Classroom Inclusivity: Lessons Learned and Strategies Moving Forward

Dalmacio Dennis Flores PHD ACRN, Assistant Professor of Nursing in the Department of Family and Community Health, reflects on what inclusivity means in an academic setting— and why it’s so essential in education…and beyond.

An undergraduate student in one of my social determinants of health class that I typically teach wrote in her course evaluation “more than expect- ing for us to be great students, I appreciate that he just really wants us to be good humans.” This was from a student who prefaced her comment with an admission of disengagement with online classes in general. And thus, with a sense of satisfaction, I concluded my online case study class with 18 students in spring 2021 and looked forward to the summer. Unlike many students prior to the pandemic who rarely let on that they were struggling in their classes, I found many more were letting their guards down during the last year and a half and being willing to share their struggles due to the stress they have been under.

However, as we get back to in-person classes, surely, we can get our students to be comfortable and to authentically engage with us, right? I believe we can help students bring their authentic selves if we are intentional about making space for those selves by creating a more inclusive class. Inclusivity, for me, means making students feel a sense of belonging in the class where they can feel safe and know that feeling over-whelmed is understandable. Despite the bravado of students’ Penn face pre-pandemic, creating an inclusive classroom is an important way to signal to students that being overwhelmed is OK. With 13% of Penn’s Class of 2024 being the first in their families to go to college and 54% self-identifying as students of color, the topics we covered in the fall of 2021 semester may not be abstract issues for students but ones they may be wrestling with on-campus or ones that their families contend with back home. From discussions about social determinants of health to navigating tricky issues about human sexuality and health, Penn students’ day-to-day experiences are often not very far removed from the contents of my syllabus.

Thus, going forward, inclusivity means encouraging students’ personal reflections or insights about a phenomenon and exploring factors that determine their engagement with the material. Inclusivity, in its very essence, means appreciating students’ intersecting identities and creating an environment where they can come to class as their full selves—to the extent they choose to—and not a sanitized version deemed palatable for Ivy League consumption. Inclusive strategies in our pedagogy frees up student energy needlessly expended when they hold on to their insecurities and al- lows them to redirect their focus on the college experience and all the intellectual stimulation it offers.

So how have I tried to foster inclusivity in my seminar class of 20 students or large lectures for 80 undergraduates? Inclusivity in our pedagogy, I have learned, starts with intentionality. Inclusivity essentially begins when the class content is being planned out before a semester begins. This involves examining the syllabus and incorporating works on the reading list authored by individuals from a variety of backgrounds in the hopes of broadening and deepen- ing student interest. A rule of thumb: one can never have too many readings by women, scholars of color, or LGBTQ individuals. Inclusivity can also occur in the verbalization of perspectives that are unaccounted for in the assigned readings. Inclusivity involves inviting guest lecturers who don’t share my same background but ones who can provide alternative worldviews. Inclusivity is modeling to students how the T.A. is treated not as a glorified assistant but one who is deputized to actively contribute and enrich class proceedings. Inclusivity also requires figuring out how class objectives can be made plainly salient to students in the context of their current lives and future careers. Inclusivity is centering students’ past, present, and future storylines.

“Whether in person or online, when students see our consistent efforts at inclusivity, they will be primed to participate.”

At the beginning of each semester or the first few minutes of a lecture, I solicit personal details or opinions from students and later loop those details in to underscore key points. If the class I teach is a required one for their degree, I query students on how they think it will be useful in their future professional life. If they signed up for an elective, I ask them why they chose to do so and incorporate their reasons as best as I can throughout the semester. For ex-ample, during the two-day lecture on emergency preparedness, students are asked about where their dream jobs out of Penn might be only to be quizzed later about the common types of disasters they should expect to respond to in e.g., Phoenix, AZ or in Miami, FL (wildfires and hurricanes, respectively). When I refer to students by name later and use those tidbits of personal details, they appreciate the way their seemingly random life factoid was heard, and more importantly, incorporated in an educational concept.

Inclusivity also means going back to basics and motivating students to come to class prepared to engage. This means keeping tabs on students’ performance across the semester and providing opportunities for engagement. Since it is not uncommon for one’s class to respond
Illustration Matthew Kam to a random question with silence, on say, how Legionnaire’s disease was dis- covered, it is therefore perfectly OK to pick on one of the disengaged students to come back next week to answer the question and therefore bravely save the class’ honor. Making it look like you’re enlisting a co-conspirator or calling for reinforcements minimizes the stakes while serving students a subtle notice about expectations around active participation.

From my experience, spontaneity works even if it’s rehearsed on the part of the faculty. To illustrate, in our community immersion class, I’ll deviate from the assigned readings and compel students to instead examine breaking local news, such as the health impact of the oil refinery explosion in South Philadelphia and its subsequent closure in 2019 or the impossibility of social distancing in multigenerational homes in North Philadelphia, as more apt contexts for a given week’s discussion.

As we shift from remote to in-person this spring, I will remind myself that inclusivity can also be a (semi) contact sport. This will include elbow bumps and eye contact with students who are trudging in half-awake for those 8:30 a.m. classes. It will involve a series of air high-fives with students who utter profound statements relating to the material or a dramatically raised hand to silence the class after a particularly cogent argument has been made. Student buy-in can be encouraged with an approving wink to a group of juniors whose members are keen on elevating the class discussion into the realm of graduate-level colloquia. Inclusivity also means verbal praise that specifies the student’s class contribution. I will make a big deal out of someone’s stellar discussion post on Canvas by spotlighting it during the in-person class or publicly asking a student if I may use their paper in a future class as an exemplar. Because inclusivity and engagement go hand in hand, I will also provide unsolicited feedback on how well they’re progressing in class. I will also not make course problem notices the first time a possible concern emerges.

Whether in-person or online, when students see our consistent efforts at inclusivity, they will be primed to participate. Ultimately, inclusivity models for students the many ways that they themselves can connect with others beyond the four walls of the classroom or the nebulous boundaries of the online university. Beyond the course content covered with them by their professors at Penn, inclusivity is an ingredient in the university experience that might just support them in becoming decent humans.

Dr. Flores received the Department Award for Exemplary Teaching in May 2021 and received the Trustees’ Council of Penn Women Award for Undergraduate Advising in fall 2021. This essay continues the series, ‘Talk About Teaching and Learning’, that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the College of Arts and Sciences, the Center for Teaching and Learning and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching. It originally appeared in Penn’s Almanac on January 25, 2022, vol. 68, issue 20.

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