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Building Blocks: The First Steps of Creating a Multicultural Classroom
by Larri Fish of Siena College
Discovering diversity takes creativity, extra effort, diligence, and courage on the teacher's part. Thus, American public schools have rarely offered an enthusiastic welcome for student difference. However, a multicultural classroom must thrive on these differences and use them as a foundation for growth and development. Differences command work, resolution, openness, and understanding. Teachers who address these differences and add them to the curriculum will succeed in creating a multicultural classroom that will advance the educational goals of all students. The following essay discusses some of the very basic elements of a multicultural classroom and a brief reflection on observations made at Hackett Middle School in Albany, New York.
Teachers in multicultural classrooms must be open to their students and put forth the effort needed to get to know their students inside and outside of class. If a teacher is hesitant about being open, the class will reciprocate and the students will become estranged from one another and the teacher. In order to be open, teachers must be interested in their students, fearless, willing to try new and different things, sure of themselves in order to avoid taking things personally, and non-judgmental of his or her students (Canning 196). Also, openness is not making assumptions and being prepared for the unexpected (Canning 199). In the Mexican-American culture, children are accustomed to hugging, kissing, or touching (arm squeezing or rubbing the back of) figures of authority. Christine Canning (author of "Getting From the Outside In: Teaching Mexican Americans When You Are an 'Anglo'") writes of her experience, "I noticed that students touched my hand or arm while talking to me. I was feeling uncomfortable with this until it occurred to me that touching might be a cultural behavior" (197). Canning's initial close-mindedness toward the touching could've caused an awful situation especially because the students were doing their best to be absolutely respectful. After discussing the students' behavior with a fellow teacher, Canning learned that the students were showing her respect and in no way trying to make her feel uncomfortable. Many cultures have many different mores and folkways. Teachers must be open to what the students are doing and find out why they do what they do. This openness will create communication in the class, which will ultimately develop into a classroom that is learning, understanding, and culturally fluent.
In addition to openness, teachers must know the learning patterns of the students in their class. Teachers must understand the learning patterns of the students who grew up in a culture other than their own. Israeli children, for example, are taught to readily criticize an instructor who they feel is saying something that is incorrect while Vietnamese children will not say a word during class unless called upon to regurgitate memorized material (Jones 10). Students from Israel differ greatly from students from Vietnam, which may create a culture clash in the classroom. Vietnamese students will think the Israeli students are rude, brash, unnerving, and extremely obnoxious. In fact, the teacher may find that they feel the same way about the overly critical Israeli students. However, if the teacher knows that Israeli students tend to criticize their professors and is open to the fact that they do this because it is socially encouraged and acceptable in the Israeli school system, than the teacher can calmly explain to the students that while critical thinking is wonderful it is not okay to openly criticize the teacher in front of the entire class on a consistent basis. Therefore, readjusting the participation structure of the classroom in a calm and professional manner.
Vietnamese students can be hard for a teacher to understand and grow accustomed to, as well. If a teacher uses instructional methods like group discussion, student presentations, and tries to activate students as they lecture, the teacher may become frustrated, disenchanted, and may even think that Vietnamese students are below average students with below average intelligence. This is not the case, Vietnamese students are taught to sit, listen, and recite memorized information. Students in Vietnam do not participate in the class and believe everything that the instructor says is absolutely true. Teachers who open themselves up to cultural difference will effectively handle culture clash while teachers who assume that Israeli students are rude and Vietnamese students are dumb will close communication in the classroom and destroy any hope of having a multicultural classroom. The best way to handle culture clash is to be open, knowledgeable, and not be afraid to talk about the cultural differences in class no matter what discipline the teacher is teaching (Jones 12). An open teacher will create an open class and an open class will have open lines of communication that will create a positive and beneficial learning environment for everyone.
