As learner centered educators, we need to be sure that the classroom experiences we facilitate are respectful of the great diversity in our classrooms, whether that diversity is a result of race, ethnicity, culture, gender, sexuality, age, disability or other difference.   To that end, this article offers six ways to create a learner-centered classroom that demonstrates inclusiveness and respect for all students. 

1. Learning our students’ names is one of the most important things we can do to create a safe and welcoming learning environment.  However, this effort can be fraught with embarrassment for us and our students.   One time I transposed a student’s name, and began to call her by her last name instead of her first name the entire first week of class.  She was too polite to correct me and it wasn’t until I collected their first assignment that I realized my mistake.  I apologized to her and made the correction in class. I felt lucky that she did not withdraw from my class. To avoid such embarrassing moments, here’s a way to help you and your students learn each another’s names and pronounce them properly.  When students first enter the class, have them write their names on a card or name tent. To start the class, have the students display their written name and introduce themselves. In this way everyone gets to hear everyone else’s name pronounced as he or she prefers.  Next, explain to your students how to write a name phonetically. It is best to show them using your own name and a few others as examples.  Then have the students write the phonetic spelling of their name under its proper spelling.  To take attendance for this first class, simply collect the name cards at the end of class and check them off on your class roster.  An added benefit is that on the next class day as you hand out the name cards, you are putting a face to the students’ names so that soon you can call them by name in or out of class. One of the first steps in building community is taking the time to know and pronounce our students names correctly.

2. Students feel welcomed when they see representation of themselves and their life experiences in the materials we select. I will never forget the young Latino woman in my class who after reading the book Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman, exclaimed, “This is the first book I have read where the characters talk like me.”  Her statement demonstrates the importance of our choosing materials (e.g., texts, articles, videos, web sites, etc.) that are inclusive of many cultures, ages and socioeconomic backgrounds. Additionally, when writing handouts, case studies, or tests, include different ethnic sounding names. We demonstrate consideration for gender issues when we include both female and male names and pronouns in our verbal and written directions as well.  Allowing students to see themselves represented in our course materials and activities shows respect both for them and their life experiences. 

3. At the same time that we look for materials and use examples in class that are inclusive we need to be careful to avoid overgeneralizations when we talk about any group of people, large or small.   A common example I hear a lot is “Asian students are so smart.” However, this is an overgeneralization and leads to the expectation that all of our Asian students should excel in the classroom.  It is also important to note that most overgeneralizations tend to be negative in nature and often lead to more stereotyping of groups. These statements overlook the individuality of each student.  Because our students have unique personalities and backgrounds, it is not fair to ask a student to speak for his or her entire group.  As part of the dominant white culture in the U.S. I have never been asked to speak for “white” people and our customs and culture.  Even if I was asked, I could only speak to my own experiences.  Yet I hear very well-meaning instructors ask students to help the class understand a certain group. This applies to race, religion, sexuality, gender, age, and more.  For example, there are cultural differences and experiences between an African American student and an African immigrant student, even though they would be considered the same race. A student can only explain their own culture, customs and lived experiences no matter what their “group” may be.

4. A fourth way we can be respectful of all students is to be sensitive to the different ways that non-western cultures view  issues such eye contact, personal space, and touch.  The cynic may say, “Well, students need to assimilate into U.S. culture.” However, this view is not only insensitive to diverse students’ cultural beliefs and customs; it can also create an uncomfortable learning environment for them as well.  For example, asking Hmong students to look you in the eye can create great discomfort because in their culture looking an authority figure in the eye is considered rude or defiant.  Touch can also be problematic in the classroom environment. Asking students to shake hands in an activity or as a form of welcome may violate cultural or religious norms between females and males. To illustrate, for many of our Muslim students it is considered inappropriate to shake hands with the opposite sex.  Shaking hands can also be extremely difficult for a student who may have an aversion to touch or a germ phobia.  As educators we need to decide if asking students do something such as look us in the eye or shake hands is crucial to the success of a learning activity.  If we decide that shaking hands, say, is crucial, then there should be an alternative built in the directions.  One way to do this is to explain at the beginning of your activity that in the United States , shaking hands is a sign of welcome and we often make assumptions about people based on that handshake. Then add, “However, what is a sign of respect in one culture may be viewed quite differently in another culture. If you are uncomfortable shaking hands for any reason, simply place your hands behind your back to indicate that you choose not to shake hands, but that you are still being respectful of your peers.”  When we show awareness of and respect for different cultural norms, we create opportunities for growth in our students’ understanding of their classmates’ personal identities and the larger world.

