The Universal Design for Learning Working Group (UDL WG) at Langara has invited contributions to a series called 2-minute Reads. The first selection comes from Shawna Williams, Curriculum Consultant at TCDC.
“The first day of class sets the tone for the rest of the term. It is natural for both students and instructors to feel anticipation, excitement, anxiety, and uncertainty.”
Barbara Gross Davis, 2009
In an effort to put students at ease and to create a welcoming environment from the start, here are four simple and implementable suggestions to ensure your classroom is inclusive and welcoming for all students right from day one.
Begin with a Territorial Acknowledgement
Recognizing the First Nation’s land on which the college sits is a good way to begin classes to acknowledge the ancestral territory and the stewards of the land for thousands of years. It also acts as a way to ground the course and the participants, both students and teacher. A territorial acknowledgement can convey gratitude to the physical space on which the class is situated. It can also be a gesture of welcome to Indigenous students who may be in your class. It can also open a larger conversation in class about the Musqueam people, about the practice of territorial acknowledgments, and about the lands on which students’ homes sit (in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, and even internationally). A territorial acknowledgement can connect us to the land and help to start the class in a good place.
A typical territorial acknowledgement at Langara will often include mention of the Musqueam people on whose traditional, unceded territory the college is situated on. You may wish to give pronunciation guides to your students and explain terms, such as ‘unceded’. As the instructor, you may want to give a more personalized acknowledgement. Eventually, you could invite the students themselves to give the acknowledgment.
Learn Your Students’ Names
Take the time to learn your students’ names. Familiarize yourself with names before the class starts by reviewing the class list. If there are unfamiliar names, find out how to pronounce them and practice how to say them correctly. There are websites with guides that can help as can colleagues and students themselves. Find out what names students prefer to be called by and use them.
Ensure students know their classmates’ names, too. Use introduction games with mnemonics to help with memorizing names. Give students a name quiz after the first few classes. Make flashcards with students’ photos (with their permission, of course). There are many more ways to learn names so that students feel they are not merely faces in a crowd.
Furthermore, the start of class is the perfect opportunity to also find out what pronouns to use for your students. Start by modelling: what your name is, how you would like to be called, and what your pronouns are. This can create a welcoming space if you happen to have trans or non-binary students in your class and can help you avoid uncomfortable situations that might otherwise arise from using the wrong pronouns or the wrong name.
Create a Community of Learners
Taking the time for learners to get to know one another and their instructor goes a long way to foster a sense of inclusion and belonging in the classroom. In fact, numerous studies have shown that “peer-to-peer, student-faculty, and student-staff relationships are the foundation of learning, belonging, and achieving in college” (Felton & Lambert, 2020, p. 5). Students and teachers may be anxious to get to the course work, but taking the time to learn who everyone in the classroom is and how they can contribute to the learning community will help establish trust and collegiality which will make the work more comfortable and enjoyable. Take time to establish relationships among all the class participants, not just teacher-student. Get to know one another as people with rich and varied backgrounds and experiences.
One way to do this is an extension of learning one another’s names by using the Name Stories activity in which teachers and “students can share stories about how you got your names, meaning, nicknames, what you prefer to be called, even pronunciation tips. As others reply, perhaps with compliments and questions, a natural opportunity emerges to discuss cultural values and elements that are important in our unique backgrounds and heritages” (Darby, 2019, p. 95).
The University of Minnesota’s (2016) “I Am From” Activity Guide: A Tool to Foster Student Interaction in the Classroom also offers some suggestions for students to build community by creating and sharing poems based on George Ella Lyon’s poem, “Where I’m From”. Whatever you choose, ensure that these initial activities have students engaging with one another to establish a sense of community. Of course, some students may be hesitant or resistant, so try to make the activities as inviting as possible and respect those students who may not with to fully participate.
The first few classes of the semester are not only an important time to communicate expectations regarding the effort that will be expected, the assignments that will be completed, the policies and regulations which need to be followed, but—perhaps more importantly—is a good time to set the tone for expectations for how people should treat one another. Consider and discussing a statement of expectations for your course. For example, Tyson Seburn, an instructor at the University of Toronto, includes a statement on his outlines which explicitly governs all participants, acknowledges differences, encompasses institutional policy, names what is not tolerated, and includes what do to should problems arise.Students in our classes will have a wide array of backgrounds and assumptions about how students and teachers should act in classrooms, and it can be useful to uncover such assumptions and then follow up with a class discussion to set or co-create expectations for the classroom community. Such discussions should not delivered with a punitive tone, but an engaging one. A tone that sets forth that your classroom is meant to be inclusive and welcoming for everyone, and in order for that to happen, some guidelines need to be established.
Creating a welcoming and inclusive classroom environment will not happen overnight. It will take time; however, Starting the semester off with these four actionable suggestions—begin with a territorial acknowledgement, learn your students’ names, build a community of learners, set expectations—should help to set the stage for all students in your course to feel welcomed and included whether in person or online.