Increase Feelings of Belonging with These Powerful Strategies

In a recent blog post, we discussed ways we may combat our implicit biases to help make our classrooms more equitable. We’re working from the National Equity Project’s1 definition of educational equity: when each child receives what they need to develop to their full academic and social potential. Over the next several newsletters, we’re going to discuss teacher moves and instructional strategies that can help create more equitable classroom environments. 

Whereas last month we looked at our own implicit biases, today let’s consider our students' internal psyche, in particular their sense of belonging. 

Paul Tough, in his book Helping Children Succeed, explains belonging as “a student’s perception that the people in her school, or in her classroom, want her there, that she is a welcome and valued part of that particular learning environment.”2 As mathematics teachers, we know all too well that many of our students come to us feeling as though they don’t belong in our class because of negative experiences with mathematics.

So how might we help students feel welcomed and valued? Here are two strategies to consider.

Spider Web Your Classroom Discussions

There are dozens of high quality classroom discussion protocols out there, but the Spider Web discussion, popularized by Alexis Wiggins3, puts belonging and equity at its center. 

The purpose of the Spider Web discussion is to conduct an equitable conversation about a topic. In most cases, students sit in a circle so that they can see each other while the teacher rests outside of the circle “drawing” the conversation and making shorthand notes next to each student’s name for individual feedback.

When students understand that the purpose is to create an equitable conversation, they are incentivized to really listen to each other, invite quiet classmates into the conversation by asking them a question, and police their own voice. The Spider Web drawing then serves as one piece of evidence for the degree to which the discussion was equitable.

In mathematics classrooms, sometimes it's helpful to utilize multiple discussion prompts during a Spider Web conversation rather than one. You might consider questions such as:

  • How did you begin to think about this problem?
  • What is the relevance of…?
  • What might happen if…?
  • What possible mistakes might someone make?
  • What are the mathematical ideas within this problem?

(In next month’s newsletter, we’ll discuss ways to help create the classroom safety necessary for meaningful student talk and vulnerability).

Give Encouraging Feedback to Alleviate Stereotype Threat

Stereotype threat is when a student doubts the intentions of others based on assumed perceptions about his or her identity4 - one possible reason for a student to feel a low sense of belonging. While it can be felt by anyone, stereotype threat is commonly felt by students who have a teacher of a different race or background than themselves. One heart-breaking manifestation of stereotype threat is that when students receive feedback, they are more likely to attribute positive feedback to external causes and critique to internal causes, engaging in self-blame. 

The good news is that small modifications to how we give feedback can yield striking results. A 2014 study by Geoffrey Cohen and others4 showcases this fact. These researchers studied a diverse group of 7th graders - asking each student to write a paper, which was graded and commented on normally by each student’s teacher. Before students were given back their papers, they were told they could revise and resubmit if they wished. Researchers then placed one of two sticky notes on top of each paper, randomly selected. One sticky note read 

“I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your paper,” (bland note)

while the other note read 

“I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.” (encouraging note)

Cohen and colleagues then compared the number of resubmissions from each group. Among white students, 87 percent of those who received the encouraging note resubmitted papers, compared to 62 percent of those who got the bland note, a noticeable increase. Among African American students, however, 72 percent in the encouraging note group resubmitted, compared to only 17 percent of those randomly chosen to receive the bland note, a more than 4x increase! One possible conclusion is that the encouraging note helped mitigate the harmful effects of stereotype threat and increased students’ feelings of belonging. 

For math teachers, this encouraging sticky note could easily be put on the top of a quiz or test being returned or this message could be given verbally as assignments and assessments are being returned to students. 

Spider Web discussions and encouraging feedback are great ways to positively affect our students’ sense of belonging, but they aren’t the only ways. Whatever strategies you might use, working to ensure our students feel like they belong goes a long way toward making our classrooms equitable. 

Pete Grostic, Ph.D

Executive Director

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1 National Equity Project

2 Helping Children Succeed - Paul Tough 

3 The Best Class You Never Taught - Alexis Wiggins

4 Breaking the Cycle of Mistrust - Cohen et al.