Promoting Belonging in the Classroom

10 Mar 2020 12:00 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Question: What ways (small and/or large) do you promote belonging in your classroom?

Leslie Berntsen: I always say that I’m on a mission to make my classes the coziest 200-person lecture my students have ever taken, and this mission starts before the semester officially does. In the welcome email I send out the week before classes start, I ask students to fill out a pre-class survey that lets them share their pronouns, any accessibility needs they might have, how to phonetically pronounce their name, and anything else they’d like me and the TAs to know about them. Once you have all of that information, you’re in a great position to show your students that you care about them as people. For example, one of my students shared that he has social anxiety and feels like he always messes up when speaking to professors. The next class day after reading that, I made sure to look him up in my photo roster and say a quick and very low-key “Just wanted to say hi and let you know you can come talk to me any time you’d like. Glad you’re here.” Soon after, he was speaking up in a 100+ person lecture, so never underestimate just how impactful very small (and very easy) acts of kindness can be.

More generally, I also have a very specific speech I give on the first day of every class I teach to make sure that all of my students feel like they belong in science, broadly construed. First, I run everyone through a thought exercise modeled after the Draw A Scientist Test and have them reflect on all the scientists they’ve learned about in school and make the connection between our mental image of “a scientist” and our beliefs about who can do science. Then, I tell stories of Black women doctors who have their qualifications questioned by flight crews while attempting to offer medical assistance to fellow passengers in order to illustrate some of the consequences of these kinds of beliefs. Finally, I finish up with the stories of Dr. Kelly Bennion (who completed her Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience while cheering for the New England Patriots) and Dr. Laurent Duvernay-Tardiff (who completed his M.D. while playing for the Kansas City Chiefs) in order to ensure that all of my students internalize two key messages: (1) that they can be good at more than one thing at once and (2) that I am here to help them be good at science, no matter what else they might have going on in their lives or what other teachers might have previously told them.

Ask Leslie about: Teaching social issues, inclusive pedagogy, being a woman of color in the academy, teaching with a disability

Teceta Tormala: An important piece of creating belonging in the classroom for me begins with my being very intentional around my course design. I work to provide class readings and didactic content that center the lived experience and the psychological processes within underrepresented groups to complement those of overrepresented groups, and I create assignments in which students need to process their sociocultural selves. I want students to be able to see themselves within the classroom; creating a foundation of recognition of the fundamental importance of intersectional identities on our day-to-day lives and our outcomes is an important component of this. I also am a huge fan of discussions during class, and of giving them the space to develop and deepen. Discussions may stem from a prompt I give the class, or from a student comment or question; I have found over the years that having leeway in my plan for any given class period to allow a 2-minute or 5-minute or 15-minute discussion inevitably allows for more voices to be heard and more perspectives to be revealed.

Ask Teceta about: Sociocultural and sociohistorical influences on the self, teaching and training in the service of the development of cultural humility, structural competency

Jennifer Lovell: I prioritize my relationship with students and try to create a learning environment in which self-reflection and openness are valued. During our first class, I co-construct rules and expectations with students. I ask students what they expect from one another and me in the classroom, and this leads to a discussion about topics such as appropriate self-disclosure, confidentiality, open mindedness, and respectful disagreement. I type notes while we speak (displayed on the screen), and then I share the final draft electronically for everyone to sign. This process helps to clarify expectations. Students are then able to explore biases and discomfort when discussing mental health within multicultural contexts. I also have students complete a “getting to know you” online survey within the first week of the semester (very much like the one mentioned by Leslie). I ask their preferred name, pronouns, why they are taking the class, concerns about the course, and whether or not they need accommodations. I also ask them open-ended questions such as: “I am most likely to participate in class when…” “It is hard for me to learn when…” and “What is something you have accomplished that makes you feel good.” Learning about student strengths helps me to find ways to support and motivate them. I reach out via email if there is something I read that needs follow up. These are just a few specific strategies at the beginning of the semester, but course content and discussion are also very important for helping people feel represented and validated within the classroom. Classroom discussions among students and group projects allow opportunities for students to get to know one another, and this is also a way I help foster a sense of belonging.

Ask Jennifer about: Mentoring culturally diverse students in research, teaching critical service learning, being a White anti-racist in the academy.

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