As One Schoolhouse’s new instructional designer with a focus on equity, inclusive innovation and accessibility, this question has been at the forefront of my mind: How do we support students’ sense of belonging and inclusion during these challenging times? Maybe you’ve been thinking about this too. The twin pandemics--the coronavirus health crisis, and racial inequity underscored by acts of brutality and violence--have left us all unsettled, and worried about the resilience of our school communities. Now, with the US 2020 election upon us, the contentious nature of our national political discourse further threatens to bring division and incivility into our learning spaces.
At the same time that we try to keep students engaged in the academics of learning, we know that their healthy social and emotional well-being is paramount at this time. We need them to know that their learning spaces are communities of care where they can find support, encouragement, and a sense of belonging. We want to reassure them that they are safe when they are with us and that we will do everything in our power to protect them.
If your school has recently shifted to a hybrid or fully-online model, you may still be grappling with how to cultivate community and connection online. You may feel that the online learning environment lacks a certain human touch that makes authentic community building impossible. And I would agree with you, if you are only trying to mimic your face-to-face interactions and translate existing campus rituals to online ones.
If we embrace the right mindsets, however, technology-mediated learning can support students’ sense of belonging and build important connections. Here are some guideposts that might be helpful as you focus on developing students’ sense of belonging and inclusion over the next few weeks.
Center student voice and choice in the curriculum. Give priority to students’ lived experiences, interests, and social/emotional needs. Use activities that amplify their ideas, build empathy for others, and facilitate critical reflection. Consider how students' cognitive, cultural, emotional, and linguistic abilities might impact their participation and design activities that are open-ended, tiered, and accessible to all.
Prioritizing using technologies that connect. From whiteboarding to breakout rooms, discussion boards, and peer review assignments, the tools in our online environments cater to promoting both live (synchronous) and asynchronous (on-demand) connection. Continue to explore how these built-in tools can promote student collaboration, inspire engagement, and provide opportunities for relationship building.
Plan for long-term, multi-layered support. Send the message that everyone in your community belongs by complementing heterogeneous virtual gatherings with safe affinity spaces that respond to the specific identities of your students. BIPOC, transgendered, immigrant, economically underresourced, and conservative students may feel particularly vulnerable at this time. Provide safe spaces not solutions as students process current events. Don’t forget to engage those who may need to become more involved in discussions around equity and social justice.
At difficult moments, the community can support and sustain vulnerable students. We may not be able to be together in the ways we prefer, but as educators, we can still provide opportunities for our students to connect, receive reassurance, and gather strength.
Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)