Credit: Allison Shelley for American Education
Students at Sutton Middle School use online research to answer questions during a lesson in history class.

“There will be a craft opportunity this afternoon, please come and join me and your friends in creating a Christmas Tree” the teacher stated through the virtual learning platform.

“Teacher, I don’t celebrate Christmas.” “Teacher, I don’t celebrate Christmas either,” some students said.

“That’s okay, you can just sit this activity out. I will see you all on the next learning call,” the teacher responded.

This was the experience I witnessed during my daughter’s virtual learning session.

My daughter said, “At my old school they created activities for all of us to do, not just some of us.”

At 8 years old, my daughter understands that every student should be made to feel included.  She recognized that in her class there was a missed opportunity for everyone to share about their culture and traditions.

Students feeling valued, seen, heard and included should not be left to chance. It should not depend on the teacher, school site or school district. Rather, this should be the experience of all students, everywhere.

As districts develop and refine plans for how to spend billions of dollars on professional development through the Educator Effectiveness Funds, I believe they should prioritize professional development around inclusion behaviors.

Simply put, this is about educators learning how to teach and behave in ways that make all students feel that they belong. It is critical that teachers gain support in identifying and meeting the needs of all their students and particularly those who do not share their cultural background.

In my years as a classroom teacher, I made it my mission to make sure all students were able to engage in all the lessons and learning experiences in my classroom. Author bell hooks’ words capture my commission and moral imperative best:

“I entered the classroom with the conviction that it was crucial for me and every other student to be an active participant. …”

At the beginning of the school year, I took the initiative to glean as much information from parents and families as possible to help ensure the lessons I designed in class would not exclude any of my students. I was able to do this through interest surveys for students and parent questionnaires.

I scheduled individual “meet and greets” with parents, and when they were unavailable for an in-person meeting, we met by phone. Additionally, at the beginning of the year, my class engaged in getting-to-know-you activities that asked students to talk about their culture and traditions.

This gave my students an opportunity to share what they celebrated. Each year students shared about Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Three Kings Day, winter solstice, and some shared that they did not celebrate holidays at all.

Opening the floor for students to share about themselves in a safe space enabled their classmates to have the rich opportunity of access to a window that allowed the exploration of different cultures and traditions. Additionally, it helped me as the teacher to become informed on the many diverse backgrounds in my classroom. This informed how I selected and designed activities.

Taking the extra time to learn more deeply about my students and their families led to rich rewards in the classroom. I was able to pick literature that reflected the many backgrounds in my classroom, which led to increased engagement and a strong sense of community and belonging in my classroom.

Additionally, after school during the wintertime, our fourth grade teaching team facilitated an arts-integrated learning opportunity for students and parents that explored the customs and traditions of many in the community we served. We identified winter holidays from around the world and created different stations in our multipurpose room that provided a brief summary of the holiday coupled with a hands-on craft. Families were at each station for 20 minutes, then rotated to another station. Engaging with parents and community members in this way created an authentic partnership between the school and the community.

My classroom was viewed by my students and their families as a safe space for learning where their children would have the opportunity to fully engage in all aspects of learning without fear of exclusion.

All students deserve the opportunity to be included and have access to all learning experiences delivered by the educator in the classroom. But this cannot happen unless education leaders make it a priority. Professional development that gives teachers the opportunity to learn the importance of creating and facilitating learning experiences that include and consider all students, while simultaneously being exposed to what it looks like in action is a start. However, coaches must be available to support teachers in understanding how to integrate these practices into their classroom culture.

It should not be something extra, rather it should be a mindset that is cultivated and frames all learning experiences.

Currently, the Educator Effectiveness Grant is offering an opportunity to invest in building the capacity of our teaching workforce, in efforts to improve outcomes for students. Making sure that all students are included and that their needs are being considered when developing learning opportunities is a critical component of achieving that.


Tamra Simpson is a national science of reading facilitator/literacy coach. She is also the Teach Plus policy manager for Teach Plus California and a member of EdSource’s Teachers Advisory Group.

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