Dear Dr. Mooney,
I teach high school English learners who represent at least 10 different cultures and languages. Historically, many of the ELs in our school spoke Spanish and came from Mexico or Central America. Now, we have much more diversity.
My question is how do I go about making all of them feel welcome in my classroom? I understand some things about Latino culture and know how to include it, but what about all of my other students?
A colleague suggested I hang their home countries’ flags in my room. Is this okay? Is it enough?
Yes, hanging flags that represent their home countries might be a good start, but it’s not enough to make them feel welcome. I would suggest using flags that are smaller, rather than larger. If you don’t know the circumstances that brought the students to your school, it’s possible that their home country represents negative experiences, such as violence or refugee camps. Also, you may have students that come from home countries that are oppositional to each other. A huge display of flags covering much of the classroom’s walls might be overwhelming.
Some other ideas…
Classroom labels typically belong in an elementary school, but I think they can be helpful at any level, particularly if your students are beginning English learners. If they’re literate in their native languages, then it would be comforting to see words they recognize around the room. Just be strategic about labeling the most common or useful items. Don’t go crazy with that label maker!
When students are swimming in a sea of English, it’s nice to have someone throw you a life preserver every once in a while. Learn a few phrases of your students’ native languages, but don’t worry if you can’t pronounce every word correctly! The students will gladly help you out.
Welcoming, encouraging phrases spoken at the right time can go a long way in developing rapport with students. Not to mention the barriers that can be broken down as you make yourself vulnerable by working on your pronunciation. Students may giggle at your mistakes, but you are demonstrating that it’s okay to make mistakes and ask for help with language skills. You may choose to not use the phrases once students’ English skills progress, but it’s certainly a nice gesture to show them that you care.
Inviting Culture In
The most important thing you can do to make your students feel comfortable in your classroom is to invite their culture in. So often, teachers unknowingly ask students to leave their home cultures at the classroom door. In Building a Bridge to Your Classroom, I talked about how culture plays an important role in identity. Your students are who they are as people, largely due to their cultural background. Ignoring their culture in the classroom is essentially telling them that a big part of their identity isn’t important.
Instead, teachers can welcome students’ identity into the class. I wouldn’t recommend trying to research and do this on your own. Ask your students to work with you on it. As part of your getting acquainted activities at the beginning of the year, ask students to bring something that represents their home culture to the classroom. It should be something that is important to them that can be left at school for the duration of the year.
When they bring the items, have them write and/or tell the class about it and what it represents. Then, they should find a place to display it on a classroom wall or shelf. In this way, your classroom becomes a place that authentically represents the cultural backgrounds of your students. They will feel more like they belong, and you will know that you are honoring their identities in a significant way.
Classrooms with a lot of cultural and linguistic variety can be challenging to navigate, but they can also provide environments for rich learning for everyone. Welcoming English learners into your class in authentic ways can lay an important relational foundation on which you can build throughout the year.