Classroom Culture

Critical Practices for Anti-bias Education
Classroom Culture

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6. Honoring Student Experience

When asking students to explore issues of personal and social identity, teachers must provide safe spaces where students are seen, valued, cared for and respected. It is also important that students have opportunities to learn from one another’s varied experiences and perspectives. To create this learning environment, teachers need to skillfully draw on student experiences to enrich the curriculum.

Teachers can show they value students’ lives and identities in a variety of ways. Some are small, like taking the time to learn the proper pronunciation of every student’s name or getting to know young people’s families. Others require more time and investment, like building curriculum around personal narratives or incorporating identity-based responses into the study of texts. At the community level, it is important to understand neighborhood demographics, strengths, concerns, conflicts and challenges. Like students themselves, these dynamics may change frequently.

For teachers whose experiences differ from those of their students, it is critical to exercise sensitivity. They must bring the following to the effort:

  • An asset-based view of youth and unfamiliar identity groups
  • A commitment to avoiding and challenging stereotypes
  • A sense of openness and cultural humility
  • A willingness to let students define their own identities

Connection to Anti-bias Education

Honoring student experience supports three of the four anti-bias domains: Identity, Diversity and Action. Students who feel their experiences are unwelcome, judged, stereotyped, disrespected or invisible find it extremely difficult to engage in meaningful discussion of identity and justice issues. Those whose stories and voices are heard and reflected in the classroom are more likely to engage with anti-bias curriculum and translate their learning into action.

Knowing and valuing students’ lives provides other benefits:

  • Ability to identify potential “hot spots” on key topics.
  • Development of caring student-teacher relationships that support effective identity-based learning.
  • Development of intergroup awareness and understanding.
  • Direction in the selection of texts that are relevant to a particular class.
  • Appreciation of student contributions to discussions.


Classroom-Reflective Texts Coupled with Nonjudgmental Dialogue

Choosing texts that reflect classroom demographics and following the readings with discussions or reflective writing assignments can provide teachers with powerful information about their students’ hopes, concerns, strengths and life circumstances. These practices also open channels of understanding among students. Successful conversations about issues of identity frequently lead to deeper dialogue about students’ own backgrounds and the experiences of others.

Share Stories That Make Room for Student Sharing

Personal anecdotes—respectfully and thoughtfully shared by teachers—have great power. Stories should be chosen carefully, kept brief, and told at a level that invites appropriate student sharing.

Community Study or Student-Led Walking Tour

Community studies usually address up to three questions; structure can vary greatly and may involve research, interviews, art, writing, video or other media. A walking tour should also focus on a few themes and ask students to highlight neighborhood places they find meaningful in relation to a relevant social issue. Student age and physical limitations should be taken into consideration when planning a walking tour.

7. Thoughtful Classroom Setup and Structure

Without saying a word, classrooms send messages about diversity, relationship building, communication and the roles of teachers and students. Consider the different messages sent by these two classrooms:

Classroom 1

Desks are arranged in a U shape. The teacher’s desk is in the front center of the room. On the wall is a poster of U.S. presidents, a copy of the Declaration of Independence and inspiring quotes from Winston Churchill, Robert F. Kennedy and Albert Einstein. Students are working quietly on an independent assignment.

Classroom 2

Desks are arranged in clusters of four with students facing one another. The teacher’s desk is in the back corner of the room. On the wall is a display of student self-portraits, a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and inspiring quotes from Maya Angelou and César Chávez. Students are working with their table-mates on a group project.

Classroom setup should be student centered. Specifics will vary from teacher to teacher and class to class, but common elements include these:

  • Classroom milieu. Classrooms should be decorated with multicultural images that mirror student backgrounds and showcase the diversity of our society.
  • Arrangement of furniture and supplies. The arrangement will look different depending on age group and subject, but all teachers can draw on these goals when setting up a classroom: supporting collaboration, fostering dialogue, encouraging ownership and ensuring comfort.
  • Student roles and responsibilities. Classrooms will be most effective when structured to maximize student voice and participation.
  • Classroom norms. Norms and expectations should take into account different cultural and communication styles, as well as gender differences, language needs and the desire to challenge stereotypes. Students should be involved in setting classroom norms to generate buy-in.

Connection to Anti-bias Education

Thoughtful classroom setup and structure supports two of the four anti-bias domains: Diversity and Justice. A welcoming class space sets the tone for participatory engagement. Diverse images affect students’ conscious and subconscious understanding of classroom values. Expectations and practices that honor diverse backgrounds also create a more just and equitable educational experience.


Classroom “Audit”

A (nonjudgmental) classroom audit involves “reading” the messages conveyed by the images on the walls, the books on the shelves and the arrangement of the furniture with an eye toward diversity, equity and student empowerment. The audit also includes considering the types of interactions that teachers have with students and that students have with one another.

