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Teaching a Diverse Student Body

Creating an Inclusive Classroom Environment

According to research, traditional teaching methods are often ineffective for learners outside of the majority culture (Wlodkowski & Ginsberg 147). For example, studies have shown that many students, including women and students of color, may be more likely to prosper academically in settings with more collaborative and “connected” modes of learning- ones that acknowledge personal experience, examine the relationships between persons and ideas, and encourage students to work together to produce knowledge (Belenky et al). Wlodkowski and Ginsberg point out, for that matter, that “[m]ost human beings-European Americans, people of color, women, international students-favor learning experiences that are collaborative and participatory” (69). Establishing a classroom tone that is friendly, caring and supportive, and that lets students explore the relationship between course material and personal and social experiences enhances, rather than undermines, students’ learning.
Analyzing the type of learning environment you are creating for your students is one way to begin. As you prepare for class, consider the following questions (adapted from Wladkowski & Ginsberg 16-17):
  • Are the classroom norms clearly stated, so that students accustomed to different norms in their homes or communities are able to understand and negotiate them? (You can model these and give examples.)
  • What implicit values of your discipline might disturb or bewilder some students? (You can encourage students to present alternative perspectives, to debate ideas, or to create panels representing different viewpoints.)
  • Do your examples or illustrations acknowledge the experiences of people from different backgrounds in non-stereotypical ways?
  • Are the students welcome to share from their own lives and interests? Are they treated as individuals?
  • Have you examined your own conscious or unconscious biases about people of other cultures? That is, how would you answer the following questions: Am I comfortable around students from a culture or background different than my own? Do I have different expectations of students of color than I do of white students? Of male or female students? (For a longer list of related questions, see the online article Tips for Teachers: Encouraging Students in a Racially Diverse Classroom)
Studies also suggest that some students do better or participate more frequently in classrooms with cooperative learning projects and open discussions. For those students from supportive and interdependent ethnic minority communities, competitive learning environments can cause feelings of isolation or alienation (Wlodkowski and Ginsberg 67; see also Cuseo; Johnson and Johnson). In such environments, class discussion can seem like a game where one “wins” access to the conversation by speaking up or raising one’s hand more quickly than others (Krupnick 21). Classrooms that operate solely according to this model risk alienating some students and reward others who speak quickly, often at the expense of fully worked-out thought. Ways to help make competitive learning environments seem less intimidating include explaining the implicit rules and stakes clearly (e.g., who can speak when, how you will respond, that it’s safe to make mistakes or ask questions because that helps teachers know when students do or don’t understand a point, etc.) and injecting a sense of fun or healthy competition into them by using games or staged debates as learning tools.
Another way to create an inclusive classroom is to use cooperative learning techniques. Under this system, the teacher provides clearly structured small-group activities that encourage everyone to participate. These techniques incorporate varied learning preferences and styles of participation and help create learning environments accessible to all students (see Johnson et al.). Care does need to be taken to make sure that such groups do not reproduce the social dynamics of the classroom on a smaller scale, so, for the best results, the teacher must not only form groups consciously, but must also monitor group work carefully. Whichever methods you choose to make your classroom more inclusive, know that remaining sensitive to and flexible about the ways diverse populations communicate, behave and think, will help create a supportive learning environment for all students.