It was Monday afternoon and a faculty meeting had just finished. As I rushed back to my classroom, I thought about all the things I could have been doing instead of listening to yet another disconnected staff developer.
Then a thought hit me: what if my students saw me as a disconnected developer? How well was I identifying with them and their diverse backgrounds?
I am a white, middle-class male from England. I work in New Jersey in the US, teaching students who come from a wide range of backgrounds, whose parents' jobs vary from bus driver to New York Times journalist, and who embrace an exciting mix of cultures.
To truly connect with the students and help them to learn, I need to reflect that diversity in my classroom. But, unfortunately, I realised that a lot of my teaching was filtered through a single lens - the lens of my own experience.
Discovering who your students are and incorporating their differences into the classroom takes creative effort and willingness to explore and experiment. It also takes a lot of time. But you can do a lot to make the classroom more culturally responsive. Here are two key ways.
Dots for inclusion
Ask students to line up and close their eyes. Place one coloured dot - of a possible three colours - on each of their foreheads. Make sure they cannot see their own dots and tell them that there will be no talking during the activity. Distribute the first two colours evenly throughout the group. Then place the third colour on only one or two students.
Instruct the class to move around silently, forming groups of the same colour using only body language to communicate. They will quickly realise that one or two students have been left out and aren't part of any group. Then sit everyone down and lead a discussion on inclusion, exclusion and discrimination.
Cultural diversity calendar
Aim to infuse every teaching day with the rich differences that students bring to the classroom. To do this, set up a timeline around the classroom featuring important anniversaries. Mine includes the invention of television and the appointment of the first US president. Ask students and their families to suggest dates for the timeline that are important to them. The result is a fantastic collection of learning points. In the past, my students have brought in pictures of uncles who served in the Vietnam War, Mahatma Gandhi, Austrian composers and African-American poets.
The activity is a useful reminder to not just draw on your own experience when demonstrating points but to incorporate the students' diverse experiences. It proves immensely useful in connecting the material to real life and improving learning.
These two strategies are obviously just the start. If you build a deep understanding of your students, you will feel the benefits both personally and professionally.
Greg McGrath teaches at an elementary school in New Jersey, US