Mirrors and Windows

What does it mean to foster “belonging” within a classroom? With the creation of our school’s Statement of Belonging and our ongoing professional development focus on differentiated instruction, we took the time for reflective practice. This is especially true when it comes to our curriculum and pedagogy. How does what we teach and how we teach allow our learners – and those who support them – to feel empowered, valued and welcome in our learning spaces and the world around them? 

Certainly, as an International Baccalaureate (IB) school, this has always been an aspect of our philosophy and something we’re explicitly evaluated on every 5 years. As a member of the IB, we value and celebrate all languages spoken in our community and highlight both local and global contexts in our units. As a Reform Jewish community, we understand that our responsibility to repair the world (Tikkun Olam) can only be fulfilled if we learn to appreciate and understand our place in the world and its diverse inhabitants. However, despite these two overarching philosophies, the concept of belonging is ever-changing with our evolving community and the world around us. We need to ensure that we’re reflecting and improving accordingly. 

To best capture what belonging means within the context of our curriculum, I often like to use the metaphor of “mirrors and windows” to describe our approach. The “mirrors” refer to the learning experiences that reflect our own identities, perspectives and values. This is particularly important considering the challenges that Jewish communities are now facing. Providing a strong sense of community and identity allows students to feel proud of who they are and what they offer their community and the world around them. Of course, “mirrors” are at the heart of our Jewish Studies curriculum, but they are also embedded into our planning across the disciplines. We have customized IB unit planners which include a “Jewish Connection” element, allowing teachers to plan for relevant and meaningful Jewish content. We also provide the opportunity for teachers to review the scope of their programs to ensure they include resources that reflect the experiences and backgrounds of their students, and balance that with “windows” into experiences and backgrounds outside our walls. 

Much like “mirrors”, “windows” are found throughout our program. This allows students to feel a sense of belonging and connection to the diverse world around them:

  • In Grade 1, students explore issues related to accessibility. They audit the school and playgrounds to understand these spaces through the eyes of people with physical abilities different from their own. 
  • In Grade 4, students inquire into the concept of poverty and learn about the challenges faced by those experiencing it. 
  • In Grade 8 Judaic Studies, students learn about the creation stories of people and cultures from around the world.

These units, and many more within our program, provide important new perspectives, perhaps ones that will allow LB learners to grow up to understand their important place within the greater community and how to make others feel that they belong. 

One evolution from the past decade is our expanding understanding of “difference” beyond race and religion. This has resulted in the need for new approaches to differentiation that will make our classrooms more “user-friendly”. For example, we now understand that a single learner’s ability and readiness to learn can change from day to day depending on their circumstances. We also understand that a learner’s sense of themselves (ie. their self-concept and identity) being reflected in the curriculum and pedagogy can have a profound impact on their achievement and sense of belonging in the classroom. For example, if a student is neurodivergent (e.g. they have ADHD or ASD), their unique ways of learning and thinking need to be addressed and valued. A variety of family structures and socioeconomic backgrounds should be reflected in our resources and the language we use as well, to allow all our students to feel “seen” within the classroom.

Creating a sense of belonging through curriculum requires a balanced approach. We aim to provide learning where students can see themselves, their Jewish identity and their community represented to make them feel empowered and valued for who they are. At the same time, we aim to build upon that strong sense of identity to allow students to deeply understand the important role they play in the world and be empathetic and compassionate neighbours, co-workers and global citizens.

by: Sheryl Faith, Dean of Academic Development and IB Coordinator

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