Sharing Power for Inclusive and Equitable Classroom Environments

As previously mentioned, teachers must adopt the goal of creating an inclusive and equitable learning environment for their diverse students, which includes the sharing of power. Inclusion is about finding ways to make all students, regardless of their differences, feel like they are part of the classroom environment. Research has consistently demonstrated that a sense of belonging is motivating for students (Roeser, Midgley, & Urdan, 1996; see also Gray,

Hope, & Matthews, 2018); therefore, teachers must create a trusting and safe environment for students to be exactly who they are while learning critical information and skills. A large part of inclusion involves equitable classroom practices, where students feel a sense of fairness in their classroom and are given numerous opportunities to succeed. To create a classroom environment that not only allows students to be actively engaged in the learning process but that also feels fair and supportive in nature, teachers have to share their power with students. Try not to think of sharing your power as a scary process, where you imagine relinquishing control to a group of chaotic students. Instead, try thinking of sharing your power as placing students’ interests, voices, lived experiences, and needs at the center of the learning experience, where you act as a guide, co-constructing knowledge with students (Hardman, Jan, Hardman, & Frank, 2017). Harven and Soodjinda (2016) have suggested several ways for teachers to relinquish control and share power with their students for the development of safe, trusting, and inclusive classroom environments (see also Holley & Steiner, 2005; Stambler, 2013). I will present the suggestions here and elaborate on them for the purpose of this chapter.

Harven and Soodjinda (2016) suggested that teachers should modify the physical seating of their classrooms in thinking about the best structure for promoting personal connections among learners and a sense of belonging. Many teachers endorse traditional (or rote) teaching and learning philosophies, where they act as a Sage on the Stage, doling out information, while their students rush to take copious notes in seated rows that face the chalkboard. Non- traditional seating arrangements like circle seating or staging desks where students face each other in groups are suggested for effectively building a sense of community among learners. Sitting and facing one another, while sharing personal narratives and engaging in critical discussions, debates, and hands-on activities, can begin to bridge gaps between diverse students. Teachers should also join student circles and groups by sitting with students at their level, listening closely, and posing questions when appropriate, while letting students lead the discussion. Relinquishing control in this way can humanize the classroom experience by placing students’ need for community at the center of learning, and you still maintain your status as teacher-facilitator. Harven and Soodjinda (2016) also suggested that teachers who want to embrace diversity and create an inclusive and equitable classroom environment should be “knowledgeable and informative” on social justice issues that impact diverse groups of students and their families, especially students with low-privileged or marginalized identities. This is where we, as teachers, must educate ourselves on how current events (e.g., immigration reform) might impact our students (e.g., undocumented youth) and their families. Research has demonstrated that children who experience trauma associated with the deportation of a caregiver often lose focus and motivation, experience mental health issues, and perform poorly in school (Gonzalez, Monzon, Solis, Jaycox, and Langley, 2016). Therefore, being aware of critical issues that impact students or even openly discussing or developing curricular activities to address these issues with students, will help make the curriculum more relevant to students’ lived experiences, which feels humanizing.

Harven and Soodjinda (2016) further suggested that teachers be “goodmodels of effective participation” by demonstrating vulnerability through sharing personal narratives with students. For example, teachers could share stories from their childhoods when appropriate and invite students to do the same in order to connect with students and make additional links to texts. Active listening is key when being an effective participant, for both teachers and students, where teachers must make a conscious effort to validate students’ thoughts so they feel respected and valued. These behaviors do not take power away from teachers; in fact, they garner more respect from students because students feel their perspectives matter. Harven and Soodjinda (2016) endorsed active learning strategies for encouraging more engagement from students. Active learning strategies have continued to grow in popularity among educators, where the goal is to present critical information in a way that keeps students stimulated and excited about learning. Some active learning strategies that have been positively associated with critical thinking include inquiry-based instruction, which entails questioning, written exercises, and discussions and debates (Walker, 2003). These activities allow students to challenge their own thinking, as well as that of their classmates, while also encouraging them to find support for their arguments and to freely express their thoughts with others. Another great tool is iClickers or programs such as poll anywhere, where students can respond anonymously in real-time to questions that teachers pose and that the class can view (e.g., “what word describes your mood right now?”). Another technique is to encourage students to engage in mini-research activities, where they address critical questions for learning (see Sandoval & Harven, 2011 for an example).

Harven and Soodjinda (2016) have also stated the importance of teachers being supportive of all opinions and non-judgmental when trying to create a classroom environment that is inclusive of diverse opinions. Teachers must listen to and be willing to challenge students’ opinions, especially if they are insensitive in nature. Questioning students is a great way to help them reflect on their thinking. Inviting their classmates to join in the discussion can be a powerful way to share the responsibility of addressing polarizing opinions. Teachers must also be comfortable and calm in challenging students’ thinking by presenting opposing views and personal narratives from diverse voices (Harven & Soodjinda, 2016). Take some time to examine your curricular materials. Is your curriculum Eurocentric or White-centered, where the authors and scholars are primarily White, and perhaps male, which is typical of many curricular materials? If yes, you need to dismantle this need for Eurocentric or White-centered material and give voice to the diversity that exists among students’ realities. One way to do this is to introduce diverse cultural frameworks into the classroom discourse when exploring various topics and issues. Upon diversifying your curricular materials, teachers should also provide background knowledge on diverse authors, scientists, scholars, and book characters, so students can possibly see themselves in the course material, which gives value to their experiences. As previously mentioned, encouraging students to share their own narratives will naturally lend itself to diverse perspective-taking among students. Lastly, Harven and Soodjinda (2016) suggested maintaining high expectations for students, which was mentioned earlier in this chapter. While inclusivity calls for teacher flexibility with students, teachers should never lower their standards or expectations for diverse groups of students, especially students from historically underserved communities. As educators, we must reject deficit thinking, where disadvantaged students are perceived as having deficits and/or being ineducable (see Garcia & Guerra, 2004 for a discussion on deconstructing deficit thinking). Teachers who endorse a deficit ideology are typically doing a disservice to historically underserved students, with low-privileged identities. Instead, teachers must maintain their high expectations and standards, while addressing students’ individual needs for success. By doing this, teachers can create equitable learning environments.

The aforementioned suggestions allow for “shared power” in the classroom, which is so critical for creating an inclusive and equitable learning environment. Some additional suggestions for sharing power within the classroom include allowing students to modify and/or create the classroom rules, so they feel invested in the design and feel of the classroom environment. Teachers could also review their curricular language, such as the instructions on worksheets for tone. That is, language with an inviting tone is considered to be more inclusive than language that is demanding. For example, instead of instructions that read “write your opinion,” teachers could modify the language to read, “you are invited to share your opinion” or “please share your opinion." All in all, creating an inclusive and equitable classroom environment requires teachers to share power with their students, which breeds a sense of belonging and community among learners.

Box 8.2 Theme: Theory and Research to Practice

There is much research on school belonging, where a sense of belonging has been positively associated with higher levels of academic motivation (Neel & Fuligni, 2013). By sharing power with students, teachers can help students to feel like they are a part of the classroom structure and curriculum—and that their voices matter. Teachers must remember that sharing power is not about relinquishing control; rather, it is about inspiring students to become invested in the learning process by making them an integral part of the classroom environment.

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