Celebrating Diversity in the Online Classroom
By Carolyn Bennett
Diversity Wheel as used at Johns Hopkins University. Source: Creative Commons 4.0.
As parents and educators, we know students have many diverse identities worth celebrating. Accessing a tool like Johns Hopkins University’s Diversity Wheel can help your students identify all the ways diverse perspectives enrich a learning community. In online classrooms with a global student body, the opportunities to celebrate and learn from one another's diverse perspectives multiply.
To help teachers and learners celebrate diversity in their online classrooms, here are five ideas to consider:
- Celebrate Student Choice with Public Personas Selection
In face-to-face life, some aspects of identity are difficult to hide, while others are less visible. Online, students are empowered with more choice about the aspects of their identity they want to highlight. Students may use avatars to make invisible qualities visible; they may choose to present qualities that are seldom revealed offline. By creating space for structured, open-ended introductions, online teachers can support students to develop and celebrate their unique identities. Such spaces can be created through student profiles, introduction discussion boards, and more structured collaborative activities.
- Seek Broad Representation in Resources
The online classroom provides an opportunity to curate resources that represent diverse perspectives. Graphics may depict people of different shapes, sizes, ages, and appearances engaging in the topic of study. Videos may be narrated by high or low voices, with a variety of speaking styles. Featured authors and experts may have a variety of surnames. On the Internet, the world is our oyster: Teachers can seek out materials that will help each student see a piece of themselves reflected in the content.
- Amplify Student Voice
Every student brings unique experience and expertise to the class community. This is especially true online, where students may hail from different cultures and academic contexts. Students are empowered when they are recognized as knowledge-bearers. Likewise, teachers can highlight the limitations of traditional experts: Students can consider bias or blind spots in curricular texts and consider how they might personally present information differently. Teachers can voice their own wonderings or knowledge limitations, modeling the skills of a continual learner. By uplifting the voices of students and questioning the voices of experts, a classroom can become a more democratic community where everyone is engaged in a journey of lifetime learning.
- Honor Divergent Thinking
When students from diverse communities collaborate, they experience the power of multiple perspectives to generate creative ideas, make connections, and solve problems. By intentionally crafting positive feedback messages, teachers can communicate the value of divergent thinking. A feedback comment such as, “You taught me something today” can make students feel so much more seen and valued than “All correct.” Teachers can multiply the power of their feedback by linking it to student identity, where appropriate: “I have never thought of it this way before! Do you think your experience as a bilingual student helped you understand the main character more deeply?” Teachers’ efforts become even more powerful when they praise unique perspectives in a whole-class format. Teachers may specifically compliment a student’s work, select exemplary work to showcase to the class, or highlight the richness evident in students’ contrasting viewpoints. By creating a culture that prizes originality over conformity, students’ diverse perspectives become a valued class asset.
- Find the Intersections to Support Sense of Self
Students develop a stronger sense of self when they consider the intersection of their many identities. No single label can fully capture the unique perspective each student brings to the class. Likewise, students can develop a stronger understanding of their classmates and the content when they consider the intersections of different identities in the class community. Even when a student might feel that another’s perspective is very unfamiliar, they can uncover moments of synergy: Though students may live on different continents, similar academic values and aspirations led them to become classmates. When students are invited to explore how their diverse identities intersect with the shared class experience, the class community expands to become inclusive of the whole student. Teachers can use questioning to encourage students to examine their opinions from multiple angles: How have a student’s thoughts been shaped by their experience as an online student? By their gender identity? By their race or ethnicity? By their prior experiences, faith, or level of family wealth? Students may respond differently to each of these considerations. When students explore their viewpoint at the intersection of their many identities, they come to a deeper understanding of themselves and a richer appreciation of the content.
Taking an online course helps students cultivate their personal sense of identity and approach the world with curiosity and an inclusive mindset. Learning from diverse perspectives enriches learning for all.
Carolyn Bennett is Instructional Coordinator at VHS Learning. She was a face-to-face teacher for 14 years and taught AP® Music Theory online with VHS Learning since 2014. She holds a BA and MA in Music Education and is a Google certified educator. In addition to her teaching experience, she has held various leadership roles including serving as the prestigious Library of Congress Teacher in Residence in 2018-2019.