Safe Spaces & Brave Spaces – Home & School

In light of the recent free speech executive order, the topic of safe spaces on college campuses has become more prevalent in popular and news media sources. What I have read has inspired a few thoughts that I would like to share. I believe that college should generally be a relatively uncomfortable place, not because discomfort is the objective in itself, rather because it is the natural result of growth and progress. In the college environment I should be challenged to think in new and different ways. I should be exposed to a diversity of thought that is foreign to my own. I should be presented new ideas that enrich my perspective and broaden my view. In summary, the classroom should be the arena, not the spa.

I also believe it is important to have a controlled environment, call it a “safe space”, to consider in my own way what I have learned in the classroom. This safe space should be my home, a familiar place where I am can close the door and be left to mentally digest what I have learned.

I have two daughters, one of which will be going to kindergarten in the coming months. I know school will be a place where she is confronted with new ideas that may be uncomfortable. I am glad this the case. It is for her good. Also, I am glad that she has a safe and familiar home to return to at the end of each school day. It is my responsibility to provide her with both places and support and guide her as best that I can.

Diversity and Inclusion: My VT experience

If you’d asked me in 2015 how I felt about diversity and inclusion policies, I’d probably have rolled my eyes and called them BS. At that time in my life, I’d just graduated my with my BS in biology from Lincoln University, a small HBCU in Pennsylvania. Most of the faculty and all of my friends were black. A majority of the student population was black, and when I traveled home for holidays, I went back to a sea of black faces. I never felt left out or excluded because I wasn’t. I was part of the majority. Within the next few years, that all changed. When I first set foot on Virginia Tech’s campus in August 2017, I immediately felt that things were different. I’d never seen so many white people in one area before. I sat in my first few classes and felt like an oddball for the first tie in my life. Seeing my colleagues’ performance in class, I started to feel like I was behind the curve, like I didn’t know as much as them. As the months flew by, these feelings started to intensify; I started feeling like I didn’t belong here. Even at social events, I just felt like I stood out, my interests and conversations weren’t that of the white majority and people didn’t really get what I was saying. In my head, the white students had knowledge far superior to mine and I didn’t stand a chance at competing. In the few years between undergrad and grad school, my academic world view had been completely flipped. How could I hope to be successful in a place where people like me clearly aren’t?


This is exactly the reason why diversity and inclusion policies should absolutely be enforced in the classroom. I was blessed enough to attend an HBCU where my blackness was not only acknowledged, but nurtured.  Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. I entered an environment where my culture is not fully understood and the lack of a large black population caused me to feel alone. This caused my academic performance to slip, my confidence to plummet, and warranted a few visits to Cook Counseling Center. VT faculty do try their best to create an inclusive and diverse environment, but ultimately they fall short (at least in my field). The policies are often talked about and they’re written in the syllabi, but in day-to-day activities, I hardly feel included in the conversation. When I bring up race, I get a fearful look from faculty and a scripted response of something along the lines of “you are a valued member of the community”. Cute, but it doesn’t help me sleep at night. We’ve come a long way in terms of diversity/inclusion, don’t get me wrong, but it’s time to focus less on the policies and terminology and put it into practice. Let’s live that truth, so that we can have the diverse faculty and staff we desire on paper, so that we can have more diverse graduates who don’t have to drop out due to depression and anxiety. Let’s not talk about it, let’s be about it.



The Theoretical Impact of an Inclusive Classroom in Saudi Arabia

Currently, the classroom situation in Saudi Arabia is segregated between men and women. Women are the disadvantaged group, with less access to resources and more hardship endured while obtaining an education. But, what if the concept of an inclusive pedagogy were introduced in the Saudi education system?

Inclusive pedagogy, as I understand it, is a classroom where the students and teacher cater learning that reaches all students, despite background, style of learning, and ability so that the classroom is a social justice charged, supportive, open environment. The main objective is to create a classroom that allows students to feel like they belong and that they are all equally valued.

The first step towards introducing an inclusive classroom is through integration of the genders in the learning environment. Traditionally, women are not seen as equal in the eyes of society, as well as the law. But more recently has there been a push to bridge that gap and women have started to feel closer to equals with their male counterparts. However, there are still inequalities that women face, and one of those is education. By introducing integration in the classroom, women and men are able to interact, allowing for introduction of more idea exchange and enhanced discussions. The application of an inclusive pedagogy excels that discussion through more progressive ideology and the emphasis on equality for all students. Classroom integration, in theory, would prove vital in promoting social justice and furthering equality for women in Saudi Arabia.

