Supporting Equitable Classrooms

By Guest Contributor – Lanette Trowery, PhD, Senior Director of Learning Research and Strategy, McGraw-Hill

In my work as a teacher educator and classroom coach, one of my greatest joys was seeing teachers grow their classrooms into true learning communities. It’s never easy or seamless work; the time and support needed to create a classroom that puts students’ needs front and center requires dedication to your craft, support from your team members and administration, and a continual desire to learn about your students. I want to share some of the lessons I learned from those teachers who worked tirelessly to create equitable classrooms that supported all learners.

Driving a district toward equity begins with the classroom environment

Why classroom environment?  An equitable classroom is one where all students are supported to learn rigorous academics at their level, examine and critique the content and skills they are learning, and engage in critical inquiry of how what they are learning interacts with the world around them. Doing high-level learning through critical analysis with your peers, taking risks and making mistakes, or engaging in discussions that draw on different, and sometimes uncomfortable, methods or worldviews requires students to be in a space where they feel safe and cared for. Taking time to develop a classroom environment that supports that work becomes the structure upon which equitable teaching and learning can find a foothold. 

Creating an equitable classroom environment that supports all learners

As part of their equitable classroom environment, the teachers I worked with spent time developing a positive classroom community, which encompass the interactions between classroom members and the supportive learning relationship that can be developed among those members. Another aspect of the environment that the teachers built was the classroom climate – the degree to which their students felt safe and supported in the classroom and how that safety allowed students to critically consider their world. Finally, the teachers focused on the learning environment, which encompassed the structures and procedures that supported student learning and the academic attitudes developed in the classroom (1)(2).

Utilizing students’ cultural competence to build a classroom community

Equitable classroom communities designed to enhance cultural competence encourage students to be self-reflective about their multiple identities and how those identities can be used to create a positive life path. Teachers utilize students’ cultural competence as a vehicle for learning which allows students to maintain their cultural integrity as they strive for academic excellence. Knowing each student academically, socially, and personally supports a teacher’s ability to further understand student behaviors and how to address them. It is also important for teachers to critique their own responses to behaviors and determine the detriment and/or benefit to learning each behavior represents and then respond accordingly (3).

Creating a classroom climate that supports risk taking and critical analysis

To engage in a critical stance about learning, students first need to feel safe in the classroom climate. Developing a safe classroom means teachers readily address issues and events that can potentially make students fearful and hesitant in their interactions with others. Then, teachers and students can develop a critical or problematic stance about both school and life through interrogation and dialogue. From analyzing why algorithms were developed and are used in math to considering multiple perspectives on why wars happen, developing a problematic stance in relation to everyday school learning is important. It develops the skill of critical inquiry in students that includes querying issues and ideas both in and out of school. 

Developing an academically focused learning environment

In a learning environment that is focused on the academic achievement of all students, teachers encourage, reinforce, and produce academic excellence in their students; students’ skills and abilities are valued and channeled in academically important ways (5). Providing structures, templates and academic protocols for students allows them to have a base upon which to build their learning and in turn, will scaffold students to tackle higher-level problems and tasks. Scaffolding opportunities to learn new material and grapple with challenging ideas encourages students to develop perseverance and dedication for their academic endeavors. Teachers also know that in order for students to be successful in the work that is expected of them, additional work may be needed on a regular basis – in and out of the classroom. This additional focused time allows teachers to attend to students’ academic identities and explore the ways those identities are tied together with their personal and cultural identities (5).

We are invested in creating equitable schools

Having well-crafted practices that reflect the deep consideration of equity in classrooms help teachers reflect on their habits, beliefs, and cultural vision. The development of a classroom designed to support critical inquiry of academic and social goals is grounded in the teacher’s awareness of the different forces coming to bear on their classroom practices. It is the teacher’s work to build a classroom environment that supports the high-level knowledge to be taught, the cultures students bring, and the practices that acknowledge, examine, and support student growth as learners. However, as an education community, it is up to all of us to provide all teachers with the tools, support, care, and guidance they need to do the difficult work of creating learning spaces that allow all students to flourish.

To learn more on how we are invested in supporting districts in this effort, review our set of Equity Principles which can be used as guideposts for district leaders in their journey toward equitable schools.


Lanette Trowery, PhD is the Senior Director of the McGraw-Hill Learning Research and Strategy Team. Lanette was in public education for more than 25 years before joining McGraw-Hill. She earned her Master’s, in Educational Administration, and Doctorate, in Teaching, Learning, and Curriculum, from the University of Pennsylvania.

References:

  • Tompkins, G. 2009. Language Arts: Patterns of practice. Boston, MA : Allyn & Bacon.
  • Matsumura, L., Slater, S., and Crosson, A. 2008. “Classroom Climate, Rigorous Instruction, and Curriculum, and Students’ Interactions in Urban Middle Schools”. The Elementary School Journal. 108(4). 293-312.
  •  Davis, J. and Martin, D. 2008. Racism, Assessment, and Instructional Practices: Implications for Mathematics Teachers of African American Students.  Journal of Urban Mathematics Education. 1(1). 10–34.
  •   Ladson-Billings, G. 1995. “Toward a Theory of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy”.  American Educational Research Journal. 32(3). 465-491.
  • Nasir, N. 2002. “Identity, Goals, and Learning: Mathematics in Cultural Practices”. In Mathematical Thinking and Learning, 4(2&3). Eds. N. S. Nasir and P. Cobb. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

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