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February 1, 2008
Vol. 50
No. 2

Celebrating Students' Diverse Strengths

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As classrooms become more diverse, teachers can celebrate students' cultural strengths by integrating multicultural lessons into the curriculum.
We all have biases, however subtle they may be. Sometimes we may not even be aware of them. Because we are grounded in our own cultural knowledge, it is very natural to perceive our own customs and cultural practices as normal and those of other groups as different or foreign.
As classrooms become increasingly more diverse, it is important for educators to acknowledge and address diversity issues and to integrate multicultural information into the classroom curriculum. By doing so, educators can instill students with respect for their peers while teaching exciting, new content.

Making the Cultural Connection

Addressing diversity in the classroom is not about being politically correct. "Our educational system is supposed to be for all students; therefore, we must provide differentiated instruction so that they feel they are included," says Judie Haynes, an English as a second language (ESL) teacher from New Jersey and author of the ASCD book Getting Started with English Language Learners: How Educators Can Meet the Challenge (2007).
"It's not about being tolerant; being tolerant means just tolerating something," says Haynes, who explains that, for students, there is an important link between feeling included in the classroom and achieving academically. "When a teacher makes an effort to include students in the classroom, it makes a difference because if they are more relaxed, they are going to learn more quickly."
Research supports the importance of integrating information from various cultures into classroom instruction. In a March 2002 article in the Journal of Teacher Education, Geneva Gay argues for "culturally responsive teaching," which she defines as teaching that uses the "cultural characteristics, experiences, and perspectives of ethnically diverse students as conduits for teaching them more effectively." Gay explains that when students are able to use their own cultural information and experiences to connect to academic lessons, they develop a deeper understanding of the content.
Building students' cultural knowledge involves more than just planning a one-off cultural day, although those types of activities can be extremely useful and fun. It is important to integrate lessons and activities that convey a range of multicultural perspectives. While some may cringe at the thought of adding new material to the already dense curriculum, culturally focused lessons can really have an important educational impact without detracting from efforts to meet standards or prepare students for assessments.
To move beyond the surface level and really work to both understand and teach cultural information, teachers have to engage in important developmental exercises. Teachers must, first, examine their own cultural values to uncover any biases that could hamper teaching and learning. Second, they should become familiar with the types of cultural values students are learning at home so that they can better understand how these values might affect students' academic achievement.

Family Values and the Classroom

Students have two lives: a home life and a school life. Outside of school, young people are often instilled with values that reflect their own cultures, and they bring this cultural information with them into the classroom. Cultural differences regarding things such as appropriate interaction between a child and an adult, prescribed gender roles, and differing styles of discourse are also important issues that can shape students' interactions with their teachers. Becoming aware of some of these cultural differences will greatly aid teachers in respecting the diversity of their students.
"If our goal is to reach all students and have as many students as possible achieve at high levels, then we need to understand where they're coming from, how their families are rearing them, and the kinds of values and approaches to learning and using language that families are using so that at least we understand what kids are coming to school with," says Elise Trumbull, coauthor of the new ASCD bookManaging Diverse Classrooms: How to Build on Students' Cultural Strengths (2008).
For students raised in cultures that value the accomplishments of the family or the community over those of the individual, American schools, which tend to reward students for their individual achievements, may seem confusing and even frustrating. "Many students of color grew up in cultural environments where the welfare of the group takes precedence over the individual and where individuals are taught to pool their resources to solve problems," Gay explains.
To help students excel as both members of a group and as individuals, teachers may provide more opportunities for students to work in groups to fulfill tasks, give presentations, and organize activities. This way, a teacher can restructure lessons to emphasize the types of practices students may be more comfortable with and teach them to value both ways of learning.
Addressing issues of diversity in the classroom requires teachers to analyze the ways in which students truly are different. Teachers should not necessarily throw traditional practices out the window, but they should realize that awareness of important cultural differences can actually make teaching easier.

Integrating Cultural Lessons

  • In language arts classes, integrate new readings by authors from different countries.
  • Develop math problems using examples that represent diverse names and situations. (e.g., A train in a word problem could leave from Mumbai instead of New York.)
  • Teach lessons about scientists from different nations to enlighten students about scientific discoveries and innovations around the world.
  • Plan cultural demonstrations that build meaningfully on lessons in social studies, language arts, music, and geography.
  • Label classroom items in a variety of languages. Also, hang artwork that represents diversity.
These activities can help students connect to the lessons as they build on their own background knowledge. "[Lessons do not] mean too much until you make them relevant in [a student's] own world. You have to build their background knowledge," says Haynes. "Making a link is a great way to help students with comprehensive understanding."

Teaching the Teacher

Restructuring teaching practices requires a great deal of talking, thinking, and learning. No one person can know everything about all cultures, but by conducting research, using Web sites and blogs, and engaging in professional development, teachers can develop new ways of building on students' cultural strengths.
Parents are also great sources of cultural information, and teachers should engage them to make them feel welcome as volunteers and speakers in the classroom. "They will help. The value of helping is so huge in so many cultures," says Trumbull. Investing in learning about and teaching diversity can provide enriching experiences for educators, as well as for students and their families.

Willona M. Sloan is a freelance writer and former ASCD editor.

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