Building a Classroom Community: How to Encourage Diversity and Inclusion in the English Classroom

Diversity and inclusion

Creating a teaching environment that is as welcoming a possible to all members of the group is hard work, but wonderful when it all comes together. Addressing all our students’ needs as much as we can should not mean a lot of extra work for the teacher, but adapting our normal lesson plans to embrace neurodiversity will go a long way to creating that inclusive teaching environment. Here are some ideas you can incorporate into your teaching:

Entering the classroom

Consider where your students are coming from and their energy levels. Will they have just come from playing outside with their friends and need calming? Have they been sat down previously and will likely be full of energy when they come in? This will help you to decide what the first welcome idea will be. Have the instructions on the board, e.g.

Play the word domino game from yesterday with your partner. You have 7 minutes.

Lucas hand out the laptops.
Abigail and Frank come and see me.

Some students may need extra tasks to use up their energy in order to concentrate later. Can you provide a task, such as delivering a message to another classroom?

Getting ready to listen and learn

Do students know exactly where to sit every lesson and who they work with? This kind of routine helps children to settle quickly and feel at ease. If you like changing seats every month then you can provide a seating plan on the wall for students to consult if they have trouble remembering. Can all the students see the board and you easily? Are they in the best place for learning for their particular learning goals? For example, if someone is easily distracted by movement outside the window, consider positioning the chairs and table away from the distraction. Finally, are the walls of the classroom too ‘busy’? Having too much information up on the wall can be a distraction for some students who find it hard to focus.

Another tip to consider is having a visual schedule of the lesson to help students understand what is coming next. If you follow a class routine, this is helpful for students to understand the flow of the class and what should come next. A schedule looks like this:

It can be placed on the wall next to the board in large letters or printed off and put on a student’s desk to follow. If this is too much for some students to process, consider using ‘Now and Next’ cards so students are focused on the present moment and not too overwhelmed with what is to come. These cards look like this:

 

Furthermore, some students may require a step-by-step visual approach to an activity, such as this:

Finally, do some of your students need to fiddle with an object to keep listening to you? If so, have something like blue-tac on hand.

Giving Instructions

Clear instructions are vital for students, especially those learning a foreign language, yet it is one of the hardest tasks for a teacher to carry out. We are nervous that our students do not understand us, so we say an instruction again and add more words; we try to joke with our students, but they do not quite get it: or a student asks us a question during a difficult moment in class and we respond unclearly. Take for example the last scenario. A student asks for help while you are trying to help another student. You may respond like this:

“Hold on, I’ll be with you soon”.

Students can interpret this in a variety of ways, e.g.

  1. I need to wait patiently until my teacher can help me (correct interpretation of that the teacher wants!)
  2. I do not consider your request as important as my current task.
  3. I need to hold something? A pen? The table? For how long?

A lack of understanding by a student when giving instructions for how to complete an activity can be shown in a variety of disruptive ways, for example acting out, procrastination (because they really do not understand the task), not participating, playing with a friend, and so on. Consider these tips when giving instructions:

  • Use imperative sentences and avoid extra detail. Write down the instructions in advance if you need to until you get very good at saying instructions clearly. Compare:

“Listen to the people talking then write your answers in the space”.

“Listen and write.”

The second command is much clearer.

  • Try not to deviate from the course book instructions, especially if the students are trying to follow what is written.
  • Use non-verbal communication strategies to help students to process the instruction.
  • Use visuals and flashcards of items to support students with their comprehension of items, for example, show a picture of a pair of scissors.
  • Avoid saying the instruction again in a different way and with more detail if at first students do not understand. Follow this pattern of Say the instructions, Stop, Observe if students understand (checking questions can help here), Repeat.

Assessing Understanding

You can implement different routines to help you to know if students understand the task or not. For example, students show you with the thumbs up / thumbs in the middle/ thumbs down visual to show who does not understand well. If this causes embarrassment to some students, you can implement a ‘buddy’ system where students check with each other what they have to do and ask each other for clarification. Finally, asking students to repeat back instructions or give answers to a task in front of others is sometimes very hard. Provide sentence starters to help them tell you. Finally, some students feel overwhelmed at the idea that they may get suddenly called on to answer a question. There is nothing wrong in telling that student that “No, for this next feedback I won’t call on you”, or “I will ask for your help for question three”

Task Differentiation

Asking, or expecting, each student in your class to undertake activities in the course book all together and all at the same time is unrealistic. Think about how to slightly change an activity in a course book to make it more challenging, or indeed, less overwhelming for some students. This is not meant to imply designing extra worksheets for students, but instead slightly changing a task already provided. For example:

 

Image taken from Rise and Shine Book 4

Activity 2: To make it harder, ask students to complete the activity, then write the sentences again from memory. How many words can they get right? To make it easier, ask students to only complete answers 2 and 3. Or, you provide clues, such as starting letters, on a mini whiteboard in front of them to help students complete the missing words.

Working in pairs or groups

When looking at tasks in a course book where students work with a friend or small group to complete the task, first analyse the task to see whether it has more social or academic demands, or if it has a balance of both. From there, you can plan some support strategies. For example:

 

Image taken from Rise and Shine Book 4

This task has a high social demand. Some elements to consider are listening, waiting, turn taking, participating, sounding interested, eye contact, sensory issues. The academic challenge is fairly low as the grammar used is predominantly ‘can’ sentences, possessives and adjectives to talk about upcycling. Therefore, as the teacher, you need to think about providing strategies for supporting the social challenge of the task for students.

Image taken from Rise and Shine Book 3

This task has a high academic challenge. The students focus more on writing sentences, using the correct grammar and vocabulary, check spelling and then putting all the information attractively together in a. project. The teacher needs to focus more on the academic support to help the student achieve the task.

Further considerations for the teacher when students work in pairs or small groups are:

  • Who is in the group?
  • How big is the group?
  • Should you have a ‘buddy’ system or will you provide the support needed?
  • Helping students to understand how to take turns.
  • How does every student contribute – what’s their role within a certain project?

One useful approach to help all students keep on track during a project and to focus on the stages of a project is the Bell Wallace TASC Wheel (TASC means Thinking Actively in a Social Context).

 

 

Students start with the orange ‘Gather/Organise’ or red ‘Identify’ stage and work their way around the wheel, completing each stage.

Leaving the Classroom

An exit routine is just as important as a welcome routine. It helps students to leave the classroom calmly, proud of what they have achieved and knowing what they have to do for homework. Some aspects to consider are making sure you give enough time for students to tidy up in order to avoid stress and chaos. How can you calmly communicate what students have to do for homework? Do you need to provide more detailed, printed instructions for some to students to glue into their workbooks? Do you need to make a quick video and post it to the school web for students to watch calmly at home and understand? Do you have a system for leaving in a calm and ordered way?

Seeing your students as individuals who each have their own strengths and challenges is vital. It is hard for one person to provide support to all, but small changes in class can go a long way to help all students achieve their goals. Do not try to take on everything all at once without support. You need your directors and fellow teachers to help you with ideas and extra care. Also, some changes take time. If something does not work the first time in class, such as implementing a new welcome routine, keep trying as changes need time to be understood and adapted to by students. I will leave you with the final thought by author Alexander Den Heijer: “When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.”