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March 1, 2015

Making Diverse Classrooms Safer for Learning

Acknowledging students' culturally based perspectives makes classrooms better places to learn.

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One great thing about public education in the United States is that students come from a broad range of backgrounds. However, approximately 82 percent of U.S. teachers are white European Americans from families that have lived in the United States for generations (Feistritzer, 2011). Many teachers' cultural identities and ways of interacting are tied into assumptions or values that many white European Americans consider normal.

Although educators' unacknowledged cultural assumptions can undermine students' learning in any classroom, they create a particular challenge in culturally diverse classrooms. All learners share a fundamental need to feel connected to their classmates and teachers, to feel that their perspectives matter. Most of us can recall what became of our motivation when we felt alone or excluded.

When a learning environment acknowledges students' social and cultural perspectives, however, students can better connect their current thinking to new ideas. Students become knowledge builders, not knowledge resisters.

So one of the first stops along the path to culturally responsive teaching is creating classrooms in which every student feels a vital sense of belonging, emotionally and academically.

The Personal Significance of Culture

Many theorists believe the craft and context of teaching are cultural. The way a teacher has been socialized in his or her family, community, or schooling can lead him or her to misconstrue the motivation and capabilities of students who were socialized differently in terms of how they speak or remain silent (Delpit, 1988); ask for or display knowledge (Heath, 1983); and work as an individual or a member of a group (Ladson-Billings, 1994). Cultural misconceptions influence assumptions about a student's intellectual potential, preparedness, effort, and confidence. Without understanding how values and biases are culturally mediated, educators can learn "culturally responsive" teaching techniques, yet overlay these methods with assumptions that undermine students' motivation.

To create culturally respectful classrooms, we must become aware of our own cultural values. White European-American teachers, as members of the majority group, often find the personal significance of their cultural background elusive. Although culture is taught, it's rarely taught explicitly. Our beliefs, values, and patterns of interactions, especially in familiar surroundings, are often subconscious. Recognizing and reconsidering our own cultural values isn't easy; in some cases, it can feel like heresy. But it leads to better understanding of how to forge classrooms where all students feel respected, find instruction relevant, engage with new challenges, and commit to success.

One way to strengthen personal knowledge about culture is through the lens of cultural themes. In 1970, sociologist Robin Williams developed a list of major cultural themes that operate in the United States and highlighted the perspective on each theme that's generally characteristic of the dominant European-American culture.1 

Consider the theme of achievement and success. The dominant perspective on this theme might be, "'Rags to riches' is the common pathway to achievement and success in America. Success is a matter of effort." However, many cultural groups in the United States might espouse an alternative perspective, such as "?'Rags to riches' is rooted in cultural mythology that overlooks the social, political, and economic forces favoring certain groups over others. Achievement has as much to do with privilege as with personal effort."

The list in "Perspectives on Major Cultural Themes" suggests other cultural themes and the perspective on each that's traditionally characteristic of the dominant U.S. culture. For each theme, I suggest alternative perspectives that students (or teachers), especially those from historically marginalized groups, might hold. I share these perspectives not to suggest that any of them are right or wrong, but to provide teachers with a way to begin thinking about the various values and ideologies that make up human diversity.

If educators could help students acknowledge underlying cultural perspectives and discuss them respectfully, we would make classrooms safer for learning. Yet school-based conversations about differing cultural values are often concluded before they gain traction. I encourage you to consider your perspectives on these themes and note questions you want to investigate further or discuss with students.

Questions to Ask–and Practices to Try

Besides acknowledging differing perspectives, teachers can adopt practices that make diverse classrooms safer and more equitable. I share here five strategies teachers might try. Each set of strategies connects to a question teachers I've worked with have raised after reflecting on how culture-based perspectives might affect their teaching and their students' learning.

Are Classroom Norms Clear and Do They Include Everyone's Perspectives?

Classroom norms that everyone agrees on help create an environment in which everyone feels respected and able to participate comfortably in learning. It's important that students discuss what these norms mean and what following each one would look like, as students from different cultures may have different understandings of, for instance, how it's appropriate to contribute to someone else's learning.

