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#ELVS21 Sneak Peek: Students Tackle Belonging and Identity

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    EL Education

We sat down with Student Advisory Council members, Kayla and Jasper, to learn about how educators and students can cultivate a sense of belonging in school, affirm identities, and more. Hear more from Jasper and Kayla when they lead us during the EL Education 2021 Virtual Summit.

What are ways you have felt celebrated for your identity in school?

Kayla: My teachers bring my identity into my learning through our curriculum. For example, in 10th grade English we read Street Love, which is a remix of Romeo and Juliet, centered around the Harlem Renaissance. At my school, we also have lots of unique ways to celebrate Black History Month. One year, each crew at school researched and created a quilt square about an influential Black person. The purpose was to educate all students on a lesser-known hero. Those patches turned into a really beautiful quilt that is on display for the whole school community. I am passionate about building more participation for Black History Month within the Black community at my school and beyond. I have a vision of engaging our district’s African American Youth Initiative (AAYI) which is more than 30 small groups in Kenosha Unified School District (KUSD). I want to create an event during Black History Month with guest speakers, dances, and music featuring Black entrepreneurs and Black business owners. I have been empowered to make these plans because my identity is celebrated.

Jasper: My identity has felt celebrated through our school in our Gay Straight Alliance (GSA). It’s a place where I have a lot of friends and we can talk about meaningful topics. When teachers include lessons on LGBTQAI+ issues and pride I feel celebrated. For example, we’ve learned about queer people like Sally Ride in science class and we talk about pride in crew. I do wish there was more representation of people with disabilities. There is some awareness, like teachers mentioning Craniofacial Acceptance Month, but it’s just sprinkled in and could be more intentional.

What does it feel like when you have a sense of belonging at your school?

Kayla: Teachers and our administration see what is happening in the world and they check up on me. They do this because they care and we all belong to this school community.

I can trust teachers and be comfortable with them because they will listen to me and validate my experience. Kayla

At my school, there are opportunities to learn about a wide range of cultures. This is important for the whole school because it means we are all working to be better, to know more, and to avoid causing harm through our own ignorance.

Jasper: When I have a sense of belonging, I feel comfortable and safe enough to share my voice. It’s like there is a confirmation that no one will rain on my parade. When I have a sense of belonging it empowers me to engage and be an active participant in my learning and school community. It gives me a sense of reduced anxiety so I can learn.

Why is it important to create space for all students to be themselves and have their identities affirmed in school?

Kayla: All students deserve to have their identities affirmed at school because they might not have that opportunity at home. We spend so much time at school! From classes to extracurricular and after-school activities, we really need that inclusive support at school. It shows students that no matter their race, religion, sexual orientation, gender—there should be space for everyone. Humans were not made to be the same, we were all made to stand out.

A school is a place for learning and growth. If someone is not affirmed and valued, they are not able to grow and learn, but when they are, that will spread throughout their communities. Jasper

What are some ways educators can ease the transition for their students as schools return to in-person learning across the country?

Kayla: I suggest ice breakers because not everyone will recognize other people from before virtual learning. This isn’t necessarily bad, I just think some people found themselves during quarantine. Maybe someone feels like a new person that evolved during quarantine, maybe they don’t have the same personality as a year ago.

I think it’s important that students work in groups as much as possible. We really need to work together because we had so much time by ourselves! Schedules might need a little extra breathing room for calm and quiet time as students process this big change back to in-person learning.

Jasper: Students are overwhelmed and excited to be back in person. It’s been two years since we’ve been in school! The majority of us want to be back, but my message for teachers: don’t rush into anything. Students are exhausted too. Please take the students’ advice, listen really well, and be calm. Lean into the fact that nothing is normal and we all have new schedules.

How do you help to cultivate a culture of belonging at your school?

Kayla: I don’t treat people differently because they don’t look like me. Some people call me an old lady because I say old school things like, “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” I truly believe that. I am aware. I notice the kids who feel shy or don’t want to open up. I make the effort to connect with them and we brainstorm ideas of how to make school better for all of us.

Jasper: I help to create a culture of belonging by being an advocate: on the EL Education Student Advisory Council and in my school. I speak with counselors, the principal, teachers, and my peers. I speak up during crew meetings and I support my classmates and encourage them.

You can hear more from Kayla and Jasper, and other experts at the EL Education 2021 Virtual Summit, taking place from October 28-29th.

*EL Education is proud to host diverse voices and offer a platform for dialogue on topics impacting educators and students. Views of panelists, presenters, and guest bloggers are their own and may differ from the views of EL Education.