ALL teachers must strive to best serve their students. ALL students, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, political views, immigration status, ability, socioeconomic status, and other identities or characteristics. Every individual in our teaching space brings with them a unique set of strengths, experiences, and backgrounds that should be acknowledged and harnessed to ensure a safer, inclusive, and ultimately more equitable learning environment. I am delighted that this week’s contributor to the blog is 2020 SHAPE America Midwest District Health Education Teacher of the Year, Allisha Blanchette. Allisha shares her journey towards intentionally nurturing equality and inclusion within her classroom.
“I would love to go for a run,” writes my student, “but I’m afraid if I go outside someone is going to attack me about COVID. It’s already happened to some of my family members.” Wait–what? My heart dropped as I realized what she was telling me. Because of her Asian heritage, she was afraid someone was going to attack her on the street about the origin of COVID. The assignment was to create a schedule to balance academics, family, and the health triangle. She wanted to run outside but felt it was too dangerous.
As a small female, I understand the dangers of running outside. One of my precautions is to run where there will always be people if I need help. The irony was not lost on me that what was a precaution for me could be detrimental to her because she is not white. Shortly after this conversation, George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis three hours away and four months before that, Ahmaud Arbery had been gunned down while out for a jog in the middle of the day. It took months and a video to result in an arrest. Later, a former student of mine was interviewed about the summer events and shared his pain as a person of color growing up in our town in central Wisconsin, a predominantly white community. I am ashamed to say these events were the catalyst that began my own investigation into myself, my whiteness, and what I could be doing in my classroom to celebrate diversity and create awareness of social injustice.
I will caution you that this is not an awesome story of major change. There is no happy ending here, just a beginning. I have begun some things that I know are not enough and likely clumsily done, but I will share how I got started and would encourage you to begin if you haven’t, and share if you have.
What I Have Learned
If you are looking to get started or incorporate more inclusive practices, here are some takeaways I have learned along the way and resources to help.
- Explore prejudice, privilege, & systemic racism. You may think you are not contributing to any of these but if you are white, able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual, or any other norm current culture is set up for, you likely are. It will be difficult to change it or teach it until you recognize it in yourself. Every act of microaggression, systemic racism & exclusion is causing someone else pain. So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo is a fantastic book to get started.
- Acknowledge the history of blood & oppression in the US. You have likely heard of Manifest Destiny. It came with a cost that people are still paying today and you will never begin to understand the pain of marginalized groups until you do.
- Learn from the hard days. It may be difficult for you to acknowledge your mistakes even when you have set out to do so. Imagine how difficult it will be for those who have not recognized privilege, believe in being ‘color blind’, or are certain microaggressions are compliments. You will face resistance and it won’t feel good. Just remember what the people you are fighting for face everyday. Check out The Whiteness Project for insight into a variety of beliefs you might encounter.
- Celebrate. Don’t just teach equity, diversity & inclusion–celebrate it. Teach your students the joy of lifting others up and learning from them. Teach your students a stronger and healthier community is one where we all flourish.
Invite Individuality & Acceptance on Day One
Equity, diversity & inclusion is something that should be infused throughout the entire curriculum if we want to create a safe, accepting environment. Set up the environment on the first day. My favorite way to begin a partnership with my students and create a culture of individuality & acceptance is borrowed from Andy Milne. Instead of running through attendance & mutilating names, I invite my students to introduce themselves, their pronouns, and any nicknames they prefer.
There are several layers here. We first stand in a communication circle to invite equality, and take a turn introducing ourselves. Introducing themselves allows me to hear correct pronunciations instead of subjecting students to my mispronunciations. This also helps me avoid an act of microaggression. Often teachers who mess up an unfamiliar name will laugh off their discomfort. Guess which students’ names get messed up the most, class after class? I share my pronouns and invite them to. Some do, many do not. Whether they do or not, several will take the opportunity to communicate a nickname. Often students who are transgender, agender, or fluid will prefer a different name, whether or not they are willing to share pronouns. Many of my students with Asian heritage prefer to go by a different name as well.
This may seem like such a simple activity that it’s not a big deal if you don’t do it but I have noticed an immediate shift in student comfort level in everything we do. Some are ready to verbalize, others will leave private notes of how to refer to them. Either way it has been communicated that they are welcome and celebrated for who they are. I also take this opportunity to teach a small lesson in communication and active listening. This will set us up for later lessons on communication where we will infuse gender & sexual orientation stereotyping.
