Strategies for Creating a More Inclusive Classroom

“I don’t really have any diversity issues in my class because all of my students are white.”

“I have a lot of content to cover, so there’s really no time to address multiculturalism.”

Diversity, once largely centered on race and ethnicity, has evolved over the years to include a broad range of personal attributes, experiences, and backgrounds, each interlocking to create one’s social identity.

For example, Texas A&M University defines diversity as “The inclusion, welcome, and support of individuals from all groups, encompassing the various characteristics of persons in our community. The characteristics can include, but are not limited to: age, background, citizenship, disability, education, ethnicity, family status, gender, gender identity/expression, geographical location, language, military experience, political views, race, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and work experience.”

When viewed through this lens, it becomes easier to see the importance of teaching inclusively, regardless of discipline or ethnic makeup of your course. But what exactly makes a course multicultural?

In the recent online seminar, Four Strategies to Engage the Multicultural Classroom, Texas A&M’s Vice President and Associate Provost for Diversity, Dr. Christine A. Stanley, and Dr. Matthew L. Ouellett, Associate Director of the Center for Teaching & Faculty Development at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, outlined a framework for multicultural course design. As outlined below, the four conceptual areas — instructors, students, teaching methods and content — are all inextricably linked, while integrating into the larger campus climate and culture.

  1. Who are you? Spend some time examining your own experiences, values, assumptions and stereotypes. How have you come to understand your complex social identities? Which aspects are most salient for you in the classroom?
  2. Who are your students? Get to know your students, and just as important, give them opportunities to get to know each other. The more students have invested in helping to create a positive classroom environment, the more likely they are to take risks, share their viewpoints, and hear each other out even if they may disagree, Ouellett said.
  3. What are your pedagogical choices? Create a more student-centered teaching model that engages students. “What we need to do is shift the dynamics so we’re less about demonstrating our expertise and more about getting students to build their own ability to construct knowledge,” Ouellett said.
  4. What are your content choices? Understand that the principles of an inclusive course apply across all disciplines. Model inclusive behavior by ensuring diverse perspectives, and use examples and illustrations that reflect the diversity that may be in your classroom, Stanley said.

Managing Difficult Conversations
One of the biggest challenges to embracing a multicultural course design is being able to effectively manage potentially polarizing topics where emotions can run high and old stereotypes are exposed. It’s a given that, at some point, a student will say something inflammatory that completely catches everyone off guard and it’s important to have what Ouellett calls “pedagogical parachutes” for those times when you just don’t know how to respond. Examples include: Can you tell me more? How did you come to believe this? Are there other perspectives on this topic?

During the more intense situations, you may want to give students a chance to collect their thoughts and respond to writing prompts, such as How do you feel at this moment? You also could break students into small groups with the discussion prompt: What do we need from each other to continue?

“It’s important to recognize, too, that as instructors we’ve all been there and there is nothing wrong with coming back the next class period and admitting ‘Hey, we were having this discussion last time and I don’t think I handled it particularly well. Let’s talk about it some more,’” Stanley said. “I think that goes a long way with students.”