- Taking measures to build an inclusive classroom benefits every learner.|Building a class contract that encourages voluntary pronoun-sharing and guidelines for constructive dialogue establishes an inclusive tone at the top of the semester.|Respecting student privacy surrounding names is essential. Allow your students to share their own names rather than relying on a roster.|Represent a wide variety of identities and ideas in your course content.
Anne Alexander is a Cengage Subject Matter Expert for English and College Success
As educators, we want to ensure the best learning experience for all learners. We know that stress impedes learning, so we aim to reduce it in the classroom.
One way to do this is by creating an inclusive classroom culture that represents all students, especially for those who identify as LGBTQIA+. And the principles used to create this classroom culture benefit all learners, not just those with historically marginalized identities.
That’s the beauty of an inclusive classroom—it’s a place where learners can focus on learning, rather than overcoming barriers.
The curb-cut effect
There’s an oft-repeated slogan in the universal design community: “Necessary for some, helpful for all.” One example of this is curb cutting. Curb cuts are the easy on and off ramps on sidewalks. Cities initially introduced curb cuts to make sidewalks more accessible to people using wheelchairs. However, we now realize that curb cuts are helpful to a lot more people than originally expected. People using strollers, wheeling suitcases and walking bikes all find them useful.
This phenomenon is known as the curb-cut effect. It describes when measures designed to help one group benefit everyone. That’s what we make happen with inclusive classroom design; we create an environment where all learners benefit.
One way to start the semester off is to invite learners to co-create a class contract. The end goal here should be to create a class culture that facilitates the best learning experience for everyone. This sets the tone for the classroom and communicates that the space is one of community and learning. It also helps learners feel involved in and responsible for the positive culture of the classroom.
Invite students to brainstorm, then co-create an agreement about the type of learning environment they would like for themselves and others. Maintaining respect for one another’s identities and ideas is crucial to the success of this exercise.
Create an environment in which learners are welcome to share their pronouns when introducing themselves. You can model this by sharing your own pronouns when you introduce yourself. By doing so, you establish that gender is not assumed and gender identities are respected. This can help learners not only avoid the harm of being misgendered, but also know that they are welcome to bring their full selves to class.
Keep in mind that not everyone may want to share their pronouns, and that’s okay, too. If someone chooses not to share their pronouns, refer to the learner by their name instead of a gendered pronoun and set the expectation that others will do the same. This is something that the class can agree upon in their class contract.
Guidelines for constructive dialogue
Some classroom contracts include agreements on constructive classroom dialogue. Through this exercise, you expose learners to, and have them agree upon, strategies for conversations in class. Helpful strategies include how to “piggyback” off another classmate’s idea and how to respectfully disagree in a class discussion. The classroom is a place for academic inquiry and personal and career development in which students discuss tough questions. It should be a space in which all learners feel welcome and can participate in discussions as their full selves.
Making space for and teaching strategies around how to have candid and respectful dialogue also helps learners thrive in the world outside of class. It helps them familiarize themselves with different kinds of people, improves on constructive dialogue skills and helps learners make connections between themselves, their identities and interests and the topics discussed in class.
In addition to facilitating a respectful and constructive classroom environment, you also have unique responsibilities for each learner’s wellbeing. One example of this is attendance: Instructors’ attendance sheets often contain legal names of students. Consider this privileged information and keep it private. Some learners may go by another name other than their legal one to reflect their gender. They may not have changed their legal name for a variety of reasons.
Revealing a learner’s name that they no longer use is called deadnaming. It’s not only disrespectful, but can “out” learners, opening them up to harassment. Keeping learners’ legal names private also protects those who might be survivors of domestic violence, who may use a different common law name to protect themselves from their abusers.
Keep attendance rosters confidential, even if you ask learners to add nicknames or preferred names, because the attendance sheet contains their legal names. Avoid reading aloud legal names or passing around a roster with legal names.
A better way to take attendance is to let the learners lead the process:
In an online class
Take attendance from the names learners use as shown on screen, and have learners also share their names aloud.
In a large, in-person class
Pass around a blank sheet of paper and have students write their names on it. Check to make sure the attendance sheet is accurate after you receive it.
In a smaller class
Have learners share their names aloud. As students share their names, find matches on the roster and mark who is present. If someone has a name that does not appear on the roster, meet with them privately to find out if they are using a different name, if they are in the wrong class by mistake, or if there is an error on the roster.
An added and important benefit of having learners share their names is that they share the correct pronunciations. This approach helps you correctly pronounce learners’ names, which is foundational to creating a classroom culture of equity, inclusion and belonging.
Our goal as instructors is to prepare learners for success in the world outside the classroom. To do this successfully, the contents of the course need to accurately reflect learners’ larger communities and the world at large, including individuals of different genders, sexual orientations, family structures, ethnicities, races, religions, abilities, socio-economic statuses, geographic and cultural regions and intersectionalities.
For a learning space to be inclusive, the language and materials in that class must reflect the world in a fair and accurate way. Think about the books and learning materials you use in your class.
Here are some questions to start with:
- Do class materials reflect the experiences of a wide range of people?
- Are groups and individuals called what they would wish to be called?
- Are contributions to your field made by historically marginalized people included?
- When a historically marginalized group is represented, do individuals from that group get to tell their own stories?
- How are historically marginalized groups and individuals discussed?
- Is the language used to describe historically marginalized people accurate and up to date?
Assessing course resources and materials should also include evaluating language to ensure it lives up to the latest American Psychological Association’s bias-free language guidelines. Familiarize yourself with these standards to ensure the language you use in class and in documents is as inclusive as possible. Studying these best practices will help you feel more confident when facilitating discussions around these issues and in your day-to-day interactions. If you do make a mistake, model how to learn from it by thanking the person who pointed it out to you and moving on.
Creating a learning environment in which the instructor presents people of all identities and backgrounds with the same respect and agency is key to fostering a classroom environment to which students can bring their full selves. It also helps learners recognize the value of their own lived experiences and expertise.
Continuing to learn and grow to be a better ally is a continuous, iterative process. Doing so is also a great way to model being a lifelong learner to your own students. If you want to go the extra mile, consider making your classroom and office easily identifiable welcoming spaces for LGBTQIA+ learners. One way to do this is to complete a training from the Safe Zone Project, which offers several classes and resources to help you be a better ally in your communities. Share what you are doing to make your learning space more inclusive with colleagues. Together, you can learn from one another and brainstorm ways to make your department even more inclusive.
To learn more about building an inclusive classroom, download the “How Fellow Instructors Create an Inclusive Classroom Experience” eBook.