Fostering an Inclusive Enrivonment

by: Amanda Zullo

At the start of the year I send out questions to students and parents regarding their education experiences. For some I receive responses of “I loved school-chemistry was my favorite class”, “I broke through my junior year and started to thrive”. For others I receive “I hated school-I’m worried about my student in an upper level science class”, “I hope my kid doesn’t drop out of school like I did”, “Ben* needs to work after school from 3p-11p each day ’cause his father can’t and we need money”.

I teach a heterogeneous chemistry class that has no pre requirements. Any student who wants to enroll is welcome. The diversity in student capabilities and backgrounds beckon’s the questions: How do I, within my classroom, create a culture where the different backgrounds of students will facilitate their contributions? How do I help students feel and know that they belong within this scientific community?

  1. I continually remind students I care. I want to know what is going on with their lives and within class. We have monthly check-in’s where we briefly talk about those items. These check-in’s provide the opportunity for us to connect, evaluate what is going on and build a plan. As a result of these check-in’s I knew that Ben* was struggling to complete assignments and continually felt behind. We modified his course-work to include less homework but a bit more structure in class. A week later, outside of a check-in he communicated that this shift was working. His effort and grades also displayed evidence of that. It ended up being his most successful class to date. For stronger students, such as Nick*, this was a place where he expressed that he’d like more challenging work. Our follow-up indicated that providing him with some higher-level questions at the end of assignments increased his satisfaction in the class.
  2. I enable agency within the students. We discuss how many before them have experienced success. I share success stories about the student who was almost expelled as a freshman due to behavior, the first student of their family to graduate. I continually remind students that it is their effort and energy that will move them forward. For Ashley*, the potential drop-out, we closely kept track of how well she did on in class assignments. We celebrated her displaying understanding using small items that started with stickers and candy, eventually moving to high five’s. This also worked for Bob*, the upcoming valedictorian. His knowledge was continually moved forward utilizing Advanced Placement material. We celebrated his ability to stretch beyond in the same way we celebrated Ashley*.
  3. I build community by teaching students how to effectively work in groups. We start the year watching video’s of students working well and students not working well in groups. Each day we watch 1 or 2. Students list what attributes they saw in the video and how they would either reinforce or correct the behaviors. We discuss how differences in backgrounds, interests are important to learn and gain perspective from. End of the year surveys indicate that students LOVE their class. They speculate on how they will get through another science class without each and every individual present in the initial class. This became very evident when I was presenting on a 100K in 10 panel.

In a lecture hall of at least 400 people I was discussing this group forming process. The voice of a former student in the audience spoke out. He talked about his personal struggles in school. How after several suspensions and a few arrests a judge ordered that he was moved from freshman special education classes into upper-level classes. One was chemistry. He said that while the check-ins were initially a pain once he saw that I did want to get to know him and work with him on what was best he began to thrive. He discussed really feeling as though it was up to him to do the work and pay attention. I would help but HE had to do it. He acknowledged that the small celebrations were essential motivators when he needed them. He then spoke about the relationships he built. He talked about how afraid he was that no one would want him there because of actions he had done early in the year (stolen items, pooped in students backpacks, beat kids up) and how naughty he was. However the way we worked in groups and the expected behavior in groups gave him enough guidelines to know how to do that. The structure also prevented any awkwardness. From his first group he became friends with Willy*, our future valedictorian and the “smartest person I’ve ever met”. Willy* helped set him on a different path and continues to remain a close friend. This student has now opened up a planetarium and currently oversees another as he works on his master’s degree. His goal is to get a PhD.

It is clear meaningful communication, a balance of structure and autonomy, and well-laid out expectations that can help us foster the best from our students. It isn’t their background that should most strongly influence where they end up, it is their future.

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