Mirrors, Windows and Doors to Safety and Belonging: Supporting and Protecting Students’ Identities in our Schools Today

by Sarah Said

One of my earliest memories in school was getting ready for my Kindergarten graduation. We had our traditional American Kindergarten graduation songs we sang.  We got paper caps and gowns. My mom got me a new dress. I think it was one she had gotten years ago from the Middle East in the last trip we had taken there. It was lovely--ruffles and all. We also got our pick of a special lunch on graduation day, mine was pizza with chocolate milk. The teacher asked us to create life size pictures of ourselves that she hung up around our school’s multipurpose room.  When I was handing her mine, she got that “I’m going to smile regardless of how weird this looks” kindergarten teacher grin and thanked me for my work. I, a dark haired, olive skinned girl, with big brown eyes, handed her my blonde hair blue eyed portrait. When my parents came to graduation, my mom also gave me that “oh that’s sweet, but so strange” smile that moms perfect over the years and hugged me to tell me how proud she was of me.

This figure didn’t look like me. Why did I draw it? To me, the images that I had seen as a daughter of immigrant descendents growing up in the US in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s was that blonde hair and blue eyed was beautiful and I was not. I was “other”. I spent years trying to navigate as a child and an adult what this meant. From being tagged in a playground game of tag and told “You’re It, Go Back to Iraq”---my family is not even Iraqi--to constantly being asked where I was from and why I didn’t accent, my world was always one that I had a hard time feeling that I belonged to. I was frequently told by other students, school staff, the media, that I didn’t belong in the only place that I knew as home, my birth country the United States of America. I just wanted to fit in.

That was more than thirty years ago. But in 2019, things have not really changed too much. I feel like my own sense of belonging in this society happens in waves. I know I am an American, and I love being one. But there are times where society has made me feel like less of one because of where my family comes from, the way I look and dress, and what I believe in.  I am an adult and I still struggle. Our students as young as Pre-K and Kindergarten can struggle with their identities as an American as well. If I, an adult, have difficulty with hearing some of the latest statements that leaders in our society make about people who look like me that I hear in the news and on social media, how does this make a child feel?

It is the end of summer break for many of us as I write this article. Us educators are on Pinterest looking at cute bulletin board ideas, learning to set our alarms for the crack of dawn again, and finding new ways to store our classroom manipulatives.  But many of us are worried, we’re worried about our students who are undocumented immigrants, or those that come from families with caretakers who are undocumented immigrants, or students who look like the women of “the squad” and the impact that the news and rhetoric surrounding these women, immigration, and the detention centers may have had on their sense of safety and belonging in their communities. Their identities have been challenged and even criminalized by some who they are supposed to look up as leaders in this country.

As a teacher, what do you do? The answer to this question does not have an easy solution.  When we advocate for our students, there are times where we become scared. We don’t want to be accused of being too political. We don’t want to feel alienated by our supervisors and fellow staff who do not agree with our stance and beliefs. Here is what we have to remember, when we aren’t solution-driven, we are part of the problem. When something isn’t right, we have to say that it isn’t right and look for ways to make it better. Telling someone to “go back to their country” isn’t right. Children in your classroom being scared of losing caretakers to deportation or being deported to an unsafe place that they have left for safety isn’t right. Advocating for a child’s safety and belonging in your classroom is not a partisan issue and it doesn’t mean you are being overly political.

It is your job to assure that all students in your classroom regardless of who they are, where they come from, the type of family they are part of, their sexual orientation, their abilities, or  what their families believe religiously or politically are included in classroom environment and have the capacity to learn. If there are barriers preventing them from learning, you need to support them in helping remove those barriers without hurting any other child in the classroom. This article will explain how you can be an advocate for your students in your own classroom and it will give tips on how an entire school can support a schoolwide equity framework that can support children in critical times like these. This article is not written to defend any political party or leader. It is being written because we need to think about the impact that outside factors are having on children in our classrooms and the future of our schools. Social Justice is the mindset we need to look to in order to create an environment that empowers all students to learn in a secure setting.

Supporting Students’ Identities in Your Classroom

Mirrors, Windows, and Doors

A classroom that includes everyone in it, is one that creates a safe haven for students. Over the years I have had teachers come to me asking for support on how to include a variety of cultures and beliefs into one classroom. As a classroom teacher, you need to look for opportunities in teachable moments to support students feeling as if they belong to your classroom but also learning about students in the classroom as well. In doing this, we need to really consider looking at Reimagining Migration’s Learning Arc The first question that Veronica Boix Mansilla asks in the arc is “Who is the child in our charge?” Understanding this question is going to help us answer the last question “How can we create powerful learning environments?”

This is where we need to work to have moments where students can see themselves in the instruction, literature, and conversations in the classroom. These are called mirrors. This can be through using diverse names in word problems in the classroom to using diverse literature in ELA classrooms. With literature, I advise educators to be cautious that the literature being used does not ignite trauma of any past conflict a child has lived through.

Also provide children with windows. Yes, windows into the cultures and experiences of others.  These windows help children learn about each other. I always say that you’re never too old for “show and tell” in the classroom. When children are given opportunities to talk to each other about their cultures and traditions in the classroom it can change the narratives of students and the dialogue between them. Giving students a “window” to look out of--whether it be through conversation, literature, film, etc.--can help them develop the soft skills that are constantly being discussed in college and career readiness. It can also help them develop empathy for others.

