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Equity vs. Equality: 6 Steps Toward Equity

Shane Safir

The power of listening: creating opportunity for every student in our schools
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A closeup on 6 adjacent lockers. The first locker is clear and blue, each locker following gets more and more out of focus and shifts into reds and yellows, looking like a rainbow.

I coached Jane in her third year of teaching ninth-grade English in a high school with many English-language learners (ELLs). Her style leaned toward direct instruction, and she did a great job of modeling literacy strategies. One day, I observed Jane leading a mini-lesson on paragraph revision. As I sat beside an ELL named Veronica, I noticed that her "paragraph" was one long run-on sentence. With Veronica's permission, I made a copy of the paragraph for Jane.

"Ugh!" she sighed when she saw it. "What do I do with this?" Veronica had a clear learning gap around punctuation and syntax.

"Well," I said, "you get to teach her. What do you know about her schooling experiences in El Salvador? You set a goal to individualize instruction this year, and this seems like an opportunity to practice. Why not pull Veronica aside tomorrow to offer targeted support?"

"But we have a quiz!" Jane responded, almost forlorn. "There’s never enough time."

"Why," I pushed gently, "does she need to take the quiz more than she needs to sit with you and learn how to structure a paragraph?" It was a simple question, but I saw signs of awakening on Jane's face. "You're right," she finally said. "I never considered my ability to make choices like this. Tomorrow, I'll work with Veronica one-on-one."

Equality vs. Equity

This vignette cuts to the heart of equality vs. equity in the classroom. If equality means giving everyone the same resources, equity means giving each student access to the resources they need to learn and thrive. As those of us who are parents know, each child is different. It can be tough to meet their competing needs, but this is pretty much the job description for parenting and, I would argue, for teaching. Jane could have modeled paragraph revision until she was blue in the face, but Veronica lacked the building blocks of a sentence. Instead, Jane provided this learner with a critical resource: the attention of her skillful teacher.

If we're committed to the success of every child, we must acknowledge the uneven playing field that exists for many: ELLs, students with special needs, children experiencing trauma or relentless poverty, and students of color who confront unconscious biases about their capacity. Walking toward equity will help us to create inclusive, 21st-century classrooms.

6 Steps Toward Equity

It's hard to sum up what it means to embrace equity in the classroom. My partner and I are veteran, equity-driven educators, and we wrestled with this question. Complexity duly noted, here are six ways to walk toward equity.

1. Know every child.

First and foremost, get to know each student as a unique and layered individual. Embrace storientation to learn where they're from, what they love to do outside of school, what their family is like. Don't subscribe to a single story about any child. The more you know, the more you can build trust and differentiate instruction.

2. Become a warm demander.

Author Lisa Delpit describes warm demanders as teachers who "expect a great deal of their students, convince them of their own brilliance, and help them to reach their potential in a disciplined and structured environment." An equity stance pushes us to couple high expectations with a commitment to every child's success. Two later posts in this series will unpack this step.

3. Practice lean-in assessment.

As you gather a student's human story, start to piece together his or her learning story:

  • How does she approach tasks?
  • What are his strengths as a learner?
  • What does she struggle with?

No standardized test will provide you with quality data on these questions. Use proximity and lean-in assessment to diagnose students' learning needs. Carry a clipboard with you while students are working, and take careful notes on what you observe.

4. Flex your routines.

Remember that one-size lessons do not fit all. Jane had mastered the art of the mini-lesson, but she was losing learners in the process. Be willing to flex or set aside your well-laid plans to individualize instruction. If pulling a student out of an activity to support him or her makes you uncomfortable, notice your discomfort and try not to let it control your decisions.

5. Make it safe to fail.

Teach students that failure is just another form of data. When a child feels shame about his learning gaps, he'll hide behind quiet compliance or bravado and acting out. In an equitable classroom, there's no need to hide, because struggle and failure are neutralized, normalized, and even celebrated. Consider this: once a week, have students meet in groups to share something they struggled with and what they learned in the process.

6. View culture as a resource.

Finally, don’t be culture-blind. When we ignore students' identities, we efface who they are in the world and lose a rich resource for learning. Understand this simple, powerful truth offered by my friend Zaretta Hammond in her recent book Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: "Culture, it turns out, is the way every brain makes sense of the world." Help students activate their cultural schema to access challenging content. Invite them to share where they come from, not just with you, but also with each other. Value and affirm all forms of difference. My next post will focus on ways to promote identity safety in the classroom.

I hope these ideas on a complex topic resonated with you. How do you think about and walk toward equity in your school or classroom?

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The Equitable Classroom
Learn about the thinking behind and practices for an equitable classroom, where all students are recognized as unique individuals and given access to the resources they need to learn and thrive.

