How I Used Shoes to Create a Classroom Culture of Acceptance

My last two posts were about children with dual exceptionalities. I gave some tips on how to identify these special children (and why), as well as some helpful ways you can help these special children. You can find those posts here and here. Part of my last post focused on creating an accepting classroom environment for your 2E students.

Today I'm going to expand on that idea of creating an accepting environment for 2E children. Of alllllll of the activities, discussions, and routines I worked hard at implementing at the beginning of the school year,  this is the one lesson that I feel really helped lay the groundwork for a successful and supportive learning environment, in which children were free to be themselves, and where we accepted, acknowledged, and even celebrated our differences.

How it started...

One really great exercise I did with students at the start of the school year was based on a lesson from "The Sisters" Gail Boushey and Joan Moser, creators of the Daily 5/Café reading structure/strategies. In their book, The CAFE Book, they suggest a demonstration involving shoes to describe the process of choosing a "good fit" book. I first used this in my language arts classes to help guide children in the selection of books that matched their reading needs.

In a nutshell, I brought in a bunch of my family's shoes and we talked about how I wouldn't wear my high heels for gym class and my hiking boots were definitely not appropriate for my date night to a fancy restaurant (this was the analogy used to teach about choosing books to suit the child's purpose for reading.) The lesson went on with me demonstrating how neither my daughter's infant shoe nor my husband's tennis shoes were a good fit for me--they were obviously too big and too small (this connected to picking books that were neither way too easy or way too difficult). The lesson continued as we talked about choosing books that we were interested in, could understand, etc.

It soon became apparent to me that this lesson could also work really well when speaking to the class about differentiated instruction in my classroom.

The analogies now worked in new ways.

They offered a really concrete way for children to see that just because what they were doing in class (or when they came to my resource room) was different, it wasn't better or worse than what the other kids were doing. It was just different.  It was what they needed, what they deserved, and what (we hoped) would help them to grow the most as learners.

How it played out...

Because I worked hard at offering students choice in the classroom through the use of menus, projects, choice reading, etc., we went on a pretend fantasy shoe-shopping trip so that students could engage in exercising their preferences.

I selected images ahead of time for different kinds of shoes in the same category. For example, if the category was shoes to wear to PE class, I gathered several images of gym shoes and put them up for the class to see and vote on favorites. We talked about how everyone has their own style and preferences when it comes to the shoes they chose. Maybe two children had both selected tennis shoes, but it was clear that the child who had chosen the flashy, light-up, glittery, neon show-stoppers had a different style sense than the child who had chosen the well-loved, broken-in, simple black Chuck Taylors. And that was OKAY! In fact, it was awesome to see the differences! Some children chose shoes for comfort, some chose for style, and some chose for ease of putting on and taking off.

It was all great because at least they got to choose according to their own desires and needs at the time.

**Before I describe the next steps, it is important to note that for this exercise specifically, I did not use the children's actual shoes. The reality is that some children don't get to choose their shoes--they're glad to have shoes that fit and function at all because of financial or other difficulties at home. There is no reason to draw attention to the potential differences in socio-economic status or other out-of-school difficulties here.**

Next, we talked about shoe size. I had children take off their shoes and line them up according to size (sometimes I had them take measurements if it was during math!). We of course quickly learned that the children's shoes were all different sizes. This lead to a conversation about how it wouldn't make sense to make someone with a size-11 foot squeeze into a size-five shoe. Clearly, the child had long outgrown the size five shoe and was ready for a bigger size.  It didn't mean anything was wrong with the child, or that he or sheet was in some way better than someone with smaller feet, it just meant that they were growing at different rates. We talked about how this was the same for children's learning in school. I wish I had video footage of the faces I would see during this lesson. Watching those connections be made, and having someone acknowledge, maybe for the first time, that their learning differences were natural and normal and to be expected instead of better or worse than someone else was so great kinda magical.

Next, we talked about the purpose of the shoes. Sandals for the beach, athletic shoes for playing sports, dress shoes for special occasions. We sometimes wear different shoes when we have different needs. I used this when I was addressing children's concerns about being seen as different when they came to my resource room for their gifted instruction. Just like they would choose sandals or flipflops for the beach, they came to me and were grouped together as learners for a specific purpose--to meet their needs!

Finally, we talked about caring for our shoes. I had students picture their best, most favorite shoe (or any possession, really). We shared a bit about their favorites and then I turned the conversation to have the children imagine being able to hold on to that special pair of shoes (or other items) forever. What would it take to protect the shoes (treating them nice, not beating them up, cleaning them when they got dirty, etc.) How can we make sure our favorite slippers stay nice so we can keep them as long as possible? How can we keep our shoes from looking like the tattered, neglected, abandoned shoes like the ones below?

To complete the analogy, we talked about the human connection. What are some ways in the classroom that we can make each other feel that we are those treasured shoes? How can we care for each other so that we can keep each other feeling valued, protected, and cared for? This always led to a great student-led conversation about treating each other with kindness and compassion, not pointing out differences, understanding that they all need to be looked after with great care. We talked about the importance of fixing problems as they come up, and valuing each other. We closed the discussion by considering the fact that each one of us is someone's favorite, and we each deserve to be treated as such.

Students came away from this lesson having a really concrete and clear picture of how, in my classroom at least, we would view, acknowledge, accept, and celebrate our differences.

And I truly feel like it made a difference in how students perceived each other, especially when it came to differentiated instructional opportunities.

We had fewer issues with jealousy and judging because our classroom culture was being shaped into a community of people who understood that decisions were made according to what students truly needed and deserved as the unique individuals in our class.

What are some of the ways you've engaged children in your classrooms or at home in discussions about acceptance and respect for other people's differences? Leave me a comment below!



  1. Such a good idea! Thank you!

    1. Thanks, Linda! I'm so glad you found this idea helpful!

  2. Thank you for sharing! This is a powerful lesson in so many ways!

    1. You're so sweet, Mrs. K! I'm glad you liked it. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  3. I love your ideas, Jen! You are a great resource for me. Thank you!

    1. Thank you! That's so nice to hear! Let me know if there is ever a topic you'd like me to address--I LOVE to help!

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