The *First Two Steps* Towards Setting the Tone for an Inclusive Classroom – (Vol. 1/5) – “Strategies For Hearing ALL Voices” Series




Wanting to make your classroom more inclusive, but don’t know where to start?
​Take five minutes to try this with your students.




**UPDATE 03-18-20**  –  A MESSAGE FROM JEN

WOW, a LOT has happened in the week since this blog was first published. What a difference a week can make. The world is upside down.

We get that considering new instructional strategies might be the furthest thing from your mind while you’re stuck in quarantine, working from home indefinitely, and teaching yourself how to conduct virtual school on the fly.  {Is this real life?!} 

NO RUSH! Take your time to decompress and do all the self-care that a time like this necessitates.

Maybe one silver lining of all this is actually having the time to read, reflect, and invest in your own growth and practice. If that sounds like where you’re at, read on. Jenna’s got a great article for you!

​If not, no pressure at all– take all the time you need. You deserve it. We’ll be here when you’re ready.

Thanks, as always, for being a Co-Creator,





Earlier this month, in launching the series on Strategies For Hearing ALL Voices, we looked at collaborative & cooperative learning as one of the critical practices for anti-bias education.

But we all know that collaboration and cooperation don’t “just happen.”

So how do we cultivate the kind of environment where they can?

Try these 2 simple practices to set the tone for an inclusive classroom: a place where all voices can be heard.


​        – Time Required: 5 minutes
       – Materials Required:  None


“Opening Circle” is a powerful routine to gather in community.

A common misconception is that the opening circle is only for first thing in the morning. However, it can actually be used any time that an “opening” would be helpful–  it can happen at the beginning of a day, at the beginning of a class period, or even at the beginning of a new activity.

​It’s a time to reset, to focus the energy of the group, and to hear the voice of every member of the community before moving forward. 


The circle shape is key!     It is important that this conversation happens in a circle so that every face can also be seen equally. A circle is symbolic in many ways, and it creates a completely different tone than rows or table groups. It gets everyone into a collective mindset.

The teacher is a part of the circle.     When the teacher joins the circle as a participating member, it creates a united sense of community.  Every person in the space is seen as a contributing member, none more or less than the other, no leaders or followers, just one collaborative community in this moment. 

Setup:     Ideally, to form the circle, students can sit on a carpet, arrange chairs (without desks), or simply stand in the classroom to be free from distractions. When sitting at their desks, their hands and eyes can be easily distracted to things other than the speaker.

For younger children it can be helpful to provide more guidance on how to hold their bodies while they are sharing and listening.  For example, “sitting criss-cross applesauce” or “rooting their feet in the ground and folding their fingers.”


Limited on space, our circle often resembled more of a semi-circle. Wanted to share this photo of imperfect execution to show: it’s ok to start where you are, with what you have. It’s about progress, not perfection! 🙂

Keeping it quick    ​With a group of new students that don’t know each other yet, everyone can simply say their names aloud one-by-one. If students are already familiar with each other (and if time permits), students can also share a short answer to a specific question along with their name.

Try limiting responses to a just one word, one phrase, or one sentence.  That can help keep the energy and engagement up as the speakers switch from one to the next quickly.

It also ensures that every speaker has an equal amount of time to share, without turning the floor over for a longer period of time for a long-winded student (teachers, you know the one!).

And of course, it keeps the opening circle to only a few minutes of class time, while still reaching the same intended result of connectedness. 

Question prompts:     The kinds of questions you ask in Opening Circle are the sort that don’t have a right or wrong answer.  Rather than being a quiz, they’re the kind of questions that create space to share a personal feeling or experience. This allows students to share about themselves and further connect with each other, without fear of embarrassment or failure. 

Whole-body listening:     Frame the expectation up front for “whole-body listening.” It’s helpful for students to know what to do when it’s not their turn. Waiting is hard! Set them up for success with some modeling. Some language to use with younger students might be to “listen with not only their open ears, but also with their open eyes” on the speaker.