Despite the beginning of bridging the gap between men and women in Saudi Arabia, there is still going to be traditionalist and conservative people who will be against the idea of inclusivity. The desegregation of the classroom would cause backlash from those against the idea, and possibly spark protesting, boycotting, and even extremes like intimidation and violence. This could prevent students from attending classes both because it goes against their beliefs or they are afraid to go to class.

The idea of an inclusive pedagogy in Saudi education could be beneficial and provoke further conversation towards social justice and equality. On the other end, there is still a lot of change that needs to occur in the traditional mindset and in the society, both in Saudi Arabia and the world as a whole to allow the ideas of social justice and inclusivity into not only the classroom, but into the culture.

Being “impartial” and how it has the opposite effect

This week’s readings and podcasts kept reminding me of that phrase you might hear someone say “I don’t see race; I treat everyone the same.” The idea of being impartial when applied to teaching students does seem great. All students are taught the same, they learn the same, and they are all given the same opportunity to achieve. Unfortunately, this is only an ideal case. Going back to Dr. Brandy Faulkner’s discussion of the null curriculum, by treating all students the same and ignoring their social identities (race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. and their intersections), we ignore what make each student unique, ignore the experiences the students have, and ignore how these experiences affect the way the students learn. In STEM fields, this mode of thought seems especially prevalent, as the material is viewed as being right or wrong with little grey area. Therefore, it is viewed as an area of education that can be taught the same regardless of the student’s identity, when that is not the case.

One concept I try to keep in mind for my teaching philosophy is that every student has their own “funds of knowledge,” or experiences, abilities, and past learned information that a student draws from in order to dissect, comprehend, and learn new material. I have typically seen this term applied towards English-language-learner students (I think I first read it in Vélez-Ibáñez and Greenberg, 1993), but I think it can be applied to any social identity or experience a student has. In terms of applying it towards teaching, it boils down to trying to get to know your students and what experiences they have had. This can be tricky, as not every identity is extremely salient/visible, you don’t want to just outright ask what struggles a student has had, and as mentioned int he Heinemann podcast, it shouldn’t be the responsibility of those of a marginalized identity to educate the masses. But I’ve found simple conversations with students before classes start or when they come to office hours can provide at least some insight. If one student talks about how they have been traveling home to work at the farm all the time, I can work a similar example into the labor management module of the class. Or if there are non-binary students in the class, including characters with gender neutral names and pronouns in case studies might provide some more engagement.

By being impartial and ignoring what funds of knowledge our students have, we will not be engaging them as well as we could and they won’t be learning as well as they could be. One concept that I’ve found appealing is the exact opposite: Multi-partiality. Instead of treating all of the students the same, an educator is partial to the multiple differences in their student population. In doing so, they can create more engagement in the classroom and build a stronger bond between the teacher and students. In larger classrooms, this can be very difficult, as we aren’t going to know everything about every student in a 400 person lecture. But small things that aren’t as specific but demonstrate you are inclusive of the diversity in the student community can go a long way. This could be including your pronouns on the syllabus, using examples from history that aren’t just white men, or providing time and resources to students in class to work on assignments to reduce socio-economic biases that are prevalent in the collegiate community. It’s probably unlikely we’ll be able to include every identity of every student and their intersection, but the effort to be inclusive will go farther than the effort of trying to be impartial.


What is racism?

If you ask this question from the community I grew up. I think half of the people will struggle to answer this question. Because this is a topic we do not talk about back in my country. That does not mean we are an anti-racist country. People are racist most of the time, but yet no one talks about it or care to comment on it. So they are uncomfortable to talk about racism. I still can not pinpoint the reason why we do not talk about racism.

So it was a new experience for me to talk about racism after coming here. In the beginning, these conversations were really awkward because I did not know what to say. But what I realized over the time is it becomes easier to talk about it when you here so many deferent ideas or thoughts from different people and when you feel conferrable to talk about it. You become confident enough to talk about what you felt or been though. This is an advantage you get in a diverse community.

