We are fortunate enough to be in one of the most diverse periods of American History. We are often reminded of this reality with messages from the various societies that surround us.
Our students share that world with us, and they need our help in learning to enjoy and negotiate the benefits and complexities of a multicultural society.
One of the most enduring strengths of the public school system in America is the variety of cultures that meet peacefully in thousands of classrooms each day. In classroom after classroom, students of all different races and cultural backgrounds study together. At a time when school systems are scrutinized and criticized from many sides, classroom diversity is one of our nation’s greatest assets.
Although some people try to define culture in ethnic or racial terms, a broader definition is more accurate. Every person belongs to a variety of cultural groups delineated by such features as geography, age, economics, gender, religion, interests, or education level. If you ignore the cultural differences among your students, you will create strife and tension. Conversely, if you choose to accept and celebrate those differences, you will find them to be a rich resource for your class.
Here are some general guidelines you can use to incorporate the many cultures in your classroom into a successful and unified group:
Check your attitudes & set the tone
- Be aware that your own attitudes are influenced by your own culture. If your students’ cultures are different from yours, you should strive to be sensitive to the differences in attitudes that you may have.
- It is crucial to the success of your students that you make it clear to them that all students in your class are expected to succeed. Cultural differences are to be celebrated and not used as an excuse for lowered expectations. It is only respectful to have high expectations for every student.
- Expose your students to a wide variety of cultures throughout the term. This exposure will enable them to be more tolerant of each other’s differences. Instructional materials should incorporate multicultural information and approaches whenever possible.
- Take it upon yourself to learn as much as you can about the different cultures in your classroom. Read as much as you can. Search the Internet. Talk to other teachers and school personnel about finding appropriate resources to help you with this. Once you are aware of some of the subtle differences among your students, you will find it easy to be a more effective teacher.
Engage your students in culture conversations
- Make it obvious that you appreciate and value your students’ cultures. Provide frequent icebreakers so that you and your students can learn about each other.
- Make discussing the cultures in your class an important part of what you and your students do together. You can manage a few minutes every now and then for an informal discussion without losing valuable instructional time.
- Provide plenty of structured activities where students can interact in a productive way with each other so that they have an opportunity to learn about each others’ cultures. By offering activities that require successful collaboration and that also expose students to a wide variety of world cultures, you will broaden your students’ understanding of the material under study, of each other, and of the world.
- Other activities that allow students to learn about their classmates’ cultures can include marking birthplaces on a large map; creating a word wall of common words, such as thank you or please, in other languages; and having students post photos or images from their culture on a bulletin board or class Web page.
Watch for potential culture conflicts
- Because cultural differences can sometimes lead to misunderstandings, be alert to the potential for student conflict so that you can prevent or minimize it.
- Be very clear about your behavior expectations so that the classroom culture you create can serve to guide student actions and interactions in the classroom.
- Stress to students the importance of an open-minded attitude about people whose beliefs or lifestyles are different from theirs. Make sure you model that acceptance yourself.
- If students learn racism or intolerance at home, know that you will have a very difficult time stopping it in class. Your first step in combating intolerant attitudes should be to make your position of tolerance very clear to your students through what you say and what you do.
Pay attention to families and communities
- Accept that the concerns of a parent or guardian who is not part of your culture may be different from the concerns that you have. If you are sensitive to the potential differences when you speak with family members, you will find yourself asking questions that will help you determine what their goals for their child are before you attempt to impose your own beliefs.
- Explore the resources in your students’ community that can help you reach all of your students. Ask community leaders to make presentations, go on local field trips, or have guest lecturers on various topics of interest to students.