I have always believed that by learning another language, children and teenagers can discover new ways of understanding the world and of expressing themselves. They can explore their own and others’ cultural identities and reflect on and question certain values and principles – particularly those which represent the unchallenged status quo. English language lessons and pedagogical materials for children and teenagers that promote social justice are thus paramount in today’s world. 

Last month, I attended the IATEFL YLTSIG Emerald Anniversary Web Conference for TEYL professionals around the world. The event was organised in six strands and I was happy to see that one of these focused on Diversity and Inclusion. I would like to share some of my reflections regarding the sessions in this particular strand. It is important to recognise that ‘diversity’ is a very broad area, encompassing a wide range of visible and invisible differences and that ‘inclusion’ considers the ways we can harness and maximise the potential that diversity offers to the world of TEYL. 

Using picturebooks to promote anti-bias awareness – Griselda Beacon

In her talk, Inclusive English language classrooms: promoting children’s anti-bias attitudes through picturebooks, Griselda Beacon highlighted the importance of incorporating diversity in children’s English language education since it exposes bias, prejudice, discrimination and injustice and promotes curiosity and respect for others, contributing to developing a critical consciousness for challenging hegemonic dominant practices. Picturebooks present ways to explore complex themes that are accessible to children as well as function as a vehicle to naturally engage them in English language learning. It is important to note that sometimes children’s first contact with worlds different from their own is through stories, which also presents an opportunity for teachers to choose stories that create a window on diverse experiences. 

Beacon shared examples of picturebooks for raising awareness in ELT of issues related to gender stereotypes as well as ethnicity and race (for example, Look Up! and Clean Up! both by Nathan Bryon and Dapo Adeola, I’m a Girl by Yasmeen Ismail) and how to work with these to foster creative responses and to problematise bias. I’m a Girl encourages children to challenge gender stereotypes and ideas such as that there are toys (and professions) which are restricted to particular genders. This could lead to questioning the socially constructed concept of gender itself – rather than being girls or boys, they are children. You can watch the recording of the talk here

Becoming an anti-racist educator – Bruno Andrade

Bruno Andrade delivered a memorable plenary, Becoming an anti-racist ELT educator. With lots of practical examples, Andrade showed the importance of a critical pedagogy for teaching children and teenagers – as they encounter racism and need to be empowered to bring about changes in society. He raised the question of what each of us is doing to give birth to an anti-racist society and how it is essential that we understand that becoming anti-racist is both a goal and a (never-ending) process, as it involves identifying privilege in our societies, acknowledging it, and acknowledging the voices of people from historically oppressed and marginalised groups.

I found it really interesting to follow the conversation in the chatbox, in which some attendees did not acknowledge the existence of racism where they were located. While this conversation was happening, Andrade was talking about the fact that race is socially, historically, and culturally constructed so we must learn how racism manifests locally and the shapes and forms in which it comes. It seems to me that during this ongoing process of becoming anti-racist educators, some colleagues are still at the stage of identifying privilege – and how navigating the world without recognising racism in a local context is a privilege in itself. 

Andrade encouraged us to say how we felt when discussing race so that we could measure our level of discomfort and he mentioned steps to promote anti-racist practices so that educators can find comfort in discomfort and promote social change. Some of these steps involve finding out what exactly is holding you back from having such conversations in your classes (e.g., a lack of knowledge, support, and confidence), problematising materials and creating classroom agreements related to racism such as ‘We will use respectful language and avoid judgmental words’. Andrade also shared strategies for responding to racist remarks in a way that is non-threatening and educational, for example, ‘You know, I used to think that too. But then I learned… and now I think…’ Although it might be uncomfortable at first, examining whiteness and taken-for-granted privileges is the beginning of the journey to promote social change and for education to move beyond boundaries, to transgress – the practice of freedom as bell hooks (and Paulo Freire) maintained. You can see a recording of the plenary here.

Being community-responsive – Jeff Duncan-Andrade

IATEFL YLTSIG Blogs Editor, Joan Kang Shin led an Inspire conversation with Jeff Duncan-Andrade on Celebrating children’s tenacity and growth in inhospitable and toxic environments. They talked about Duncan-Andrade’s work as one of the founders of the pioneering Roses in Concrete Community School in the USA. When talking about the importance of teacher education, he highlighted the fact that it is not possible to prepare teachers for all of the possible contexts they might face when teaching learners in underprivileged locations or when coming from underprivileged backgrounds. There is no manual; you cannot prepare teachers to do the work unless they do the work. 

It is common to see the reproducing stories of success in a different context, but we must understand that each person from a historically oppressed group has individual and unique characteristics. They are also influenced by their local context, so we cannot assume that what works well in context A is going to have the same results in context B. Teachers need to be prepared in a critical way in terms of technical, social, and emotional competences so that they can be responsive to the realities of each context – adapting and adjusting to what their learners really need. The idea of cultural responsiveness – of us as educators, being community-responsive, is key for me when approaching diversity and inclusion. You can see the inspiring conversation here

Teaching for the future – Angelos Bollas 

The talk, Equality, diversity, inclusion, and professionalism by Angelos Bollas stressed the essential importance of practices related to diversity for an English language teacher’s repertoire. He emphasised how practices connected to diversity and inclusion are linked to what educators understand the role of education (and of an educator) to be. He highlighted how education has a dual role: it is about preparing learners for employment opportunities (an instrumental role) and it is also about developing values and preparing learners to be citizens (an inherent role). 

Bollas maintained that aspiring teachers enter teacher education with their own beliefs – and they are linked to their teaching practices. We need to find a way to break the cycle of discriminatory thinking so that English language teachers can be advocates for social justice. It is about examining our schools and asking ourselves questions such as, ‘What kind of world do we want people to live in?’, ‘Who is in?’, ‘Who is out?’, ‘Who gets to decide that?’, and ‘What are we going to do about it?’

Diversity practices are not about expanding what should be included as the norm, but they focus on the deconstruction of a norm. They are not ‘add-ons’ that only brave English language teachers incorporate into their practices, but they should be a responsibility of each and every educator and educational institution. Classes should be safe spaces – places where everyone’s voice is valued and heard. Bollas invited participants to make the decision to review their current practices and to teach for the future, starting now. You can see the recording of the talk here.

The strand overall

It was eye-opening to see educators from different contexts sharing their perspectives on the diversity and inclusion strand as well as the discussions which originated in the chat by the highly engaged audience. I am hopeful that these conversations keep on happening and include people from various contexts. This will help a critical pedagogy to become a reality in English language teacher education and in the teaching repertoires of those working with children and teenagers – the only real way that educators can be agents of change.