Something I always believe is, the subject matter is not the only thing students should learn in the classroom. Therefore, diversity is important in the classroom, it brings different personalities to the classroom. At the same time, it is important for the classroom to be a safe and comfortable place for students to learn and to speak, without races religion or gender being a factor. I quote from inclusive pedagogy post:

“The human mind depends on unconscious mental shortcuts and generalizations”

I think this is something we all can agree with. People generalize things so easily and they are biased to what they feel right or good. But this is not always true. In fact, most of the time out generalizations are wrong. Most of the time that’s what society has decided not our selves. kind of similar to the autopilot mode Shankar Vedantam talk s about in the book The Hidden Brain. A great example is children as young as 3 linked white faces with positive attributes and black faces with negative attributes – science writer Shankar Vedantam The Hidden Brain interview. I doubt that kids as young as 3 years would have ever had any positive or negative experiences with any of these people. This is what they have learned (unconsciously)from the society they live in. As Vedantam says, it is better to put race on the table, to ask [children] to unpack the associations that they are learning so that it helps us shape those associations in more effective ways. More diverse the class more benefit the students would get because they can listen and discuss with different personalities. So that they learn through everyone’s experience and ideas rather than just blindly following the society.

Inclusive Pedagogy

I have listened to podcasts and read the articles about inclusive education, while I thinking about what I am going to post on this topic I realized how it is difficult to write about any topic related to racism. I found out a great tendency to avoid writing about this topic. Isn’t it interesting? I am making up my mind about what to write about why the education system needs to be inclusive; and at the same time, I have the fear of not to offending some people and the uncertainty of whether I am exclusive as well!!! Maybe some part of my fear is due to what  Shankar Vendantam explains in “The hidden brain” and I afraid that deep down I have some racial preference. Also, it might be due to the cultural difference between my country of origin and the U.S. as a multi-cultural country. Or maybe I have to study more about the boundaries and depth of inclusiveness to reduce my uncertainty.

Here is what I wanted to write briefly: I believe having a truly inclusive system requires time and consistent effort to be able to gradually change the unconscious biases of people. This cannot be achieved in a single day but a long investment is required to educate fair instructors to teach children how to deal with their unconscious preferences, which can be based on gender, race, abilities or even attractiveness. Meanwhile, the system has to protect individuals against others who take advantage of the privileges for both minorities and majorities. And this is what I do not know how can be actually feasible.


Week 8: Inclusive Pedagogy

The podcast “Dismantling Racism in Education” had a section at the start where one of the authors Cornelius goes into the constituent parts of the learning system and provides the example of “if only writing counts as work, the kids that are culturally predisposed to speaking…nets less in that system.” He goes on say that your particular culture and/or racial or ethnic background doesn’t allow for success. This reminded me of an experience I had as an English as a second language speaker back in grade school.

I started in the English Speakers for Other Languages program in the 1st grade and went to the ESOL classes that were scheduled a few times a week. I was stuck in this program until I went to middle school. As a quick learner, I was proficient in English very-quickly, but I felt that I was chained to the program. I excelled at the subjects taught whether it was history, science, math, or even English. I yearned for more to learn and more to do, but was unable to fill that void. This would have been offered by the “Gifted and Talented (GT)” Program at my school, but I was unable to join it. The reason cited for this was that I was still in ESOL and that I could not succeed or do well in it…It took me a long, long time to realize that this had even happened to me.


Shifting gears a little, as a teaching assistant and educator, I loved reading on open-minded, inclusive materials and how to utilize those. I am terrified about trying to incorporate these “difficult conversations” that may arise in my classroom from utilizing such material. Although there are tips provided on establishing guidelines and ground rules, a big fear of mine is that I will say something inappropriate without meaning to, or a heated argument will occur.

Inclusion in the classroom

As a white male with tons of privilege, this topic has always been an interesting and necessary topic for discussion for me. I grew up in a very affluent area and went to a very well off public school with very little diversity. I was raised to respect people everyone as an individual and to remember that everyone has their own stuff to deal with. As a result, I’ve always wanted to be inclusive and politically correct and what not. But it can be very difficult to educate yourself. The internet can take you down many dark alleys while speaking to others in person tends to just get uncomfortable.

I think the Heineman podcast does a good job of breaking down the need for discussion. It can be especially important in school because we need to learn to have tough discussions at some point. I think we need to learn how to avoid offending people while talking about sexism, racism, bigotry, and all our other problems. I think we need to learn how to tell superiors their behavior is inappropriate. I think we need to learn to ask for enlightenment.

