Riding the Waves Together

Riding the Waves Together

By: Heather Kretschmer

A little over 10 years ago, my family and I moved from Germany to the US for a year. As the breadwinner, I taught ESOL[1] classes at a local university. It was very enjoyable working with international students whose languages and cultures I was not familiar with. However, it was not all smooth sailing. In one of my courses, the students struggled, sent sullen looks my way, and weren’t terribly eager to participate in class activities.

After a few weeks of this, I asked my boss to observe a lesson in this class to give me feedback. She gave me lots of good advice, but one comment she made I will never forget. She pointed out that when some of the Chinese students were talking to each other in Chinese during class activities, the lone student from Saudi Arabia sitting nearby was left out. Prior to her comment, I had noticed the use of Chinese during class but allowed it, rationalizing that these students were drawing on their full linguistic repertoire to complete their English tasks. But by trying to accommodate my Chinese students’ needs, I inadvertently neglected my Saudi student’s needs. He was excluded from opportunities to bond with his classmates and participate in learning activities.

[1] English as a Second or Other Language

Exclusion in the classroom

Our students can feel excluded for many different reasons. Gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, native language, social class, neurodiversity, educational background, and disability are just a few reasons why students might be excluded, or feel excluded. Some of these are more visible than others. For example, a teacher or classmates might not notice a neurodiverse student. That student might also not feel comfortable communicating their way of thinking to others.

And we generally have students of varying language ability levels in our classes. Students at higher proficiency levels and students who are self-assured may attract the teacher’s attention and admiration. Let’s be honest, as language teachers we are grateful when students are willing to communicate in the target language. Of course, we’re going to express our happiness with our body language and verbal praise. But, in doing so, we might overlook students who struggle or are less confident in their linguistic abilities. Let’s take a look at how different language levels contributed to some students feeling excluded in a real language classroom.

In one of her studies (2022), Akiko Kiyota (a contributor to this issue) examined microlevel social interactions in an English-medium classroom in Japan. The students’ English levels varied. She termed the less proficient speakers of English “emergent bilinguals” and the more proficient speakers of English “native speakers.” After observing the classroom interactions for a semester and having three emergent bilinguals reflect on their interactions each week, Kiyota found that the emergent speakers were often excluded. This exclusion was unintentional and co-constructed, meaning the behaviors of both the native speakers and the emergent speakers contributed to this exclusion. On the one hand, the native speakers often spoke too quickly during discussions, making it difficult for the emergent speakers to follow and respond quickly enough. The native speakers also tended to not use body language or other feedback to encourage emergent bilinguals to participate in the conversation. On the other hand, the emergent bilinguals did not always use facial expressions to signal that they didn’t understand or felt uncomfortable with the speed of the discussion.

I would argue that this experience is not an uncommon one in foreign language classrooms. How often do we have students who hide their lack of comprehension? How often do we have students who inadvertently dominate pair work or group work? If you’ve ever experienced feeling excluded during a foreign language class, you probably know how painful that can be.

Social exclusion: What happens in the brain?

Forming and maintaining social bonds with other people is a fundamental part of who we are and how we evolved as a species. As Matthew Lieberman writes in Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect (2013): “[w]e all have a need to belong. Signs that others like, admire, and love us are central to our well-being” (p. 76). When threats to our social bonds occur, our brain processes these threats much in the same way as it does physical pain (Lieberman, 2013). Social exclusion is one such threat to our well-being.

How the brain processes and responds to social exclusion is complex and not yet fully understood. Our perceptions and reactions to social exclusion change over time and depend on the situation (Kawamoto et al., 2015). When we become aware of social exclusion, we feel social pain. Social pain is defined as: “the distressing experience arising from actual or potential psychological distance from close others or from the social group” (Eisenberger & Lieberman, 2005, p. 112). As our brains process social exclusion, three brain regions are particularly imp0rtant: the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, the anterior insula, and the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (Kawamoto et al., 2015). These brain regions are also activated when we feel physical pain.

If social exclusion is a form of social pain, it’s important for teachers to reduce social exclusion in our classrooms. In doing so, we should aim to be as inclusive as possible in our teaching practices and foster connections students make with one another.[2]

[2] See the September 2020 Mind Brain Think Tank for more information on the social brain.