Shane Safir

The power of listening: creating opportunity for every student in our schools
In This Series
Learn about the thinking behind and practices for an equitable classroom, where all students are recognized as unique individuals and given access to the resources they need to learn and thrive.

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Shane Safir's picture
Shane Safir
The power of listening: creating opportunity for every student in our schools

Greetings Sara! Group work is a foundational equity practice, but can reinforce inequity if we don't pay close attention to group dynamics. I like the concept of flexible grouping--reconfiguring who works with whom based on formative assessment data rather than any preconceived notions around skill and capacity. I also tended to aspire toward heterogeneous groupings, with the exception of small group instruction when I would pull students at a similar level for focused support. In any group work, it is important to pay attention to issues of social status: who's talking, whose comments receive attention and validation, who is doing the thinking? Small groups can be a place where implicit racial and gender biases play out among students, or a place to challenge biases by working together on an important task and respecting each other's ideas. You might consider having your class set group work goals around participation, equity of voice, etc. Then a student in each group can sign up to track patterns of participation, or even subtler things like how often a student receives a positive comment from another student or the teacher. Keep me posted!

Delisha Easley's picture

Hi Shane! Love this article is this okay for me to share these tips at my presentation on Friday morning?

Shane Safir's picture
Shane Safir
The power of listening: creating opportunity for every student in our schools

Greetings Delisha! Absolutely you may do so in reference to the article. I hope it goes well! Shane

Kaylan Penn's picture

I recently attended an equity training class and let me just say, the information given to me was so valuable that I was eager to implement these strategies and ideas into my classroom. But before I could begin on this journey, I personally feel that I needed to have a reflection on my current practice of instructing and teaching the students in the classroom. After some time of reflecting lesson plans, student data and examples that I had kept in their files, I can see there was a lot for me to improve.
One area of improvement for me was the piece of engagement. If I am to have some form of equity for my students, I need to create lessons that are engaging to my entire class. I think about your point of having to "flex routines", being able to make the extra time to contribute towards a student's achievement. In the text, "Uncovering Teacher Leadership", Richard Ackerman brings up a valuable point of this idea called, impediments; basically ideas or concepts that can halt us from what we are trying to accomplish. He brings up a concept of "our plate being full" (Ackerman & Mackenzie, 2007, pg.15). "It's hard to care for a class of little bodies and still have time and energy to lead" (Ackerman & Mackenzie, 2007, pg.15). Instead of making excuses I needed to take the time to plan a lesson or activity that is engaging for all learners.
After reading your blog, I feel that one keyword has stuck to me, and that is relationship. If you don't have nor build the relationship with the students, making an environment that is safe to fail, knowing your students and etc. will become a much more difficult process. Thank you for your excellent post!

Ackerman, R., & Mackenzie, S. (Eds.). (2007). Uncovering teacher leadership: Essays and voices from the field. (Laureate Custom Ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Shane Safir's picture
Shane Safir
The power of listening: creating opportunity for every student in our schools

Delisha, How did your presentation around equity go? Shane

Shane Safir's picture
Shane Safir
The power of listening: creating opportunity for every student in our schools

Kaylan, thank you for sharing these thoughtful reflections. Yes, I agree that relationship is the foundation of everything in the classroom. Taking time to listen and learn about our students builds relationship, and it also helps us gauge what will be engaging for the particular children or young people before us. Keep reading, learning and reflecting!

Beckett Haight's picture

I like the way you start off this article; it's very illustrative of the whole situation. And very poignant! As soon as you mentioned the quiz conflict I had to smile a bit because sometimes differentiation can seem so shocking at first pass, but then you realize it was crazy that you weren't doing it in this way before.

I was also struck by your connection between parenting and teaching. They definitely can be looked at similarly; for example as a Special Educator I have recognized that our students not only need the best teachers (or teaching strategies) but the best parents (or the best parenting strategies). So it was nice to see you mention this connection.

The idea about the lean-in assessment seems great. I'm curious if you have a system for 'collating' all the data you observe and note on the clipboard? I'm thinking index cards, spreadsheet, etc. Or do you just keep the notes from the clipboard and reference those?

Lastly....I am not sure if I came across your post organically, or if it was because I recently published a blog post on this very topic on Think Inclusive. But I think you may get a kick out of a post on the same theme:

Shane Safir's picture
Shane Safir
The power of listening: creating opportunity for every student in our schools

Hey Beckett, thanks for reading the post and sharing your reflections. I agree that sometimes we overcomplicate differentiation when it's really about a core stance... a way of seeing and engaging with every child. In terms of collating data, I would recommend using Google Sheets. Just a column on the left that lists each student, dates across the top, and narrative notes to populate it. You could also have columns with Lichert scale ratings on specific sub-skills you're trying to track. Good luck and keep me posted!


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