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July 8, 2021
Vol. 16
No. 21

Student Choice as a Vehicle for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

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Instructional Strategies
It was the first week of 3rd grade music in Mr. Davis's 2020 virtual classroom and the project was Musical Identity Show & Tell. “Let’s use music to learn about each other and our different cultures and interests!” he said. After each song, the class had a short discussion about what they heard and why the presenting student found the music meaningful.

As Ahmad heard the music chosen by his peers—Linda shared a song from Cats the Musical, Zia shared a Taylor Swift song, and Tyler showed himself performing a short Schumann etude on piano—he became nervous about sharing his own choice: a Quran verse sung in Arabic.

When it was Ahmad’s turn, he hesitated. The teacher encouraged him. “The goal of this project is to listen and learn about each other’s identities,” Mr. Davis said.

“This music is important to me because I am Muslim,” Ahmad said.

The class had an engaging conversation afterward. Zia raised her hand and said, “Can I share again? My parents are from India, and I actually really love veena music.” “What’s a veena?” someone else asked. The inclusive student-focused learning continued.
This story, from co-author David’s school, illustrates what we have long understood to be true: the importance of students feeling a sense of belonging in school. It’s a basic human need, just barely above the needs for food, water, shelter, and safety on Maslow’s hierarchy. When students feel included, heard, and connected with others–both peers and adults–in school, they’re more motivated to learn. When students have opportunities to develop skills in areas that they are passionate about, and when their strengths and interests are valued, they can pour their hearts into their work.

But, if we’re honest, this sense of belonging is often most easily attained in the current system when students are white. After all, a disproportionate number of teachers are white, and teachers naturally bring their own culture and sense of belonging to school. The books we choose for read-alouds, the genres incorporated into our curriculum (as opposed to those relegated to extracurricular status or omitted completely), the way we celebrate holidays and discuss current events all reflect our implicit biases, and white teachers tend not to notice white-centric biases because it is what they grew up with and expect. This systemic discrimination can lead our Black, Brown, Indigenous, and Asian students to internalize that they are the “other” within the classroom and to feel that their own experiences and perspectives have lesser value. Not exactly a recipe for intrinsically motivated learning, is it?

Yet so many of us are desperate to create a learning experience where every child is valued, included, and motivated. To foster a sense of belonging for every student, we may desire to become fluent in every culture, or even just the cultures of those students in our classroom, but this task can feel daunting.

Certainly, the more we grow ourselves, the better we can help our students, but the good news is that we do not need to be culturally omniscient. One of the most powerful and effective ways of centering diversity, equity, and inclusion in our teaching is through student choice. We can let go of the idea that all classroom knowledge rests on teachers’ shoulders, and instead consider students as co-creators in their own learning. Good ideas can come from the students themselves, and teachers can learn alongside them, demonstrating that all students belong by promoting their backgrounds, cultures, and passions as equally valued as the dominant culture. By modeling our own willingness to learn, we demonstrate how to be humble, respectful, sensitive, and open-minded.

Choice as a Vehicle for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

As Ahmad experienced, the simple act of offering students choice allows them to bring who they are into the curriculum. Prioritizing autonomy, collaboration, and discussion indicates to the entire classroom that everyone has something valuable to contribute and that our differences are a rich source of strength. And in our rapidly changing and globalized society, it is imperative that our students consistently grow in the skill of grasping the perspectives, experiences, and insights of others.

Centering student choice can also help ensure that we as teachers do not fall into the traps of tokenizing, essentializing, or othering cultures. If we see ourselves as the sole knowledge-giver and have very limited experience with cultures other than our own, we may attempt to represent cultures with “just for fun” activities that do not show authentic meaning (think Taco Tuesday), reduce a culture down to one element rather than recognizing the broad diversities found within, or imply that a culture is inferior to the dominant culture by—as an outsider to that culture—highlighting its differences from the mainstream.

Utilizing student choice reminds us that the point of a diverse, equitable, and inclusive approach is not to find the optimal mix of cultures to jam into our curricula, but to provide opportunities for the class to discuss cultural and social issues, to diversify curricular materials to decenter whiteness, and to include student voices to ensure learning is relevant.