Navigating inclusion

People have different understandings of what inclusive teaching is. In Teaching in Higher Ed (2021), Tracie Addy explains what inclusive teaching means from the perspectives of instructors she and her co-authors surveyed for their book, What Inclusive Instructors Do: Principles and Practices for College Teaching (2021). Inclusive teachers create equitable learning environments for learners with diverse needs. Addy says, “[w]e need to be responsive to that diversity and to really think about who’s in our classrooms […] so that they grow and develop in their educational experiences.” By considering students’ diverse needs when designing learning activities, teachers help more students succeed. An equitable learning environment is one in which every student in a class can fulfill his/her potential. It also allows students to feel they belong to a community of learners, and belonging is critical to learning (Addy, 2021).

I find creating an equitable learning environment and welcoming all students to that environment is like steering a boat. Sometimes, I think I’m right on course in smooth waters, but other times I feel adrift in rough seas. An inclusive teacher needs to be willing to make many stops along the way to take stock and make course corrections.

Taking time to reflect is crucial. Ideally, this reflection is ongoing, from course design, through a course’s progression, to post-course changes. During course design, think about the students you generally have in your teaching context. Consider the activities you’re planning. How might these activities exclude some students? What adjustments can you make to help as many students feel included as possible?

These questions are directly connected to equity in the classroom. Equity “acknowledges the differences between learners, their diversity, and the types of learning environments that help learners succeed” (Addy et al., 2021, Ch. 1, para. 3). In the video “Equitable Teaching” (Step 10), Maha Bali encourages teachers to think about the different learners in our courses and consider the barriers they might face. She notes that different strategies, such as Universal Design for Learning (UDL), have been developed to address potential problems different kinds of students might have.

Bali connects these different strategies with different layers of roumy cheese, a special Egyptian cheese.

Maha Bali’s Roumy Cheese Analogy; used with Maha Bali’s permission

The two key characteristics of roumy cheese are: 1) its holes and 2) its peppercorns. Bali places barriers to learning on one end of the line and our students at the other end. Between the two are multiple layers of roumy cheese, each layer representing a different strategy. We layer different slices of roumy cheese in such a way that the holes are blocked. This way, students don’t come in contact with the barriers. However, Bali cautions us that a strategy aimed at helping one group of students may in fact be harmful to other groups. The potential harm is symbolized by the peppercorns in roumy cheese. What this means for teachers is that we need to weigh the potential benefits and the potential harm different strategies might cause and select appropriate strategies to promote maximum equity for our students.

How else can we promote inclusion?

Beyond these larger course design considerations, there are small-scale steps we can take. These include using welcoming language, gathering information about students, pronouncing students’ names correctly, integrating community-building activities into lessons, and guiding classroom interactions with an eye on quieter students and struggling students. Let’s unpack these things, one by one.

When preparing for a new school year or a new semester, check if you’re using welcoming language in your official communications to students and parents. Consider the difference in tone in the following two syllabus examples (source):

    • Instructor A: “If you need to contact me outside of office hours, you may email me, …”
    • Instructor B: “I welcome you to contact me outside of class and student hours. You may email me, …”

Which class would you want to be in? I’d prefer the second one myself. Some college instructors have adopted a liquid syllabus, which is an intentionally welcoming website with course information and an introduction to the instructor (example). Throughout the liquid syllabus the instructor uses warm, inclusive language, which reduces student anxiety prior to a course and helps students feel that they belong in that course. One advantage of the liquid syllabus is that it is set up using a website tool and can be easily changed as a course progresses. As Pacansky-Brock (2021) expresses so beautifully: “Like water, a liquid syllabus has no fixed state. Rather, it is dynamic and responds to the ever-changing needs of a learning environment.”

A second advantage of the liquid syllabus is that the content reads well across different devices, including mobile phones. This helps students easily access important information about the course. The instructor emails students a link to the liquid syllabus a week before the class starts so that students can get their bearings. As Pacansky-Brock, who designed the example website linked above, points out: “The week prior to the start of an online course is a high opportunity zone for mitigating belonging uncertainty” (source). Although Pacansky-Brock is referring to online courses, a liquid syllabus can also be used in on-site courses.[3]

Once we have a class list, we can find out some background information about the students sitting in our classes. Ask students to fill out a short student profile form like this one from a Tweet thread by Viji Sathy (2022). After trying out Sathy’s profile form myself, I found the information students provided allowed me to fine tune the course for them. In particular, the last two questions pinpointed my students’ views and needs:

    • It is important to me that all members of the class feel supported, respected, and included. Can you share with me your version of what inclusion looks like in a course/classroom setting? If it helps, you can provide examples of what inclusion does not look like.
    • Lastly, please share anything that you would like me to know about you as a learner.

