Fostering Safe and Inclusive School and Classroom Cultures

Posted by Sanda Balaban on June 5, 2013

Violence is too prevalent in many of our urban neighborhoods, and although school is frequently the safest place for a young person to be, disruptive implications can spill over into classrooms and hallways. Gunshot wounds are one of the leading causes of death among high school students in the United States, and 15% of all students report the presence of gangs in their schools. Moreover, 44% of all teachers report that student misconduct interferes substantially with their teaching. While the situation in some schools and neighborhoods is more serious than in others, creating a safe, disciplined learning environment is a challenge and a priority for all.

In Facing History classrooms,

  • Students’ basic needs for belonging, community, and competence are met
  • Students develop skills and language to deal with conflict and talk about issues that can interfere with safety
  • Physical and psychological threats that interfere with learning are reduced
  • Cycles are broken and supportive norms are established through community
  • Students emerge equipped with agency and voice

Through exploring identity and the impact of stereotyping and labeling, and studying history in a way that not only gives context to injustices but also looks at models of change and resilience, Facing History fosters students’ agency, fortifies their identity, instills resilience, and empowers them as learners. While poverty and violence are challenging realities in too many of our urban communities, many variables related to student safety and success lay within teachers’ control. Facing History materials and methodology can break the cycle that perpetuates achievement gaps, helping create new cultural norms and equipping students with the dispositions and skills to create new realities.

At a convening of the Carson Network of Schools in February, Tim Knipe, an 11th grade English Teacher at Social Justice Humanitas Academy (SJHA) on the Cesar Chavez campus in San Fernando, spoke powerfully about the effect Facing History has had on discipline and specifically expulsion and suspension rates at their school.

Tim Knipe, Social Justice Humanitas Academy

Social Justice Humanitas built Facing History into the very foundation of the school from its inception, and the essential questions of their curricular units are quintessential Facing History questions. Questions like “am I my brother’s keeper?” elevate students focusing solely on themselves and their own survival and catalyze deep reflection and discussion, drawing upon their experiences in connection to the literature and history they’re studying.

Strong, vibrant school cultures makes an enormous difference on students’ well-being and performance. When Facing History partners with a school for in-depth implementation, the results are multi-layered and reinforcing. The interaction of rich, rigorous materials, pervasive professional development, ongoing support from Facing History, and strong leadership combine to achieve promising results. The Facing History framework provides principals and other key academic leaders with meaningful tools with which to shape the vision, mission, academic structures, and expectations of the school. Facing History helps develop a shared language among administrators, teachers, staff, and students, thereby strengthening the school community and helping forge a common school culture.

Tim’s school campus is in the middle of an area rife with gang activity with a variety of neighborhoods coming together in ways that could be very challenging, particularly given the impulsiveness of adolescents. Tim notes that many student arrive having been acculturated in prior paradigms of education that have minimized their belief in themselves as learners and leaders and all but snuffed out belief that they can succeed and create different realities for themselves and their communities. Yet through bolstering students’ senses of themselves and their potential, through thought-provoking curricula and instruction, and through establishing a culture that brings out students’ best potential, students are engaging and excelling and the data demonstrates this in remarkable ways.

In reflecting on what the root of the difference between SJHA and the other campus schools are, Tim attributes it to the power of Facing History, to making classrooms safe and vibrant learning environments, and teaching students to take ownership of what they do and their school community.

Cultivating safe and inclusive schools requires a long term approach which builds a community of shared values and expectations. Facing History evaluations reflect that when students explore issues of membership and belonging, along with the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion, through examination of history and their own classrooms, they become more conscious of their own behavior and decision-making. It is this awareness which contributes to the vitality and vibrancy of Facing History classrooms across the country and around the world.

What are the biggest challenges you face in cultivating a safe and inclusive classroom? What have you found to be the most helpful in doing do? Are there any Facing History approaches, strategies, or content that you've found particularly powerful?

Topics: Safe Schools, Urban Education

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