Language difference is another major issue that teachers must address when establishing a multicultural classroom. A teacher who tries to learn the native tongue of her or his students, if only a word or two, will convey respect for the culture of his or her students and increase their potentially suffering self-esteem (Perez 152). Introducing the language or culture of all students in the class into the curriculum will communicate that students of that culture are important (Perez 153). However, a teacher should not assume that a "Latino-looking" student grew up in the Latino culture and knows about it. Many times Latino students (and other students from different races and ethnicities) will have grown up in the same culture as all the other students who grew up in America (unfortunately this culture is most often known as the "t.v. culture" that is taking over American households). Therefore, teachers should not rely on "Latino-looking" students for information about the Latino culture. If you are teaching a unit on Latino culture, ask the students out of class whether or not they can contribute to the lesson and do not be surprised of they tell you that they do not know anything about Latino culture. Thirdly, do not "go overboard" and bring up the Latino culture in every class just to make the Latino students feel better, this will only embarrass them. Perhaps the biggest fault of a textbook that contains information from European-American perspective, whether good or bad, is that it will suggest to students that the European-American culture is the most important culture and that Caucasians are somehow superior to other cultures. Certainly this is not true, but in the immediate past and even today our educational system is sending this message to students across America. Multicultural classrooms incorporate content from different cultures EVERYDAY so that all cultures are considered valuable and wonderful.
In order to establish a respect for other cultures in the classroom, teachers must move beyond "multicultural moments" or pseudomulticulturalism (Miller 88). Celebrating Black History month is a great example of a multicultural moment that many teachers incorporate into their curriculum once a year. Not only do Black History units presented exclusively in February hinder the ability for teachers to cover a wide range of cultures at the same time, creating this type of curriculum sends a message to students that Black History is separate from and inferior to European History. This is true because Black History will only be discussed once a year (Black History Month) and it will be discussed separate from the chronological order that is used when discussing European History (most of the time).
Howard M. Miller suggests that one very simple way for ALL teachers to add multicultural ideas and content to his or her curriculum is to build a classroom library of multicultural literature (Miller 88). No matter what subject you teach you can build a library of books by and/or about different cultures. A math book written by an African-American man or woman will send good messages to a population of students that has seen math books that exclusively features the writing style and craftsmanship of a European-American. Incorporating multicultural literature in to the class is very important, if teachers do not do this they will fall into a trap of buying "the book that has always been used" or "a book that is good enough." Thoughts like those will lead teachers to a sad day when they're packing up all their books on the last day of school and suddenly they realize that they have been sending a message to their students that only White people exist in Math. This is the message that many students are getting today, no matter if they are White, Black, Asian and Hispanic etc... that teachers must do away with.
Teachers who own literature by authors form different backgrounds is great but it is not enough. True multicultural activities must be ongoing and integrated daily in both informal and formal activities. Gloria Boutte and Christine McCormick suggest six basic principles for teachers to use when evaluating their culturally diverse classroom, these are, "1) building multicultural programs, 2) showing appreciation of differences, 3) avoiding stereotypes, 4) acknowledging differences in children, 5) discovering the diversity within the classroom, 6) avoiding pseudomulticulturalism" (140). Showing appreciation of differences is very important because a teacher who does not show appreciation of all the differences in their class will not get the chance to attempt any of the other five principles. Teachers need to pay attention to their verbal and nonverbal language when he or she responds to students who speak differently. For example, if a child reads, "Dere go the sto-man," the teacher should avoid interrupting the student to provide the correct English version. Instead, the teacher should thank the student for reading and then model the correct English version when she or he speaks. However, the most important thing to remember about all classrooms is the premise that every child is unique. All children are different and beautiful in their own way, no one student should feel excluded from the class especially if the reason they feel they are excluded is based on race, ethnicity, or color. Teachers need to show the color of our world every time they enter a classroom whether math, science, art, or physical education.
An important step in teaching children to be comfortable with their cultural background and essentially themselves is to encourage and value their input in a small group of other students. This has to do with the organization of the classroom and the development of lesson plans. When grouping students, teachers should put students from differing backgrounds together. The term "differing backgrounds" refers to (in general) two types of students from two different learning styles. Students who are from a socialized culture that prioritizes group achievement, cooperation, obedience, and respect toward authority tend to be externally motivated, dependent on praise and reinforcement from significant others, and more responsive to a socially oriented curriculum. Countries that teach using a social structure and curriculum include Israel, Germany, and Italy. While students who are from cultures that emphasize individualism, assertiveness, personal initiative, and material well-being (Vietnam, Japan, United States) tend to be analytical, competitive, impersonal, and task-oriented (Jones 14). Although it is imperative that students be considered on an individual basis, students will (to varying degrees) tend to be more like one category than the other. Grouping socially oriented children with children who are task-oriented and impersonal allows the teacher to confront, explore, and celebrate difference. An accomplished teacher should be able to create projects for a group of students from different backgrounds that will require students to work together, therefore allowing each student to be an important part of the group and learn information through the interaction of the group. Lesson plans that can do this and interest students will become invaluable for teachers to posses as the need for teachers to become culturally fluent continues to grow.
