“Inclusion is not just about checking off boxes”

An inside look at creating authentic diversity
in language programs

By Eliz Tchakarian
Editorial Project Manager

As an Editorial Project Manager at Wayside Publishing, one of my most enjoyable responsibilities is to coordinate our diversity and inclusion efforts. As a part of that role, I did a little research into what other educational publishing companies do and found that efforts at diversity that come across as forced or inauthentic are easily spotted and perhaps ridiculed.

Those findings and a couple of anecdotes from my own personal life will shed a bit of light on how I approach the topic of authentic diversity, and illustrate why these efforts and awareness are essential in building respectful relationships between cultures.

A few years ago a very polite Chinese neighbor stopped me once on the street and said something in Mandarin. I politely told him in English that I don’t speak Mandarin. He smiled, thanked me, and walked away. Years later, I learned about the Uyghur in China, and I finally put two and two together. He thought I was Uyghur who are a Turkik people who look quite like me. 

I’ve been mistaken for many ethnicities. However, it’s when curiosity is expressed disrespectfully that I’m taken aback. I was born in Bulgaria and most kids mocked me for having a home language other than Bulgarian, and insisted I must be Bulgarian. (I’m technically Armenian.)

There are many language immersion programs in Bulgaria and I chose Spanish in school. We moved to the US after my mom won a green card and here I keep being asked if I’m from Bolivia because I speak Spanish and because Bolivia and Bulgaria sound alike. Nowadays, when in conversation it’s revealed that I’m not a native English speaker, some interlocutors suddenly mention that they hear an ever-so-faint accent. Or sometimes they claim my accent is so strong that they can’t understand me at all, even though a minute ago, when I was from Pittsburgh, I was perfectly comprehensible.

It’s because of those experiences that I’m committed to appropriately applying diversity and inclusion principles on a daily basis. Our project managers, curriculum coordinators, editors, authors, designers, instructional strategists, peer reviewers, marketing specialists, and everyone else involved in the production process of our language programs assess our materials as we create them.  We’re all from diverse backgrounds and have ample experience in our inherently diverse world language community.

We use a rubric based on the Washington Models for the Evaluation of Bias Content in Instructional Materials at every step of the production process. The rubric reminds us not all disabilities, ethnicities, gender, sexual orientation, etc., are visible or easily recognizable.

We understand that inclusion is not just about checking off boxes. Here are some examples of our daily efforts:

  • I was excited to open the results of our ACTFL 2019 Focus Group as soon as they were shared with the entire company. Some feedback on the French series was that we need more focus on Polynesia. We have plans to address the region in EntreCultures 4, but we also want to explore resources from Côte d’Ivoire, Tahiti, Monaco, and Corsica among others. If you have any vloggers from any unconventional francophone regions, please contact us at info@waysidepublishing.com! 
  • In finding authentic resources and creating activities/assessments, we are careful that inclusion is not forced, and it does not sound like we made it fit because we had to. We take the same pedagogical approach with vocabulary and grammar. 
  • We provide teacher notes to guide teachers when there may be a sensitive issue for learners such as different home lives other than a traditional mom and dad kind of family.
  • We keep talking to world language teachers at conferences, focus groups, forums, support calls, etc., and find ways to incorporate their feedback from the classroom.

A final thought I’d like to offer has to do with expanding our idea of what traditional gender or families look like.

Respectfully applying diversity and inclusion principles is not about throwing some images of smiling same-sex couples with their kids and the rainbow flag in the background, just like Bolivia is definitely not Bulgaria. Many children may not have what we consider families at all. Others may not consider themselves to be just a boy or just a girl. We make it a conscious effort to inform while also staying neutral and without requiring learners to talk about their home life. We provide prompts for students to talk about people/situations from their own life or communities instead.

As creators of educational materials we can only hope we never make anyone uncomfortable. However, if someone is uncomfortable, it’s our responsibility as educators to make sure that it’s not because of a bias enforced or introduced by us. That’s why we keep the conversation open with teachers. We check in with our rubric every time we look at an activity, and when in doubt, we discuss and reach out to our colleagues.

We’re committed to continuing the conversation on all sides, even when we disagree. As language teachers it’s our responsibility to communicate respectfully across platforms and parties to set an appropriate example. I grew up with limited resources in Eastern Europe pre- and post the Chernobyl disaster and the fall of the Berlin wall. However, a luxury I enjoyed was access to many languages as well as access to expert education in Armenian, Bulgarian, Turkish, English, Spanish, Russian, Italian, German, and French, among others. It saddens me that not everyone in the U.S. has the same opportunities to grow interculturally, and I hope we can help that reality change. 

World language education must be accessible to all because it does more than just teach communication in another language. Learning another language builds awareness that in turn allows us to express our curiosity for cultures other than our own in respectful ways.

If you (or one of your learners) would like to contribute your perspective, ideas, or contacts to our diversity and inclusion efforts, please email us at info@waysidepublishing.com.

Eliz Tchakarian’s multicultural background has shaped her into a multilingual applied linguist and editor. Eliz’s passion for fine academic and research writing emerged while tutoring fellow students in her (under)graduate studies and was strengthened by her invaluable experience at the Modern Language Journal with Dr. Leo van Lier as the Editor-in-Chief. For the last eight years Eliz has been working with Wayside Publishing and a team of devoted teachers and administrators to provide affordable, student-centered, contextualized intercultural print and online world language programs.

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