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Students come to our classroom with varied backgrounds and experiences, and their friendships are no exception to this variety. Students typically form friendships, join groups, and associate with others with whom they share social status, interests, cultures, and other factors. For example, when students are allowed to choose where to sit in the lunchroom, they typically sit with others who share some or all these characteristics. These affiliations often extend to other activities and even find their way into the classroom. In fact, most classrooms are crisscrossed with multiple invisible social lines and unspoken boundaries of association and interaction.

Our challenge is to deliberately blur many of these lines to foster understanding, promote empathy, and build respect for others regardless of background, culture, and other factors. The world for which we are preparing today’s students will be even more diverse, and their success in it will require understanding, collaboration, and learning from people who approach and have experienced life differently.

We can create an environment within which students can connect, collaborate, and contribute without risking disrespect, rejection, and isolation. However, our work must be sensitive, deliberate, multifaceted, and sustained. Here are six strategies to consider.

First, we can use our actions and attitudes to set the stage for blurring lines and erasing unhelpful social boundaries. We must be conscious of and monitor our own behavior to ensure that we do not reinforce lines and boundaries in how and with whom we interact. The example and tone we set can free and encourage students to emulate our behavior. Our choices about on whom to call for ideas and answers and who we invite to perform classroom tasks matter. We also need to ensure that our expectations regarding the behavior and academic performance of students are not influenced by their race, culture, history, socioeconomic status, or other aspects.

Second, we need to monitor—and if necessary, createinclusive curriculum content and experiences. For example, when what students are learning reflects multiple cultures (including art, history, literature, and societal contributions) and customs, they are more likely to value and respect life approaches that may be different than what they have experienced. Virtual field trips, inviting students to share their experiences, and guest speakers can add perspective and increase student exposure to varied life experiences. These elements can also lead to important discussions and deepen the understanding students have of each other.

Third, we can help students to identify strengths they possess and ones they want or are working to develop. Self-assessments, our feedback, and observations may be necessary for some students to grasp and own their unique areas of strength. Building student awareness of their value and assets can build confidence and encourage students to take social risks. When students own their strengths and talents, they are more likely to volunteer to assist other students. Meanwhile, when strengths and talents are the focus, students are often more comfortable asking for assistance across typical social and other invisible lines.

Fourth, we can engage students in meaningful collaborative work. We might structure activities and projects to have students work with others with whom they may not otherwise associate. However, we need to design the work so that students get to know and depend on each other, not just perform separate tasks that join to create the final product. Explicit norms for working together may be helpful. Depending on the age and makeup of the class, we may need to assign roles so that students who may have natural leadership talents and are outgoing do not dominate and less confident and experienced students have permission and responsibility to lead. Developing and providing provide job descriptions can also help students to understand and perform their roles.

Fifth, we can further blur lines when we work with students to develop and pursue shared class goals. Class goals might focus on developing and practicing good studying and learning habits and skills, identifying a community or school service activity, collective performance improvement, and/or other worthy efforts in which everyone can participate and contribute. However, we need to be careful not to create internal competition or conflict that might embarrass or shame some students, thus undermining our goal of blurring social lines and boundaries.

Sixth, we can notice and reinforce student behavior that reaches across social, academic, and other invisible lines. Our attention and recognition matter. We can set the stage, create supportive conditions, and establish expectations, but our reinforcement of the behaviors we want to flourish is important to building and sustaining a culture of inclusion, valuing, and respect.

Of course, as we blur social and cultural lines, we not really erasing them as much as we are creating an environment in which differences are respected and celebrated. By lessening separation and fostering connections, we can create a space in which every student feels accepted, understood, respected, and empowered to succeed.

Thought for the Week

AI can teach and share knowledge, sure, but it lacks the key elements of human modeling, nurturing, and connecting that are essential components of a comprehensive learning process.

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