Diversity – differences in ethnicity, culture, race, religion, gender, age, socioeconomic status, ability, values, talents, or family history – is often first encountered in the classroom. Classrooms can be seen as a kind of “proving grounds” where children can experience and test out different ideas and attitudes about diversity. The attitudes and experiences that they experience during their formative years will no doubt influence them throughout their lives, so it is imperative that teachers show students the benefits of diversity as early as possible. In order to do this, however, teachers must first know what diversity means to them, be aware of the challenges of diverse classrooms, and know how to incorporate diversity topics into their curriculum.
The statistics are clear: multiculturalism in American Schools is on the rise. According to a 2005 report released by the U.S. Department of Education, 42 percent of students enrolled in public schools in 2003 were racial or ethnic minorities, a steep increase from 22 percent in 1972. Hispanic student enrollment surpassed African American students for the first time in 2002; in the western part of the United States, minority enrollment exceeded white enrollment in 2003. Teachers need to be aware of the achievement gaps that exist between different kinds of students – and making sure that every cultural group gets a quality education that allows them to compete in college and for jobs.
The multicultural classrooms of the 21st century have become cross-cultural learning spaces for both students and teachers. A diverse classroom presents endless opportunities for students and teachers to learn about ideas and cultures that are different from their own. However, diverse classrooms can also present challenges: less cohesiveness among students, less effective communication, increased anxiety, and less trust of other members of a community[i].
One national study of 25,000 undergraduates at over 200 four-year colleges showed that institutional pro-diversity policies had a “positive effects on students’ cognitive development, satisfaction with college experience, and leadership abilities”[ii].
Teachers at these universities were encouraged to include diversity themes in research and teaching; students were encouraged to explore racial and multicultural issues both inside and outside of the classroom. K-12 teachers can do the same by incorporating diversity into all aspects of their curriculum, including reading books and doing special projects; teachers should encourage students to explore diversity outside of the classroom through asking their students to reflect on their own attitudes and experiences, either personally (in a journal) or in a grand conversation.
Teachers should seek out opportunities for interaction with minorities – whether they are minority ethnically, a minority in terms of ability, or a minority in academia (e.g. a female scientist) – to either actively promote diversity, or passively act as as a thread in the multicolored tapestry of the classroom. Just seeing a person who is different from them – just being themselves, just being a human – can hugely influence a student’s attitude.
In younger grades, teachers can use maps and videos to stimulate discussion about other cultures. One assignment might include finding pictures about how people from other countrites or cultures live: what do they eat, what do they wear, and what kind of houses do they build? Basic things like food, clothing and housing are can be enormously helpful in understanding the deeper and more abstract workings of a culture, like values and history.
Teaching about diversity can even be done in science. A science teacher can discuss the plants, fabrics, dyes, or other natural resources used by different cultures. Students can reflect on how they relate to the land (using their use of natural resources as a springboard), and compare it to how other cultures around the world relate to the land. This could spur great conversations about environmental awareness and sustainability.
Teachers should always model the person-first attitude: a person is a person before they are anything else. Focus should be on the individual’s personality, qualificaitons, and merit; consciously avoid the tendency to assume things about based on a person’s minority group membership. Teachers should always treat people with respect and consideration, and actively promote inclusive communities. This means that teachers should make sure that every person feels welcome in the group, and is given a fair chance to share their ideas, concerns or questions.
[i] Women in Science & Engineering Leadership Institute, University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Benefits and Challenges of Diversity in Academic Settings”. 2010. http://wiseli.engr.wisc.edu/docs/Benefits_Challenges.pdf
[ii] Astin, A.W., “Diversity and Multiculturalism on Campus.” 1993; Astin, A.W., What Matters in College? 1993
Note: I am currently going through my old hard drive rescuing a bunch of old files from the black hole of time. This essay is one I wrote for my “Multiculturalism in the Classroom” course at Wayne State University.