Many years ago, when I was teaching at a small liberal arts college, and suggested introducing a course on literacy and diversity, I was immediately encouraged. Although this was a good thing, and my chair meant well, it was the term she used that bothered me. “I’m so glad you are doing this. Any efforts we can make to help our teachers manage diversity are more than welcome.” It’s the word manage that I took issue with then and continue to find disturbing today.
I see it in schools, as well as in universities, this effort to manage diversity, as if it were some unwieldy negative force that needed to be quelled and streamlined in order for us to make progress. While we have definitely moved forward from the old days when diversity was a thing to be either submerged or ignored, we still have a long way to go in moving from merely managing it to fully honoring the multiplicity of languages, cultures, religions, socioeconomic levels, and backgrounds that exist in our classrooms today.
So how can a teacher honor the diversity in his or her classroom with something more than the usual show and tell, or international food day? There are several immediate ways in which we can honor the richness our students bring and at the same time provide them with more material for honoring their own identity.
Acknowledging Students’ Funds of Knowledge
Too often, we tend to push our content, with no regard for the contents already within our students’ minds. I tend to repeat this often, but it’s an important point. Our children do not come into the classroom as blank slates. They have a wealth of knowledge, a unique perspective on the world, informed by both their circumstances and their experiences. While this perspective or knowledge may not always be positive, it is a rich soil in which to sow the seeds of further learning. When we ignore what our students bring to the table, good or bad or mixed, we are dumping more manure on a well-tilled field that is open for sowing, rather than using that opportunity to plant new ideas that can flourish.
Choosing Materials that Reflect our Students’ Lives
In our eagerness to present curriculum, we forget to take into account the individuals we have in our classroom. An effective teacher plans carefully for the specific population they are dealing with and chooses materials accordingly. True, they may be limited in their choice of textbook, but bringing in articles on female scientists, or African American inventors, or Hmong athletes, or Latino political leaders is easy to do. If some students are interested in sports, or others obsessed with music, art or fashion, a little planning will yield plenty of materials that tie content to those specific arenas. When we tie our content to what students care about and at the same time bring in cultural references, we increase engagement and provide role models for our students, enabling them to see themselves as capable of success in their chosen field.
Honestly Discussing Stereotypes, Racism and Violence
We tend to think that such topics are taboo in the classroom. Yet, these very topics are relevant, urgent and necessary for the well being of our students. Those who feel that we need to stick to our content and leave such topics to counselors, are missing an incredible opportunity to reach and to teach their students. After all, what happens outside the classroom doors immediately impacts what happens inside. For real learning to occur, students need to feel safe and respected. How can they, when their teacher does not even acknowledge issues that affect their lives on a daily basis?
The classroom is often the only place where students, led by a skilled and sensitive teacher, can discuss such topics in a balanced and safe manner. Such discussions allow them to see multiple perspectives on the same issue and to realize that others may be going through similar experiences.
I am sure there are amazing teachers out there who continue to find other ways to include, encourage and honor students from every background within their classrooms. Unless we take the time to be mindful of who our students are, we may manage them, but we can never fully honor them.