The population of neighborhoods, schools, businesses and churches across the nation is becoming increasingly diverse. According to the Shreveport Times, “Racial and ethnic diversity is spreading far beyond the coasts and into surprising places across the USA, rapidly changing how Americans live, learn, work and worship together — and even who our neighbors are.” In this ever-changing environment, our students must be prepared to live and work with people who look, speak and believe differently. It is the responsibility of educators to embrace the diversity of the students in their classrooms and help them develop an inclusive mindset.
Why Should We Promote Diversity in the Classroom?
NPR‘s Bill Chappell reports that, according to the Census Bureau, “By around 2020, ‘more than half of the nation’s children are expected to be part of a minority race or ethnic group.'” He goes on to further report, “When that shift for the U.S. as a whole [not just the nation’s children] takes place by 2044, the Census Bureau predicts no one racial or ethnic group will dominate the U.S. in terms of size.”
The students attending school in 2017 will be well into their working lives by that target date of 2044. Most of their colleagues will not share common heritage, traditions or native language. It is imperative that our students learn to embrace differences and learn what is true about and important to people who are different. The workers of the future will be well-served if their educators help them develop a second nature about living and working in a diverse environment.
How Do We Promote Diversity in the Classroom?
Experienced teachers understand that one of the most effective ways of embracing diversity in the classroom is to take advantage of their students’ different abilities and backgrounds. In the book Educating Everybody’s Children: Diverse Teaching Strategies for Diverse Learners, author Marietta Saravia-Shore identifies several strategies for promoting not only diversity but also student strengths and talents.
Students can learn at young ages that they are a lot like students who do not look or speak the way they do. In order to help students recognize the similarities, teachers must create opportunities to build community.
Collaborative groups — Although it is not uncommon to allow students to work with those they know best, self-selected groups can lead to further separating diverse students who always choose those in their own ethnic group. Saravia-Shore states, “To break down this defensive withdrawal into ethnic groups, teachers need to give students time to get to know each other and to find that they share common ground, common problems, and common feelings.” When teachers design learning or collaborative groups and place students of many backgrounds together, the children have opportunities to see each other in less structured settings, where they are more likely to be authentic and open.
All-way communication — An important aspect of understanding is communication. Given the diversity of today’s classrooms, it is not as simple as learning basic words in another language. When students work in groups or play with students from different backgrounds, they find themselves in natural situations, exposed to a variety of cultures. It is critical that teachers accommodate students as they work toward effective and positive communications between and among all students.
When students from a minority background feel disrespect or distancing by their teachers or other students, their trust diminishes. Author, editor and teacher, Matthew Lynch, believes, “The best way to combat this tendency is to provide students with ample evidence that people that don’t look like them are, at the core, people just like them. Learn from each other, instead of passing judgment on differences.”
One way to build trust in students anxious about opening up to others is to promote their own ethnic pride and identity. While it may seem awkward to point out differences, asking direct questions about heritage and culture and showing genuine interest in the answers breaks down distrust and fosters communication.
Some students are identified with large people groups. In fact, however, these large groups are made up of subgroups that carry their own traditions, beliefs and language. For example, the group labeled Southeast Asian is made up of several distinct populations, including Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian and Hmong. Recognizing and exploring the differences among these groups will show students that these differences are important and that students from these groups are seen as individuals with their own stories to tell.
It is also critical, in order for students to be able to trust their peers and teachers, that we dispel stereotypes. Saravia-Shore states, “If the teacher allows sexist or racist language and stereotypes to pass unchallenged, students will be harmed in two ways: (1) by the demeaning depiction of their group, which may become part of their self-concept and (2) by the limitations they will feel on their ability to live and work harmoniously with others in their classroom and in their society.” Trust and relationships will be broken and difficult to repair.
Students sense when they are being over-accommodated. Teachers should not modify lessons and lower expectations simply because students represent minority races or backgrounds. Presenting a challenging curriculum and high expectations builds confidence in students and lets them see their own potential.
It is important to include contributions and perspectives of other groups in the curriculum. GreatSchools.org gives us this example: “In a history lesson about the Vietnam War, [teachers] should draw attention to the perspectives of North as well as South Vietnamese citizens, the feelings of the soldiers and diverse views of Americans.”
Role models presented in lessons must include those lesser-known people who display exemplary citizenship and work ethic. As Lynch stated, “If students never learn about prominent African American citizens other than Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X then it’s likely that some students will assume that few other African Americans have made substantial contributions to American culture and politics.”
Why Is This Important for All Students and Society as a Whole?
Students spend a significant portion of their day with teachers, classmates, teammates and friends. Although academic achievement is a high priority, society expects the educational system to prepare students to live as good, productive citizens. As the culture and heritage of the citizenry becomes more diverse, teachers must show their students the value of embracing this diversity.
While positive citizenship is key to our students’ success, personal life choices and development are just as important. And whether or not our students succeed on the career front may depend on their ability to work with and learn from people of different backgrounds and experiences.
Jean Snell, clinical professor of teacher education at the University of Maryland, says, “There is a richness that comes from students working side by side with others who are not of the same cookie-cutter mold.” Author and educator Lynch puts it this way, “Among its other goals, culturally responsive instruction aims to teach students that differences in viewpoint and culture are to be cherished and appreciated rather than judged and feared.”
Experienced educators interested in fully embracing diversity in the classroom will benefit from earning a Master of Science in Education in Curriculum & Instruction from Northwest Missouri State University. By completing courses like Multicultural Education for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, teachers will demonstrate a commitment to “diversity, equity and inclusion through improvement of practices related to curriculum and instruction.” Graduates will contribute to the success of a diverse population by promoting “responsive practices for culturally responsive teaching and leadership and a supportive school culture that ensures each student and family is treated fairly.”
Learn more about Northwest Missouri’s online MS Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction program.
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