One way to arrive at classroom norms is to provide a set of sample norms and ask students to review them with a partner. Have students underline the norms they think are most important to adopt, modify any they want to change, and add additional recommendations. Proposed norms might include the following:

  • Listen carefully to others.

  • Share airtime (for example, if someone in a discussion, hasn't had a chance to speak, check to see if that person wants to contribute, even if there is more you want to say).

  • Resist blame; approach personal conflict as a problem to be solved.

  • Speak from your own experience ("I have found … ") rather than generalizing ("Most people say … ").

  • Challenge ideas without making it personal by focusing on the topic or issue.

  • Contribute to other people's learning.

Collate students' recommendations and ask each student to put a star next to the norms he or she wants to adopt and a question mark next to the norms he or she wants to understand further or wants the class to reconsider. Provide ways for students who aren't comfortable offering a public response to respond privately.

As the group makes final decisions, discuss the tension between uniform and nuanced interpretations of norms. For instance, classrooms that select "listen carefully" should discuss what listening carefully looks like in different cultures and communities. I sometimes share that, given my socialization as a middle child in a Jewish-American family, if I'm not interrupting when someone's talking, it's possible I'm not listening either! However, in general, interrupting is seen as impolite–and can interfere with others' learning. Nonetheless, students may decide that interrupting will sometimes be acceptable because it contributes to robust interaction.

Help students realize that conversations about weighty issues like inequality will be difficult. Discussions may trigger strong emotion among students for whom the legacy of racism is part of everyday experience. When emotional triggers lead to loud voices and heated discussion, some students will feel uncomfortable. Yet norms that lack nuance and inhibit emotional expressiveness can inadvertently promote a kind of homogeneity that reinforces dominant values–and silences those whose perspectives have been historically disregarded.

Do I Learn About Students' Lives and Interests?

Researchers and teachers (Gonzales, Moll, & Amati, 2005) have highlighted the value of a funds of knowledge approach to teaching and learning. Funds of knowledge are cultural experiences, knowledge, and skills that all students and families possess, usually revealed through informal interactions, like visiting a student's family in their home. When educators clearly communicate the purpose of the visit and take the role of learner, a family's stories provide insights into students' values, identity, and academic strengths. This stimulates new ways to engage students.

Many teachers enjoy opportunities to learn about students through assignments that invite self-expression, occasional lunches with students, potluck meals with students and their families, and class discussions about local problems. Such practices enable teachers to share aspects of their own lives, including those that reveal important values connected to learning.

Many teachers use "exit tickets"–cards on which each student responds to a question that elicits individual perceptions or interests ("What did we discuss today that connects to a personal goal?" or "What's something you learned that you'll share with someone in your family?"). Teachers might pose the question just before the conclusion of a class and require students to show their tickets as they exit the room. As a teacher collects the cards at the door, he or she makes contact with each student and provides a personal thank you or high five.

Regardless of your approach, it's important to routinely check in with students. Some teachers begin class by publicly greeting each student; in response, each member of the class shares an adjective that describes how his or her day is going. When teachers show warmth and enthusiasm in such exchanges, it makes a powerful statement that we value students as human beings.

Can Students Respond in Different Ways?

Teachers commonly require students to raise their hands to ask or answer questions. However, students from cultures that value humility and interdependence may be uncomfortable publicly revealing their personal confusion–or even their knowledge. Practices that allow for anonymity, like writing questions for the teacher's eyes only, facilitate richer communication.

You might pose a controversial question to the whole class and have students write-pair-share in response to it. The protocol could include each student responding to his or her partner's thoughts. At times, ask each pair to share an aspect of this interaction with the class; at other times, post written answers anonymously on a response board.

The "fist-to-five" strategy helps check for clarity while respecting students' cultural mores. If a student raises all five fingers, it means that the student understands a concept well or agrees with an idea. Four fingers means that the respondent mostly understands or agrees, and so forth. A fist indicates confusion or disagreement.

