Creating inclusivity in the classroom and beyond
Casey Lawrence is working for a more kind and open-minded community
May. 24, 2019

Inclusive means...

Here in the South, when someone mentions the word “inclusive,” eyerolls are sure to follow. Some Texans accuse educators of babying their children and creating a generation of spineless yippies begging for an abundance of safe spaces. What I see, however, is quite different. 

Inclusive means all students in my classroom have the opportunity to learn, play and explore without judgement. 

Inclusive means learning about the different cultures of the world and celebrating our differences and similarities. 

Inclusive means when a student asks about my spouse and finds out that instead of a man, I am married to a woman, there are no gasps or looks of disgust.

Inclusive is kindness with an open-mind.

Teaching kindness and open mindedness through literacy

I am a first grade team lead teacher and a proud 2017 Houston Teach For America Corps Member. My passion lies in all students, including those who do not have access to an equal and fair education. My day-to-day duties include leading my team in lesson planning for each subject, creating Power Points, sharing documents through our shared Google Drive and producing online games for our Smart Boards, among many other things. I also created our school’s yearbook and manage our Twitter to maintain a positive connection with our community. Although I enjoy these tasks, my absolute favorite part of my job is building relationships with my students. 

My current school is a technology magnet elementary school in north Houston, a community hit by Hurricane Harvey just two years ago. 100 percent of our students receive free breakfast and lunch, and many consistently face seemingly irreparable trauma. Consequently, I strive to build strong socio-emotional connections with my students by having one-on-one discussions, knowing their families, their interests, their fears—even attending a funeral of a murdered father. Connecting with my kids brings me incredible joy. 

Image of Casey Lawrence's students surrounding a laptop

While I encourage my students  to be kind to themselves, I also teach them open-mindedness and kindness to others. Through two Donors Choose projects for the 2018-2019 school year, I was able to raise money for our class to receive over $2,000 in both technology and literary resources for the students to have more hands-on opportunities in their education. My favorite project funded this school year was our “Inclusive Classrooms Through Literacy” project. We received fourteen books that included titles like “Grace For President,” encouraging young women, particularly of color, to take positions of power typically held by men, regardless of how difficult that may be. My personal favorite was “Sparkle Boy,” which tells the story of a young boy that wanted to dress up just like his sister even though both she and kids at school told him that was only for girls. 

While I read, my kids yelled out “that’s not nice” and “be kind!” throughout the story, even though a boy dressing in skirts and jewelry was foreign to them. 

Other titles procured included “Pink is For Boys,” “I Am Jazz,” “And Tango Makes Three,” "Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History,” and “Strong Is The New Pretty: A Celebration of Girls Being Themselves.” These texts gave my kids the opportunity to discuss pushing societal norms and reacting with kindness when things seem different to us. 

I have witnessed incredible growth in all of my students! I heard their comments shift from “ew!” and “that’s not for boys!” to “that’s okay!” “we shouldn’t bully them!” and “they look pretty the way they are!” 

Image of Casey Lawrence with her students

I am incredibly proud to work at a campus that supports this ideology as well. Ms. Salinas, our literacy specialist, spent this school year giving away our school’s outdated textbooks and asked staff members to submit a wish list for new titles. I submitted titles like “Jacob’s New Dress” and “Strictly No Elephants” and she happily ordered them among other picks chosen personally by Ms. Salinas. Now students beyond my classroom can learn and model these important attitudes!
 

Taking it beyond the classroom

Outside of my classroom, I continue my work for a more inclusive community. In 2018, I founded Houston Teach For America Prism, an LGBTQIA+ community initiative to support educators that either identify, or simply want to support their students who identify or are struggling to identify with their sexuality. I created a Board of Directors and lead the team of adults to create quarterly events, fundraisers and educational sessions for educators. 

We believe that, in addition to the barriers our students encounter in low income communities, some face formidable cultural challenges because of their identity. 

We acknowledge this reality and stand to create a supportive outreach community to aid our students. Through one of our events, The Woodlands Pride, I spoke with numerous high school students that voiced their outrange for the lack of support they feel at their schools. I also heard from mothers willing to emotionally foster disowned teenagers, lawyers to contact if an educator or student find themselves victims of litigation and educators standing in solidarity with our movement. These voices prove that this work is needed in our community and we all must take action to ensure safety for our students.

Image of Lawrence with her students dressed up as the elderly

This fall I will be attending Walden University for a master’s in Mental Health Counseling with a focus on trauma and crisis while also continuing to teach elementary students in the Dallas area. After I receive my diploma, I plan to become an elementary school counselor in a low-income school. Although I will not be in the classroom, students will remain my priority. I believe all students should have access to an open-minded adult that will truly listen to their thoughts and concerns. I am and will continue to ground my work in this belief. 

Now I challenge you, the reader:

  • What actions can you take to be this person for children in your community?
  • How can you make your space more inclusive?
You can build your own inclusive reading list featuring characters with diverse characteristics, from a range of cultures, abilities and differences. Check out these suggestions from the American Library Association to get started. 📖

Can you see yourself in the classroom?