This post is the first in a series about fostering inclusive classroom discussions where we can help gifted youth process ideological dissonance. This first post focuses on what equity and liberation mean in our classrooms, an understanding that is a vital first step to ensuring a safe classroom space and toward helping our gifted students become the best version of themselves.
What Jefferson Said
I’m a teacher who lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, about forty-five minutes from Charlottesville: the home of third president Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello. My husband attended a celebration at Monticello this past 4th of July, where we had the honor of witnessing much of Jefferson’s lifework in a new and different way.
Among the many prolific writings Jefferson penned in his varied careers, one particular quote struck me
There is nothing more unequal than the equal treatment of unequal people.”
Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, the document which inspired a nation to believe that “all men are created equal” – even then knew that there was something inherently wrong with providing equal treatment to unequal people. A complicated figure in his own right, it seems appropriate we begin with him as we explore a fundamental misunderstanding that exists, and that we must address, as we try to ensure inclusive classrooms.
I often think about equality, both theoretically and practically, as I hope students either begin or continue their journey of social justice through our time together in the classroom. But it wasn’t until recently that I began to think of my pedagogical approach to equality, and furthermore, to equity. It’s crucial that we as educators understand the difference.
How do you incorporate your knowledge of equity, equality, and liberation to support all of your gifted students?
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Equality and Equity: There’s a Difference
When we seek equality or equal conditions for the students in our classroom, we try to give each person the same thing. Maybe we try to provide equal circumstances to each student by giving them the same form of an exam. Or, perhaps we give them the same reading to glean information from, or provide the opportunity to listen to the same lecture, same assignment deadline, etc.
Ironically, despite our best efforts to provide equal conditions in our classrooms, true equality does not benefit each student equally. We inherently know that each of our students enter our classroom in a different place: different cultural backgrounds, socioeconomic status, confidence levels, developmental stages, motivation and expectations, and so on. Yet, despite these known and unknown differences, we often work incredibly hard to make our classrooms into “equal” playing fields. Of course, when we give everyone the same thing, as Jefferson surmises from his quote, our students still find themselves in different places.
Instead, of working tirelessly towards equality, we may want to shift towards providing our students with equity, or equitable resources. In essence, equity means giving each person what they need to be successful, which may be more or less than another person.
This graphic from Angus Macguire and the Interaction Institute for Social Change is a wonderful visual to quickly display the differences between equity and equality. Giving three individuals an equally-sized crate to stand on – without considering their original heights – while equal, is not particularly helpful or meaningful. Alternatively, when taking equity into consideration, someone with a smaller stature is afforded two crates to stand on, helping this person be able to see the game.
Although the above graphic helps us understand individual differences, it doesn’t take into account the root source of inequity. In both images above, the students themselves are the sources of inequity. Their different heights allow them different access to being able to see the game. But let’s be realistic here – the students’ heights aren’t causing them to be unable to see the game: the fence is.
The next image from the Center for Story Based Strategy, discovered in my work to provide professional development for fellow instructors in the Duke TIP eStudies program, Academic Coordinator Meghan Barnes and I, offers a third category: liberation. Like the image suggests, liberatory practices are those that dismantle the sources of inequity in the first place. While this may often be beyond the purview of our teaching practices, teaching students to recognize these inequities may be the first step in creating larger cultural change.
The Center for Story Based Strategy is currently engaged in a campaign to encourage thinkers to consider a “4th box” after liberation. As they state,
“If we want outcomes of equality, equity and liberation in our lives and work, then we need to empower learners to explore, vision and pursue these goals themselves, and THAT’s where #the4thbox comes in.”(The 4th Box)
Interested in learning more? Visit their website!
What about the Whom?
Isn’t this just differentiating instruction? Well, in some ways, yes. Providing equitable practices to students can mean differentiating their instruction with carefully constructed groupwork, choice assignments, and so on. However, equitable teaching practices go a bit beyond that.
As Tanner (2013) suggests, educators often think of the “what” students should be learning – the content of our disciplines. The “how” of teaching is also quite popular – active learning, place based problem solving, Universal Design, and so on. But as Tanner says, “the aspect of classroom teaching that seems to be consistently underappreciated is the nature of “whom” we are teaching -” (paragraph 1) and that is where equitable teaching practices can be most impactful.
In my current teaching practice with the Duke TIP eStudies program, I have a relatively intellectually heterogeneous group of students – they are all capable, bright, and high achieving. However, one of my students is currently in the midst of moving across the country, another working through family issue. Another only has access to internet every other day while at a grandparent’s’s house. Equal time, preparation, support, even with generally equal intellect doesn’t bring each student to their full potential because of their unequal life circumstances (both positive and negative.)
