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Four Ways to Create Dynamic Equitable Learning Environments

 

Classrooms today no longer resemble the classrooms that most adults remember from their youth.  While de facto segregation persists in schools and districts across the United States, today’s student population is more diverse than ever before.  More than half of today’s K-12 students are culturally and linguistically diverse.  Combine this reality with the technological advances in education. In 2015, more than 75% of public school districts offered options for online learning; this expanded exponentially with the onset of COVID-19. Taken together, increases in student diversity and the proliferation of online education have redefined the American classroom, and call on us to reimagine how and where teaching and learning occur. In person and online, teachers can create Dynamic Equitable Learning Environments (DELE), which is the framework that we created for our book Culturally Responsive Teaching Online & In Person.

Dynamic Equitable Learning Environments (DELE) transcend the where of education to emphasize the quality of the culture and climate of the learning environment itself. Whether in person or online, DELE are dynamic. By incorporating instructional technologies to enrich the learning environment, teachers can adapt and innovate teaching and learning. DELE are equitable. With adherence to the principles and practices of culturally responsive and sustaining pedagogies, teachers endeavor to redress systemic inequities by leveraging learners’ assets and strengths to facilitate learning. DELE promote learning. Understanding that relationships are the building blocks of teaching and learning, teachers create caring bonds with and among their learners in order to nurture engagement and collaboration. DELE create environments. Fostering courage and inclusivity, teachers cultivate learning communities where students feel safe to be themselves, take academic risks, and explore intellectual curiosities. Take a look at the figure above for a quick summary of the characteristics of DELE.

Here are four ways to create Dynamic Equitable Learning Environments:

#1: Use Adaptable and Innovative EdTech Tools

One way to create dynamic equitable learning environments is to use flexible and emerging EdTech tools that provide culturally responsive opportunities. Move away from relying on traditional pedagogical approaches that do not equitably meet with the needs of all learners. As an alternative to looking at pictures in social studies textbooks, use the Google Earth EdTech tool to provide learners with the opportunity to view landscapes, places, and cultures of those around the world that align with their own backgrounds and that interest them. Or, use virtual conferencing tools to bring in guest speakers to share multicultural and varied traditions that represent students in the class, where geographical location will not limit who can share. In math, offer students the option to use virtual manipulatives where students can explore online algebra tiles, pattern blocks, and number lines that fit better with their individual learning styles. Also consider offering shared online spaces such as Wakelet that can support dynamic and connected learning that goes beyond the physical classroom space.

#2: Engage in Self-Examination and Reflection

As educators, our lived experiences and positionality shape who we are and how we cultivate equity in our teaching. To create an equitable learning environment, we begin with reflection on our beliefs and interrogation of our biases. There are several tools and techniques available to facilitate this process of self-examination. For example, Harvard’s Project Implicit offers a powerful implicit bias test. The results of this test can be used to help address the ways bias shows up in your teaching. The Mid-Atlantic Equity Consortium offers tools to complete an equity audit of your classroom and school overall. This assessment will support reflection on your teaching and help identify areas for growth in the establishment of equitable learning environments. Lastly, journaling remains a critical tool and technique for careful self-reflection. Journaling allows us to put our thoughts on the page and consider them anew. Journal writing can be coupled with reflection-generating activities, such as reading or watching equity-related sources (i.e., books, documentaries, etc.).

#3: Facilitate Diverse Educative Experiences 

Provide learners with varied opportunities to experience learning in ways that bring in their assets, strengths, and connect with their cultural capital and backgrounds. Integrate experiential learning activities such as service-learning and project-based learning that allow students to connect to the course curriculum by contributing to addressing issues in their communities. Go beyond celebrating the common heroes and holidays that are typically focused on in schools, and take learners on virtual museum tours that connect with a wide range of people from cultures they may not be familiar with. Makerspaces and inquiry-based opportunities will allow students to use their own knowledge and experience to build, create, and expand existing ideas. You can even use online simulations and augmented reality sites to facilitate diverse educative experiences for students.

#4: Cultivate Inclusive Communities

In inclusive learning communities, all learners feel a sense of belonging regardless of their background, identities, and learning preferences. The first step to cultivating a sense of belonging is knowing your learners. This can be accomplished in one-on-one meetings with students and their families to create a personal connection and relationship. Through activities and assignments, students can be given opportunities to express their identities and share their stories. For example, students could be assigned to write a letter to their future selves. Such a letter could help to identify a student’s interests and aspirations, and these insights can inform efforts to connect with students in authentic ways. Authentic bonds should also be established between students. This can be accomplished through collaboration.  For example, together students can discuss and decide upon rules to govern the way the class cares for and connects with one another.

Regardless of whether learning takes place online or in person, teachers can create Dynamic Equitable Learning Environments that leverage a wide range of adaptable and innovative EdTech tools, incorporate culturally responsive practices into instruction and assessment, facilitate learning experiences that are engaging and collaborative, and cultivate inclusive communities where students, their families, and surrounding community members feel like valued members and know they matter. Consider using some (or all!) of the ideas mentioned above in your journey towards using culturally responsive teaching practices across learning environments. Check out our book for more ideas, strategies, and resources that you can use to build your practical application in creating dynamic, equitable and inclusive culturally responsive teaching that transcends learning environments.

Written by

Stephanie Smith Budhai, Ph.D. is an associate clinical professor at Drexel University and a certified K-12 teacher. She has spent the past decade as a teacher educator building culturally responsive and anti-racist curriculum. She is on the board of the Pennsylvania Chapter of the National Association for Multicultural Education.

Kristine S. Lewis Grant, Ph.D. is a clinical professor of multicultural and urban education at Drexel University. Her research interests include family engagement in urban schools, and the recruitment and retention of teachers of color. She is a board member of the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Association for Multicultural Education.

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