Including inclusion in your classroom: a lesson from diversity

I’ve had two incredibly stimulating weeks. Last week I attended, for the very first time, the IATEFL Conference in Liverpool. It was a wonderful chance to meet old friends and, particularly, learn from great references in ELT. One of those references is John Gray, professor at UCL and an expert in LGBTQ+ issues in ESOL.

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He opened the day with his plenary  (watch it here) on Gender and Sexuality in ELT and talked about representation, in class, in the way we teach, and, especially, in ELT materials. One of the questions he raised, and quite a valid one, was why ELT books have almost no reference to homosexuals, transgender, and queer people. He answered it himself:

They’re taboos and don’t go well with publishers as they would probably reduce sales in certain countries

Paraphrasing John Gray

This week I went to London to attend Teaching House Presents at Oxford House College where not only did I get the chance to meet the great author John Hughes again and learn precious tips on how to write materials, but was also pleasantly surprised by Simon Dunton and his incredibly insightful presentation on how to deal with diversity issues in the classroom. Simon started by saying how multicultural London is and that issues related to diversity are bound to be brought up in the classroom. Be it because students feel free to discuss them or because of what they see on the streets, in the pubs, the Tube and, honestly, basically everywhere in the city.

This family tree did not represent my family

Simon Dunton

Diversity goes beyond sexuality and ethnicity. A simple example was the family tree activity you see in most traditional books. Just like Simon, and myself, the family depicted there was of a man who married a woman and had children who got married to someone of the opposite sex and had children and so on. Simon’s parents got divorced and he had half-siblings, just like I do. My dad was married in Sweden before he got married to my mom in Brazil.

How many wheelchair users do we see in ELT materials? How many Muslims, Hindi, or other easily recognizable religious people because of what they wear? How many nonbinary people or gay couples? The problem with lack of representation is the lack of references or role models. As John Gray shared in his plenary, the queer Indonesian poet, Norman Pasaribu, put it:

As a kid, the books I read portrayed typical heterosexual love. When you don’t see yourself on the page, it’s harder to imagine yourself as a person

Norman Pasaribu

You might be asking yourself how neutral/biased you should be, especially if you come from a country where it is illegal to be homosexual, or if your family values go against some of the things I’ve mentioned, or if people with a disability or different races are considered inferior. The truth is: the world is diverse, it’s a reality, and I say we should embrace it. If not embrace it, at least make your students aware that this diversity exists and you could do it in the most discrete and “normal” way possible: Including Inclusive Models.

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Student’s question to Simon Dunton’s Inclusive model

One way you could do it is simply by bringing pictures of people in wheelchairs, from different races or writing examples on the board of people from a diverse background. In this example (picture above) Simon had written on the board

He went out with his husband

One of the students got confused and asked his/her pair if that was a mistake. The peer had a brilliant answer she had copied from one of the many posters spread out in the school to promote diversity awareness. She said:

He has a husband. You have to get over it!

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Poster in school

So, some of his tips, and a couple of my own are:

  1. Don’t avoid PARSNISPs. Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, -isms, and Pork. Challenge them instead. Here’s a video lesson I created about how I welcomed them in my classroom.

  2. Include inclusive models. Use examples like: She went shopping with her wife; They’ve just returned from the synagogue; Amir is going to the mosque; Also, use photos of people with disabilities and don’t make a big deal out of it.

  3. Increase of characters’ portfolio. Why should all our characters be so stereotypical? Why use a man as a doctor or engineer or scientist? Why always caucasian? Check out my Captain Marvel blog post about female role models.

  4. Create a safe environment. This is key! Make sure everyone is welcome to share their thoughts and feel safe to discuss these things. You don’t have to challenge their views and, even more important, impose yours. But a nice conversation in a welcoming environment can go a long way and make some of your students put down their defenses to actually start learning more effectively

  5. Decorate the school with posters with diverse people.

  6. Listen, don’t judge.

Let me share an example. One of the greatest moments I had in my own teaching experience was about 3 years ago when diversity was brought up and, I’d like to believe this is the reason anyway, I had created such a welcoming and safe environment that one of my students came out as bisexual. A 15yo student felt safe enough to share this with me and the class. We talked about it as, and that’s my personal opinion, it should be: NORMAL! This student had never truly engaged in the activities before, but after seeing that we were OK with it and that we accepted it, things completely changed.

