Creating a Culturally Inclusive Environment in the Classroom

By Christine Marsh

students listening in class

This morning, one of my students asked how many boys were in class, and a different student answered before I had a chance, said what the number was. The first student had asked how many boys were in my fourth-hour class and I answered that I thought that there was an equal number of boys and girls in that class. A third student said, “What about the others?” I was unclear what she meant, so I asked her to clarify and she said that some students do not use male or female pronouns.

I agreed with her and told the class that even though I am an English teacher, I have not quite caught up with contemporary rhetoric when it comes to gender non-binary pronoun use. The class then had a discussion not only about the fact that there are people who do not use traditional pronouns but also about the fact that socially acceptable rhetoric is a moving target.

These are freshmen—only 14 or 15 years old—and yet they feel comfortable enough to broach controversial topics and discuss them on a sophisticated level. Students are starving for culturally inclusive literacy, even if they would not use that term themselves.

Yesterday, my students wrote a journal entry about an excerpt from the book called “The Price of Privilege, which is—as one would assume—about the hidden costs that comes with “privilege.” It opened the door to a discussion about students in Arizona who are not privileged; it opened the door for us to discuss that roughly 23 percent of Arizona’s kids live in poverty and how that lifestyle may differ from the lives of most students at Cactus Shadows High School—a relatively affluent bubble in Arizona.

These types of lively discussions create empathy in students. That is what literature is all about: understanding someone else’s life and empathizing with his situation. My students will never live as a black woman in Mississippi in the 1960’s, but they understand a little bit of what that may feel like from reading “The Help”.

The increased empathy aligns with many of the content standards, but specifically to 9-10.W.3, “Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well‐chosen details, and well‐structured event sequences.” “Imagined experiences” require empathy: one of the ways people can imagine something that has not happened is to fully understand the person’s (if it is nonfiction writing) or the character’s (if it is a short story or another fictional piece) motivations. The other standard is 9-10.SL.1, “Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions…with diverse partners on grades 9–10 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.” This standard happens on a weekly—sometimes daily—basis in regards to culturally inclusive literacy.

Students thrive in a culturally inclusive environment. In fact, they are starving for it. Creating such an environment is simple but not easy. The results are amazing, though: watching 14-year-old student grapple with gender issues and income inequity makes it evident that helping students see these bigger issues is valuable.

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More about Christine:

Christine Marsh has been a dedicated, passionate and devoted educator for over 25 years. In 2016, she was recognized as Arizona Educational Foundation’s Teacher of the Year. An alumna of GCU’s College of Education, Christine is a tireless advocate for students and teachers: “Over my 25 years of teaching, I’ve taught more than 3500 students; I’ve learned how to solve problems and I’ve figured out how to reach people who sometimes don’t want to be reached. I’ve learned that the classroom should be a marketplace for ideas, where every student has the opportunity to learn, to speak and to grow.”

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.