Three Ways to Build an Inclusive Classroom from Day One

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During the past year I have been engaged in a project that imagines inclusive pedagogy as a foreign language that my faculty colleagues and I can learn to speak more fluently by learning its vocabulary, grammar, and underlying cultural values. With the new academic year about just underway, I’d like to share three ways I intend to build inclusive learning into my classes, starting on day one of the semester.

1) Know my students

I always get to know my students (their backgrounds, academic interests, how they use Spanish) at the beginning of a new semester, but I’d like to better understand their strengths, values, and the challenges that occupy their thoughts. First, I want to take a more asset-based approach to students, learning the talents and strengths that they bring to our class, not just the areas in which they need to grow.

I also want to revise my day-one questionnaire to include questions about the values and concerns that are foremost in their minds. Asking such questions does not constitute inclusive teaching by itself, but the answers may help me create a more inclusive learning experience by understanding the forces that work against student belonging and student success. In her compelling book Bandwidth Recovery: Helping Students Reclaim Cognitive Resources Lost to Poverty, Racism, and Social Marginalization, Cia Verschelden argues that these forces rob students of the cognitive resources they need to solve problems, do creative work, and succeed in college. Pathways to success can be opened by implementing intentional, inclusive strategies that help students recover cognitive resources. Productive strategies that I can implement include scaffolding major assignments into manageable pieces and using feedback to increase student agency as well as combat stereotype threat (the threat or risk of conforming to a negative stereotype).

2) A better syllabus

Recently a group of faculty colleagues gathered for a workshop on inclusive teaching led by Professor Kevin Gannon of Grand View University, who led an activity in which we looked at a course syllabus from a student’s perspective. A syllabus must do many things at once: define course goals, provide information about the instructor and materials, specify important deadlines, and explain important policies. Over the years my own syllabus has grown into several pages as I add sections meant to define course expectations more carefully and avoid problems that arise from one term to the next. As the number of pages increases and the font size decreases, a syllabus can easily become more like a Microsoft end-user license agreement than a course roadmap.

This year I want my syllabus to contribute to a more inclusive learning environment, which means the document must be thorough and clear but also hopeful, expectant. I want to invite students into a collaborative venture in which we work together toward significant learning goals and in which they can discern pathways to achieve those goals. I need to set clear expectations and boundaries for student work as well as communicate my confidence that students can meet those expectations. Even the format of the document (its organization and visual elements) should be accessible to every student, so I intend to improve its design with the help of resources like Accessible Syllabus.

3) Name cards

Learning student names, correct pronunciation, and preferred pronouns (he, she, they, etc.) is part of the “grammar” of inclusive pedagogy—the rules and structures that sustain inclusive classrooms and that reflect the underlying values of these spaces. I usually learn students’ names in the first two weeks of the term and am fortunate to have classes of 20 or fewer, which make this task easier.

I’m also keen to have students learn each other’s names, particularly so they can address one another in class discussion. I’ve tried various strategies to encourage more student-to-student interaction in class so that I am not always the focus of their attention. One method is to give each student a half sheet of cardstock paper (easily procured from the Document Center) and ask them to fold in it half lengthwise. The folded cardstock creates a small table tent on which they can write their preferred name and pronouns with a bold marker. During class I ask them to display their name tents on their desks, and after class the folded tent makes a good bookmark.

Name cards contribute to an inclusive classroom where students address each other specifically and professionally with attention to correct pronunciation and gender-affirming language. They serve as a regular reminder that individual identities and voices matter, that our identities are multifaceted, and that a learning community is made stronger when we acknowledge one another by name.

I am grateful to teach at a college that prioritizes inclusive excellence, and I am glad to share these strategies toward more inclusive classes, since making my intentions public will help hold me accountable for putting them into practice.

David Thompson teaches Spanish courses and the first-year Paideia course. One of the best parts of his job is leading J-Term study abroad courses to Spain and Latin America, where students immerse themselves in the local culture and build their language proficiency and intercultural skills. He has published articles on contemporary Spanish poetry by women writers and on metacognition in foreign language courses. His most recent project was a series of problem-based learning units for advanced students of Spanish. He currently serves as the Dennis M. Jones Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Humanities (2018-2020).

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  • September 6 2019 at 12:31 pm
    Loren Toussaint

    Well done, Dr. Thompson!!  I agree with the importance of name cards! And, keeping the syllabus reasonable and hopefully not resembling the end-use agreement you mention. :-)


    Well thought out reminder of the important things we can do to foster inclusivity in the classroom!



  • September 7 2019 at 2:32 pm
    Athena Hatfield

    As someone who identifies as trans and non-binary, it is incredibly reassuring to see this post. The Luther community has been making leaps and bounds in some areas in the last few years towards a more inclusive environment, and this is part of that.

    The name cards with pronouns are fantastic. I use they/them, and most students forget very quickly after I introduce myself that I use those pronouns. It's hard enough to remember a name! Though what you described didn't imply anything contradicting this, I would suggest just in case that it be made it explicit that students do not need to share their pronouns on the cards if they don't want to. Among other things, some in the LGBTQ+ community may not feel comfortable "outing" themselves right away in the semester. But absolutely, encouraging the sharing and remembering of pronouns this way is so needed and does make an environment feel safer.

    My only other comment would be that the phrase "preferred pronouns" is being phased out due to its implication that pronouns (and thus gender identity) are a preference. "What are your pronouns?" or "What pronouns do you use?" are good alternatives.

    Thanks so much for this piece!

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