We do live in a multicultural and diverse world but we fail to find role models and examples. It will take publishers and many teachers, school managers, parents a very long time to give this issue the status of normality it deserves, but we can certainly do our part. Some people are doing more than their fair share. Here’s an example of a wonderful initiative by two people I’m lucky to know in person. Ilá Coimbra and James Taylor

Their book Raise Up is an example of what materials should look like if all the wonderful diversity we see in the real world would actually be depicted in ELT materials. Click here to find out more and help raise money for CASA 1, an LGBTQIA+ shelter for young people.

Raise up

It’s high time we started challenging some issues and embracing how wonderfully colorful and multicultural our world is. If you think your job is not to deal with these issues as a teacher but just to teach English, I may have bad news. You’re missing out on a great opportunity to teach about what’s out there in the real world by using authentic materials and really reaching out to students like mine, who needed to get something out of their chest and feel accepted. Maybe, the reason why some students are not learning is because their minds are so busy being afraid and feeling they’re not normal that if you reflect on the tips mentioned above, their world, and hopefully everyone else’s, would transform.


6 thoughts on “Including inclusion in your classroom: a lesson from diversity”

  1. Best article ever. One of my biggest concerns in classroom is to show that every student may feel comfortable to be what they really are. I do not miss the oportunity to point out that respect is the most important thing you can have. As teachers we really have to do our part, and I am glad to say that I feel I am doing mine. Of course we can always improve, so thanks a millions for sharing this.

  2. That’s something I’m really concerned about in my everyday teaching activities. In my school we use a material from National Geographic. This material presents a lot of diversity when we talk about religion and ethnicity, but it is not enough. This article opened my mind on how to introduce diversity in my classes and reflect the world the way it is. Thanks for sharing this!!!!

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  4. I think we can talk about diversity but some places just aren’t ready for it. I’m not even talking about Asian, Middle Eastern or African countries. I’m talking about European countries.

    I’ve lived in Spain for almost a decade. Prior to moving here, I never thought I’d experience prejudice because, you know, Spain is in the EU and a modern forward-thinking country. How wrong was I!

    I’ve experienced discrimination when applying for jobs as most Spanish academy owners do not believe that parents will accept a brown English woman as their children’s teacher. This is not me being presumptuous, I’m always asked about where my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents are from in interviews. I’m usually more qualified than most teachers here, but this doesn’t seem to matter. Saying I’m well-qualified isn’t me being arrogant. I have a BA and MA in English from a British university, as well as the CELTA and experience in teaching pre sessional courses. Even when I have been offered a job, I tend to get the worst timetable or the most difficult classes.

    In the job, there are other issues to deal with. I’ve had colleagues mock me and my accent. I’m from the Midlands in the UK so I just can’t understand why I am more difficult to understand than my East London cockney colleague. Or, even my Scottish colleague. If I report this to management I get told I speak with RP, so I must be imagining this.

    In the classroom, I’ve had to deal with Spanish children bullying other children of Chinese heritage. When I have reported it to management I have been told that I’m in Spain and I needed to get used to it not being politically correct. Doing the slitty eyed gesture is funny in Spain and if I ever point out it’s offensive and we should me mindful of other people’s feelings, I’m accused of being uptight and told to go back home. When textbooks do feature Black or brown families, I’ve heard five year olds say, ‘Oof. Los negros son muy feos.’ (Loosely translated: Black people are ugly). I’ve always responded kindly and told them I’m not white and I’m not ugly. I know this is what the children have learned from their parents, but how does one teacher who has NO support from management deal with this???

    Before I arrived in Spain, I’d always considered myself to be British as I was born there and lived there until I was 30. All my cultural references are British. However, in Spain I’m not. I am my religion and my ethnicity. I’m not particularly religious so this has been really hard to deal with. My name sounds Muslim so people will ask me if I am. I don’t like answering this question as it often leads to people exposing their Islamophobia. I’m often asked about yoga too. My great grandparents were Indian. I’m a product of colonialism so my grandparents and parents were born in Africa. If I’m honest about my lack of knowledge of yoga, I’m told I’m ashamed of my ethnicity. Living with prejudice is hard.

    All this is to say that the ELT world is very white. Ask yourself, how many brown and Black colleagues do you have? Do they feel comfortable in your workplace? We can talk about diversity but I’m a little pessimistic and don’t think things will change for a long time. I used to be so idealistic but my experiences have been so difficult that I just don’t know anymore.

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