Student Jobs and Ownership of Classroom Space

Many daily tasks can be done by students who, given the opportunity, may create new and interesting ways to approach them. Real-world lessons related to work and responsibility can be reinforced in a classroom. Students can apply for a position and be rewarded or promoted for a job well done. Some classroom jobs might involve passing out materials, documenting or taking notes, managing a classroom library, filing papers or helping with a bulletin board. The job of “peacemaker” can work nicely in classrooms where students have been trained in conflict resolution. Jobs in a responsive classroom can accommodate multiple learning styles such as artistic, kinesthetic and verbal.

Gender-Neutral Practices

Many teachers, especially at the elementary level, seat or group students along gender lines. However, not everyone fits traditional gender categories. Some students may feel they are truly a different gender than their physical bodies suggest; others might not fit neatly into either the male or female identity category. Using gender-neutral categories or allowing students to choose the group with which they identify affirms the experiences of all students.

8. Shared Inquiry and Dialogue

Differences shape who we are and what we know. Life, history, society and power cannot be understood from a single perspective; we need multiple viewpoints to truly see the world. Because of this, inclusive classrooms must function as learning communities built on shared inquiry and dialogue.

Dialogue is more than conversation. It is also different than debate, in which someone wins and someone loses. Dialogue requires openness to new ideas and collective learning. This is not an easy practice; for students (and teachers) to engage in dialogue, they must build and exercise specific skills:

  • Listening. Deeply listening to what others say and to the feelings, experiences and wisdom behind what they say.
  • Humility. Recognizing that, however passionately we hold ideas and opinions, other people may hold pieces of the puzzle that we don’t.
  • Respect. Trusting the integrity of others, believing they have the right to their opinions (even when different from your own) and valuing others enough to risk sharing ideas.
  • Trust. Building a safe space to explore new ideas and work through conflicts, controversy and painful moments that may arise when talking about issues of injustice and oppression.
  • Voice. Speaking the truth as we see it and asking questions about things we don’t know or understand, particularly on topics related to identity, power and justice.

Connection to Anti-bias Education

Shared inquiry and dialogue support two of the four anti-bias domains: Diversity and Action. Building the skills necessary to explore multiple perspectives fosters critical thinking, complex textual understanding and appreciation for diversity. Dialogue also supports active listening, respectful sharing and conflict resolution. A culture of shared inquiry offers a lived example of meaningful collaborative work and a model for community building.


Naming Shared Inquiry as a Goal

Because many students experience classrooms that do not value shared inquiry and dialogue, it is important for teachers to create a safe environment before asking students to engage in this work. Safety can be established by discussing principles of engagement, demonstrating the teacher’s commitment to collective learning or creating a set of discussion agreements.

Teaching Active Listening Skills

Active listening is a way of hearing and responding to another person that requires the listener to stop thinking about his or her own ideas and focus on the speaker. Active listening behavior includes asking good questions, listening without judgment and paraphrasing. These behaviors can be modeled through the use of talking circles or ordered sharing. Short practice activities can also strengthen active listening skills.

Rethinking Participation Norms

To most teachers, class participation means contributing to discussions, volunteering to answer questions or otherwise engaging in verbal exchanges. However, participation does not have to be verbal; gender, culture and ability may affect student comfort levels with verbal communication. Modeling equity and inclusiveness calls for a broader definition of participation that includes active listening, written response, artistic response and involvement in small groups. These options should all be valued as classroom participation.

Addressing Conflicts and Hurt Feelings

Teachers need to prepare for possible conflicts or hurt feelings when exploring personally or politically sensitive material. Teachers can encourage students to publicly or privately name “ouch moments”—times when comments or reactions (usually unintentional) cause upset or discomfort. It is also helpful for teachers to check in with students who seem upset as a result of a class activity or conversation.

9. Social and Emotional Safety

Social-emotional learning, respect and safety are as important as literacy and critical thinking skills when exploring an anti-bias curriculum. Research shows that students need to feel both physically and emotionally safe to learn. This includes safety from stereotype threat, harassment and exclusion.

Creating a safe climate takes time and work. These are some of the most important components:

  • Active teaching of social-emotional skills
  • Attention to creating positive relationships
  • Bullying prevention and intervention
  • Community building
  • Explicit focus on understanding and appreciating differences
  • Meaningful conflict resolution
  • Teaching students to challenge bias and exclusion
  • Upstander training

Work on classroom climate and social-emotional learning cannot simply focus on empathy, kindness and inclusion. Social difference and bias underlie many unsafe and exclusionary behaviors; these issues need to be discussed explicitly. Appreciation for multicultural perspectives is also critical when teaching about relationship building, conflict management and community. This helps students learn to draw on many traditions and experiences and address social divisions in the classroom.

Connection to Anti-bias Education

Prioritizing social and emotional safety supports three of the four anti-bias domains: Identity, Diversity and Action. This practice supports a classroom community in which students feel secure enough to engage in respectful, productive conversations about identity and diversity. This work also models actions necessary to nurture inclusive, respectful connections across lines of difference.


