Welcoming ALL Voices in the Classroom

How can we encourage all our students to talk and participate in school each day, with an emphasis on empowering Black and other traditionally marginalized voices? How can we be culturally responsive with the methods and styles of communication in our classrooms? 

Who Makes the Rules?

As a White educator from Massachusetts, I reached out to my friend and colleague Deanna, a Black educator from Tennessee, to discuss these questions and look for answers. We spoke on the phone and I explained some of my ideas. 

  • “So, I thought I could add a few lesson plans about teaching students some speaking and listening skills, such as how to speak with confidence and how to disagree respectfully,” I proposed to Deanna.
  • “I hear what you are saying… but who makes those rules?” Deanna replied.
  • My thoughts came to an abrupt stop. “Who makes those rules?” I repeated to myself. 

Deanna’s questions provided a new lens to help me answer my original questions, which in turn prompted even more questions: What are the rules about language and communication in the classroom? Are they explicit, assumed, unwritten, modeled, taught? Who is following these rules? Who isn’t’? What happens when an unwritten or unstated expectation about communication is not followed? What if communication styles are judged as “wrong?” Finally, what if the teacher has different communication norms than the students? Is she “right?” 

Holding space for these questions and looking for opportunities to answer them is a crucial step in creating more culturally responsive communication in the classroom. For students of color to share about themselves in authentic ways at school, we first need to acknowledge the cultural differences in communication that may exist between the adults and our students. We can then create an inviting atmosphere where all voices are valued and accepted.

Awareness and Acceptance in a Positive Community

The human brain is wired to detect threats to our physical, emotional, and social well-being.  Positive relationships help the brain’s stress management system to remain calm so that it can focus more on higher order thinking and learning. When students’ feel their culture is understood and valued by the adults in school, their engagement increases. This begins with knowing your students — individually, culturally, developmentally — and continuing to learn more about them during the school year. 

Here are a few ways to get to know your students as individuals:

  • Spend time to discover what their home life is like. Who is in their family? What do they do outside of school? What’s important to them/their worldview? Do they thrive on competition or cooperation? 
  • Once you know something about a student, read about it, talk about it, and invite students to share about that topic. Allow for cultural differences to be shared and expressed every day. 
  • Awareness is also knowing your own style of communication. Do you share the same norms of communication with your students? In what ways? What’s different? Observe your reactions to various styles of communication in the classroom. 
  • If it seems students of color are not sharing, become curious about why that might be. Are you waiting for students of color to step up and share on their own? Are you inviting them to share with their authentic voices and experiences? Genuine student voices have to first be accepted and palatable to the adults in the school, without constantly being quieted, corrected or dismissed. 
  • For more information on, and strategies for, creating a classroom that represents all students, read Deanna’s insightful article, “Strategies for Cultivating a Classroom That Represents Students.”

Everything We Do is Teaching Something

Students are always learning from us, even when we are not actively or directly engaged in teaching a lesson. We set the stage, even when we are not deliberately trying to. We are constantly modeling the accepted and valued behavior with our own actions and words.

Consider your classroom rules – those that are written and the unwritten ones, too. Are there norms about being honest, assertive, or forthcoming? Be sure that when students of a different cultural background are being genuine and direct, they are not seen as doing something wrong. For example, if some students are told they ask too many questions and are too direct, this behavior could also be praised as curiosity when other students are doing it. 

Over time, when a student is reprimanded for a cultural expression, other students begin to see them as doing something wrong and may form opinions about them and their culture. Be sure that every student is associated with positive behavior, given encouragement, and has opportunities to share in joy and laughter in the classroom. For example, ways of displaying excitement can reveal cultural differences in a classroom. Are certain students always being corrected for displaying their excitement in a certain way?  

Acknowledge aloud to your students that there are differences in styles of communication. Name and describe them in ways that avoids stereotypes. Let students know that we may speak differently and that is accepted and welcomed. Acknowledge that there is more than one set of rules for communication. Ask students what they notice about that. Give students more time to talk and share authentically. Encourage the use of Native languages and cultural norms in the classroom. 

Take time for more check-ins with students, especially those who seem to be reluctant to share and open up. Share what you notice and ask students about their levels of comfort in the classroom. When we ask questions, students will ask questions. Follow up with students when you learn something about them, incorporating information into lessons and interactions.  

There are many ways to encourage all students to talk and participate in school each day. It starts with recognizing our own styles of communication and learning about the communication styles of our students. We then can provide a safe place for all to share and participate in authentic ways. 

To read more on this topic, check out “Using the Responsive Classroom Approach to Support ALL Students” from our article library.

Written by Deanna Ross, Responsive Classroom Educational Consultant and Coach, and Kristen Vincent, Responsive Classroom Consulting Teacher

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