Chris Richards portrait

Written by Chris Richards

MEd in Applied Linguistics and currently works as a Teacher Mentor in Madrid

I have a vivid memory of being told about the importance of images in my classroom. It was 2010, I was doing my PGCE and was eager to start teaching. I remember that this was the first moment of many that shaped the way I have approached diversity and inclusivity in the classroom ever since. As this post explains, the issue of representation in the classroom has come back to me again in recent years.

 

When I was teaching English language and literature in England and Wales, we made very little use of textbooks. This certainly made things challenging for a newbie, but to focus on the positive, it also gave me a lot of freedom to make my own choices about which images in the classroom. I learned quickly that you have to be careful when you do internet image searches and not for the reasons we tell our young pupils to be careful. Just last week, in preparation for my contribution to DiverseEd: The Virtual Conversation, I searched for some images. With the search term ‘reading’ I found mostly kids, mostly white. The first four were of girls and the first negative image I found was a bored boy holding a book. When I searched for ‘man reading’, men from BAME backgrounds appeared just twice in the first thirty-two images, and the first appeared twelfth. 

 

In 2016, I moved to Spain and began teaching English in a private language academy. It was a huge change in pace, lifestyle and teaching philosophy, and was the new challenge I needed. Aside from very small class sizes (I now work with a maximum of eight), the biggest difference was the use of a course book. In the first institution I worked in here, every group has an assigned course book that we followed across the course of the academic year. Very quickly, I started to notice that representation was very narrow and, while studying for my MEd in Applied Linguistics, I decided to write my dissertation on how gender and sexuality get represented in a sample of course books. It all began with a page about “different” weddings in the UK that had four photos: four straight, white couples. To paraphrase 20,000 words, on the whole, gender was presented rather traditionally, although there were some images of women in positions of power; minority sexuality was conspicuously absent from the pages.

 

Whether we’re working with course books or not, we should always be ready to substitute and supplement, especially so with images as these can be a very powerful way to give, or withhold, representation. We also need to consider what texts pupils are reading, lest they are always reading the same stories and hearing the same voices. Whose stories do get told and who gets effectively silenced in our classrooms? If we give space to one image or story, we reduce the space for others. Ultimately, this is simply a question of inclusion.

 

Also crucial is asking ourselves what unwanted or unintended associations inclusion might bring. For example, are people with disabilities routinely referred to in heroic situations, overcoming their disability rather than as people whose identities extend beyond their differences? Are we remembering to show women in positions of power and responsibility outside the home, but forgetting to represent men in caring or homemaking roles? Are LGBTQ+ folk only shown when their minority sexuality is the defining factor?

 

Asking ourselves these questions initially is effort, but once it becomes habit, once it becomes part of planning and preparation routine, it becomes normal. I can’t look at a course book page now without quickly scanning it for representation. I don’t always choose to substitute and at other times I might specifically leave unrepresentative material as it is, and ask my students what they think might be missing. I turn over that critical evaluation process to them, so they can start to perform this analysis themselves. After all, I won’t always be there to recast the material they encounter in their reading and viewing lives.

 

My final thought is that we should always be asking ourselves who gets a voice and who gets seen in our classrooms.

 

Chris Richards, Teacher Mentor

Chris first taught in the UK high school system in inner city Birmingham and South East Wales, but has been working in English Language Teaching (ELT) since 2015. He holds an MEd in Applied Linguistics and currently works as a Teacher Mentor in Madrid. He is particularly interested in inclusivity/diversity, literature, and the use of first language in the ELT classroom.

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