A group of elementary school teachers joins together to exchange lesson ideas about how they can build opportunities for their students to share, affirm, and understand each other’s differences and identities in the classroom.
When Kindergarten teacher Tracy Grisham offered to organize a reflection group as part of her Professional Development lead training, she knew that she wanted the team of five participants to emerge with tangible ideas to implement in the classroom. The mix of K-2 teachers at her large, urban elementary school were searching for ways to build connections and empathy across the differing background identities, languages, strengths, and challenges that merged in their classrooms every day. Although the group agreed that part of their plan for improvement would include discussion about sustainable, every day choices in the classroom, they all felt strongly that trying out a new lesson/project (with the support of the group) could energize and provide valuable insights for their work together. With two simple criteria: 1) Create, borrow, or “steal” a 1-2 day lesson/project plan focused on affirming/celebrating differences and 2) Make certain it is something that you are genuinely excited about – the teachers were off and running.
The teachers agreed to videotape their lessons so that the footage could be used for their post-lesson group reflections.
Over the course of the two weeks in which the teachers committed to “try out” their similarly themed lessons/projects, there was much buzz in the teachers’ room. Ideas were exchanged, support given, and the teachers all agreed that they felt excitement and connection in this shared venture. Teachers outside the initial PD group asked to join, and many insisted that it somehow felt safer to take a risk with a new (and potentially complex) theme because they felt they were in it “together.” When the group ultimately joined to debrief a few weeks later, they had much to share. A young first grade teacher, Amy, was inspired by a lesson she found on The Teaching Channel called “Creating Family Flags.”* Similar to “Ms. Laurance” in the video clip, she had students from a wide range of cultures in her classroom and wanted to create an opportunity for her students to connect with and feel proud of their various heritages, while also learning about each other. Acknowledging that all students in the classroom did not have connections to particular country flags, Amy set out flags from many of her students’ countries of origin to draw interest and excitement, but ultimately had her students create their own individual flags that reflected things that were important to them and their families. She shared that her students were highly engaged with the project, proud of their creations, and interested in each other’s ideas. Feedback from the teacher PD group mirrored some of Amy’s own thinking – that more preparatory work about identity and family could have enhanced the students’ experiences and understanding of the project, but that the risk taken proved an overall success at getting students to better appreciate their own and each other’s differences.
Tracy and her colleagues were inspired by the risks taken on this shared theme: a second grade teacher presented her experience with a lesson inspired by Teaching Tolerance called “Sharing Our Colors: Writing Poetry” while a K teacher followed with a class on painting self-portraits. In both classes, teachers shared that students appreciated the chance to slow down and examine issues of identity and community. In perhaps the most compelling part of the reflection session, a veteran 2nd grade teacher shared a simulation of Dr. Seuss’s book The Sneetches that she attempted with her class. Inspired by a series of lesson ideas from “One World, One Heart Beating,” and bolstered knowing that she would receive support from her colleagues, Cynthia took the risk of having her students experience discrimination and ultimately take responsibility for their environment and each other. It proved a powerful lesson in respecting each other’s differences and being aware of fairness and equity in the classroom. With the opportunity to discuss what worked well and what didn’t in these classes, the PD group closed feeling they acquired inspired ideas and the resources to try them out. While the class plans and experiences around this venture differed, the teachers agreed that taking the time to focus student attention on understanding and appreciating the individuals who make up their classroom collectives was already contributing to helping their classes become safer and more accepting communities.
- In this seven-minute video, an elementary school teacher guides her students through an identity building/appreciating exercise in which they explore symbolism/different cultures and create their own family flags.