My daughter has a significant reading disability. As a parent I found it difficult to imagine how hard school was for her since it had always come easily to me. As teachers I think it is often difficult for us to imagine the lived experience of some of our students. Most of us got into teaching because we liked learning and school. We want to recreate our great experiences with learning for our students. But it is difficult to recreate that exact experience when we don’t recognize that our students may be experiencing school differently than we did. The equity question becomes how do I create that great learning experience for all students, not just the ones who learn like I did?
The problem is big. And the more I learn the bigger it becomes. However daunting the problem of equity in our schools is, there are four small moves (and one big one) teachers can make that begin to address the issue.
Think about how you partner students. My other daughter, who loved school and underlined all her titles in red, twice, used to come home sighing that she was partnered with “Tyler” once again. I wonder how Tyler felt. What did the rest of the class notice, about both my daughter, and “Tyler”? When we let students choose their partners you can watch the social power dynamics in the classroom right away. There are the few students whom everyone clamours to partner with. Students surround them, pleading to be chosen. There are the students who are never picked. But if you visibly randomize how you group students it is an equity move. What you are saying to your students is that everyone matters and everyone can be partners with everyone else. On top of that, there is research to show that it works.
Think about who gets to work with you at the guided learning table. It is easy to always pull the same group of kids to work with you. You want to strategically choose who works with you, and some students will need more support than others. But that certainly sends a message to the whole class. I worked with a teacher once who created an atmosphere in her class whereby it was “cool” to work with the teacher. She often started the class working with a specific group, which she tried to change up regularly. But then as seats at the table became available, other students would come to their table with their questions. No longer was the guided learning table seen as the place for the “dumb” kids; needing help was for everyone. Allowing all students access to work with you is an equity move.
Think about open ended tasks. Time and time again I have seen students who are working at a lower grade level sitting off to the side with a booklet of worksheets. These students are definitely not feeling part of the group although the booklet was created with the best of teacher intentions. When we have a variety of leveled texts or when the math question is open-ended with multiple entry points or when the science experiment can be recorded in a different ways or when you can choose volleyball or beach volleyball or ping pong, we allow all students to participate at their own entry level. When all students are part of the class, it is an equity move.
Think about how you have students respond. How often do you ask questions and have students raise their hands to respond? Every time you choose one student to respond over another, someone feels left out. “The teacher never picks me…” and even if that is not true, that is how it feels. Students will make up their own reasons as to why that is. And what about the students who just aren’t raising their hand? How do they feel? You don’t have to give up the practice entirely but it is worth adding other strategies to your repertoire. Turn and talk gives all students a chance to think about the question and participate in learning. In number talks when students have the answer they put their thumb up by their chest. This is a much more private gesture which does not stop other students from continuing to think because they see hands waving in the air. Providing students with little white boards so that all students answer and hold up their boards is another one. When all of your students are participating in answering the questions and doing the thinking, it is an equity move.
Think about high expectations – really think about it. We all bring preconceived ideas to our practice, even when we think we don’t. When I think back to some of the students I have had over the years, I wonder if I really had high expectations for them or if I quickly categorized them into a group in my head and unintentionally lowered my standards. It is hard to examine our own biases but they often get in the way of high expectations. When we know a student belongs to a particular socio-economic group, or has a learning disability, do we have certain expectations, even if we think we don’t? So, although having high expectations for all is a phrase we throw about, I think it is harder to realize than we believe. When we truly believe in high expectations for all students, and we teach in ways that allow students to access those high expectations, then it is an equity move.