5 tips for developing intersectionality practices and awareness in your classroom

In Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, the late Audre Lorde, an American writer and civil rights activist, said, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” While she was not talking specifically about school-age children in this country, she might as well have been; there’s no denying that countless issues influence kids’ ability to learn and be successful in school.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 1 in 10 students enrolled in US public schools is identified as an English language learner. (“English language learner” is the current term used in federal policy. I prefer “emergent bilingual” and will use that term throughout this post.) This number is set to grow to at least 1 in 4 students by the year 2025, according to research by the National Education Association. In addition, approximately 93% of emergent bilinguals are students of color, which means that, although not all students of color are emergent bilinguals, we cannot talk about emergent bilingual students without also talking about race and intersectionality.

What is intersectionality?

First coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in the late 1980s, the term “intersectionality” refers to the ways in which individuals are often subject to multiple forms of discrimination based on different aspects of their identity. It also acknowledges the ways in which resultant inequities compound themselves rather than exist in isolation.

[W]e cannot talk about emergent bilingual students without also talking about race and intersectionality.

Audre Lorde, for example, was a Black woman and also a member of the LGBTQ community. She probably experienced different hardships than a white woman or a white lesbian. She also had different experiences than Black men. For more examples of intersectionality, see the intersectionality infographic by the National Association of School Psychologists.

Why it’s important to develop intersectionality awareness and practices in the classroom

Thinking about intersectionality is especially important right now because research shows that interrupted learning during COVID-19 has affected student populations disproportionately: emergent bilingual students, students of color, and students with disabilities all suffered from more unfinished learning during remote learning than their white, monolingual peers without disabilities. When seen through the lens of intersectionality, the negative impacts only compound for students who identify with more than one historically marginalized group.

In the context of emergent bilingual students, we must consider how social aspects and classifications of identity—such as race, socioeconomic status, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, and immigration status, in addition to English language proficiency—impede students’ access to an equitable educational experience. Applying an intersectional lens helps us view how multiple social classifications interconnect and create further inequities for already historically marginalized individuals. For example, for a Black Hispanic student who is also transgender, we can ask ourselves questions such as how race and gender identity, in conjunction with the student’s native and English language proficiency status, affect their school experiences. More importantly, we can critically examine how these slices of identity intersect to determine the student’s level of access to an equitable education and any outcomes, positive or negative, relative to the status quo.

My recent posts have focused on emergent bilingual students but, as alluded to above, intersectionality touches groups beyond home language background. This means that even if you do not have any emergent bilingual students in your class, intersectionality is still a valuable lens for talking about student experiences. For example, a female Black student might be gay and come from an affluent family; a straight male Muslim student might have refugee status and come from a low-income family; an Asian American transgender student might have dyslexia; and a white monolingual student of lower socioeconomic status might have a visual impairment and be nonbinary.

[E]ven if you do not have any emergent bilingual students in your class, intersectionality is still a valuable lens for talking about student experiences.

It is also important to note that students who are members of the same marginalized groups and experience the same intersectionality may not experience the impacts of inequities to the same degree or in the same ways. A Hispanic and gay young woman may thrive in one classroom and struggle in another simply because of cultural perspectives in each one.

Understanding how intersectionality might play out in your classroom and developing intersectionality practices and awareness are critical to setting up kids for success. For students who experience inequities from the intersection of multiple social categories, awareness and classroom practices are crucial, not only for inclusive instructional practices but also for students’ mental and social-emotional health.  Awareness of intersectionality also benefits students who are part of dominant groups, to serve as a framework for understanding how individual and collective experiences may compare to their own.

Intersectionality practices to try

Here are some practical tips that can help raise your awareness and develop intersectionality practices in your classroom. This is by no means a complete list, and I have only scratched the surface of deep-rooted ideologies and firmly entrenched systems that require awareness and action if we want to  permanently replace and disrupt them. I encourage you to increase your knowledge in this space and seek out information, opportunities, and communities of researchers and practitioners with whom to share and collaborate.

1. Be curious and see differences as assets

Approach differences with curiosity and ask questions to invite sharing about experiences. Start sentences with, “In your culture, how do you….?” “What do you prefer about….?” “Which is better for you, _____ or_____?” “How do you say ____ in your language?” Foster a sense of security by asking rich questions such as these and modeling acceptance.

You can also encourage the use of multiple languages in your classroom by allowing students to respond in their native language or in a mix of their languages.

Both of these practices teach language structures and pragmatic behaviors that benefit both emergent bilingual students and their monolingual peers. Students can then apply these structures and behaviors when communicating in your classroom and beyond.

2. Give your students visibility so they don’t have to fight to be seen

Feeling seen can be very powerful for students, especially those whose home language and culture are different from those of most of their classmates and those who have been ignored, stigmatized, or discriminated against. Elevating voices that have been traditionally ignored gives students agency, and the power of their own stories can develop awareness of intersectionality in the classroom in a language-rich way.

