Building Unity and Inclusion from Day 1 of a Semester

This is a picture of my favorite bulletin board. It changes every time I get new students in my classes as I soon will when we start a new semester. On the day that I greet new students, I tell them this story.

In our family, we all have different favorite flavors of ice cream. My husband’s favorite is Rocky Road, but he’s so kind, if I ask him to buy ice cream, he’ll buy everyone else’s favorite flavor. My kids like Cookies ‘n’ Cream, Cookie Dough, or Mint Chocolate Chip. I used to practically live on chocolate—at least until I was diagnosed with an ulcer a few years back. My doctor told me that for some people, chocolate is a reflux trigger. I was in a lot of pain, and I decided to give up all the trigger foods in my diet. I didn’t think I could give up chocolate, but I did it! And even better, the pain is gone! As much as I love chocolate (and can still enjoy the smell) I haven’t eaten chocolate in a few years and don’t want to go back. When I want a frozen treat for myself, I buy fat-free vanilla frozen yogurt, and I’ve learned to love it.

If we have 10 people in a room, we might find 10 different favorite flavors of ice cream. Whether you like all those flavors or not, you can’t say that there’s a bad flavor of ice cream. There is a flavor I don’t like. I think it’s called Bordeaux Cherry—the one with little frozen cherry chunks in it. I think that flavor is gross, but some people must like it, or it wouldn’t be available at the store. There just isn’t a bad flavor of ice cream.

People are kind of like ice cream. I let my students know that you’ll find different backgrounds, skin colors, ethnicities, religious preferences, gender identity, lifestyles, mannerisms, social skills, abilities, humor, language, etc. And you might not like every flavor, but there just isn’t a bad flavor of person. In my classroom, I expect every student to treat every other student as worthy of respect. I expect all my students to honor each other’s differences and make my classroom a safe and welcome place to be.

The first day of a semester always requires time explaining policy and procedure. Rather than expecting my students to sit still and listen through all that (they won’t), I give them something productive to do with their hands while I talk. I tell them they can make one of these people for my “Every Flavor” bulletin board. I provide the figures as well as colored pencils and scissors. They get to work and I can teach what I need to teach.

If you want to replicate my bulletin board, you can find outlines for people online. Look for free croquis (figures for fashion drawing). I tell my students that I want them to draw a figure that shows their personality. I point out that I’ve got a lot of variety on my board—sports figures, TV and movie characters, students from a variety of cultures, etc. Students may draw what they want on their figure, as long as it is school appropriate. I tell them that if it’s not school appropriate, it won’t end up on my board, but it will end up being a conversation with the office and their parents. They don’t push me on that, so I really haven’t had problems. I add in that I won’t put up figures dripping blood or with anything coming out of their nose or mouth. These are some of the things you have to explain to 7th and 8th graders, so you get what you want. I also tell them I don’t care which gender figure they choose, keeping in mind that their finished drawing must be school appropriate. Once or twice, I’ve had boys draw female figures that looked demeaning toward women. When I asked the boys to tell me about their drawings, they quickly threw those figures away. In contrast I’ve had a few students make high-quality, respectful drawings of non-binary figures.

Once the figures go on the board, I often see kids standing in front of the board just looking and pointing to their own person or pointing out what they notice. Students seem proud of the cohesiveness that comes from this diverse collection. I’m proud of the diversity they are willing to share because I see it as evidence that they feel that my classroom is a safe place to be.

Choice as the First Step in Personalization

For several years I had a custom sewing and alterations business in a home studio. I put emphasis on the magic of a perfect fit. Clothes that fit well are flattering and build confidence in the wearer. When we teach interior design, we help students understand that effective interior design begins with understanding the needs and wants of the client. In the food-services industry every restaurant offers a menu with choices that will meet a variety of needs and tastes.

It makes sense that if we want students fully engaged in the process of learning, we need to offer them choice with opportunities that are precisely tailored to their needs. Student agency must be built into everything we do. Choice is not only the first step to personalized learning. It also provides automatic differentiation, which, in turn means inclusion for students from varied backgrounds and abilities. Choice allows us to offer our students the magic of the perfect fit. That, in turn, builds confidence, and isn’t that what we’re trying to do?

Teachers know that we should always begin lesson planning with the end in mind. Activities and assessments should align with objectives. That’s Teaching 101, and I’d like to go beyond that here. Keep all your effective, research-based best practices! Activities and assessments should still align with objectives. But when I’m lesson planning, I now add the element of choice whenever I can. Choice is the scale or measure I hold up to each new lesson plan. Students respond in amazing ways when they can make the activities and assessments meet their needs.

