What does it mean to have an equitable classroom?

What does it mean to have an equitable classroom?

I believe that an equitable classroom is a place where each member remembers that each other member is a whole person. And, as instructors, we remember that even if the students are not content experts in the material being learned, they can engage in their own learning processes, grapple with material, and be a vital part of creating the teaching and learning environment.

How do we remember that the students, the learners in the room are people? How do we take their personal stories and lived experiences, however long or short, into account? How do we make sure that we are teaching through empowerment? What does that look like in an arts classroom? These are the questions that should be at the fore if we are truly interested in creating an equitable learning environment.

I believe we can create environments where each student is remembered. We can be more intentional in designing our curriculum, homework, deadlines, grading policies, and lesson plans. But first, we can be more intentional about who we are.

The environment in the room starts with us. This means checking our own biases and testing our motivations in decision-making, designing classroom systems, and developing curriculum. It means creating lesson plans based on social-emotional competencies (for ourselves and for our students’ development). It means being ready to learn from all of the humans in the room. It also means recognizing our power. By formal position we have the power and authority in the room. Yes, we make assessments, and assign grades, and we are paid to be there, but recognizing this power allows us to turn it on its head when possible. Manifesting the ideals of democratic education means leveraging our power to empower the students.

Creating an equitable classroom environment is about focusing on both equity and quality. There are many practical things we can do. We can give power back to the students through workshops, critiques, discussions, group-work and engaged activities. We can check our reading lists to make sure that there is gender, racial/ ethnic representation, and non-western traditions and voices included. We can keep checking ourselves for bias. We can de-gender our language. We can remember our students’ names (and pronounce them correctly). We can create community operational agreements. We can work to make the classroom expectation and norms visible by naming them. We can empower the students to define, record, and design their own behaviors and expressions in the room.

It also means recognizing where we fit in a much larger educational, psycho-social system which has practices that contribute to inequalities in education. This is not because of the social, cultural or educational history of the individual student, but is larger and more complex.

Let’s take a metacognitive step. Let’s zoom out and make room in our thinking beyond our classroom. Let’s bring the value of pluralism to the way that we look at our teaching practices.  Let’s look beyond our individual experiences. Let’s even look beyond the experiences of our individual students. Let’s start educating ourselves about the institutions, theories, constraining forces, hidden (and not-so-hidden) oppressive systems, constructs and ideologies that underpin our society. We know that there are systems in place that reinforce racism, sexism, ableism, heteronormativity, xenophobias and socio-economic disparity. All of us encounter these structures and ideologies, but some of us (and our students) are affected more than others.

A student entering the classroom hungry will not perform as well as a student who is well fed. A student with access to a bank account for all of their books, materials and the tutoring they need, will have advantages over students who have financial constraints. I am not talking just about the students who are homeless, couch surfing, or working to pay for their books, but also those whose parents have re-mortgaged their homes to send their child to school, or those on scholarships and have the added high-stakes pressures of minimum GPAs and personal loans.

We can recognize societal forces, see the learners in our classrooms, and make change. We can leverage our positions. We can focus on equity in our classrooms. We can increase inclusive practices. We can educate ourselves on white supremacy and how to dismantle the effects of it in our minds and behavior patterns. We can invite and value diversity in our classrooms, our teaching practices, and the perspectives of every person in our rooms.

There is always more that we can do. We can create classroom policies that respect the struggles of our students who are not well served by the current educational system. We can believe that sometimes what is fair and equitable may include differentiated policies to allow for equal access, equal chance for success. We can resource our students who have greater needs because of systemic societal and educational shortcomings. (Resourcing can include additional time on written assignments for English language learners, flexible grading policies for students in crisis, following the recommendations of the school’s Disability Services office for accommodations, being mindful of the cost of materials when we ask students to have access to technology not provided by the school, and keeping open communication with our students.)

We can also recognize that what we do in our classrooms is only a tiny part of the picture. Let’s engage the entrenched biases, stereotypes and discrimination in ourselves, our institutions, and in our society through critical deconstruction.

See more at The National Equity Project

There are systemic oppressive forces at play in all of our lives. The ways that they impact us will vary based on our privilege. Let’s do our own work. Let’s own our privilege. Let’s check our internalized individual biases. Let’s be intentional about our behaviors, our language, our presentation of ourselves inside and outside of the classroom.

The place where our individual perspectives meets the larger systemic forces is though interpersonal interactions. Our classrooms are spaces full of interpersonal interactions. By spending time to intentionally develop projects that bring the thoughts and feelings of all of our students into the room, by focusing on social-emotional competencies, and through the kinds of inclusive and equitable practices mentioned above, we may just take a few steps forward in actually aligning the ideals of democratic education with the current realities.

As we reflect on the New Year, and the return to our classrooms, let’s ask ourselves what we could be doing differently.

Questions for Reflection:

  • What is an equitable teaching and learning environment in my classroom, with these students, and the content I am teaching?
  • Am I using community operational agreements? Is it a good time to revisit them? Can I find the time to name norms with them, and develop new agreements for the new year?
  • Have I/ How have I set up the operating processes (socially and logistically) in my classroom? Are the systems that I have set up equitable, practical and sustainable? DO all of the participants in the class know the operating processes?
  • What am I currently doing to develop my pedagogic practice? What do I need more work in? Could I ask a colleague where they think my blind-spots are.
  • What have I done recently to cultivate curiosity and empathy in myself?
  • How can I see and work on my own biases?
  • In what ways are my classes inclusive of a range of experiences, artists, perspectives and attentive to structural and ideological power (e.g. racism, sexism, classism, learning differences etc.?)
  • What kinds of critiques and assessments have I developed? Are they equitable? Do they empower the students? Do they need to be revisited?
  • Have I built in enough different approaches to learning and ways for the students to evidence their learning (e.g., writing, speaking, making, small groups / big groups / one-on-one, language support, etc.)?
  • What work do I need to do to cultivate social-emotional competencies in me? How can I support this development in the students?
  • What are my beliefs about equity in the classroom and am I public about it? Should I be more public about my stance on equity, diversity and inclusion (with the students, parents, colleagues and administrators)?


Editor’s Note: Carrie will facilitate a workshop on equity in the classroom at CAA in February 2019.

One response to “What does it mean to have an equitable classroom?”

  1. Everlyn Nicodemus says:

    I AGREE.

    Dr.Everlyn Nicodemus PhD
    Artist Writer Art Historian

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