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Fostering Inclusive Learning Environments: Evolving Vernacular for the 21st Century Classroom

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Words matter, especially from a teacher. The very structure of modern classrooms and pedagogies imbue teachers with an inherent influence that must be wielded thoughtfully and responsibly. As a result, Educators should be intentional with the language they use. Sometimes old habits and reflexive language can negatively impact students in ways that may not come into focus for years. 

That’s why it’s imperative for teachers to adopt a 21st century vernacular rooted in respect. By choosing their words carefully, Educators can have a positive impact on a student mindset, student identity, and students’ ability to achieve their dreams. 

Language that Supports Positive Student Mindset

School is powerful in no small part because it’s a place where cultural norms are created and reinforced. As a result, teachers may often be inadvertently and unintentionally propping up stereotypes and harmful biases. For example, a science teacher with good intentions may devote a unit to the physics of makeup and beauty products in an attempt to “get more girls interested in science.” 

While it might sound like a good idea, such a lesson may:

  • Underline the incorrect notion that girls and women are not typically or inherently interested in science.
  • Suggest that all girls and women are or should be interested in wearing makeup (and likewise that beauty products are something that should be off limits to men).
  • Place topics that may interest girls and women more broadly into the category of the “other,” further reinforcing a patriarchal version of what is“normal.” 

Instead of trying to “get more girls interested in science” (implying that they are not interested), one might instead discuss ways to break through barriers that may exist for women or other underrepresented groups who want to pursue careers in science. Discuss some of the social and cultural mechanisms—such as harassment, lack of mentors, and dismissiveness—that contribute to the mistaken notion that females simply aren’t interested in STEM.

Language that Support Students’ Identity

Avoiding stereotypes is only the first step in creating a classroom vernacular that is accepting and inclusive.. It’s not enough, after all, to be tolerant. Educators have an obligation to accept all students according to who they are. This means avoiding some phrases and words that may seem innocuous at first, such as:

  • “Boys and girls”
  • “You guys”
  • “Ladies and gentlemen”
  • Terms of familiarity, such as “honey” or “sweetie”

Non binary or non gender conforming students may feel uncomfortable when they hear those phrases—or at the very least dismissed. Given that 1.8 million LGBT youths between the ages of 13 and 24 in the U.S. give serious consideration to suicide every year, it’s essential that teachers find language that is inclusive and accepting of all students.

There are several easy ways to do this:

  • Ask all students their preferred pronouns on the first day of class (it’s essential not to single out or isolate students when doing this).
  • Work hard to ensure you are always using a student’s preferred pronouns. 
  • Choose gender neutral phrases for addressing the class, such as “folks,” “learners,” “students” and so on.
  • Use gender neutral phrases when addressing school subject matters. For example, talk about “explorers” throughout history or “theorists” working in science instead of “men and women.”

This has practical application when it comes to teaching subject matter. Research suggests that students’ focus more on the gender highlighted in a lesson which can deflect attention away from the notable topic. For example, if a teacher introduces Magellan as the first man to circumnavigate the globe, students may place an emphasis on Magellan’s gender. However, if a teacher brings up Magellan as the first “person” to circumnavigate the world, students are more likely to remember the circumnavigation.

This is not to say that gender should never be approached in lessons. The point is that gender should not be brought up thoughtlessly. Teachers should be intentional about gender in lesson plans, depending on what information they want the students to prioritize.

Language that Supports Student Goals

When introducing challenging lessons, many teachers will often say something like, “It’s okay if you don’t get it right away,” or “I wasn’t any good at math either.” These quick phrases often arise through good intentions—you’re trying to remove pressure from the student and attempting to give the student some free space to fail. But at the same time, you may inadvertently be implying that a student does not have the capacity to learn the subject matter.

A similar thing happens when Educators fall back on cliches such as “Some people just aren’t good at science.” Putting aside for the moment the fact that this generally isn’t true, the message that students receive is not “some people aren’t good at this.” The message that students internalize is “I am one of the people who is not good at this.”

Instead, it’s usually recommended that teachers embrace aspirational language and focus on building specific skills. 

A Thoughtful Approach to Language

At first, it may seem daunting to audit and adjust the way that you use language in the classroom. A linguistic transformation likely won’t happen overnight. But it’s important that students have a safe and welcoming place to learn as they are—and evolving one’s vernacular for the 21st century is a small price to accomplish such an important goal. Taking a thoughtful approach to what you say in class can increase your success with students. And as a result, your students will find prosperity on their own journeys.

This topic was recently covered in detail during one of Clerisy’s virtual Teacher Mixers. These virtual networking events are held monthly to help teachers tackle new challenges and build collaborative relationships. 

For a more thorough and rigorous approach to practically implementing a 21st century vernacular in the classroom, teachers can also register for our asynchronous professional development workshop on the topic.

Register for a free Clerisy account to access our PD platform and lineup of live and pre-recorded workshops to begin your professional development at your own pace. And make sure learners remember your words for all the right reasons! 

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