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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 in 2016

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 in 2016.

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?

Was this useful? (7)
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

Resilience, Relationships, Re-Imagination
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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finleyjd's picture
Cooperative Education Coordinator, Randolph Technical Career Center. #VTed

The first step to ensure equity is to confront the fact that we all come with unconscious biases, perceptions, and expectations of students. And, these societal perceptions and expectations of competence control for an individual's actual competence.

Here is a post I wrote about how the Equity Traps of implicit biases of educators, families, peers, and society impact how students perceive themselves, the goals that they set, and the pathways they choose in school and beyond.

Shane Safir's picture
Shane Safir
Resilience, Relationships, Re-Imagination

finleyjd, I very much agree. There's another piece in this series that discusses unconscious bias. I look forward to reading your post!

vcrunnfe's picture

Thank you for a wonderful post about equity and equality. This is a concept that can be difficult for younger students to understand with their need for things to be "fair." I think it is important to teach students from a young age that we want everyone to have access to the resources that they need in order to succeed, and they are able to grasp the concept fairly well. I especially like the comment you made on flexing your routines - "notice your discomfort and try not to let it control your decisions." It is so important for us as educators to remember to put the students first and think about how to best support them, as opposed to our comfort.

Peg Grafwallner's picture
Peg Grafwallner
Instructional Coach/Reading Specialist

"Knowing every child" goes beyond a name and ID number. It's about being at a bookstore on a Saturday and on Monday morning being able to say to a particular student, "I saw a book and thought of you." Knowing students goes that deep.

Sara Lopez's picture

Great article! I'm a student-teacher that observes a classroom at an under-privileged school, and I find that equity vs equality is an issue that often arises during group work. How can you adapt group work and the grouping of students in general to reflect a system of equity rather than equality?

Shane Safir's picture
Shane Safir
Resilience, Relationships, Re-Imagination

Hello there, thanks for reading! I agree with you: it's important, and tough, to teach young children that equal does not necessarily mean fair. This is a complex concept. With respect to flexing routines, I definitely had to learn this lesson over time. I've come to recognize that influence is more important than control. How do we influence young people to engage in learning? How do we make learning irresistible?

Shane Safir's picture
Shane Safir
Resilience, Relationships, Re-Imagination

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
Resilience, Relationships, Re-Imagination

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

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