Recently, when I picked my second graders up from lunch, several of the girls rushed toward me in a tizzy. “Ahmed and Mohammed told us we couldn’t sit at their table at lunch because we’re not Boy Scouts,” they reported indignantly. I dropped my jaw in front of the offending boys, put my hands on my hips and said the words that I hope inspire some sort of dread amongst my little ones, “We will have to talk about this when we get back to the classroom.”
Now, as a fourth-year elementary school teacher in a public school in Brooklyn, I am no stranger to lunchtime drama. No matter how much work I do toward creating a positive classroom community and a supportive learning environment, all bets are off when my students enter the lunchroom. Typically, my co-teacher and I brush off these cafeteria skirmishes by encouraging our students to deal with their issues during lunch and not bring them back into the classroom. But every now and again a problem pops up that needs to be addressed with the entire class back upstairs in our room. The Boy Scouts issue certainly merited further discussion.
I wanted to be thoughtful about the way I addressed the boys’ behavior at lunch. My students know that there’s not much that gets Ms. Krent truly upset, but excluding classmates or otherwise hurting other students’ feelings is the fastest way to do it. I am a special education teacher in an Integrated Co-Teaching classroom and issues of inclusion are very close to my heart. My co-teacher and I work hard to create a classroom that a stranger could enter and not know who is labeled as a special needs student and who isn’t. I taught for two years in self-contained classrooms and my students in those classes were much more self-conscious of their special education status than the students I’ve taught for two years in ICT classrooms.
Creating a classroom community where everyone feels welcomed is incredibly important to me. In both types of settings I’ve taught in, there have been students who clearly stick out a little more than the others. I have worked hard to speak honestly about difference with my students while at the same time, I’ve more or less forced them to include any and all of their peers in class activities. We don’t let our students call an activity “easy” and we explicitly teach that what’s easy for some isn’t easy for all and we never want to make anyone feel bad about trying their hardest. Of course, this is second grade and kids are kids. There will always be kids who are nasty to each other for whatever reason, but we try our hardest to foster empathy amongst our students and to make them aware of the effect their actions have on others.
I have believed strongly in an inclusionary model of teaching since I studied psychology at Wesleyan University and finagled my way into writing a psychology thesis about inclusion and special education. My summer training for the New York City Teaching Fellows program intensified my already strong desire to unpack issues of inequity in education. I entered the classroom knowing I wanted to teach through a lens of social justice.
Because of this social action orientation in my teaching, I knew I couldn’t just tell my students they had to let the girls sit at their table and that was that. Instead, we had a class conversation about the differences and similarities between girls and boys. We talked about all the jobs both boys and girls can grow up to have (police officers! bus drivers! teachers!), all the likes and dislikes boys and girls might have (the color pink! SpongeBob SquarePants! video games!), and why it’s important to let everyone sit wherever they want to sit. Both my female and male students mentioned that it seemed unfair that our school only offers Boy Scouts after school and not Girl Scouts. I had inquired about this when the Boy Scouts first started using our cafeterias once a week after school. I didn’t receive a very compelling answer, but then again, why do we still have Boy and Girl Scouts anyway? Can’t we just all be scouts together?
Either way, I felt fulfilled by the conversation I had with my students. They engaged with the questions I posed to them and while they probably didn’t radically alter their views on gender, I can feel satisfied knowing I exposed them to new ideas. I certainly don’t have any answers when it comes to equity in education, but I have a lot of questions and as long as I’m teaching, I’ll keep working through them with my students.