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May 26, 2020

5 Steps for Creating Welcoming and Inclusive Learning Communities

Re-Imagining Migration explores and provides five ways to promote a welcoming and inclusive learning environment for students.


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By Adam Strom and Verónica Boix-Mansilla

Building An Inclusive Learning Environment

The responses to COVID-19 serve as a reminder that while we are all in this together, we do not all experience the world in the same way. The disproportionate impacts of the virus on communities of color, older people, and those with particular medical vulnerabilities are stark reminders that while many aspire to treat everyone equally, the world does not work that way. Ironically, and maybe obviously, equitable treatment requires that we recognize the differences between us and respond to people recognizing their particular needs, strengths and vulnerabilities. Good educators already know this. It isn’t fair to treat all students the same. All learners come into the classroom with their own identities, needs and assets; thoughtful assessment helps us target our teaching for the learners in our care. 

At the same time, COVID-19 has exposed fault lines that threaten our communities. Frustration, fear and anxiety have led to scapegoating, hate and violence targeting Asians; it has resurrected long-standing conspiracies and served as a platform for new ones. As we plan for the next school year, we must keep in mind what we have learned. As with the pandemic, responding is not good enough, we need to be prepared, and we need to prepare the rising generation to understand how to create the conditions that all of us need to thrive. 

Our team, including Carola Suarez-Orozco and Juliana Karras-Jean Gilles, would like to offer five steps for creating a welcoming and inclusive learning environment as well as tangible actions we can all take to make these aspirations a reality.

Build Trusting Relationships for An Effective Learning Environment

  • Know all of your students as people, not just as learners. Take advantage of informal opportunities for connecting between classes; teaching virtually, this might mean texting or scheduling quick one-on-one chats. 
  • Learn about the communities your students come from and the migration stories that shape the world. 
  • Invite students to talk about their stories of movement and migration to create a shared understanding. Our Moving Stories resources are easily adapted for in-person and online discussions. 

Ensure Safety and Inclusion for A Welcoming Learning Environment

  • Identify the “in” and “out” groups at school and the ways that people define who is a “we” and who is a “they.”
  • Notice the way that students and faculty talk about, and respond to, immigrants and people who are perceived as newcomers. In person, this means paying attention to who walks with whom, who sits together and who sits alone. Online, this is a bit harder and will require reaching out to students and developing an understanding of their digital habits and lives (Common Sense Media has a wealth of resources in this area). Be intentional and proactive. Recognize that teaching virtually breaks down the walls between home and school in new ways that might be awkward and embarrassing. Create a contract with your students for discussion and classroom norms to set clear expectations.
  • Intervene when it is necessary to support students who are targeted by discriminatory language and behavior. Strategize with colleagues to consider how to address online bullying as well as what happens inside schools.  

Make The Power of Diversity Visible for An Inclusive Learning Environment

  • Embrace and honor the diversity of languages, identities, cultures, and family practices in your school and community. A remote learning environment creates new opportunities to find ways to productively build bridges between home and school. Work with colleagues to carefully consider how you might do this thoughtfully with your students.
  • Infuse school rituals, daily routines and the rhetoric you use with the value of diversity.
  • Display messages of inclusion in the hallways, in public spaces, in presentations, school communications, and in physical and virtual classrooms.

Free Webinar: Using Testimony to Develop Empathy and Civic Action

rim webinar on learning environment and building empathy

Set High Expectations and Deep Learning Opportunities

  • Build upon the knowledge and language that your students bring with them in the classroom. 
  • Incorporate thinking routines, build long-lasting habits of perspective-taking and inquiry skills; help students recognize inequities and opportunities to take action to nurture inclusive communities and healthy democracies.
  • Teach about immigration across subjects (e.g., art, geography, history, literature, math and science) connecting students’ lives with larger migration stories. 
  • Encourage engagement and reflection on the civic issues that are connected to migration, and teach about ways to build bridges across communities.

Building an Inclusive Learning Environment: Learn & Grow

If you have additional ideas on building an inclusive learning environment at school and online, please comment below.

For additional content, you may want to check out these two blogs:

About the Authors:

Adam Strom is the director of Re-Imagining Migration. Throughout his career, Strom has connected the academy to classrooms and the community by using the latest scholarship to encourage learning about identity, bias, belonging, history, and the challenges and opportunities of civic engagement in our globalized world.  Before helping to found Re-imagining Migration, he was the director of Scholarship and Innovation at Facing History and Ourselves where the educational resources produced under his direction were used in thousands of classrooms around the world.

Verónica Boix-Mansilla is the research director of Re-imagining Migration and senior principal investigator at Project Zero, Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her research examines the conditions that enable individuals to understand and act with others on the most pressing issues of our times (migration and globalization) through high-quality disciplinary and interdisciplinary work in formal and informal educational settings. At Re-imagining Migration, she is co-developing a research-based comprehensive framework for quality education of immigrant-origin youth and their peers. She co-developed the OECD Global Competence Framework in 2018 and has published multiple papers and books, including Preparing Our Youth to Engage the World (2011) with Tony Jackson.

Re-Imagining Migration

Re-Imagining Migration'smissionis to advance the education and well-being of immigrant-origin youth, decrease bias and hatred against young people of diverse origins, and help rising generations develop the critical understanding and empathy necessary to build and sustain welcoming and inclusive com

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