[3] If the liquid syllabus idea intrigues you, I encourage you to visit an open-access course Michelle Pacansky-Brock has created for instructors. She gives teachers doable tips and links to examples of liquid syllabi.

What I also like about Sathy’s profile form is that it asks students how they pronounce their names. Sathy recommends teachers learn how to pronounce their students’ names correctly. Doing our best to pronounce our students’ names correctly is a simple way of helping them to feel included.

Once the school year or semester has begun, we can create inclusive learning environments by weaving community-building activities into our classes. In foreign-language classes, community-building activities do double duty by strengthening the bonds between students and allowing them to interact in the target language. One excellent, freely available treasure trove of community building activities and videos created and curated by Equity Unbound and OneHE can be found on this website.

Be aware of quieter students in your class who may escape your notice. Here are some ideas for helping these students participate more fully in class activities:

    • Think-pair-share: All students think about a prompt first, then exchange ideas with a partner (link to Harvard Project Zero description).
    • Personalized conversation cards: Students think about a prompt and take notes on a card before exchanging ideas with a series of partners (link to Scott Bowyer’s description).
    • New partners: Throughout a course, have students pair up with different students and in different groups. Monitor pairs and groups to make sure that one student isn’t dominating the conversation.
    • Active listening strategies: Encourage students to show each other whether they understand what’s being said and also to show each other appreciation of what’s being said (Kiyota, 2022).
    • Waiting: When posing a question to your entire class, wait longer than you might ordinarily do. For example, you can wait until at least five of your students have raised their hands. Or you can wait three to five seconds before calling on a student whose hand is raised and then wait another three to five seconds for another student’s response (link to Kent State resource). This can result in more students being willing to participate in general, and if we think back to the class Kiyota (2022) observed, waiting longer can help students with lower language ability process the question and formulate a response.

If we have students at lower levels struggling to communicate in the target language, should we allow them to use their native languages? I think so, as long as we also gently encourage them to communicate as much as possible in the target language. What about other students who might be excluded, like my student from Saudi Arabia? Sensitize students to the possibility of excluding classmates who speak other languages. Practice mediating strategies with them in which they first discuss something in their native language and then mediate that information into the target language for classmates speaking other languages. How about students that seem to be chatting away in their native language totally off task, for example during pair work? What might be happening here is that one partner is a learner of high emotional intelligence and is trying to reduce her/his partner’s anxiety and reluctance to speak in the target language (Kimura, 2020). Don’t immediately reprimand them. I must admit that even I sometimes feel a little annoyed by students speaking in their native language. But then I remember to not ascribe bad intent to students’ use of their native language and simply remind them to give it a go in the target language.

When good intentions are not enough

Teachers generally have good intentions. Sometimes we think we are helping students, but actually we may inadvertently harm them. Although human beings have a need to belong, you might have students in your classes who do not feel the need to belong to your class. Ask yourself this question: do you feel the need to belong to every group you possibly could? I sure don’t. If a student doesn’t feel like belonging at the moment, maybe they will choose to belong at some point in the future. Leave the door open for that student, but don’t exert undue pressure on them.

But what can we do with a student who doesn’t seem to want to belong? A sensible course of action is talking with the student, listening to them, and then deciding together what is the best way forward. As Maha Bali pointed out in a recent keynote address (2022): “you don’t want to bring people to a table that’s already set” (41:16). By that she means that it is problematic when we ask marginalized people to take part in a particular endeavor but haven’t involved them in the decision-making process. But what we think is best isn’t always so for our students. Listen to them.[4]

[4] I highly recommend reading Maha Bali’s website (2018), A New Approach for Listening, in which she outlines different ways of listening to people to try to truly understand them.

Sailing, sailing . . .

In German, there’s the expression “alle ins Boot holen.” Literally, it means getting everyone onto a boat, but it’s often used figuratively in the sense of getting people on board or including people. For me, inclusive teaching is a boat trip. Sometimes, my boat is leaky, and I have to patch the hole. Sometimes, I steer the boat into inlets that go nowhere. I’m still on my journey and have a long way to go. It’s hard to stay the course, but the journey is definitely more enjoyable with a delicious roumy cheese sandwich and a bunch of students, each one unique.


Heather Kretschmer has been teaching English for over 20 years, primarily in Germany. She earned degrees in German (BA & MA) and TESL (MA) from Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Currently she has the privilege of working with Business English students at the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Germany.

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