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March 1, 2001
Vol. 43
No. 2

The Diverse Challenges of Multiculturalism

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School CultureInstructional Strategies
In an episode of the popular television series ER, Lucy Knight, a young medical student, attempts to treat an unconscious elderly Asian woman brought to the hospital by her family. When the patient awakens, however, Knight learns from tests that the woman is dying from a brain tumor. She urges the family to have their mother admitted immediately so the condition can be treated. Instead of appreciating Knight's efforts, however, the family becomes outraged that she has revealed to their mother what had been a carefully guarded secret. All she has done, they say, is fill the woman's last few months of life with dread over something that is beyond her control. "You do not understand our ways," the son tells Knight.
Although this incident is fictitious, the cultural differences exemplified by the scene are anything but imaginary. Every day, teachers encounter similarly complex issues in their classrooms. The blend of ethnicities and value systems often places teachers in a "cultural minefield" where they must navigate a careful path of trying to respect the sensibilities of many different groups. How, teachers ask, can they best manage the conflicting expectations prevalent in today's increasingly diverse classrooms?
"It's almost impossible for teachers to respond in culturally appropriate or sensitive ways to all the cultures they have in their classrooms," says Elise Trumbull, senior research associate for the Culture and Language Program at West Ed Regional Educational Laboratory in Oakland, Calif. "They don't know how to get a grip on all the information they need or how to learn more about the cultures in their classrooms."
For example, in Los Angeles alone there are at least 80 spoken languages, each representing a group of children who are being brought up with particular cultural and behavioral traits, Trumbull says. "Teachers really find that challenging," she adds.
These differences, however, are not limited to race or linguistics. "You have to consider religious differences, gender-equity issues, children who have disabilities, children coming from single parent or same-sex households, and others—our teacher preparation programs generally don't address these except in very tangential or sporadic ways," says Ines Chisholm, the program coordinator for Arizona State University West's bilingual ESL program in Tempe, Ariz.
Because of this insufficient training, Chisholm says, many teachers are unprepared for what they face in their classrooms. "Most of our teachers who go out there aren't ready to face these students," she says. "Most of them simply do the best that they can."
Complicating this picture even further, she says, is the fact that within the various groups that teachers encounter, there are often additional subgroups with even more distinct traits and differences. "Some people think an African American teacher should be able to reach African American students because their background is the same," Chisholm points out. "That's not necessarily true. There may be a gap between the teachers and the community where they're teaching. They may not live in the same area, and by going through the experience of becoming educated, they have acquired a certain way of looking at issues. So there can be a gap there as well."
Given these various complexities, many educators wonder how they can find the time to manage diversity issues on top of the other challenges they are expected to handle every day. "If you ask the average teacher whether he or she supports diversity in the classroom, either you'll hear 'Yes, of course I do,' or you'll hear 'I don't have time for this,'" says Chisholm. "We hear a lot as teacher educators about the importance of diversity, but all of these discussions don't necessarily make the faculty members feel comfortable dealing with it."
To help teachers understand some of the cultural differences they will encounter, Trumbull and others have offered a model. "In our projects [for helping people understand cultural differences], we've used this framework of individualism and collectivism to understand some of the very large differences between immigrant populations and the more dominant Euro-American middle-class culture," she says. "Many minority cultures tend to be more collectivistic in their outlook; they are very group-oriented and usually want to help each other."
Trumbull cites the behavior of many Latino students as an example. "While there are always exceptions, if you look at Latino children, they usually want to share things. If someone needs a pencil, they'll share it even if it leaves the sharer without a pencil temporarily. They'll help each other figure out math problems, help each other understand directions, and so on. It's their inclination to work as a group." Teachers who want to reach these children, Trumbull suggests, should clearly explain which class time is to be used for "working together" and which is to be used for "working by yourself." "Make it explicit," she says. "You have to say, 'Now is the time you can work together and help,' and 'Now is the time you have to work alone and do your own work.'"
Understanding this collectivistic outlook, she says, helps teachers interpret many of the behaviors they see in their classrooms. "People find it explains a whole set of behaviors that they had not seen as related in the past," Trumbull says. "Now, there may still be some differences. African American culture may be more individualistic than Latino culture, for example, but it's still very collectivistic." Other cultures such as Native American, Alaskan native, and Pacific islander also tend to be more focused on the group rather than the individual, according to Trumbull.
In many cases, collectivistic cultures share specific behaviors that stem from their group-minded outlook. "Empty praise is not a good thing with collective cultures," Trumbull says. "It places the focus on the child rather than the group. Displaying a noteworthy piece of artwork might also cause discomfort because it makes the child stand out in the class, and modesty is an important value in collectivistic cultures." Singling out an individual's achievement can be seen as a negative in collectivistic groups because of its implicit slighting of others' abilities.
Experts caution, however, that simply because a given culture is collectivistic does not necessarily mean that children in the same group will share the same traits and perspectives. "Teachers need to see people as individuals," says Chisholm. "We should not assume that all members of a particular group are going to see things and act the same way."
That individual distinction, Chisholm says, requires a particularly careful approach when teachers interact with different children. "It's not necessarily equitable to treat everyone the same," she says. "If you have a child who is a non-English speaker, giving him or her the same handouts you would give everyone else is not meeting that child's needs. Also, saying you don't see the color of a person is another mistake. If you ignore someone's differences—whether those differences are racial, socioeconomic, physical, or whatever—you're ignoring a part of who that person is."
To better understand these kinds of differences, experts suggest talking at great length with children's parents. These talks, they say, should go beyond the normal parent-teacher discussions that happen once a year. "You need to know the parents," Chisholm says. "You need to get to know them over time just as you would any other person. It doesn't happen from just one visit; it takes continuous communication."
Parents' perceptions of school are often based on their own experiences as children, says Chisholm, so it is imperative for teachers to know about the parents' backgrounds, as those experiences will shape how their children are taught to look at school.
Trumbull shares this view. "Learning about the culture from talking directly with the parents and other family members is best," she says. "There's just no substitute for that kind of direct knowledge."

Learning That You're Still Learning

Perhaps the most important thing diversity issues teach educators is that the opportunity to learn does not end when one leaves school with a teaching degree. Rather, the chance to learn about other people is a lifelong process that is never really "finished." "This is a continuous process," says Chisholm. "Even people who dedicate themselves to studying these issues can continue to learn."
Given some of the demographic changes expected in the future—by the year 2010, the U.S. Bureau of the Census predicts that as many as one out of every 10 children in the United States will be foreign-born, for example—many believe that understanding cultural differences will become even more important in the years ahead.
"We need to respect each other," Trumbull says. "The bottom line is respect. That's what it's all about."

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