Do I Keep Perspective on Punctuality?

Students from communities in which time is viewed more in relation to natural patterns than as a commodity to be spent or managed may not put the priority on punctuality that schools do. Students from all cultures benefit from defining punctuality and discussing why it's important at school.

Although punctuality can be a sign of responsibility and commitment, there are often legitimate reasons why students are late. Recently, a principal of a high school that serves many new immigrants interviewed students about the reasons they were late to school. Consistently, students indicated family responsibilities, such as caring for younger children who start school later in the morning, as the reason. A good rule of thumb is to seek first to understand. Students should know they're always welcome in our classes and that learning trumps punctuality.

One urban middle school teacher shares this perspective with students:

I base my attendance policy on the premise that everyone's voice matters and that we need one another to learn. I also believe that education is the pathway to developing habits of mind that will lead you to a responsible, satisfying life–and to eventually earning a living wage for your family.

Are Multicultural Perspectives Embedded in My Discipline?

Many teachers find themselves learning along with students when it comes to ensuring that the perspectives and contributions of historically underrepresented people are integrated into their discipline's curriculum. Consider reviewing your curriculum with students, asking questions like these:

  • Is there significant omission of people of color, people who are physically disabled, people with different sexual orientations, and females?

  • When historically omitted or misrepresented groups of people are mentioned, are they assigned rigid roles that deny their complexity? Is this information separate from the main body of the material?

  • Is bias perpetuated by offering only one interpretation of an issue, situation, or group?

  • Does curriculum content fail to acknowledge racism and discrimination when it's relevant to the context?

Open-Minded Learning

To be effective in diverse classrooms, educators don't necessarily need to change their identities and beliefs. They do need to realize that no situation is value neutral and that the key to respectful learning environments is open-minded adult learning.

It's difficult to imagine that some of our well-intentioned actions might undermine a student's motivation–with academic consequences. But when we learn more about who we are–and who students are–culturally, we'll become more conscious of how we influence students. This can be empowering in ways we never dreamed.

Perspectives on Major Cultural Themes

Humanitarian Mores: Left to their own devices, people will spontaneously come to the aid of others.

Alternative perspectives: People offer assistance selectively. For some, personal gain takes precedence over generosity, others see assistance as promoting dependence, and others assist only those they judge worthy.

Efficiency: We should prioritize the practical value of getting things done.

Alternative perspectives: The pathway to productivity is as important as the outcome and is what makes the strongest statement about a person's values.

Progress: Human beings are oriented toward progress and should exert control over nature and life circumstances. Optimism and the view that things will get better characterize such an orientation.

Alternative perspectives: People should respect and care for the world we have been given; the condition of that world, like life, is cyclical. Reflection is more important than optimism. Making meaning is more important than making progress.

Individuality: Human beings should be independent, responsible, and self-respecting. The group shouldn't take precedence over the individual.

Alternative perspectives: Humility and interdependence are higher values than individuality and independence.

Racism: Racism represents a value conflict because it emphasizes differential evaluation of racial, religious, and ethnic groups. A color-blind ideology is the pathway to social and economic security.

Alternative perspectives: Racism combines prejudice with power and has been used for centuries to secure the dominance of a select group.

References

Delpit, L. D. (1988). The silenced dialogue: Power and pedagogy in educating other people's children. Harvard Educational Review, 58(3), 280–298.

Feistritzer, C. E. (2011). Profile of teachers in the U.S. 2011. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Information.

Gonzalez, N., Moll, L. C., and Amati, C. (Eds.). (2005). Funds of knowledge: Theorizing practices in households and classrooms. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Heath, S. B. (1983). Ways with words: Language, life, and work in communities and classrooms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1994). The dreamkeepers: Successful teachers of African American children. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Locke, D. C. (1998). Increasing multicultural understanding: A comprehensive model (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Williams, R. M., Jr. (1970). American society: A sociological interpretation (3rd ed.). New York: Knopf.

End Notes

1. This list was later condensed by Don Locke (1998).

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