But I also feel that much of our society emphasizes not talking about issues. School is a tremendous place to do this because we generally try to emphasize the idea that there is no such thing as a dumb question. The problem is that we need some techniques, some ice-breakers, to get into the topic and to keep people from shutting out the discussion. Does anyone know how to do this? I honestly don’t know how to break through someone’s conscious, and unconscious biases.  Plenty of people tune out anything that doesn’t match their biases, so we can’t really have a discussion with others until we break that barrier. What are your thoughts?

Why diversity is hard to embrace

This week readings about diversity reminded me of one TED talk that I have listened a while ago. I don’t remember it exactly, but the speaker might have begun to tell a story by asking the audience who they would have come along with there, whether their companions are same nationalities, gender, age group, and looking like themselves. The point was that people tend to stay in their social comfort zone and get along with people that seem familiar and similar socioeconomic identities.

It is obvious and scientifically proven that diversity can increase innovations, creativity, and problem-solving abilities, as Katherine W. Phillips discussed (“How Diversity Makes us Smarter”) Also as our society has become more culturally, ethnically, religiously diverse, diversity matters for not only practical reasons but also for ethical and philosophical reasons. However, it is also very difficult to embrace diversity in reality, if it is not informational diversity in particular. Let me illustrate my observation of tension that social diversity has brought. It was through my research on community gardens. I have four case study sites with different characteristics. One of my findings from those four cases was that strong sense of community emerged in a community garden that is composed of more homogeneous neighbors. On the other hand, one community garden, which was territorially embedded in one neighborhood, encountered tensions and conflicts because the organization that operated the community garden brought gardeners from outside of the neighborhood. Original gardeners wanted to keep the garden for their own neighborhood’ asset and did not want to mingle with outside people. Eventually, most neighborhood gardeners had left and the community garden ended up being isolated from that neighborhood. I cannot say that this is the case for every community garden, but it was really hard to integrate socioeconomically and ethnically different group of people in those community venues.

The scientific results Katherine W. Phillips suggested are mostly the cases in workplaces, education, higher levels of decision-making and teamwork, which require more information and innovation, not in informal social relationships. As the TED speaker, I mentioned earlier, pointed out, our desire to be with people like us and maintain the status quo might be a big hurdle to engage with diversity.

Understanding Diversity and Inclusion

As I started going through the readings assigned for the week to understand and dismantle the terminology “diversity and inclusion”, I am reminded of my experience of studying social sciences in India.  During my master’s education in India at the Tata Institute, several of my classmates were from various diverse backgrounds: gender, socio-economic,religious, linguistic, and historically marginalized communities and cultures. These students came from different geographical locations of India. Throughout the master’s program in Rural Development studies, we were required to talk about various socially sensitive issues which could result in emotive responses.

During the first week of the classes, to prepare us a class to grapple with socially sensitive issues we were both individually and in the groups, made to go through various “sensitivity” workshops. At that time I could n’t understand the rationale behind undergo these mandatory workshops, etc. After I have started teaching as an instructor in the U.S. who is a woman of color, petite, and has a foreign accent, I realize the importance of those workshops and my master’s education. These “sensitivity” workshops made me understand the criticality of knowing and understanding diversity. They played an integral role and set up the tone for the entire class during the Master’s program and for sure made the difference on our learnings as we grapple complex social issues. These learnings went with me a long way and contributed both personally and professionally in my growth.

We at Virginia Tech have tried to make our classes as inclusive as we can. We attend courses, workshops, scholarly talks, etc. which helps us to assemble various strategies and methods to make us class inclusive and better handle the sensitive issues in the class. These learnings have been very useful for me as I teach my classes as a woman of color with a foreign accent. But my experience of teaching also has made me realize the importance of the sensitivity workshop I had to undergo as a student during my Master’s program. Having said that, I strongly feel Virginia Tech has a large population of international students and so, considerable diversity. The onus of making a class inclusive should not be just on the instructor but also on the students. As a small suggestion, we should take a step further to make students enhance their learning experience by teaching them to cherish diversity on the campus. Maybe more workshops, seminars, and discussions around the university can help immensely both the instructor and the student to enhance their education.

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