providing choice can be a lure that we as educators can employ if we want students to feel included in our classrooms. 

Respecting genius has another benefit. It allows for intersections. Intersections are opportunities for cross pollination of skills or concepts that allow the creation of something new. Collaboration is a natural and viral phenomena. Students like to work together, especially when the product is something new and exciting. Collaboration also widens the skill sets of those involved, providing the backdrop to help change the world. 

Encourage Reflection

Being reflective is a characteristic of an inclusive classroom that can not be overlooked. As instructors, our job is not to be critical of our students but to encourage them to improve their products and practices. I like to tell my students that any assignments that are turned into me are “beta” copies. They can be improved with feedback from myself and peers. We try to build a community that doesn’t chastise people when things don’t work, but tries to help them improve instead. 

Inclusive classrooms illustrate to students that feedback isn’t a personal slight, but something born out of wanting them to improve and succeed. It’s not a malicious criticism or an indication of how they are lacking; instead,  a recognition of ways they can improve. Giving students sentence stems during peer to peer feedback sessions is an important scaffold as well as modeling the behavior ourselves. 

Allowing students to help craft the rubrics for assignments is another powerful strategy. This is a “premortum” strategy. It allows students to ask questions and postulate scenarios before you’ve begun an activity. This has made many of my projects easier to provide feedback because a lot of questions have already been answered.  also gives students ownership of the process. They aren’t just passengers but become co-pilots on their own journey. 

The Magic of Journaling

I also encourage students to journal. Whether through sketching or writing, journaling is a great way to reflect on life. It’s also personal and cathartic. There are times when students will show me a sketch, a musing, or a story, but it’s not something I “grade.” Inclusion also encompasses exclusion. Giving students a measure of privacy is important. 

Making sure that your classroom is inviting to all students isn’t accidental but the product of conscious choices. As educators, we need to be architects of inclusion which utilize structures that are welcoming to all. Every student deserves a classroom in which they are viewed as valuable and accepted for who they are as well as who they can be. PBS LearningMedia provides free resources that can support culturally responsive teaching, social emotional learning, and empathy. These community builders are just a search away.

Mike Lang

Mike Lang Teacher https://www.theintelligenthoodlums.com/ Twitter: @Chclteteacher

Mike Lang has the best job in America. A technology teacher in Las Vegas, he works with the most creative K-5 students in the universe. Now, in his 15th year of teaching, he's had the pleasure of working in Mississippi, Taiwan, and Nevada. His students' amazing abilities have allowed him to be recognized as an Apple Distinguished Educator, a Teach Plus Fellow, a PBS Digital Innovator, and now a PBS Digital All-Star.  

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