Anti-Bias Education: 6 Ways to Create a More Respectful Classroom Environment

By The Choices Editors
March 15, 2017

In this month’s Different Like You profile, Lexi Brock, 17, speaks out about what it’s like to be multiracial in a culture that doesn’t always recognize her unique identity. Her story addresses some of the real challenges many multiracial teens face and is sure to get you thinking about ways to bring a greater sense of inclusiveness to your classroom and lessons. "Students learn best when they feel like they belong," says Calvin Lai, research director at Harvard’s Project Implicit. This list of ideas, summarized from Teaching Tolerance’s Critical Practices for Anti-Bias Education Guide, will help get you started:


1. Create a classroom contract. Ask your students to come up with a list of agreements for talking to one another and working out differences. Some examples could include:


  • Listen with respect to the experiences of others.
  • Try to understand what someone is saying before rushing to judgment.
  • Put-downs of any kind are never okay.


2. Look at the way your space is set up. The physical environment of your classroom can send subtle but significant messages about diversity, relationship-building, and roles of students and teachers. For example, a classroom set up in a U-shape with the teacher’s desk at the head, posters of U.S. presidents, and quotes from J.F.K. and Winston Churchill sets a very different tone than desk clusters of four with posters of quotes from Maya Angelou and Aung San Suu Ky.


3. Rethink participation norms. Class work has traditionally centered around large group discussions with emphasis on students volunteering to answer questions. However, research has shown that this style can favor boys and those who are adept in verbal learning. Active listening, artistic response, small-group talks, and written response lessons can help kids with different learning styles. In fact, we have a great Write and Reflect activity this month, which asks students to reflect on times they’ve felt misunderstood or stereotyped—without having to share it out loud.

4. Get students thinking critically about classroom materials. In trying to surround students with inclusive imagery and learning aids, you might not be able to buy brand-new posters, books and texts. But you can ask students to think about ways in which the materials you’re currently using can present certain viewpoints and exclude others.


5. Point out other ways society can be exclusionary. In the story, Lexi spoke about working with Project Race to push companies to add a multiracial box to job applications and tests. Ask students to name other forms of identification or official records that may reinforce biased, insensitive or limiting notions, then have them brainstorm ways these could be changed to be more inclusive.


6. Invite sharing around diverse backgrounds--safely. When asking students to explore issues of identity and culture, it’s important to build a safe space where all students feel respected as individuals. Taking time to learn the proper pronunciation of every student’s name; getting to know student’s hopes, challenges and family backgrounds; and including texts and lessons around the unique make-up of the classroom can all help. (That said, don’t invite students to speak on behalf of their respective group unsolicited, which can reinforce bias, stereotyping and "otherness." Instead, share personal examples first and broadly invite anyone in the class to share if they choose to, referring to classroom contract rules about respect before they do!)

Click on the image above to read this month’s Different Like You feature, "What Are You?" (in which multiracial teen Lexi Brock recounts her experiences of feeling marginalized.)


More Choices Different Like You stories to encourage empathy, tolerance, and inclusiveness:

  • "I Escaped a War Zone": As a Syrian refugee, 16-year-old Zain has been through danger and hardship, and he knows just what it's like to face adversity. 
  • "I Wear a Hijab. So What?": Naomi, 17, wears a head covering called a hijab to honor her Muslim faith. Her story will encourage religious tolerance. 
  • Noah is Blind: Noah may be blind, but at just 13, he's already a licensed lobsterman, a talented musician, and a dedicated runner. 
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