For the last eight years, I’ve been working with colleagues at the Penn Graduate School of Education teaching a course for new teachers called “Effective Learning Environments.”
The course lives in a truly awesome program, the Independent School Teacher Residency—the only teacher residency in the country focused on training independent school teachers. This year, a teaching fellow approached me with an excellent question: “What exactly do you mean by effective?” he earnestly inquired.
That was a humbling moment. What did I mean by “effective”? Was it that all students could learn at their fullest potential? That students felt socially and emotionally safe? And what if students felt socially-emotionally safe but didn’t achieve to their fullest potential? Or learned at their fullest potential but were miserable through it all? In the course, we studied unconscious bias and stereotype threat, social-emotional safety and psychological belonging. And while the course did engage with learning outcomes, those outcomes were always contextualized through the lens of identity. Ultimately, the course was one that explored what it means to honor the lived experiences of students in all of the identities they carry. What I meant by “effective” was actually “equitable.” The equitable learning environment is one that designs for—and celebrates—our students’ differences. How had I never made this distinction for my students?
The 2020-2021 academic year has disrupted school life as we have known it. In a recent meeting with colleagues, I heard myself say something that caught me off guard—not because I don’t believe that it is true, but because I’ve never had to say something like it before: “We can’t go back to 2019,” I had declared about the pedagogies, curricula and policies that guided our academic program. And yet, for as long as I have worked in independent schools, I have worried that many of our institutions haven’t been able to advance change initiatives with the same kind of urgency as our public and charter counterparts. This year has given us more reasons to do so than we could have ever imagined. The question became: how, and where, do we start?
Perhaps, some have argued, we start with the curriculum. The excellent book Seeing Race Again: Countering Colorblindness Across the Disciplines powerfully creates a case for this in current-day academia, detailing the Eurocentric origins of the established academy as we know it. The authors question the notion of disciplines, in and of themselves, as existing in isolation from the social contexts that shape human life; they condemn all forms of race neutrality that take place across the academy, be it the absence of anti-racist content and practices or those that “reinforce whiteness as the unmarked norm against which difference is measured” (24). There’s no question that the most foundational structures of schools today—the very subjects we teach—have also internalized these practices. How can our curriculum not warrant radical change?
What I hear from teachers is about another equally, if not more important, kind of curricular revision to address issues of representation. Can our students see themselves in our curricula? And what might it look like if they did? These questions gave me pause. As a first-generation Indian-American, my experiences studying my own cultural background in academic spaces have been varied. I cringed when we got to the caste system in social studies, in what felt like two year cycles throughout middle and high school. “What caste are you?” my peers would ask, a question that took me years, if not decades, to answer with any kind of accuracy. Particularly in middle school, I resented moments in which I was called upon to represent a culture from which I felt distanced, both geographically and generationally. In her research on microaggressions in South Asian youth, Punita Rice describes instances like these as microinvalidations, as they negate the lived experiences and positionality of any given student in relation to a cultural identifier they might carry. I knew close to nothing about the caste system, but my classmates’ questions—and sometimes those of my teachers, too—discredited that reality.
In interviews with students on this topic, I found a broader range of experiences, some students speaking with incredible gratitude about the experience of being able to learn about a racial or cultural identifier they carry, others feeling empowered by the opportunity to bring their home culture into the classroom space, and still others describing their experiences with deep and unhealed pain. What variables play into these disparate experiences of students seeing themselves in the curricula they are taught? I can’t say that I fully understand all or even some of them, but learning about the lived experiences of every student in our care does seem, to me, essential. Before we diversify the curriculum, we need to understand who we are teaching: how each student is positioned to the identities they carry and what that positioning means for each child. If an equitable learning environment honors the lived experiences of our students, then diversifying the curriculum, in and of itself, isn’t nearly enough.
Before we diversify the curriculum, we need to understand who we are teaching: how each student is positioned to the identities they carry and what that positioning means for each child.