We need to open doors for students to be advocates. If a student feels passionate about supporting their peers through their own voice, we need to give them a forum to do so.  This could be through project based learning, service learning, and the like. We need to allow students the opportunity to grow as people and move above the rhetoric they hear on a day-to-day basis. Their generation can be the generation that changes the narrative that we are hearing now.

Read more about windows and doors through stories and literature here.

Norming Your Classroom

In order to support students identities in your classroom, you need set norms for your classroom. Before any type of instruction can happen, you need to work as a team with your students to come up with collaborative values. Don’t just give your students rules and hope that all can be civil in your classroom by everyone following YOUR rules. That’s not how society works, why should your classroom work that way? Your classroom needs to be a democracy in order for everyone to understand their rights as students, their peers’ rights and your rights as the teacher. These values can help mold a classroom where students are empowered to feel comfortable with their identities and teach others to value the identities of their peers. They can support a mutual respect for differences in the classroom. 

Resolving Conflicts in The Classroom

Norms can help you create a structure to eliminate conflicts but also support students in knowing how to act in a conflict.  Conflicts will happen, it is part of life. So, you’re in your sixth grade Geography class working on maps and one child points to the country of another and says “You should go back to where you came from”.  Both students are now upset and so are others around them. What do you do? Issues like these cannot be resolved through detentions and suspension. We need to have restorative discussions to bring justice back to the classroom and support students to return to the safety of their relationships before the comment was made. 

  • First, keep calm, you cannot mediate a conflict like this if you are angry yourself.  You have to remember that you are working with young students who could be hearing statements in their communities that are different than what you believe.  Take yourself out of the equation- as hard as it may seem- and think. 
  • If the class is heated by the situation, give them a break- students can stretch, deep breath or have a moment of silence and reflection.  Having students involved in the conflict write about what they are feeling at the moment can be helpful prior to having a conversation. Have them use a sentence frame. Today I feel ___________________________ because of ____________________________.  They could even read these together as they are trying to sort through the issue. Writing about feelings helps centralize them. Do not treat this as a classroom assignment.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Conversations are important.  Crucial conversations are even more important. Sometimes, they are hard to do alone.  If you don’t feel confident having the conversation alone- work with a colleague to facilitate a conversation -whether whole class or small group- a counselor, social worker, ELL teacher, etc. can support you in facilitating a diplomatic dialogue about the comment. When you are having a group dialogue, make sure that you are not alienating the student who made the comment.  Allow them to learn from their comments, but don’t chastise them. 
  • When resolving the conflict, make sure all parties feel safe.  The last thing you want is for anyone in your classroom to feel unsafe. Assure the students talk to each other about the conflict. Also try to assure that any peers who are upset about the comment understand that a peaceful resolution has been made.

Read more about responding to hate here.

Supporting Students Identities Schoolwide

Schoolwide Equity Based Mindset Approaches From An Early Age

An equity-based mindset is a mindset we need to work on from crayons to college--it’s not just a “high school thing”. When we start an equity-based mindset in schools with young children, children have an opportunity to feel safe and included. They feel validated and this helps eliminate barriers to learning.  Students also learn empathy and appreciate the cultures of others. Elementary schools need to think about whether or not they provided access to curriculum and learning for all. Also they need to think about the school wide mirrors, windows, and doors they are providing students. Again, look at the Reimagining Migration’s Learning Arc to reflect on your school and the students in it. What do we need to think about when providing this for students at the school level? Here are some questions that schools need to ask themselves:

  • Mirrors:  What efforts are being made to recruit staff from the communities of your students? What opportunities are teachers from the community given for professional development and advancement? Does the school curriculum build on the resilience of your school’s communities by honoring the community within instructional content?  Are families of all students in the school community engaged in the school? Does the school give students an opportunity for voicing their identities to others? Is the school viewing the child’s native language as an asset through bilingual and/or dual language programs?
  • Windows: What opportunities are staff given to learn about students and their cultures? What opportunities are staff given to about the cultures amongst them?  Does the school curriculum have lessons that empower students to learn about their peers and other cultures? Does the school have a forum for families to learn about each other? Does the school give students opportunities to learn about each others’ cultures? Can students learn to appreciate the native languages of their peers in their school?
  • Doors: What opportunities are there for staff to advocate for students and their communities?  Is there a schoolwide equity committee that can create opportunities for learning experiences for all in the school? What unique experiences are students given to learn better ways to self advocate and advocate for others? What opportunities are students given for community projects to enhance their learning?  What opportunities are families given for community projects and advocacy to enhance their learning?

Reflecting the questions in the bullet points above can lead you to starting a schoolwide equity framework.  Why is this important? Supporting a school wide equity based mindset can support the safety and belonging of students from diverse backgrounds in American schools.  Having this sense of security in a school environment is a civil right. We cannot ignore this nor feel like we are too political or “taking a partisan side on” when we are doing this. 

Helping to preserve and honor students’ identity is the job of a teacher and all educators in a school community and we should not ignore this responsibility. Instead of talking about who on the outside of our school is right or wrong, we need to remember the values of being an American. These are values that immigrants built this country on. Our schools are places of love and kindness that give students a place to learn. Our schools do not have borders and all students are empowered to be successful. This is what makes America a beautiful place to grow up in. As teacher, nurture students and cultivate them to grow as the future of our country. It is their civil right.

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