Acknowledging Difference on the First Day

inclusive teaching banner_FINALby James Fortney, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

One of my early teaching mentors encouraged me to prioritize difference during the first class of the semester. “But, how?” I asked, with a heavy feeling of accountability. She told me I needed to reflect on my goals for the course and their relationship to matters of difference to answer that question. Instead of giving me specific strategies, she offered two guiding purposes for initiating a conversation about difference with my students. First, she said it was an opportunity for me to share with students my perspectives on difference. Second, and more importantly, she said it was an opportunity for my students to share with me their perspectives on difference. “Be prepared to listen as a way of acknowledging their voices,” she said. “Listen to their concerns, ideas, and questions. Write things down to process and return to later. Show them you care.”

Show them you care.

I always come back to that last point when designing activities and discussions for the first day of class. For me, how I show students I care about difference depends on the context of the course, the current discourses (e.g., cultural, political, social) shaping matters of difference for all of us, as well as my own critical commitments as a scholar and teacher. I show students I care about difference by being transparent with them about my thinking in each of these areas. It is important for me to find ways to create a classroom environment where difference can be acknowledged among everyone in the class. You may be wondering just as I did, “But, how?”

Deanna Dannels (2015) at North Carolina State University suggests three first-day action items to help set up this type of classroom climate:

  1. Use an icebreaker to highlight multicultural voices in the classroom, including your own.
  2. Discuss explicitly your view on discrimination (and put it in the syllabus).
  3. Model intellectual and multicultural curiosity and tolerance.

These are three effective strategies to acknowledge difference on the first day. They are applicable across a variety of disciplines and fields of study, and each can be designed to support specific goals you have for your course – even if the goals do not explicitly address difference. I agree with Dannels (2015), “Acknowledging difference is not a one-time ‘checklist’ item as a teacher. It can and should be an important part of every class you teach” (p. 154). However, it is up to you do decide how you will acknowledge difference with your students. Consider making it a “front burner” topic as you prepare for the first day of class this fall.

Show them you care.

Dannels, D. P. (2015). Eight essential questions teachers ask: A guidebook for communicating with students. New York: Oxford University Press.

This blog post is part of the Reinert Center’s 2016-2017 focus on Inclusive Teaching. To learn more about the year’s theme, and about programs and resources associated with it, see our webpage on Inclusive Teaching [LINK]. To talk with someone about how you can design and teach courses in more inclusive ways, contact the Reinert Center at cttl@slu.edu.

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