Diversity, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, is the condition of having or being composed of differing elements, especially the inclusion of people of different races, cultures, etc. in a group or organization.
As an educator, with over 17 years of experience, I’ve heard the word diversity used in various contexts throughout my career. However, over the last 16 months or so, the importance of diversity–and especially inclusion–has been highlighted to Americans across the country, in very visible, and sometimes unsettling ways.
Throughout my career, I have taught a variety of grades from 1st grade to 6th grade ELA in a host of states and school districts. Currently, I am the Gifted and Talented Specialist for River Trail Elementary in Upstate South Carolina. In this role, I’ve taken a fresh look at how I am helping to highlight the power of diversity in the classroom and build a more inclusive learning environment–particularly in the STEM fields–in which all learners can see themselves as they prepare for life beyond graduation.
Over the last few months, I’ve connected with colleagues from my past to collect actionable strategies teachers can use to support greater diversity in the classroom and in their lessons, along with more inclusive learning environments. Here are some of the best strategies I’ve collected:
Empower students to guide the conversation with dynamic digital content: Like most teachers, I am afforded access to many resources. My first choice, when selecting content, is the Discovery Education platform, which was recently updated with a host of great new features. Fort Mill Schools, the district I currently work in, has a close relationship with Discovery Education (DE) and the many products they have available.
Throughout the year my students learn about different cultures like Native American, Hispanic Heritage, Women in STEM, or even the Celebration of African American success. For example, one task is to create a paper slide video at the end of Native American History month. The students pore through age-appropriate articles, thought provoking images, as well as kid-friendly videos found within Discovery Education, then use that content in their paper slide. As the students share their creations, we are able to see what is important to each individual child. Some students focus on a particular person, while others’ projects shed light on an invention or event in history. The major benefit of using DE as a student-resource to produce creative projects is the variety of perspectives. Representation matters! Educators all over the world are making choices to give their students access to resources for people and cultures that look like them and others that are different.
Provide opportunities for students to demonstrate their understanding: After the students have learned about any new topic in my classroom, I feel it imperative to have them collaborate to process through the new information. A useful tool for this is Google’s Jamboard. Jamboard is an interactive whiteboard space where students can add summaries, search for images, “tabletop text” to discuss different points of view, or respond to a question asked by the teacher. A majority of teachers use this tool in the virtual world, but with my district being face-to-face since September of 2020 and one-to-one with technology, I found this useful in my classroom as well.
For example, students had the opportunity to explore the meaning of the poem recited by Amanda Gorman for the 2021 Presidential Inauguration. The students focused on the last line “For there is always light,/ if only we’re brave enough to see it/ if only we are brave enough to be it”? Using Jamboard, students reflected on what that line meant to them, personally. My third graders shared thoughts that included words like encouragement, a better future, and shining. We printed this reflection, and referred to it throughout the year, as a class reminder to be our best. Collaboration can sometimes be using individual thoughts to provide a shared understanding of a thought, experience, or idea.
Carve out a safe space for student creativity: The students sitting in our classrooms are the future. Not only is it important to learn about perspectives different from our own, but we must then do something with the information. A crucial step I use to meet this challenge is giving my students the opportunity to be creative in how they choose to communicate their learning. As they make decisions about how to communicate what they learned, my students think about the perspectives of the audience and how best to get their point across. Giving them the freedom to be creative leads to amazing projects.
For example, each year the students research a famous African American who has been given a postal stamp from the United States Postal Service. They then use this information to create a new postal stamp for their person. This is where the fun begins. The technology teacher in my school helps by training my students on how to use TinkerCad, an online 3D design program that is easily used by students in elementary through high school. While designing the new postal stamp, the students work, within specific parameters, to find a way to best communicate their contribution to society. Once their design has been submitted, they help to run the 3D printer to print their design. The students are so proud of their designs, we usually do a gallery walk and invite the school admin in to see what we created. While there are many ways that TinkerCad and other tech websites can be used, this is a class favorite each year because the students are able to create something that they can take with them.
The postage stamp project is one of the most popular projects we do. Learning about notable African Americans and their many contributions to our shared history and culture, and then creating a physical representation of that individual in the form of a postage stamp has a powerful effect, and makes a lasting impact on students.
Challenges bring about change. A shared mission, with the teachers in my building, is to help students thrive and impact the world. The tools that I choose to use help provide my students with access to diversity in the classroom. Whether it is exposure to an unknown historical figure, research of STEM careers of past or present, or identifying perspectives from a historical event, I get to creatively meet my challenge, day in and day out. Thus making a lasting impression on my students and their view of our local community, our nation, and the global connections of our world.