Thus, for me, classroom equity might look like this:
- For my student with limited internet access: I am more understanding of late submissions than I would be if I applied “equal” grading practices across my roster. I could also coach my student with time management questions, to see if they can predict the times when they will have access and help them make scheduling plans where they can. In the eStudies program, we help students become Active Learners, which requires them to develop resourcefulness, goal setting, and flexibility.
- For my student going through a family issue: I might ask them to re-attempt an assignment if their first submission shows a level of emotional distraction.
- For my student moving across the country: I will put them on a team with a student who is extra diligent and encouraging so that they feel included while so much of their life changes.
These are small adjustments, but they are the details that I know matter to each of my students as they progress through the personal hurdles that life has put in front of them.
Creating structural equity
In addition to empowering equity through my interaction with students, I can also help my students discover equity through the curriculum I write, and resources I use.
As with any discipline, my field has seminal works that I need to continue teaching with and from. Psychology will always have Freud, Jung, and Bandura, and I likely will always have to cover the contributions they made to the field. With these voices, however, I have sought to add diverse and contemporary figures to my lessons, so that all of my students can feel “seen” in my classroom. One example: this year, students discovered Psychology’s Feminist Voices. My students now know that our field is so much more than those who are highlighted in our textbooks.
If you are looking for suggestions in your field, consider these options: The non-profit We Need Diverse Books, #weneeddiversebooks on Twitter, and #ownvoices calls for resources with characters and stories that mirror the attributes, experiences, and perspectives of all readers.
How do we ensure equitable practices?
For the longest time, when I told someone I was a teacher, I would struggle to answer the classic follow-up question, what do you teach? Teaching has always been about relationships to me – about building confidence, competence, and connection to others and the world around us. I’ve gotten much better recently about sharing: what do I teach? Well, I teach students – frequently gifted students – in a variety of interdisciplinary ways.
When a student steps into my classroom, I work tremendously hard to build the foundation of that relationship from the very beginning of our time together with hopes that setting the tone early and often will help students learn to ask me for what they need, and help me learn how I can best serve them in an equitable way.
- Frequently, I will start off the year by asking students to pen their own version of George Ella Lyon’s “Where I’m From” poem. I have always loved this assignment as a class introduction, but this exercise has taken on new meaning as of late. Recently, Lyon teamed up with author Julie Landsman to create the I Am From Project, When I introduce this, I share why Lyon and Landsman began this movement, placing value on all the voices of our nation. Learn more about this movement by listening to an interview from the National Writing Project.
- I also focus on informal connections, such as learning my students’ preferred names quickly, collaborating with them on assignments, and admitting that I don’t always know the answer. I read their assignments–not just the words, but the context behind it–and I do a lot of intentional praising, especially in the first few few weeks to help students know that their perspective is not just respected but valued in needed in our classroom.
- I also work really hard to share myself with them. I show them pictures of my dogs, wonder aloud if anyone else loves pizza and ice cream as much as I do, and make them laugh with my celebratory correct answer dance moves. I also talk with them about my journey of building resilience, about how hard it was to be the first person in my family to go to college, how I still don’t really know what I want to do when I grow up. In the most genuine of ways, I try to learn with and from them by bringing my whole self to our space.
Think about the following domains of your teaching:
- Student engagement strategies (calling a student by their preferred name, building ability-based or diversity-of-thought-based teams for group work, seeking multiple perspectives)
- Learning environment strategies (classroom seating arrangement, technology use, classroom décor)
- Feedback strategies (providing specific directions for successful assignment completion; using a grading rubric that communicates expectations but also allows for some interpretation; and providing individual help)
Another simple way that I have come to incorporate equitable teaching practices into my classroom is by teaching my students about mastery learning. Mastery learning, originally from Benjamin Bloom (1971) asserts that given enough time and supportive learning conditions, nearly all students can reach the desired levels of achievement.
For me, what this mostly means is that I give students a chance to reattempt major assignments until they achieve a score they feel reflects their best effort. Like Bloom suggested, I have found that when students see their work as a cycle of revision, and receive specific and continuous support to continue attempting an assignment, with additional time and space, they excel in ways I could have never anticipated. Not all students are interested in a mastery approach to their learning, but the students who do come out with a great level of confidence and competence that they otherwise would not have gained.
As a society, there is much work to be done in building systems of equity for those who are experiencing oppression. In my corner of the world, I hope my classroom is always a place where students realize that they will always get what they need.
Next Post: This post highlighted some broad ways to develop equitable practices in your classroom. Stay tuned for the next post, which will feature additional empirical, practical, and accessible tips for teachers to use to ensure that the needs of all gifted students’ are met in the classroom.
Guskey, Thomas. “Lessons of Mastery Learning.” Lessons of Mastery Learning – Educational Leadership, Oct. 2010, www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/oct10/vol68/num02/Lessons-of-Mastery-Learning.aspx.
Tanner, K. D. (2013). Structure matters: twenty-one teaching strategies to promote student engagement and cultivate classroom equity. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 12(3), 322-331.