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Diversity in the Classroom, Part 2

As society moves toward greater understanding and acceptance of diversity, many teachers are faced with a challenge: how can I include more diversity in my classroom? This Diversity in the Classroom blog series examines some historically marginalized groups and provides guidance on telling their stories and histories in the classroom. Today’s post focuses on LGBTQ+ identities. This acronym stands for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer.” The plus sign is often used to indicate that there are even more identities under this umbrella—asexual, pansexual, and nonbinary just to name a few. LGBTQ+ includes many different experiences around gender and attraction—how can you cover it? Why cover it at all? Representation Matters Regardless of the opinions of teachers and parents, LGBTQ+ students exist and are in your classroom. Some may already use one or more of these labels to identify themselves, while others may discover this about themselves as they get older. Reading books featuring LGBTQ+ characters and learning about LGBTQ+ historical figures will help these students understand themselves. Be sure to create a safe space for LGBTQ+ students to share their experiences while also not expecting their experiences to be the same as those they read about or expecting them to be “experts” on these experiences. Teaching LGBTQ+ stories and history also benefits students who are not LGBTQ+. It helps them develop empathy for people who are different from them and they can learn to be good allies. Where can I find LGBTQ+ books and authors? Many great resources exist to help you find LGBTQ+ books and authors.
  • Your school or local library: librarians can show you what LGBTQ+ books the library carries. If your library doesn’t have a book, you can always request it to show that there is demand for LGBTQ+ stories.
  • Goodreads: This popular social networking site for readers allows people to create “shelves,” or lists, of books using any categories they want. Many reviewers have shelves for LGBTQ+ books. Some break this down further by having separate lists for each letter in the acronym. Look through these lists to find books you may want to teach.
  • LGBTQ+ book clubs: Some online book clubs focus exclusively on LGBTQ+ books. Check their blogs or website to see what they’re reading.
How do I know if a book represents LGBTQ+ people respectfully? Representation matters, but bad or disrespectful representation may send harmful messages to students. Take these steps to make sure the books you’re teaching provide good representation.
  • Read reviews written by LGBTQ+ people. If a book is about a lesbian, read what lesbians think about it. If it’s about a transgender girl, read what transgender girls and women think about it. Many of these reviews will state whether the representation is good or bad. Additionally, many online publications run by LGBTQ+ people post book reviews that you can read.
  • Search the book on social media to see what people are saying about it.
  • Ask LGBTQ+ friends and family if they’ve read or heard of the book and what they think about it
LGBTQ+ terminology changes so much. How can I make sure I don’t accidentally use harmful words? What if the books I teach use outdated language? Many terms are used within the LGBTQ+ community and new language comes about as people are freer to explore their identities. Some LGBTQ+ people have reclaimed words once widely used as slurs while others are uncomfortable with those terms. 
  • If you aren’t sure about a term, look it up online or ask a friend or family member who may use that term themselves. 
  • If a controversial term appears in a book you want to teach, introduce students to the context of that term. Is it said as an insult to the main character or does the main character use it as an identifier? Does the book take place a few generations ago when people used those terms more casually?
  • Emphasize that students should not use controversial terms to describe someone else unless they have that person’s permission. For example, if someone identifies as “queer,” and tells you to describe them with that word, then use it.
How can I teach LGBTQ+ history?
  • Place historical figures in their context. Help students understand that people in the past thought about their gender and attractions to other people differently than we do today. 
  • Explain that not all historical figures explicitly labeled themselves as anything because they didn’t have the same language we use today and it was not always safe to be explicit about their identities, but their behavior and relationships may allow some room for speculation.
  • Be cautious when using identities we have today to describe people from the past.
  • Use whatever terminology that historical figure used for themselves, even if that word is outdated or inaccurate today. 
What if my school/state doesn’t allow me to teach LGBTQ+ content? You may not be able to add books and historical figures to the curriculum, but you can be an ally to students by being a safe person to talk to and advocating for them. 
  • Do your research and recommend LGBTQ+ books to students who have come out to you. 
  • Network with other supportive teachers in your school. 
  • Talk with your principal and local board of education about including LGBTQ+ content in the curriculum. 
  • Look up the publisher of the curriculum materials you use in your classroom and see if you can contact them to request that they include LGBTQ+ content.
By following these tips, you can ensure not only that your classroom teaches LGBTQ+ stories, but also that those stories affirm and teach students about themselves and others.

