Creating a Safe, “Fair is Not Same” Learning Environment in Your Classroom

How often have you heard questions like this from your students?

  • “How come he gets to go on the computer first?”
  • “Why does she get to have someone write the class notes for her?”
  • "Why doesn't he get suspended when he curses in school?"

If we are going to differentiate effectively and unite students emotionally, culturally and academically in our classrooms, it’s essential that we begin the year by establishing a “Fair is Not Same” classroom. “When we begin the year by creating a positive emotional tone and a “Fair is Not Same” message in our classroom, our students feel welcomed and safe in our learning community. Our goal should be to create a space where our students feel safe making mistakes, safe being different, and safe knowing they are accepted without condition. Our message needs to be taught intentionally and transparently. In this classroom, fair does not mean everyone’s getting the same thing, fair means everyone’s getting what they need to be successful. (Download this classroom themed poster filled with useful ideas.)

This cartoon says it all.

This cartoon says it all.

Fair is Not Same

As educators many of us believe the message in this cartoon, especially when it comes to testing. However, on a daily basis we often forget and fall back on "one lesson fits all" instruction. Take time to examine your belief systems regarding your rationale for different treatment, so you will not fall into the trap of treating everyone the same because you are fearful of being perceived by others as being unfair. It is crucial, that as educators, we redefine fairness to our students and ensure we are practicing what we preach on a daily basis.

 Activities to Explain and Promote a “Fair is Not Same” Classroom

• Ask students who are wearing glasses to give you their glasses. Tell them, in front of the class, that not all the other kids have glasses, so it’s not fair that they get to wear glasses. Clearly, students will see how wrong and ridiculous this is. Glasses are an assistive device for people with a visual impairment. In a classroom, would it be fair for a student with a visual impairment to not be able to wear a pair of glasses because they are the only person with glasses? Of course not!
• Ask students to think of a student that has trouble walking. Would we deny them use of a wheelchair to get around? Of course not! It is a ludicrous concept. If we try to get students thinking about pieces of technology (such as laptops with Kurzweil on them) as a student’s “eyeglasses” or “wheelchairs”, there might be a few less students complaining about fairness.

• Pick a tall student and a short student in your class and ask them to come up to you. Point out two candy bars on a high shelf and tell them they are welcome to have one if they can reach it. The tall student reaches it with ease. When the shorter student inevitably reaches for a chair or stool to assist, stop him/her. Nope, that’s not fair! The other student didn’t get to use a stool. Pretty silly, right?

• Give each student a card with a non-life threatening medical condition on it. (Flu, hick-ups, broken leg, etc.). Tell them you are a medical expert and once they give you their symptoms, you will prescribe a cure. For each problem, your cure is “take two aspirin and call me in the morning. Students will quickly note how wrong this is. Finish making your point by saying, “You wouldn’t go to a doctor who would prescribe the same thing to everyone. Well, I am an educational expert and I know that in this classroom, you don’t all learn the same way, so I will find out how you learn best and teach to different types of learners.

• Read books and discuss or do activities around “Fair is Not Same”. Click here for a list of books that offer this message, as well as some activities you can do related to some of the books.

• This awesome “Fair is Not Same” activity was designed by high school teachers in Nauganee Michigan.

Fair is Not Fair

How to address “You’re Not Fair!”

When students say, “You’re Not Fair!” they are genuinely confused as to the rationale behind the different treatment they see. When the student says, “Why does he get to use a calculator and I don’t?” or “Why did she win the first place in the science fair and I didn’t?” What they’re really saying is, “My reason for bringing this up is I also want to be able to do or have that.”

An appropriate response to that statement would be, “You really wish you had won first place and are disappointed that you didn’t. Would you like to hear the criteria for getting first place in the science fair?”

It’s not fair because they are disappointed. There is a difference between disappointment and unfairness, and this difference needs to be processed with students. We need to help our students understand that not all learning challenges are visible AND we need to help everyone overcome their learning challenges which means everyone getting what they need to be successful.

When we begin our year by creating a “Fair is Not Same” classroom we set the stage for effective differentiating instruction and for honoring all learners needs for the rest of the year. Go slow to go fast!

Written by: Kathleen Kryza