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Fostering Belonging in the Classroom: Celebrating and Supporting Latinx Students

Fostering Belonging in the Classroom: Celebrating and Supporting Latinx Students
Multiethnic school kids using computer in classroom at elementary school.

Latinx students bring rich and diverse threads to the complex tapestry that is our public schools. Their cultural backgrounds, lived experiences, and unique strengths infuse our learning environments with a vibrant blend of cultural assets, languages, and histories that broaden our horizons and deepen our understanding of the world. When schools respect, honor, and celebrate the diversity of Latinx students, we enable learning environments where all students benefit.

Unfortunately, the diversity of Latinx students is often seen as a monolith. For example, research shows skin color can play a role in how students are treated in the classroom — many Latinx students face harsher disciplinary actions, are held to lower academic standards, or have limiting beliefs placed upon them. The effects on young people are damaging and harmful. And treating a diverse community as a homogenous group only creates additional undermining of identity and self-confidence.

When Latinx students are generalized and their identities invalidated, it can harm academic wellness:

  • Reduced self-esteem: Delegitimizing a student’s identity can lead to feeling like an outsider, a sense of inadequacy, and deepen insecurity.
  • Lower academic performance: A lack of belonging in the classroom can negatively impact a student’s academic performance. A sense of alienation can divert students from learning and hinder their ability to engage with the curriculum and instruction.
  • Limited participation: Students who feel their identities are not valued may be less likely to participate in class discussions and activities. Disengagement further isolates them from the learning environment and from developing critical relationships with their teacher and peers.

Educators can take simple but vital actions in creating an inclusive and supportive learning environment for Latinx students. Earlier this year, NTC released The Elephant in the (Class)room, a call to embrace teaching and learning as a dynamic relational human exchange, and to empower educators to deeply know their students, themselves, and their teaching craft. Anchoring to this mindset is critical to creating learning experiences that leverage students’ strengths, interests, and cultures in the design of instruction and academic content.

For NTC, this means implementing practices that build optimal learning environments where students (and educators) thrive:

Create Emotionally, Intellectually, and Physically Safe Environments
Sample area of focus: Nurture self-awareness, identity development, and sense of purpose

  • Empower and encourage Latinx students to share their experiences and perspectives in the classroom by amplifying their voices. Create opportunities for them to lead discussions and projects related to their culture and identity.

Implement Equitable, Culturally Responsive, and Standards-Aligned Curriculum and Instruction
Sample area of focus: Create an inclusive community where all aspects of diversity and learner variability are understood, expected, and welcomed

  • Use culturally relevant teaching methods that acknowledge and validate the cultural and linguistic diversity of Latinx students. Incorporate examples and experiences from their racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds into lessons.

Meet the Diverse Needs of Every Learner
Sample area of focus: Leverage individual strengths to support academic, social, and emotional growth

  • Recognize that every student is unique and may require individualized support. Take the time to get to know each student personally and understand their specific needs and challenges in the context of their individual strengths in designing their learning experiences.

Optimal learning environments are places that celebrate and amplify Latinx communities and the cultural capital they bring to the classroom. But doing so requires full acceptance that Latinx students’ diversity represent many identities, such as multilingual learners and non-Spanish-speaking Latinx students. While these students encounter many of the same challenges as multilingual Latinx students, non-Spanish-speaking Latinx students frequently encounter harmful generalizations and stereotyping from adults in the school building. These often stem from the assumption that all Latinx students are Spanish speakers and/or multilingual learners, yet 72% of Latinx individuals ages 5 and older report speaking English proficiently, up from 59% in 2000. And many come from backgrounds where indigenous languages or other languages are spoken at home, but not Spanish.

NTC’s Strategic Advocacy Project Manager Alexis Pena Tomasetti felt sorted into a block that she didn’t feel truly represented the fullness of her identity as a student. “Not knowing Spanish left me with a feeling of isolation. In the 1960’s, my Spanish-speaking grandmother felt the pang of exclusion as a student. Two sides of the same coin that made us both struggle with the same question: Where do I belong?”

Non-Spanish-speaking students’ cultural identity must be acknowledged, affirmed, and validated — both within the Latinx community and society at large. They comprise a significant segment of the public school population, approximately 30% of [Latinx] public school students report speaking only English at home, which is projected to grow quickly. While the cognitive benefits of being bilingual or multilingual are widely documented in the body of literature, it is critical for educators to also understand this student population, their cultural and linguistic needs, to minimize bias and properly serve non-Spanish-speaking and multilingual Latinx students. We honor all students when we honor their assets, needs, and stories.

* The broad, pan-ethnic term “Latina/o” is used in US public education to encompass a diverse group of cultures, ethnicities, and languages. For the purpose of this piece, we use the term “Latinx” to be inclusive of both this group and our non-binary and LGBTQ+ Latinx students and educators.

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