The most interesting classes I have taught in my 28 years as an educator have been the ones where the students were from different backgrounds and brought different identities and experiences to the class. I’ve had students with different social, religious, ethnic and academic backgrounds. Sometimes they spoke differently or dressed differently. Some were very nervous and felt they weren’t good enough, others were overconfident. Some were extroverts and others introverts.
To create a successful learning environment with classes like these, I’ve learned that group work and collaboration are a winning combination.
I often assign open-ended, demanding tasks and divide the kids into groups. I foster independence and problem solving by assigning different roles and dividing the labor into students who would: record results, look up resources, lead and facilitate. I rotate these roles fairly frequently so that each student can grow and gain experience in different capacities. Initially, students often show confusion and a shallow understanding of each other. At the outset, I tell them it is perfectly normal to disagree (“iron sharpens iron”) and to argue their case as best they can. After some time talking and working together, a deeper understanding of (and, therefore, appreciation for) each other grew.
I encourage my students to plan together and to consult with one another and with me. I monitor, ask questions and help them along the way. My hope is that, with time, each student will be able to explore new ideas without embarrassment. To accommodate so many different perspectives, I encourage my students to do the following, and I do my best to do the same:
- treat each student the same
- listen carefully and actively
- go slow
- spend equal time with everyone
- make sure no one feels left out (think about how to include and engage everyone)
- find a way for students/peers to express themselves in a safe environment and not be afraid to make mistakes.
These “Classroom Golden Rules” apply to students from any background, no matter where they came from or where they’re going. I certainly have high expectations for my students, but I don’t expect them to be perfect or get this right the first time. It certainly has taken me many years to master these rules, and some days I still miss. The most important thing is for me (and them) to gain from all this is the ability to model humility and be comfortable enough to admit mistakes. That is, after all, how we grow.