Creating Equity in our Classrooms

Chris Larson

As I was searching for a concise definition of equity recently, I came across an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. The article was called “What the Heck Does ‘Equity’ Mean?” While quite possibly the most “Minnesotan” title ever, it provided a good overview of equity and its relation to our world today. The authors define equity as “the state, quality, or ideal of being just, impartial, and fair.” The Annie E. Casey Foundation goes on to say that equity must be thought of as a structural and systemic issue, if we are to address the root of our equity deficit. It is not enough to treat the symptoms – we must identify the root causes of inequity in our society.

So how do we approach such a large and complex issue? If we believe that there are inequities in the world, how can we start to identify and counter these flaws in our social structure? We need to start from a place of “believing” and then move to a place of “building.” In her book, “The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias,” Dolly Chugh claims her identity as a believer. From the very beginning, she stakes her claim: “Race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, ability–I believe bias of all forms is wrong. I am a believer.” But she says that she means to be more than that. She means to take action, to fight bias, to stand up for those who experience inequity. Her book is a very thoughtful personal reflection, as well as an examination of the “psychology of good people.” I take two key points away from this examination: Builders Activate a Growth Mindset, and Builders Engage.

Carol Dweck’s research on the growth mindset allows us the grace to see ourselves as “good-ish works-in-progress.” We are not premade good people. If we have a growth mindset, as opposed to a fixed mindset, we are able to see ourselves as flexible and able to improve. Our identities are not fixed – we can improve and become better versions of ourselves. This mindset allows us to “stumble upward”–another Dolly Chugh phrase–as we commit to this work. And it really is work! It can be exhausting, and our journeys will be full of successes and failures alike.

The second point is where the action really is: Builders Engage. Our words are important, but when we talk about our hopes and dreams, they do nothing to change the situation for our BILOC (Black and Indigenous Learners of Color – a term used by anti-bias anti-racist educator Britt Hawthorne). What can be done to engage and to support our students of all races, genders, sexual orientations, and abilities? I believe that we can do so many things! We change lives when we build relationships. We grow this world one step at a time when we question the narratives in our schools, and broaden our definitions of “greatness” and “excellence.” We decenter whiteness when we present music, composers, and artists of all races and backgrounds. We intentionally welcome our students and bring their home cultures into our classrooms when we ask families about their musical heritage.

In our Wayzata schools, we have been invited to approach every professional conversation through the lens of equity, and we consider four important questions as we do so:

  1. How am I creating and building on meaningful relationships with my students?
  2. What assumptions do I have about my students that could be misperceptions?
  3. How can my students use their strengths and insights as a foundation for this learning?
  4. How will you encourage, empower, and ensure that every student incorporates their voice into the learning process?

These are all amazing questions, and they open our world to so much potential. In particular, I am excited about question four. How do we bring every voice into our class discussions? As I was editing a recent “virtual choir” recording, I was struck by this as a metaphor. I had been silencing voices in my recording, and making choices about which students should be heard or placed further back in the mix. As leaders in our schools and communities, how are we doing this same action in a more hidden and nuanced way? We have the power to amplify student voices, and we have the power to silence them. I challenge us all to commit to being good-ish people every day–Believers AND Builders–full of passion and dedication!