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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Creating a Welcoming and Intellectually Challenging Classroom

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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As you set up your classroom for the new school year, try spending a few minutes in your students' chairs. Are you comfortable? Now look closer: Will the seating arrangement invite conversations between students, or keep them isolated? What do you notice about what's on display around the room? Will students see themselves and their families reflected in the diversity of images and books?

Are whiteboards, laptops, and other tools for learning within reach for students, or reserved for the teacher? Any other clues that you're entering a space where all learners will feel welcome, safe, trusted, and curious about their world?

Veteran educators Dorothy M. Steele and Becki Cohn-Vargas offer this simple but powerful suggestion to build a more inclusive, equitable environment for learning: "Look at life in the classroom every day from the perspective of each of the students." They have coined the term "identity safe classroom" to describe learning environments where every child feels welcome and eager to learn. This isn't just feel-good talk. Building an identify safe classroom offers a deliberate strategy to reach students who feel alienated from school because of repeated failure, heavy-handed discipline, or negative stereotypes.

Their book, Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn (Corwin, 2013), offers thoughtful advice, grounded in research and practice, that's worth considering throughout the school year. Steele, an early childhood educator, is former executive director of the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity at Stanford University. Cohn-Vargas, currently director of Not In Our School, has been both teacher and principal during her 35 years in education.

The authors' field-tested suggestions deserve special attention early in the year when you and your students have a fresh start on building a positive classroom culture.

Supporting Student Voice and Collaboration

If you're planning to give project-based learning (PBL) a try this year, you'll benefit from their suggestions to encourage student voice and collaboration -- key ingredients for effective PBL. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

Aim high: Warm and safe doesn't mean easy. Set high expectations for all learners, the authors advise, and then provide necessary scaffolding to ensure that each student is working toward mastery.

Foster collaboration: Encourage collaboration rather than competition so that students benefit from peer feedback and help each other improve. If students are new to teamwork, start by having them work in pairs. Model what it means to be an active, respectful listener. Reinforce norms about resolving conflicts respectfully. That's different from expecting your classroom to be a conflict-free zone.

Cultivate diversity as a resource: Cultivating diversity is not the same as taking a colorblind approach to teaching. The authors suggest drawing on students' diverse backgrounds through music, literature, language, and current events. Foster critical thinking to help students analyze negative and stereotypical messages, in school and in the wider world. Don't shy away from hard conversations about race and culture. Avoid what the authors call a "tourist" curriculum, which reduces multiculturalism to a tour of holidays. Invest time early in the year to learn about students' diverse interests, talents, and backgrounds, and then incorporate this information as you plan projects. This will reinforce the message that students' diverse experiences are classroom assets.

Listen for student voice: To develop their confidence as learners, students need regular opportunities to share their thoughts, make decisions, and reflect on their classroom experiences. That's why the authors suggest strategies to amplify student voice. With regular opportunities to formulate ideas, explain their point of view, and elaborate on the ideas of others, students "feel the importance of their participation," according to Steele and Cohn-Vargas. Peer feedback, common in PBL, is one of many ways to amplify student voice in the learning experience.

The authors also suggest rotating classroom roles, such as a "greeter" who welcomes visitors, or giving students a say when it comes to managing their own behavior. They share an example of a girl who learned to manage her restlessness by taking two-minute relaxation breaks in the library, whenever she needed them.

Promote autonomy: A classroom that promotes autonomy gives students room to make choices and take responsibility for their learning. Encourage autonomy by involving students in setting norms and reflecting on their progress. Use class meetings as opportunities for students to solve problems for themselves. As you gradually release responsibility to students, they will see themselves as capable people who can "make something happen," the authors report. This goes hand-in-hand with PBL practices. At the end of a successful project, teachers often say they see students "standing a little taller." It's an apt metaphor for students developing autonomy and growing as learners.

What steps are you planning to ensure that your students feel welcome, safe, and intellectually challenged in your classroom this year? Please share your strategies in the comments.

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Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Teacher/leader & techie at independent, alternative, therapeutic high school

I like a lot of these practical ideas and reminders. In particular, I agree so much that a collaborative classroom is NOT a conflict-free zone. In fact, the "mess" is what helps us learn. We learn to navigate complex situations, negotiate our needs with the needs of others, and how it feels when we use different approaches to reach a shared goal. That's no small amount of intellectual challenge!

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