To start, have students create identity maps that can inform conversations, discussions, lesson planning, and students’ self-expression. You can find an example of an identity map on Next Generation Learning’s “Designing for race equity: Now is the time.” Identity maps can be a shared or individual activity, depending on your students’ preferences. Use these maps to get to know your students but also as a tool to understand their needs and preferences.

3. Engage in conversations about intersectionality, privilege, and oppression—and choose representative materials

Acknowledging and appreciating children’s lived experiences values their individual stories. Being seen and heard, as well as seeing themselves represented in the materials they consume, recognizes and affirms students’ identity. Creating a space to talk about the impacts of intersectionality and examining how privilege and oppression have affected their lives can make for powerful opportunities in both the path to self-awareness and empathy as well as rich self-expression. Self-expression might be achieved in more private modes, such as journals or story writing, or you can discuss wider issues more openly in a group for reflection later.

Providing opportunities for students to reflect on their own lived experience and creating a space for expression can serve intersectionality goals as well as linguistic goals for the emergent bilingual student in particular. When you do this, pair topics with linguistic and communicative goals. For example, ask students to reflect on a time when they felt they could not be themselves (or a time when they could be themselves). Teach language structures that will help them express past tense, feelings, and actions. Follow up with students to ask how they would express those thoughts in their home language. Make connections between cognates and sentence structures that might be similar between the languages. Encourage multilingualism and multiple modes of expression (for example, allow students to record their work and present it in a video, slideshow, or even the language of their choice).

For more on setting communication goals and building equity for emergent bilingual students, see Adam Withycombe’s post “2 simple ways to build equity in your classroom for emergent bilingual students.” To learn more about teaching tolerance and antiracist practices, I encourage you to visit the website for national nonprofit Learning for Justice and to download our e-book by Boston educator Casey Andrews, Anti-racism in the classroom: A primer.

4. Teach the language of inclusion explicitly and examine language in your antibias work

Emergent bilingual students, especially those who do not identify with different social categorizations, will likely not learn about inclusive language in school. For example, they may not be taught terms such as “nonbinary,” “cisgender,” “gender fluid,” “underserved,” or “undocumented,” nor will they be familiar with acronyms including AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) or BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color). Incorporating the language of inclusion into lessons and work will help students access shared language that is typically used in informal spaces. Additionally, teaching the language of inclusion allows all students to develop critical thinking about who and what is centered in language development.

[S]et goals for yourself on how to raise awareness, elevate your students’ voices, and change the course of their narrative for the better.

It is also important to examine if and how linguistic bias plays a role in your students’ experiences. Psychologist Katherine Kinzler’s work has shown that people have biases based on the way others speak. In her research, she describes how children often show preferences for people with the same accent they have, regardless of race. She has observed that linguistic bias is a more covert and less examined form of bias compared to racial bias. Examining languages and accents with your emergent bilingual students, then, can be a pathway to understanding perceptions of differences. With your emergent bilingual students, discuss how their languages and views of how others perceive them based on language have impacted their lives at home and at school. It can be beneficial to open up this discussion to your entire classroom, so that students can reflect on their own experiences and learn from each other’s.

5. Design lessons inclusively by working at the margins

The multidimensionality of social inequities that could impact your students highlights the need for multidimensional and multimodal strategies in instruction. That is, if you assume a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching, you run the risk of excluding students. Instead, create multiple pathways by designing activities and instruction to the margins, as described by Andrew Plemmons Pratt in “Designing for race equity: Now is the time.” This not only supports human-centered design, but it also elevates the assets and funds of knowledge kids bring to your classroom and will, ultimately, benefit all learners.

When introducing a poem, for example, scan the text for words that might be difficult for both native and non-native English speakers. Look for regionalisms or variations in language that might not be clear.  Plan for visual and audio support and allow translanguaging in your classroom. You do not need to speak the languages of your students to be a facilitator for translanguaging. Use the linguistic assets of students in your class to provide pathways to meaning and incorporate language-conscious practices to benefit all learners.

A call to action

In closing, I would like to issue forth a call to action: challenge yourself to let these five tips guide you to critically examine your teaching and language practices. In this pursuit, ask yourself if you are truly and fully addressing the intersectionalities that may exist in your classroom. Reflect on how the varied, complex factors of identity might contribute to systemic inequities for many of your students, and set goals for yourself on how to raise awareness, elevate your students’ voices, and change the course of their narrative for the better.

Not sure exactly where to start? Create an identity map for yourself, so you can begin to reflect on how you are the sum of multiple parts of your identity. In modeling and practicing self-reflection and awareness of your identity, you and your students can create a space for conversation together.

Many thanks to Kayla McLaughlin, Spanish Solution Specialist, for her contributions to this blog post.

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