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Creating Inclusive Learning Environments

Jahaziel “Jazi” Hiriart serves as the Senior Manager for Social and Emotional Well-Being at the Opportunity Project, a new citywide intermediary for expanded learning. “The Opp” seeks to improve the quality, access and delivery of expanded-learning opportunities for youth in Tulsa.

Born and raised in Mexico, she lived in Texas before moving to Oklahoma six years ago to pursue a master’s degree in International Business at OSU. She is currently pursuing a doctorate degree in educational leadership at ORU. Jazi is a member of the OCCJ Board of Directors, Tulsa Global Alliance, Tulsa Honor Academy, and TYPros Community Foundation. She is also the director of Tulsa Touch, an all-ladies salsa dance team that is part of the worldwide Island Touch Dance Academy.

When I think about creating inclusive learning environments, I imagine how schools, classrooms and lessons should be structured so that all students can learn and participate together. An inclusive learning environment is supportive, challenging, engaging, and responsive, for all learners.

Sounds great, doesn't it? However, many challenges make this hard to do. To simplify it, we must start with two key guiding questions:

  • How can we make students feel like they are truly part of the school community?
  • How do we create a space where everyone feels valued?

Fostering a true sense of belonging and inherent value is only achieved through open and honest discussion about differences, understanding and respecting people from all abilities, cultures and backgrounds.

Educators must also reflect on their values, biases, expectations, and approach.

  • Do we acknowledge the experiences of students from different backgrounds in a non-stereotypical way?
  • Do we encourage alternative perspectives, debate ideas and create an environment that is open to the representation of different viewpoints?
  • Are students encouraged to share their own lives, interests and opinions?

Inclusive values are developed through our lived experience and exposure to other cultures and world-views. Creating an inclusive environment will help students be more aware, tolerant and understanding of each other. It is also important to note that we can tolerate without accepting, but we cannot accept without tolerating.

Tolerance is the first step towards acceptance – it is saying "I can live with X (behavior, religion, race, culture, etc.)." Acceptance goes beyond tolerance saying, "X is OK." Instead of simply putting up with something we might disapprove of, we need to move into non-judgmental acceptance of different lifestyles and beliefs.

It is also important to distinguish between three dimensions of equity when engaged in this work: multiculturalism, social justice and culturally responsive teaching. It is easy to confuse those three key parts and their purposes. To truly move the needle toward equity in education, we need everyone involved to understand the complex nature of equity and how, when its components are implemented, they create more equitable outcomes for children. The National Equity Project’s definition of educational equity is powerful: reducing the predictability of who succeeds and who fails, interrupting reproductive practices that negatively impact students, and cultivating the gifts and talents of every student. This should be our north star and what we strive for every day.