Students across the US are heading to school again. Many are groaning over having to wake up early again after a summer spent sleeping in. Some students are heading to school for the first time, hooray kindergarteners or first-time students (we shouldn’t assume they are all kindergarteners), and others returning to school or starting a new school. Here are some thoughts for educators and families as we get ready for the new school year.
I’ve been thinking about inclusion and belonging. These two words are so simple, but their concepts are so deep. Schools, especially public schools, are supposed to be a space where everyone is included. Yet creating that inclusion is hard, especially because of the diversity in our schools and the uniqueness of students.
Students are unique and as a teacher friend recently told me “They bring 50% of the curriculum when they walk I the door.” She works hard to recognize and create spaces for her students to bond and meet each other in different ways. My friend told me about how all of the teachers in her grade-band recently did a diversity and equity audit of the books in their classrooms and curriculum. They swapped out certain books to better match the diversity in their classrooms, they swapped out books from the curriculum that were white authored but talking about POC topics, and they weeded the classroom book collections of books that were dated or falling apart. It was a huge undertaking but one they felt good about spending time doing. It also opened up conversations between the teachers which felt good to the team.
I’m a fan of socially engineering brief introductions. Classroom small group work is a great way to introduce new students and to break up cliques. Giving students/groups something to do is a fun way to get people working together – solve a puzzle, build a structure together, play a game, etc. Even giving the students a “job” can help create a sense of inclusion. Having a task to do or a game to play gives the introverts and others a way to integrate into the group.
My kid would also want me to include that sometimes they just want to hang out with the people they are comfortable with and to create their own sense of inclusion. I respect that need for balance and finding their own way of being. As an introvert, I understand the need to relax into a space with people I already know.
Outside of Class Time Inclusion
Inclusion also needs to be felt during other times like lunch periods or recess. Lunch for teens and tweens can be super lonely if you don’t know anyone, don’t speak the dominant language, or are new. If you are a middle school or high school educator, please give some thought to how you can help socially engineer lunch periods for the first few weeks. A teen told me “You don’t know how middle school works, we just want to eat with our friends,” which is true, but that is even more of a reason adults need to intervene to create the right conditions to bring out inclusion. A dear friend and experienced educator shared this wonderful resource – Mix it Up, by Learning for Justice.
My friend Carrie reminds me when we design for everyone, we design for no one. Priya Parker also makes it clear that inclusion means we should purposefully exclude as well even if it feels hard. Public schools are about including every student part of the school community. Inclusion in this case has to be about figuring out what behaviors will not be tolerated (e.g. racism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc.) and working with the school community to foster different spaces within the larger community for students to find belonging.
Parents and Family Inclusion
Like my teacher friend said half of the curriculum walks through the door. Including families (I use this term broadly) into the school day is a great way to promote inclusion. COVID protocols restricted family engagement in-person at schools, but in other ways it forced the reinvention of how we can include families. Video conferences in some ways made it easier for families to meet with teachers than having to be physically present at school. Family inclusion is also about sharing good news with families, not just when things are hard.
Enjoy the school year. Sending good feels and thoughts to everyone connected to our schools.
Why I wrote this: Inclusion is important to racial equity. Inclusion and belonging foster better relationships which lead to stronger results.
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I am writing from the lands of the 29 federally recognized and non-federally recognized tribes in now Washington State, including the Coast Salish people — Duwamish, Muckleshoot, Suquamish, Snoqualmie, Snohomish, and Native American organizations that have treaty rights and have been here since time immemorial. I give my thanks to the elders, Native and Indigenous colleagues and relations, and the land itself. Fakequity pays “rent” to Native organizations in Washington and Hawaii; a small act to repair and work to be in more justice-based relations.