Center for Teaching and Learning

Cultivating a Classroom of Safety and Inclusion

Below are some of our suggestions for (1) creating a safe and supportive space for learning, (2) advice about navigating critical conversations about difficult topics, and (3) addressing "Hot Moments!" during critical conversations. These tips were developed with our wonderful colleagues at the Department of DEI Education and Learning Initiatives, Dr. Charles Chip Mc Neal and Llewellyn Murray.

I. Creating a safe, supportive and trustworthy space

(A) Co-develop classroom norms and expectations with your students.
  • Frame them as positive rules for the road so we can all get the most out of this class (this is what we want to talk about, how we want to talk about it, and why we want to talk about it), rather than as negative rules for punishment if a student transgresses.
    • Slide 2 is an example of “positive” community norms Marty has used to explain to students why we’re going to do practice problems in class (and it’s ok that they’re hard); because our problems are hard, we’re not only going to work collaboratively but with solidarity such that we all succeed to the extent that all of us succeed, and we fail to the extent that any of us fails; and this class is also designed for everyone to succeed (these topics are not exhaustive).
    • Ideally, these norms are values-based; this can also be a good way to start discussion around developing them.
  • It can help to return to the norms and expectations every once-in-a-while throughout the semester.
(B) Ask your students what they want to get out of the class - addressing hopes, concerns, and expectations.
  • You can use a “reciprocal interview” to ask your students questions about what they’re hoping to get out of the class and to allow your students to ask you questions about how you hope they engage with the course.
  • You can use an anonymous survey to ask students to share a bit about themselves, why they are here, what they are hoping to get out of the course.
(C) Learn students’ names and help students to know each other's' names
  • You can make a class roster photo slide deck using Google slides where each student makes a slide to introduce themselves (like this template).
    • At the start of a semester, ask each student to make a slide with their name, a recent photo, a recording of how their name is pronounced using a tool like Name Coach, and a fun/silly fact or two about themselves.
  • You can ask the students to each record a 30-60 second video introduction using Zoom and to send you their video introduction recordings. You can make a doc sharing each student’s Zoom intro and share it with everyone, so all the students and TAs have access to it, as well, like this.
  • You can give students name tents that they bring to every class and put on their desks to help people use names during class time.
  • Pronunciation matters, so write helpful notes on your Class List.
(D) Convey your expectations for your students and the course as a whole by addressing some or all of the following student questions:
  • What approach does the course take to the subject?
  • What is the role of the section in relation to the other components of the course? 
  • What kind of preparation is expected? 
  • Is attendance required? 
  • Is agreement with the instructor a prerequisite for passing this course?
  • What does success look like?
  • In what ways will students be expected to participate? How can they best listen to and speak with each other and with you? 
  • How will the section run? Will you be distributing study questions, doing in-class writing, working in small groups, etc.? Will there be individual or group presentations? 

II. General advice about navigating critical conversations about difficult topics

(A) Planned Discussions on High-Stakes Topics - Planning a discussion on a controversial topic or issue benefits from consideration of the following topics, each of which is addressed below:

(B) Establishing Conversation Ground Rules - In class, instructors can either work with students to generate ground rules or discussion guidelines, or they can present a set of guidelines and then work with students to accept or modify them. Referring back to these community agreements can be very helpful if discussion becomes tense.  Some suggestions include the following:

  1. Listen respectfully, without interrupting.
  2. Listen actively and with an ear to understanding others' views. (Don’t just think about what you are going to say while someone else is talking.)
  3. Criticize ideas, not individuals.
  4. Commit to learning, not debating. Comment in order to share information, not to persuade.
  5. Avoid blame, speculation, and inflammatory language.
  6. Allow everyone the chance to speak.
  7. Avoid assumptions about any member of the class or generalizations about social groups. Do not ask individuals to speak for their (perceived) social group.
(C) Start Slowly and Intentionally.
  • Identifying a clear purpose.
    • Connecting the topic with course material, including fundamental concepts and strategies for analysis and thoughtful reflection.
    • Increasing awareness about the topic by providing information that is not generally addressed in informal discussions.
  • Providing a common basis for understanding.
  • Creating a framework for the discussion that maintains focus and flow.
  • Establish and agree on an equitable process to include everyone.
    • The Round:  Give each student an opportunity to respond to a guiding question without interruption or comments. Provide students with the option to pass. After the round, discuss the responses.
(D) Be an active facilitator.
  • Summarizing discussion and gathering student feedback.
  • Proactively address issues that involve the instructor’s identity.
    • Willingly acknowledge what you do and do not know about the topic.
    • “Name” the instructor’s social and societal privileges.
(E) It’s OK to take a ”Time Out”.

III. Addressing "Hot Moments!" which are sure to arrive

(A) Think ahead and anticipate how you might handle challenging classroom dynamics and what aspects of your course content might produce them.

(B) If tensions/conflicts arise, acknowledge them in the moment if prudent.

(C) Be flexible with your plans: if students are intensely attuned to an issue, consider giving it more time and attention than you’d anticipated. Can you use the intensity to facilitate students’ learning?

(D) Take a deep breath and acknowledge the difficult moment (in real time).

(E) “Know yourself. Know your biases, know what will push your buttons, and know what will cause your mind to stop. Every one of us has areas in which we are vulnerable to strong feelings. Knowing what those areas are in advance can diminish the element of surprise. This self-knowledge can enable you to devise, in advance, strategies for managing yourself and the class when such a moment arises. You will have thought about what you need to do in order to enable your mind to work again.” -Lee Warren (Derek Bok Center, Harvard), “Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom”


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