In my own teaching practice, this academic year was the first in which I can honestly say I cultivated ongoing experiences for identity development in my classroom. This was the first year when I created a practice of asking students to assess their prior knowledge on a given topic through the lens of their lived experiences; when I encouraged students to respond to a text through the lens of their identity; and when my students started to refer to their identities as a way of entering classroom discussion: “As a white male,” “As a trans-racial adopted Asian-American,” “As an Egyptian Muslim…”. Not only did I know my students and their positionality with regard to their identities, but they knew each other’s. When we studied Kamila Shamsie’s novel Homefire, my students were able to identify what they did and didn’t know about Islamaphobia, whether the book perpetrated or dismantled anti-Muslim stereotypes, and how deliberately an author must render culture, particularly a marginalized culture, to honor it authentically. We began the course with identity-based work and called upon it frequently, whether reading Shamsie or Shakespeare. Did I always feel successful? Not particularly, but I felt proud of the kinds of conversations my students were having, and I think they did, too.
Equitable classrooms reimagine the curriculum as a series of access points. First and foremost, these classrooms create an environment in which students are learning together. They begin by learning about each other: how each student understands themselves in the identities they carry and how those identities shape norms for a shared learning space. This is the foundation upon which other access points can be built: what prior experiences have shaped student relationships to the work of a given unit or course? What perspectives are missing? How do we know? Essentially, these classrooms are, as a habit of practice, positioning the learning of a classroom in relationship to the lived experiences and identities of students in it. Ultimately, the students decide the extent to which they can see themselves in our curricula and our practices; our responsibility is to create the opportunity for them to do so.
Ultimately, the students decide the extent to which they can see themselves in our curricula and our practices; our responsibility is to create the opportunity for them to do so.
Yet, developing a practice of identity-development work in the classroom is difficult and complicated. The notion of whiteness, for many white students, can be unsettling and challenging; at the same time, students of color may have years of internalized identity-based perceptions, both affirming and oppressive. But if we cannot name and acknowledge these realities, then we are replicating the very systems that gave rise to them. In Episode 5 of the podcast Teaching To Thrive, Bettina Love ruminates on this idea, quoting the activist Mariame Kaba: “You can’t make people be accountable…but you do have to give them the space [in which] to be accountable… How do we create that space?” This question is, perhaps, the most urgent, critical question facing educators today.
We do need to change our curricula, urgently so. But to change only the curriculum—and not our approaches to it—has the potential to fail our students. The what of schooling has never been as important as who our students are in their identities and how we design for their specific needs. An equitable learning environment is one that privileges difference. It creates an emotionally safe space in which to grapple with the most challenging of concepts, to make mistakes, and to try again. It is a reflective space, where metacognition and identity-based work are deeply interconnected, and its first priority is positioning the learning of the course in relation to the diversity of students in the classroom and those students’ needs. In their innovative work on the implications of neuroscience on teaching and learning, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and Antonio Damasio write: “When educators fail to appreciate the importance of student emotions, we fail to appreciate the very reason that students learn at all.” Indeed, curricular change without the scaffolding of identity-based work can harm our students, damage their self-perceptions, and prevent them from accessing the very learning experience we set out to offer them.
We do need to change our curricula, urgently so. But to change only the curriculum—and not our approaches to it—has the potential to fail our students.
Ultimately, the question about where change begins may not need to be as complicated as we think: it begins with us, the teachers. An equitable learning environment is created by a teacher who has intentionally and deliberately engaged in their own identity development—outside of the classroom. For colleagues of color, that might mean setting boundaries about what parts of our own journeys we share with our students, and/or finding places, in or out of the classroom, where we can find affinity and healing. For white colleagues, acknowledging the role that white people have played in systems of oppression can be its own painful journey. All of these processes, in whatever forms they take, are, in the words of Annliese Singh, a process of “becoming more human and reclaiming parts of ourselves that we may have left behind.” And to normalize these processes—to model them, name them, and practice them with our students—will help our students understand that the process itself may be the most important learning they do, for their own growth and for the space in which they can, ultimately, hold their own selves accountable.
- Crenshaw, Kimberlé Williams, et al. Seeing Race Again. University of California Press, 2019.
- Immordino-Yang, Mary Helen and Antonio Damasio. “We Feel, Therefore We Learn: The Relevance of Affective and Social Neuroscience to Education.” Mind, Brain, and Education, vol. 1, no. 1, 2007.
- Love, Bettina and Chelsey-Culley Love. “Teaching to Thrive.” Audio blog post. “Anneliese Singh Author of the Racial Healing Handbook.” Abolitionist Teaching Network, 28 Jan. 2021.
- Rice, Punita. “South Asian Americans’ Microagression Experiences In Schools Seen Through Retrospective Reflections on Interactions with K-12 Teachers.” Berkeley Review of Education, vol. 9, no. 2, 2020.