Offer Choices to Students

If you are unsure how to begin, here are a few ways you might offer choices to your students. The following ideas are drawn from our experiences in our own classrooms as well as ones we’ve seen colleagues implement. The possibilities are endless, so these are just a few to get your own ideas flowing.
Choice of What: Consider offering students choices about what they learn. Perhaps you’re teaching a nonfiction reading and writing unit. Could students read and write about something they’re interested in or knowledgeable about? Students studying world cultures, folk music, or poetry could choose a country or a culture to explore and share what they learn with others. Students taking chemistry could each study a chemical compound and its connection with their lives.
Choice of How: Perhaps students all need to learn about the same content. Could they have some choice about how they explore the content or how they share their learning with others? Students could read, watch videos, or engage in discussions to learn new content. They could express themselves while they present what they’ve learned through options such as oral presentations, debates, short stories, songwriting, visual art, short movies, and even dance.
Choice of Assessment: When all students are assessed in the same way at the same time, it’s easy for cultural biases to slide into the assessment process. The wording of test questions, the examples used in story problems, and other seemingly minor issues can provide extra hurdles for some students. What if students could choose to take a test, write essays, create 3-D models, put on performances, or confer with a teacher to show their understandings of content and concepts? What if we co-created rubrics with our students—encouraging them to add goals and metrics they value to ones from the curriculum? Or, we might assess students through one-on-one student/teacher conferences or student self-reflections that prioritize internal valuations and progress toward goals rather than teacher judgments against biased external standards.
Below are a few examples of how we've seen choice at work:
An Original Virtual Musical: At the outset of virtual learning in the 2020-21 school year, David surveyed students to find what topics students were interested in, and “musicals” was a clear winner. He looked at the state arts standards and realized that creating an original musical could easily check most of the boxes while also incorporating the students’ ideas and lived experiences. He served as an organizational coach while the students created the show: background art, acting lines, toy props, and original music and lyrics. By highlighting student voice and choice, not only were students intrinsically engaged (spending hours of extra time working on the project), but the class together learned about and showcased individuals’ passions, imagination, and identities. One girl beamed as her character proudly told the audience that she was half Chinese, while other students received overwhelmingly positive feedback from their peers for their singing and stop-motion camerawork. The class experienced what real-world constructive collaboration looks like when creating original work as a team.
Research with Purpose: Students were learning about conflict in U.S. History through independent research projects. Students were invited to choose topics that they cared about—ones they felt compelled to research. A boy who was passionate about baseball studied Jackie Robinson and the integration of Major League Baseball. Another student, after a careful discussion with his teacher and parents, learned about the KKK, because, as he told his teacher, “I’m Jewish, and I know the KKK hates Jewish people just like they hate Black people, and I want to know why.” Yet another student, the only Black girl in her class, studied Rosa Parks.

Food for Thought: In lieu of a Christmas party (which was still the norm in the school), a class decided to hold a Solstice Luncheon, where students and their families were invited to prepare a favorite family dish with the class. Students each got to share a bit about their dish and why it was important to their family. The lunch included: Jamaican jerk chicken, Vietnamese rice milk, cranberry bread, Swedish meatballs, and a variety of other dishes from diverse cultures. Not only did many students try new foods and hear about each other’s family backgrounds, but a surprising number of parents joined the celebration—many of whom were often reluctant to attend school events or parent-teacher conferences.

Creativity Concert: Combining visual art, technology, language arts, and music, students worked individually or in small groups to express their identity or represent a story from their background. Instead of a traditional concert, students found a place somewhere around the school building and presented their creations while the “audience” walked around discussing the stories behind the art with the artists, similar to an art fair. Assessment was focused more on expressivity, creativity, and collaboration rather than technical skills. One student, with a reputation for being challenging, beamed with pride as he displayed his rainbow painting and accompanying trumpet solo, both of which expressed for him how he loved his family because they stick together even through tough times.

A Better Reality

After a year full of constant change and challenges, many of us are eager for things to return to “normal.” But a “normal”—where only some cultures are valued and only some children feel included—is not acceptable. Progress toward a classroom where all students feel a sense of belonging will require us to step outside the comfortable bubble of our (white-centric) familiar curricula and structures, to continually grow and learn ourselves. Yes, it can be scary to allow student choice in areas we ourselves find unfamiliar with. When students broach topics like race and gender, the anxiety of “what if I get it wrong?” is real for many teachers.

But in our experiences, we have seen our students’ excitement to share, motivation to learn, and huge smiles that appear when their ideas and identities are reflected in the classroom. We have realized that we ourselves have grown into better teachers—better people—as our understandings have been broadened by the young scholars in our classrooms. Choice is certainly not the only way to support diversity, equity, and inclusion in education, but it is a powerful and practical vehicle for helping our classrooms be learning environments that are inclusive for all children.

David Davis is a music educator, innovation coach and performing artist. As a teacher, his child-centered, progressive approach has been featured on NBC News Washington, and he was recognized as a semifinalist for Minnesota's Teacher of the Year award (2021) and as a quarterfinalist for the GRAMMY Music Educator Award (2022).

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