Diversity in the Classroom, Part 1

  As society moves toward greater understanding and acceptance of diversity, many teachers are faced with a challenge: how can I include more diversity in my classroom? This Diversity in the Classroom blog series examines some historically marginalized groups and provides guidance on telling their stories and histories in the classroom. Today’s post focuses on including people of color in your curriculum. Our world has hundreds of different cultures, but white or European cultures receive a disproportionate amount of attention. To remedy this, it’s important to include more people of color in the books you assign and the historical figures you highlight. There are so many non-white cultures. How can I include books from all of them? You likely can’t in a single school year, but you can ensure that a certain number of books come from non-white cultures. A 50/50 split at minimum is a great place to start. If you have less flexibility in changing the curriculum, find short stories or other supplementary materials that relate to the books you have to teach. The demographics of your students might help you decide which cultures to focus on. If you know you’ll have Asian students in your class, choose books by authors of different Asian heritages. Before the school year begins, invite all of your students’ families to tell you about their heritages so you have time to find books. Encourage families to name multiple heritages. At the same time, do not expect that the experiences of your students of color will be exactly the same as those of the characters in the books you choose. Create a safe space for your students of color to share their own experiences if they choose, but make sure you don’t position them as “experts” on the text or experiences. Where can I find books/authors from non-white cultures? Many resources exist to help you find great books about people of color.
  • Your school or local library can help you find books by and about people of color. If they don’t have a specific book, you can request it so they know there is demand for these books.
  • Goodreads is a social networking site where readers can track the books they read. Many readers create “shelves,” or lists, of books by people of color. They may create separate shelves for different races or countries of origin. Search these shelves for books you may want to teach.
  • Book clubs may focus on books by people of color or books about a particular culture. Check out these book clubs’ blogs or websites to find what they’ve read recently.
How do I know that a book accurately/respectfully portrays the people/culture? Accurate, respectful representation affirms students while inaccurate or disrespectful representation may send harmful messages. Here are some steps you can take to vet the quality of the representation in a book you want to teach.
  • Find reviews written by the people/culture represented in the book. Do they say it’s accurate? Why or why not?
  • Is the book written by a person from that same culture? If not, can you verify that the author researched or hired sensitivity readers before publishing the book? These are important questions to answer because many authors who have written books outside of their own cultures have unintentionally perpetuated harmful or inaccurate stereotypes about those cultures. For example, a recent novel American Dirt written by a white and Puerto Rican author was widely criticized for its inaccurate portrayal of Mexican immigrant experiences and for using barbed wire as decoration for book launch events
What if a book uses controversial terminology? Due to racism’s ugly history and presence, many harmful terms exist for communities of color. This means that many books, especially older books, casually use terms that we consider inappropriate today. Some communities may have reclaimed those terms while others are strongly against using them. Here are some options for dealing with books that use these terms.
  • Have a classroom conversation about the language. Explain what it means, where the word came from, and why it’s harmful.
  • Explain how and why the word is used in the book. Is the book old? Do the characters reclaim it to take the harmful power away? Do racist characters in the book use it?
  • Set boundaries or rules about saying the word if reading the book aloud is part of your class time.
  • Establish clear rules when having group discussions about the book. Create space for students to process any trauma the discussion triggers. Allow them to leave the room. Take breathing or stretch breaks. Encourage students to use “I” language to talk about their opinions and reactions to difficult parts of the book.
  • Choose another book that doesn’t use this language. This may be the most appropriate for younger grades. For older children and teenagers, you may consider teaching books with this language to begin nuanced conversations about racism.
How can I teach about more people of color in history?
  • Use heritage celebration months to introduce students to historical figures from those cultures. Black History Month in February may be the most well-known, but other months celebrate other cultures, such as Asian American Pacific Islander Month in May and Hispanic Heritage Month in September. As each month approaches, make a list of historical figures from that culture and tie those people into your existing lessons.
  • Provide multiple perspectives. When teaching about subjects like the Civil War and the Revolutionary War, include multiple perspectives from Native American and African American voices. Discuss the difficult facts, such as most of the Founding Fathers being slave owners and redlining housing policies after World War II. 
  • Showcase contributions people of color have made in art, literature, politics, science, and other areas. Avoid perpetuating stereotypes by teaching about more than one person in these different fields. For example, if you teach about the first African American football player, be sure to also teach about an African American scientist or politician to avoid the stereotype that African Americans are only good at sports. 
Where can I find resources to teach about people of color that my curriculum ignores? Your school or local library may have dedicated sections for different cultures. If they don’t have a specific book you’re looking for, you can request it. One great online resource is a blog called US History Minus White Guys. You can scroll through this blog to find historical figures and research them further. How do students benefit from studying diverse races and cultures? All students benefit from learning about diverse races and cultures. When students can connect to characters who look different from them on personal levels, such as having the same personality traits or interests, they can feel represented. This also helps students build empathy and learn how to be allies for those who are different from them. Students will come away with a deeper understanding of how wrong racism is and how people of any race can accomplish great things in society. With this understanding, students are more prepared to challenge and dismantle racism in their own lives. As you take steps to make your curriculum more diverse, remain in conversation with parents, administrators, and other educators. Seek input from many different voices to work toward a common goal of giving students classroom experiences in which they see themselves in the stories they read and the historical figures they learn about.