5. Another aspect that educators need to keep in mind is that we in the United States are known to think and write in a linear fashion, whereas many other cultures think and write in a circular fashion.  In the U.S. we teach students at an early age to write in a chronological order with a beginning, middle and end.  However, in other cultures, the preferred thinking and writing model is quite different. A beautiful example of circular thinking is found in the bestselling memoir entitled The Latehomecomer by Kao Kalia Yang.  Though this is the story of Kalia’s life, it is not written in a linear, Western, autobiographical style.  Rather than presenting the chronology of her life, she focuses on feelings and relationships instead.  Circular thinkers and writers like Kalia tell their story in what often looks to linear thinkers as a very unorganized or random thought process. Linear thinkers often wonder why circular thinkers cannot just get to the point.  If as educators we were taught in the Western, linear way of thinking and writing, one can see how the difference between linear and circular thinking can create challenges for both teaching and learning.  When educators recognize the validity of both ways of thinking, we can honor our student’s circular way of thinking versus finding fault in their work.  Of course it is important to let students know that in the Western system of education, especially higher education, there is a heavy reliance on thinking and writing in a linear manner.  In our assignments and activities we need to demonstrate and provide models of what we expect students’ work to look like: a main idea, examples of support and a conclusion.  Another way to help students is to point out the linear pattern of claim, evidence and conclusion that is found in most of their textbooks.  Providing students with rubrics for how we will assess their work also helps them to understand our expectations.  Finally, employing case studies and stories within our classroom activities helps circular thinkers make connections to the course material in a way they are comfortable with.  To make the assumption that all students should automatically think and write linearly is to discredit some students’ culture, family of origin and past experiences.

6. As we create inclusive and safe classrooms for our students, we need to be aware of the language we use. First, be careful in the use of idioms, slang and colloquialisms. For students learning English, these forms of speech are extremely confusing.  If you do use one, pause to explain its meaning.  For example, one day while discussing an upcoming group project, I said, “It’s really important that you work well together and that no one drops the ball.”  Seeing a confused look on one student’s face, I realized he had no idea what I meant by “drop the ball,” so I offered an explanation. Another problematic use of language occurs when students hear their instructors or peers refer to others as “those people.” Such words can create an atmosphere of ‘them’ (those who are less) versus ‘us’ (those who are better) in our classrooms, and this dynamic results in certain groups feeling that they do not belong.  Even non-verbal language can alienate students from other cultures.  For example, in the United States giving a student a “thumbs up” indicates that you are pleased with his/her work.  However, that same gesture in other cultures means “F#$% you.” As another example, motioning one’s upturned and curled index finger to indicate that we wish a student to come toward us is, in some cultures, a sign used only with animals or when one wishes to fight.  By contrast, moving all fingers downward and toward your chest says you wish a student to come toward you but it is seen throughout the world as a less insulting or threatening gesture.  Taking the time to learn and show cultural awareness in our verbal and non-verbal communication increases our effectiveness in working with diverse students. 

Ultimately, it is our role as learner centered educators to assist all students no matter the age, gender, socioeconomic status, race or culture to understand the language and culture of education.  We must be willing to create activities and assignments that model inclusiveness and respect for everyone.  In doing so, we will create a safe environment for every student to learn while honoring our role as educators.

–By LuAnn Wood, Faculty, Reading and Student Success, Century College, MN.  Professor Wood is a SEED (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity) facilitator at her college.

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