Hackett Middle School, located in Albany, New York, is one of the most diverse schools in the Albany area. The student population is mixed between students of Latino, African-American, European-American, Asian, and Mexican-American descents. While observing a team of 7th grade students on the dates of February 27, 2002 through March 1, 2002 I found their attempts to create multicultural classrooms noble and quite good but the potential for improvement is immense. The first and most striking observation I made were the percentage of White students to the percentage of students of color in the honors and "slow" classes. In the "honors" group, there are thirteen White children and only eight students that are of a different race. The "slow" class, on the other hand, is comprised of two White students and nineteen students of different races (mostly Latino and African-American). Clearly, there are some inequities in the evaluation process. The White students are probably receiving better grades because the make-up of the "honors" and "slow" classes are determined by the students' averages. However, as a teacher or an administrator, one must look at why the White students are receiving better grades. Is the evaluation process fair to all races and ethnicities? The evaluation process is too complicated and lengthy to observe in three days but if some data and observations were made at Hackett Middle School over a long period of time, investigation will probably show that the evaluation process favors the Caucasian students. Along the same lines, the two days I spent tutoring children in I.S.S. opened my eyes to another possible bias at Hackett. All the students (16 total) in I.S.S. on both days were of either African-American or Mexican-American descent including the teachers. In a school that has such a large population of White students, why are none of them in I.S.S. while sixteen students of color were currently serving time in "In School Suspension." A long investigation would be needed to find out if there is a bias among the teachers who send the students to I.S.S. but the evidence that I gathered on my brief observation is mildly alarming.
Teachers at Hackett are doing a great job of using multicultural literature and the other basic principles listed earlier in this paper. While I observing Mrs. Anderson's English class, the "honors" class was reading The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, which is a story about a Hispanic girl named Esperanza and her search for identity while growing up in a town of mixed races. However, I saw no math, science, or history books written by authors of color while I was a Hackett. This is a huge step in creating a multicultural classroom that all teachers can do. Additionally, putting students into bi-racial groups is an area where Hackett needs some improvement. In science class the students sit two per table and only one table in the whole classroom of twenty-three students (fourteen White and nine African or Mexican-Americans) was comprised of a White student and a student that is either African or Mexican-American. Also, in an English class with a similar ratio of White students to students of color, Mrs. Anderson split the class into groups and only one group was comprised of students of different races and it was the "who's ever left" group.
Creating multicultural classrooms is a growing priority for all teachers and administrators. This includes restructuring classroom evaluation and punishment techniques, but, more importantly, it includes embracing difference and opening up the classroom for communication. Schools like Hackett Middle School in Albany, New York are making vast improvements in this area but more still needs to be done. This is a colorful world let us, the future teachers, make sure that we paint our classrooms with these colors every single day.
Boutte, Gloria S. and Christine McCormick. "Authentic Multicultural Activities: Avoiding Pseudomulticulturalism." Childhood Education 68 (1992): 140-44.
Canning, Christine. "Getting from the Outside In: Teaching Mexican Americans When You Are an 'Anglo.'" High School Journal 78 (1995): 195-205.
Jones, Charlotte M. Practical Applications of Multicultural Communication Theory in the Classroom Setting. Typed version of speech given at the Annual Meeting of The Western Speech Communication Association (Fresno, CA, Feb. 16-19, 1985).
Kazemek, Francis E. "African Literature in the Secondary English Language Arts Classroom." English Journal 84 (1995): 95-102.
Miller, Howard M. "Beyond 'Multicultural Moments' (Middle Gorund)." English Journal 86 (1997): 88-90.
Perez, Samuel A. "Responding Differently to Diversity." Childhood Education 70 (1994): 151-53.
Tomic, Alice D. F. "Challenges and Rewards in the Mixed Culture Classroom." College Teaching 44 (1996): 69-73.