Throughout the opening circle, don’t forget to verbally acknowledge those students that are listening with both their eyes and ears; it provides positive reinforcement for those that are holding space for other speakers.

And finally…     The Opening Circle establishes the tone and classroom environment in which all the day’s activities will take place. It conveys that there’s room for everyone’s voice, and that every individual member of the classroom community is valued for their experience and perspective. 

A few resources to help you set up and run your opening circle:

  • Responsive Classroom and Developmental Designs are two SEL frameworks I’ve used before and found really helpful for setting up some kind of Opening Circle routine. Both organizations offer booksthat are jam-packed full of greeting ideas, question prompts, and team-building activities to do as a group.
  • This article from Edutopia gives a great overview and background on the circle practice and its Restorative Justice roots​​
  • Our friends & colleagues over at RestoreMore created a culturally responsive, restorative-justice-grounded Circle Kit! (Here’s a preview to see how awesome it is)​



​        – Time Required:  1-2 minutes of Think time
       – Materials Required:  None


Picture how many times a day– or even how many times within just one activity– that we as teachers are asking questions of students and seeking out their responses. Wow! It’s a ton.

Think-Pair-Share is a way to shake up the usual Q & A routine, adding a more inclusive and collaborative bend.

There’s a good chance you’ve tried or at least heard of this one before.
   …But wait, there’s more!

Even if you have tried this one before, I want to encourage you to challenge yourself with emphasizing the Think part. That’s the part we tend to rush, or skip over, or de-emphasize too often. What difference might it make in your classroom to regularly and routinely give ample think time?

After a question is asked by the teacher, students take a moment to first Think silently on their own about the answer.

This allows space for an

intrapersonal learning style before engaging in an interpersonal learning style. Students have a chance to consider their individual past experiences or activate their own prior knowledge before discussing with a partner or contributing to a group.

Let students know up front how long they will have to think.  Keep time on a stopwatch or visual timer, and set up a signal for when time is up (such as a chime or a verbal cue).   Alternatively, you can ask students to

Put your Finger on your Brain, until you’re ready to Explain, which gives you visual indicator of who needs more time to think before engaging in a group discussion or whole group response. 

2)  PAIR

Next, students are prompted to Pair up with another student nearby, share their thoughts with that person, and listen to their partner’s thoughts.


Pairing up before sharing out in a large group ensures that every single student has the opportunity to engage with a peer and have their voice be heard (even if time does not allow for every single voice to be heard by the entire class).

It also allows students take a risk and “try out” and discuss ideas that they may be unsure of in a small, safe setting with just 1 person before being vulnerable enough to share them with the whole group.

Just like back in the Think step, you can again keep time on a stopwatch or visual timer during Pair work. This time, though, it is helpful to signal the halfway mark with a chime or verbal indicator to ensure that both students have an equal amount of time to share.

And remember those “whole-body” listening expectations from the Opening Circle practices earlier? Pair time is another good opportunity to model, remind, and reinforce those. Being a good partner means not just telling, but also listening. 

Finally, students come back together as a whole group to Share out the ideas that they had thought of independently and discussed with their partner to further refine. 

​What makes this better than the usual Q&A routine?
Giving students independent think time can be a game changer for our slower processors and our introverts. An inclusive learning environment makes space for all learners!




The Opening Circle and Think-Pair-Share (again, emphasis on the *Think* part!)  may be simple, but these two simple practices have the power to transform the tone of a classroom.

The Opening Circle can quickly become a ritual that students look forward to everyday, knowing that the first thing they will do after morning announcements is to gather together and take a moment to connect with each other.

Think-Pair-Share (or variations of the structure) can become the go-to format for any Q&A time, building a habit of thinking-before-speaking and making equal space for another’s voice. 

​Give these 2 strategies a try and let us know how it goes!


We want to hear from you:

What quick and simple rituals have you set in your classroom to ensure that every student feels seen and heard every single day? 

​Let us know in the comments!​


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