It’s important not to go crazy with personalization. If I could give one piece of advice, I’d say, “Start small. But do start.” Pick one or two lesson plans you’re already familiar with and see if there’s a way to add more choice into what you’re already doing. Once you feel steady with one or two lessons, reflect on what you’ve learned and build from there.

What does adding choice look like in the classroom? Here’s just one example.

My 8th graders have several State standards they need to meet in connection with sewing and textiles. These standards include using equipment properly and following safety requirements as well as using specific industry sewing techniques. In the past, we’ve met these standards over a 12-day unit with most of those days in our sewing lab. After two days focused on how to use equipment properly and safely, students create a drawstring backpack that incorporates all the techniques required by the State standards. Once students finish the backpack I have always let them work on optional projects in the sewing lab. However, this year, I was limited on the number of days my students could use the sewing lab because I have a class that meets during the same period as our ninth-grade full-semester sewing course. The teacher for that course was kind enough to arrange her schedule to give me nine days in the sewing lab so we could complete the backpacks. I knew my students would want more sewing, so we moved our sewing to the regular classroom with exclusively hand-sewing techniques and supplies.

Before we got started on projects, I let my students know what supplies and tools I would make available to them and asked them to submit a plan for a project they could complete using hand sewing. Some students found patterns online, and some students designed their own creations. I had all the necessary hand-stitching tools, embroidery thread, stuffing, small zippers, buttons, and beads. Fortunately, I also had several boxes of all types and sizes of fabric that had been donated to the school. My classes worked on their hand-sewing projects the last three days before Christmas break (usually among the most chaotic days of the year in junior high). And yet things were relatively peaceful in my classroom.

Not everyone will agree with me on this, but I feel that slow sewing has a calming, meditative effect. It was fantastic to look at my classes and see both boys and girls hunched over embroidery hoops or using other tools to hand make gifts, ornaments, or other small items. Each student chose what to make, which meant that the chosen project most likely fit each student’s ability level. Students were joyful and helpful as they worked. Most of them seemed excited to share what they had created.

The slow-sewing days were low stress for me, and I will likely incorporate them into future sewing units, even if the sewing lab has a higher availability. As always, when I reflected on these days there are things I would change for next time. Students had to wait in line to get a hand needle from me, partly because I wanted to make sure they got the right size and type of needle for the project they were doing, and partly because I wanted to keep an eye on the needles and make sure I got them all back at the end of class. Getting all the needles back was the trickiest part, as a few needles inevitably fell out of sight and ended up on the carpet every class period. Although I believe I found them all, I might incorporate a check-out system next time around—a trade-your-phone-for-a-needle option. They can get their phones back when their needle is safely returned.

Students also waited in line for embroidery floss if they wanted it, because I knew I needed to show them how to separate strands in the skene without making a giant, tangled mess. I would keep that process in place, but I would also streamline it by having the thread colors coordinated and wrapped on cardboard in advance. Overall, I’m happy with how the hand projects turned out, and even happier that I was able to allow my students so much choice with this activity while still meeting the standards with sewing techniques. Here are some examples of finished student work.

Each project showcases student personality!

A New Adventure

Hi! I’m Amy. My students call me Mrs. Coray.

Did you ever come to see something, quite suddenly, in a whole new way? As a teacher of family and consumer sciences and career and college awareness, I thought it odd that in spite of the ways I love my job, I am often restless as I help my students explore careers. “Ooh, that looks interesting!” I’ll think, as I look at new career options, “I wonder what that would require?”

I’ve actually tried on lots of careers in my lifetime. I’ve worked in a library, been an adoption caseworker, a music teacher, an elementary-school teacher in various grades, and owned my own sewing studio where I did alterations and custom sewing and taught sewing classes to students of all ages. True, I’ve been frustrated not to be able to settle on “one true calling,” even ashamed to feel restless at times when I love what I do.

It was actually because of my job that I came across Emilie Wapnick’s Ted Talk, “Why Some of Us Don’t Have One True Calling,” which took me completely by surprise. My life choices suddenly started to make sense.

I’m a multi-passionate creative. My current job as a junior-high family and consumer sciences teacher allows me opportunity to connect and to create. Besides working with students, I get excited about innovative, personalized, and project-based lesson planning that is inclusive for all students. That’s something I want to share!

Maybe you’re a parent trying to figure out how your teenager can stay engaged in learning either in-person or at home in online learning or a homeschool environment. Maybe you’re a teacher looking for lesson plan ideas or trying to navigate the world of personalized and project-based learning. I’ll have ideas and lesson plans to share with you.

Thanks for taking the time to stop by, and please feel free to comment! I look forward to getting to know you better.