An Introduction to the Principles of Project-Based Learning

“But why do I need to learn about biology? When will I ever need to use algebra? Who cares about what happened in Rome 2000 years ago?”  If you’ve ever heard these questions, you know how meaningful it is for students to understand why it is important to learn certain subjects, and how they can apply this knowledge in their daily lives. Project-based learning is an instructional method that clarifies this relationship between knowledge and application.  What is Project-Based Learning?  Simply put, project-based learning is a teaching method in which students apply knowledge to solve an authentic problem or challenge. Unlike summative projects, which typically occur after students have completed a series of lessons on a topic, in project-based learning, the project is the lesson. Project durations may be short (a few days), or they may cover an entire semester.  According to the Buck Institute for Education, the “Gold Standard” for PBL must include the following project design elements:   
  • A challenging problem or question
  PBL begins by asking a driving question. The question should be meaningful to students and to the real world, and should be appropriate for their age and experience. Effective driving questions are focused and should communicate the purpose of the project. They should also answer the question “Why am I learning this?”  
  • Sustained inquiry
  A key consideration when developing a driving question is the capacity for sustained inquiry. The project and question need to be rigorous enough to support investigation and application, while stimulating student interest. Questions with simple answers are not well-suited for PBL.  
  • Authenticity
  Authentic projects are designed to address a real and relevant need, such as providing clean water to a community or planting a pollinator garden. Authentic projects may also involve realistic scenarios, such as mock trials, or the use of real tools such as scale models.  
  • Student voice & choice
  Open-ended questions give students the opportunity to make choices about which direction they want to take with the project, and allow for a variety of outcomes.   
  • Reflection
  Throughout project-based learning, provide opportunities for students to self-reflect on their progress. This includes documenting any challenges and new questions that arise.   
  • Critique & revision
  Allow opportunities for peer review. By reading their classmates’ work, students can re-evaluate and revise their own approach to the project.    
  • Public product
  Publishing the finished product to a forum that goes beyond the classroom affirms that the work has value in the real world.  As with any instruction, project-based learning should address standards and objectives that are appropriate for your classroom. PBL is well-suited for in-person and online learning. Support student success by breaking the project into manageable segments, and offer frequent checkpoints throughout the process of research, collaboration, and publication. Use forms or self-assessments to document project work that students do offline.  So, when a high school student asks why biology is important, consider PBL that focuses on how to apply biology to today’s medical or environmental issues. When a middle school student feels frustrated about why she has to learn algebra, consider PBL that applies algebra to a fundraiser or meal planning. When an elementary student struggles to make the connection between ancient history and today, consider PBL that examines the influence of an ancient society on our modern world.   Students engage in deeper learning experiences when they work towards the process of solving a challenge. This creative discovery process helps students learn to ask important questions, while taking some of the mystery out of why learning matters.     Resources: “What is PBL?” PBLWorks, Buck Institute for Education. www.pblworks.org/what-is-pbl Brengard, Aaron. “Four Ways to Think about Authenticity - Through the Lens of Gold Standard PBL Videos.” PBLWorks, Buck Institute for Education. 22 Aug 2018. www.pblworks.org/blog/four-ways-think-about-authenticity-through-lens-gold-standard-pbl-videos Miller, Andrew. “How to Write Effective Driving Questions for Project-Based Learning.” Edutopia, George Lucas Educational Foundation. 20 Aug. 2015. www.edutopia.org/blog/pbl-how-to-write-driving-questions-andrew-miller Orlando, John. “Understanding Project-Based Learning in the Online Classroom.” Faculty Focus, Higher Ed Teaching & Learning, 5 Feb. 2016. www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/understanding-project-based-learning-in-the-online-classroom/  Spencer, John. “How to Make PBL a Reality in a Distance Learning Environment.” 14 April 2020. www.spencerauthor.com/pbl-distance/