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First-Day Actions for a Culturally Sustaining Classroom Environment

This blog was written by the NCTE Committee Against Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English.

 

The first days of school should be centered around building community through authentic relationships. We believe that students need to trust their teacher in order for the relationship to give way to learning and growth. It is important for teachers to build these relationships responsibly by treating their students with respect and using a culturally sustaining pedagogy (CSP).

NCTE’s Committee Against Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English turns to this pedagogical stance as one of the columns of our foundational beliefs because we aim to meet the needs of all students in our classrooms considering the demographic shifts taking place throughout our country’s public schools.

Authors Dr. Django Paris and Dr. Samy Alim explain, “CSP seeks to perpetuate and foster—to sustain—linguistic, literate, and cultural pluralism as part of the schooling for positive social transformation.” One critical way to enact a culturally sustaining pedagogy is through the design  of a classroom’s physical space.

Think about what it’s like to walk into and through your classroom before class has begun. What do students see on the walls? What do they hear? What welcomes them? These spatial elements are important and set a clear tone even before the bell has rung.

Here are some of our committee’s suggestions on how to achieve a space that indicates a culturally sustaining pedagogy:

 

  • Your library: Think about which books students will see when they first walk to the shelves. Will all of your students see themselves? It is critical to feature texts that represent ALL students on your bookshelves. Make sure books face forward or outward in a way where they strategically catch students’ attention. Reflecting student identity through literature is a strong bridge to learning more about who your students are and building relationships with them.
  • Share your reading journey: Show your students that you are actively engaged in reading texts that highlight the stories and experiences of people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, women, and other groups that have been historically silenced throughout US history and English class text selections. You can hang a sign on or near your desk that says “I am currently reading ______.” It is critical to update this regularly. This will help to invite a conversation with students about what you’re learning.
  • Communicate intentions: Write a “safe space” commitment and list on your syllabus. Or hang a sign that shows why your room and curriculum are safe spaces for students. Make sure they know, visibly, that they are welcomed and that their identities will be affirmed. For more about Safe Space and Brave Space commitments, see Stanford University’s Stanford Teaching Commons.
  • Intimate spaces: At some point in the first day or week, try removing all the chairs and desks and have circle time. It can work across all grade levels. In that circle time, ask students what they like about your subject, what they like about school, how the day is going, and create space for a positive moment in your community. A student-centered moment within a shifted physical space communicates that this is their room and that you want to hear their voices. You might have students brainstorm the ways the physical space should look and what it should include. Teachers should prioritize student voices from the first day. You can engage in dialogue by asking what they value and then ensuring that those values have a place. You might visualize this by leaving your “rules” poster half empty as a way to show students that the rules are not done because their voices are still missing.
  • The walls: Consider waiting to fill up the walls until after the first day of school. Leave room for students to contribute their works. Be intentional with what you put on the wall on the first day. You may want to use images featuring real people representing the students in the room, but also the ones who are missing. Posting those pictures versus cartoons or animals demonstrates intentionality in wanting to be inclusive. Post poetry or quotes that are from authors of color, women, LGBTQ people, and be intentional about the art in the room. You might even start the year off with a poem. Having students begin with “Where I’m From” poems is a great way to build community and allow the voices of their families to permeate the classroom space. After they’re done writing, students can create broadsides of their poems that can be displayed in class for the first month, semester, or quarter of the year. This shows students that teachers care to learn about their community and/or other places that are important in their lives.
  • Stickers & More Art: Consider using stickers that are representative of multicultural people groups, too, such as Robert Liu-Trujillo’s art. Think about what is displayed on your desk and how that communicates that you love and respect all of your students and their home communities, and are sharing some of yourself.
  • Sounds: If possible, you might feature some music that comes from marginalized communities. That might be music from the Caribbean or hip hop, for example. You can play it while students are doing some ice breakers or a short writing prompt. We know that there is power in music and that creating a space in your room where students are welcomed could be enhanced by them hearing music that comes from their country, for example. You could ask students to send you links to favorite music so that you can broaden your listening repertoire.
  • Free goodies: Have the Committee Against Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English’s posters up somewhere on the wall and have bookmarks ready to be handed out on that first day. Send them home with a free gift from your classroom!
  • Curriculum: Have a PowerPoint (or some visual) where you feature the texts you’ll cover with pictures of the authors. Share topics you’ll be covering this year and how students will get to have in-depth and challenging conversations. This shows students your commitment to featuring texts and authors who are people of color, LGBTQ, women, and others during the school year.

 

We hope that this list has been useful and that you are ready to think about how to set up your classroom in a way that is culturally sustaining.

If your year has already begun, don’t hesitate to slow down the pace and try some of these changes. Communicate to your students why you’re making these modifications and use that as a conversation starter. It is important for these changes and physical elements in your classroom to be ones you’ve made out of your own interest to connect with them and genuinely welcome their voices. If it’s performative and simply a way to seem “hip,” students will sense this, and it won’t build true relationships or understanding.

Our nation’s tensions and ongoing social conflicts require that we take a stance and be intentional about fighting against racism and bias in the teaching of English. We are rooting for you!