One more idea to note is that we spend the rest of the class period exploring what is a healthy relationship & partnership between all of us, how that impacts our occupational, intellectual & mental/emotional wellness, and what sort of responsibilities we each have in the class. I express one of mine is to facilitate a safe, healthy & inclusive environment for all students.
Culture is a term we have heard, but when asked to define, few are able. In the beginning of the semester, I spend time introducing and teaching each of the national health standards. When analyzing influences on our health, students always struggle with culture. What is it, where do we see it, and how does it influence us? Here is a great place to invite multiculturalism into the classroom and celebrate diversity. (If you are white, you might need to explore your whiteness. It is often those who have not, who have the hardest time understanding systemic racism, microaggressions, and the importance of celebrating culture.)
We start with these elements of culture: geographical areas lived, nationality, race/ethnicity/languages, socioeconomic status, religion, gender, sexual orientation, special abilities/disabilities, and any other group we feel strongly about and have adapted beliefs, values & norms from. We go around the room identifying a few of these things about each of us. This is a great time to appreciate the diversity in the room and celebrate the experience of those who have lived in a different place or speak more than one language.
Next we try a multicultural greeting activity. Students are asked to partner up, introduce themselves and try a handshake (air handshake right now of course). Next students find a new partner and are asked to try a bow with their introduction. Then a new partner and a respectful air kiss. Yes, there is a rustle, comments, jaws drop, etc… Finally, they are encouraged to develop a new greeting with their last partner.
We assess and debrief. We go through each greeting where students show me their comfort level via thumbs up, sideways, down. The air kiss is almost unanimously down but starts a fantastic conversation about culture, customs, norms & ethnocentrism. I share some greetings that are acceptable in the US but faux pas in other countries. It appears to be easy for them to talk about other countries (what does thumbs up mean in the middle east), but then we bring the conversation closer to home. What do you do at a friend’s house who does things differently than at yours? What about a student in your class who dresses differently than you, etc… This is a great time to remind them just because it’s different, doesn’t mean it’s wrong and there are likely other cultures that do some things better than we do.
Infuse Unfamiliar Culture
It’s great to teach ethnocentrism, but then really teach it. It could be argued that American culture is not the first we think of when wellness comes to mind. The Blue Zones might be, though. I introduce students to the culture of Okinawa, Japan through this documentary. We explore the habits & customs of the elderly to see if we can identify their secret to longevity & contentment. We consider the concepts of Moai & Ikigai. We wonder about the pursuit of purpose over the pursuit of happiness. Students create their own Ikigai to begin their idea of purpose, which could be daily or overall. From here we identify our baseline through the 10 Dimensions of Wellness Inventory and set goals to determine our path to our Ikigai.
If this seems too radical of an infusion for a curriculum, look around. Much of what Western culture has adapted for mental/emotional health comes from Eastern culture. The mood meter in Marc Brackett’s book Permission to Feel categorizes feelings as neither bad or good but as intensity of energy and positive or negative, a similar concept held in Yin and Yang. Kelly McGonigal’s ted talk on how to Make Stress Your Friend outlines the balance of beliefs, contribution in your community, and pursuing a greater purpose–concepts included in Moai & Ikigai.
This was a beginning of purposefully addressing some of these topics. I knew I wanted to do a better job with EDI incorporation but also knew if it wasn’t infused into all aspects of the curriculum, the efforts would be lost on students who had not been previously exposed to other cultures, inequities, or exclusion. Above are just a few of the introductory concepts I have implemented to set up the environment for deeper issues. Other activities I would be happy to share include upstanding in bullying & microaggressions, stereotyping gender & sexual orientation, culture IQ & core culture values, and a privilege poker activity to explore privilege and SEL skills. I will be conducting a session at SHAPE America 2021 called Walking the Talk of Inclusion & Connection in Health and would love to connect.
Other Slowchathealth blog posts you’ll want to check out include:
Pronouns: Getting Personal on recognizing the importance of personal pronouns in the classroom.
Say My Name on creating not only great first impressions, but also creating long lasting relationships in the classroom.
If you are looking for more books to read on this subject, check out this ever-growing list, titled ‘Race, Racism and Rebellion’.
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