How can teachers create a welcoming, inclusive classroom environment from day one?
MCIC’s Education Specialist Leeza Oravec talked to Jaclyn Roach, a high school ELA teacher in Milestone, Saskatchewan to find out. She told us about how she facilitates a Brave Space in her classroom that is anti-racist, supports gender equality, and includes LGBTQ+ voices. Here is some of their conversation.
Leeza: You start your school year off with a pronoun banners activity. How do you integrate those conversations about gender throughout the year?
Jaclyn: Lots of metacognition – I talk to the students about my own thinking. In every class we start with a 1-2 minute book talk, and I try to pull diversity in the voices I choose for those books as often as possible. I always talk about that, so if I pull a book that has LGBTQ+ content or gender issues in it, I’ll say, “I chose this book because it has the voice of this person who we don’t normally hear from, and it discusses these issues in a realistic way.”
By doing that, not just when it comes to gender equity but when it comes to equity as an umbrella term, that’s a simple way that I bring it in to my classroom every day and open those discussions every day.
We talk in my classroom about brave space. Spaces aren’t safe inherently. We all come to spaces with different views, different opinions, different experiences. The reality is that when you have a class of 25, it’s not going to be a safe space for everybody. But it can be a brave space; a place where we face our fears, where we are uncomfortable, where we talk about the hard things.
Leeza: What’s the response when you introduce brave space rather than safe space? It’s not something we hear about all the time.
Jaclyn: Kids who have privilege hear that and think hmm, I’ve never thought of that before. Kids who are marginalized go yes, that’s it! Kids who the “safe space” is for don’t feel safe in the space. No matter how inclusive or welcoming the teacher is, kids can be so mean and make bad choices. By acknowledging that this space isn’t safe, marginalized students feel seen.
Leeza: Was there something that sparked this idea for you to continue through the classroom?
Jaclyn: I can’t remember where I saw it for the first time, but I read a poem called An Invitation to Brave Space, an adaptation of Beth Strano’s work by Micky ScottBey Jones.
Together we will create brave space Because there is no such thing as a “safe space” We exist in the real world We all carry scars and we have all caused wounds. In this space We seek to turn down the volume of the outside world, We amplify voices that fight to be heard elsewhere, We call each other to more truth and love We have the right to start somewhere and continue to grow. We have the responsibility to examine what we think we know. We will not be perfect. This space will not be perfect. It will not always be what we wish it to be But It will be our brave space together, and We will work on it side by side.
I read that poem on the first day and we talk about the difference between safe space and brave space. I post the poem in the classroom afterwards and refer to the idea of brave space throughout the semester.
Leeza: How do you approach topics where the marginalized group is one you don’t identify with?
Jaclyn: Through talking about my own positionality. I talk to my students as if it’s like glasses. We all wear different lenses, different glasses as we view the world. In some situations, we might wear different ones. But I see the world through the lens of being a white woman who believes in gender equity, who believes in anti-racism, and I approach the world in this way.
I often use the wheel of power and privilege, a tool that shows who holds power. We just did it yesterday with one of my classes, where they each filled in their own wheel. I filled in mine and said, “ok, so I have white skin, I hold a lot of power. I’m a woman, I hold a medium amount of power. I’m a fat woman, so I’m marginalized when it comes to body size. That impacts my life, and that affects the way I see the world.”
So, I’m open and honest with them about how I approach the world. And then I acknowledge that there’s no shame in having power and privilege. I don’t need to feel ashamed for being white, but the more power and privilege I have in any area, whether it’s race, gender, economic privilege, no matter what that power and privilege is, I have the responsibility to spend it.
What does spending it look like? It looks like amplifying marginalized voices, and not speaking for communities but having them speak for themselves, while we listen.
Leeza: For a lot of teachers, I think this can be a really daunting topic. Some are nervous to have those conversations because they may be afraid of that call from a parent, or not having admin back them up, or saying the wrong thing.
What’s your advice to those teachers who want to begin these conversations but are afraid or don’t know how?
Jaclyn: I think there are two things.
One, approach it with humility. It’s important to approach these conversations recognizing that I don’t know it all, I might not have the answers, and I might mess it up. But also, you make a mistake and then you model for students what it looks like to learn from your mistakes. You make the mistake, and then you say “wow, I really made a mistake, I was misinformed, I didn’t understand. I recognize that while my intention wasn’t to hurt, I acknowledge that it did, and I apologize for that.”
The other thing is that when I first started teaching, I was so afraid of offending people. I was afraid of conflict, I was afraid of that uncomfortable gut feeling and I didn’t want to do that. I would let things go that were important to me, but I didn’t want to deal with the conflict.
For example, maybe I heard a student say something racist. I’d just let it go and pretend I didn’t hear it, because it’s like, “oof, I don’t want to deal with that.” But as I get older, one thing that really helps me step up in those situations and do the uncomfortable thing is remembering that by not saying something, I’m saying something to the people it impacted. By not standing up and using my privilege to speak out on something, it says a lot to the group that’s being hurt by that. I want to leave those conversations with marginalized students knowing that I have their back and I support them.
This isn’t just about people feeling good. We have to stand up to the injustice of it. If we want to see change, we have no choice but to say something. So yes, it’s uncomfortable. You might get your hand slapped or get in trouble or whatever it is. But at the end of the day, I know I stood up for that kid when they needed it. I know I stood up for that trans kid, or for that girl that some boy said a sexist comment to. That motivates me a lot. When I hear something and my stomach turns, I know that kid heard that comment too. If they know I heard it and didn’t do anything about it, that’s also saying something to them, and it’s not what I want to be saying and putting out in the world.
Follow Jaclyn on social media where she posts creative ideas and resources for ELA teachers!
You can also connect with Leeza on LinkedIn:
Do you know an educator with an important story to tell around gender equality or the SDGs? Email email@example.com to get in touch. We’re for educators, by educators!
Posted in: Voice