Classroom Contracts

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A contract of norms and behaviors can help define the classroom community as a socially and emotionally safe place. Students should participate in shaping the contract, identifying a list of agreements about how class members will treat one another, talk together and so on. Issues such as identity, difference and power should be addressed explicitly. For example, a contract could include “Listen with respect to the experiences of others,” “Try to understand what someone is saying before rushing to judgment” or “Put-downs of any kind are never OK.”

Explicit Anti-bullying or Community-Building Curricula

Many powerful anti-bullying and community- building curricula, when integrated into the regular school curriculum, can build social-emotional skills and teach students to manage conflict. Below are a few suggested resources. Not all address diversity or bias issues specifically; be sure to add these issues to the existing materials if they’re missing.

  • Tribes Learning Community. Research-based approaches to classroom and school-wide community building, social-emotional education and the development of positive learning communities (all grades).
  • Respect for All Project (GroundSpark). Award-winning films, curriculum guides and teacher training on issues of bias-based bullying, family diversity, gender role expectations and LGBT inclusivity (all grades).
  • Steps to Respect/Second Step (Committee for Children). Research-based social-emotional learning and bullying-prevention programs (pre-K through middle school).
  • Bullied: A Student, a School and a Case That Made History (Learning for Justice). Documentary and teaching guide about one student’s ordeal at the hands of anti-gay bullies and his fight against hate and harassment (middle and high school).
  • A Guide to the Film Bully by Lee Hirsch (Facing History and Ourselves). Film and discussion guide on bullying and its profound impact on several different students and families (middle and high school).

Participation in Mix It Up at Lunch Day

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Mix It Up is a Learning for Justice program designed to help students identify, question and cross social boundaries. Launched in 2001, Mix It Up recognizes that some of the deepest social divisions in schools are found in the cafeteria. Each fall, Learning for Justice sponsors a national Mix It Up at Lunch Day when schools around the country encourage students to move out of their comfort zones and share a meal with peers who are different from them.

10. Values-Based Behavior Management

Discipline and behavior management are central to classroom culture. How are students encouraged to treat one another? What happens when they make poor choices or present behavioral challenges? What shapes student-teacher interactions? And what happens when conflicts arise?

This critical practice asks teachers to think about behavior management in light of five key principles:

  • Belief in the dignity of every person
  • Community building
  • Equity and fairness
  • Respect for cultural differences
  • Respect for the safety and inclusion of all individuals and groups

These values can be creatively infused into disciplinary practices. However, in general, responsive classrooms address three key aspects.

First, behavior management systems must support safe, inclusive communities by enforcing high standards for respectful interaction; incorporating student-generated discipline policies; teaching conflict resolution; and actively addressing all instances of bias, bullying, exclusion or disrespect.

Second, disciplinary incidents must go beyond punishment and be treated as opportunities for growth, restitution and community building. This is not to say that rules violations should not be met with consequences. However, if community respect is to be a core classroom value, students should not be cast out of the group, even if they struggle to live up to expectations.

Finally, behavior management practices must reflect fairness, equity and cultural awareness. Research shows that students of color and special education students face disproportionate rates of discipline, suspension and expulsion. These patterns have devastating social consequences. Applying disciplinary rules fairly requires self-awareness and willingness to suspend judgment (positive as well as negative) about individual students. Culture also plays a role in disciplinary judgments; in some cases, “inappropriate behaviors” may reflect a cultural mismatch between the norms of the school and the norms of a student’s home culture. Teachers can better understand the relationship between culture and discipline by working on a related critical practice: self-awareness and cultural competency.

Connection to Anti-bias Education

Taking a values-based approach to behavior management and discipline supports one of the four anti-bias domains: Justice. This practice exposes students to community-building goals and to a system of justice that values all people and builds connections rather than creates divisions.


Student-Generated Agreements and Contracts

Involving students in the design of classroom discipline policies can go a long way toward establishing buy-in and shared ownership of classroom culture. Ideally, students will work on the policies as a class, but teachers can also work individually with students who need extra support.

“Zero Indifference” but Not Zero Tolerance

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Although zero-tolerance policies are popular, mounting evidence suggests that this approach does not make schools safer. An alternative (recommended by the American Civil Liberties Union; GLSEN; the Anti-Defamation League; the Respect for All Project; and Learning for Justice) is taking a “zero-indifference” approach to bullying, harassment and other disciplinary issues. Zero indifference means never letting disrespectful conduct go unaddressed; school staff always name and respond to behaviors, but they do not implement automatic suspension, expulsion or other punishments.

Restorative Justice

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Restorative justice is an approach to school discipline (and criminal justice) that emphasizes repairing harm and restoring relationships rather than simply punishing those who have engaged in misconduct. Restorative justice spans a wide variety of practices and strategies, including peacemaking circles, peer jury processes, mediation, conferencing and classroom discussions focused on building empathy.