Teaching for Diversity: A Guide to Greater Understanding

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Explore the demographic shifts in American life and schools throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and examine the impact of these shifts on education. This book provides a powerful theoretical framework for thinking about and fostering acceptance of diversity and difference. Utilizing a combination of theory and concrete examples, the author constructs a vision of schools as the foundation for an inclusive, democratic society.

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One What Is an American?

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Days used to amble by slowly in Colfax, Nebraska. Settled in 1901 by German refugees from Russia, the small town served surrounding farms for years, but with the industrialization of agriculture and decline of subsistence farming, families moved away. Colfax tottered on the verge of extinction until the Nebraska Meat Packing Corporation (NMP) established a plant there in 2001.

Then Colfax flourished. Every nook and cranny bustled. Cracking sidewalks and empty streets were suddenly full of people coming and going on sundry errands. Abandoned stores reopened, the weathered boards of shuttered display windows were removed, and new signs were painted, such as Carnicería, Tienda la Variedas, and Producios de Mexico y Centro America.

The new merchants and customers came from Mexico and Honduras, speaking Spanish and filling the schools with their children. Overnight, a sleepy, dying German American town transformed into a vibrant community—except now Spanish rather than German is heard on the sidewalks, in stores, the library, schools, and churches.

 

Two Diversity in a Free Society

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We return to Veronica and her question, “What is an American?” The legal answer is easy. The philosophical answer is more difficult because it goes to state of mind, feelings, and allegiance. Those allowed to enter the United States serve to define the American character and will influence what the nation becomes. New arrivals bring their cultures and languages and attempt to preserve the best of their own while adopting the best the United States has to offer. In this chapter, we continue to examine American society by analyzing how 20th century immigration shaped the United States. We then examine the intersection of human diversity and national unity, religious diversity, and their impact on the development of the American educational system.

Despite the 20th century shift toward inclusion described in the last chapter, ambivalence toward immigrants persists in subtle and not-so-subtle forms (Murillo, 2002). Some cities create ordinances that forbid landlords to rent to undocumented individuals; elsewhere, illegal vigilante patrols round up people crossing the desert along the Mexican and American borders. This ambivalence is symptomatic of concern about what it means to be an American and who should be considered American.

 

Three Universal Education for a Free Society

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Prior to the formation of the United States, and for a while afterward, education was a privilege for the wealthy who could afford to hire teachers to instruct their youth. Today publicly funded K–12 schooling is provided for all. Education is an absolute necessity for a democratic, free society, and a state-controlled public education is the epitome of a democracy. The citizens as a community pool their taxes and revenues to fund the schools. The citizens also elect the officials who manage the schools and set curriculum and teaching standards without intervention of the federal government, except in the instances when the state system is not in compliance with the U.S. Constitution, which government agencies must comply with to provide equal protection of the law to all citizens. (See chapter 6 for a discussion about the policy of equal educational opportunity). In broad strokes, this chapter explores the establishment of universal public education in the United States, its rationale, and its goals.

 

Four Honoring Culture and Self-Identity

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As students pass through classrooms each year, teachers have a limited amount of time to learn their names, discover who they are, and ideally, teach them something of value. Given the immense diversity of students and cultures, the task of truly understanding each and every student’s culture is daunting, much less the unique characteristics of each student beyond culture. How, then, can teachers hope to identify and understand the diversity issues that arise in the teaching of students from many backgrounds? Moreover, having made these necessary discoveries, how can teachers help their diverse students understand similar issues as they make their way in the world?

To answer these questions I propose two essential attitudes for teachers. First, it is important for teachers to acknowledge—and work to understand—manifestations of human difference. Second, as part of such acknowledgment, teachers must know themselves well and come to terms with their attitudes toward human differences, recognizing their preferences, biases, and prejudices. To these ends, this chapter provides a nuanced explanation of human diversity in terms of culture and self-identity regarding issues such as race and ethnicity; sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation; English proficiency; and learning style preferences.

 

Five Reducing Prejudice

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In culture, as in biology, diversity is essential for survival. Diversity is also ambiguous: cultural values, beliefs, and attitudes are ever changing, conserving, and adapting. Often, the only certainty is uncertainty. Culture ameliorates the tension between uncertainty and stability. In every culture, members must decide what to change and what to conserve. Rapid changes can be destabilizing, as in political revolutions that sometimes have undesirable ramifications. Excessive resistance to change can be oppressive and stifling to growth, as we see in countries ruled by dictatorships. Consequently, the price of healthy cultural survival is eternal vigilance to protect the balance between change and conservation. When this balance is upset—when a group feels its stability is threatened by contact with difference—the result can be prejudice.

This chapter opens with an examination of how culture influences perceptions of difference and the difficulty in describing difference without stereotyping. Next, it explores the origins of prejudice, prejudice reduction theories, and how educators can take a balanced approach to acknowledging and teaching about difference.

 

Six Understanding the Achievement Gap

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Up to this point we have examined various cultural and educational factors to establish a basis for identifying and understanding diversity in the classroom. Lest we forget, students are more alike than they are different. In the main, we should think of them as individuals rather than members of a group. Yet group affiliations influence individuals, students, and teachers alike. At times, we should acknowledge group differences in order to provide all students an equal opportunity to learn. This chapter explores the impact of sociocultural factors such as poverty, race and ethnicity, English language proficiency, gender, and sexual orientation. While none of these factors will “fate” a student for high or low achievement, the achievement gap between various groups is real. Understanding the impact of these factors is the first step to ameliorating any difficulties students may experience. The chapter also discusses the policy of equal educational opportunity as a strategy for accommodating group and individual differences.

 

Seven Teacher as Learning-Enabler

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The adage “Give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day; teach a man to fish, and he will never go hungry” aptly captures the spirit of this chapter. Students may finish twelve grades and graduate, but are they viable individuals able to sustain a good life? Teachers should do more than help students pass a particular class or test. They should strive to facilitate the intellectual development of all their students. The aim is empowerment of students to think for themselves, construct knowledge, make meaning, and learn respect for themselves and others.

This chapter provides an overview of the changing roles teachers play; it contrasts constructivist and naturalistic education to clarify the changes to the roles. Then it summarizes the work of three noted scholars—Maria Montessori, John Dewey, and Paulo Freire—who strived to fuse the roles of teacher-as-giver and teacher-as-enabler.

Students learn through experiences, both planned and unplanned. Most societies do not leave the education of youth solely to unplanned, chance experiences but rather provide formal, planned experiences to transmit valued knowledge, skills, and beliefs, mainly through schools. Formal education assumes that knowledge brings power—that having knowledge leads directly to accomplishments. However, knowing something is one thing; using knowledge toward meaningful ends is another.

 

Eight Linking Goals and Instructional Strategies

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Having laid a foundation for instruction that accommodates diversity, I now turn to specific instructional strategies that are aligned with the goals of universal education:

 Fostering learning autonomy via self-discipline

 Fostering intellectual effectiveness via critical thinking

 Fostering cultural efficacy via cross-cultural interaction

While I will treat these areas separately, it should be clear they overlap and interconnect. The strategies are intended to provide teachers a way to weave their role as learning-enabler into the fabric of instruction.

As previous chapters have discussed, successful living in a free society requires individuals willing and able to think and do for themselves. In school, students should be willing and able to take responsibility for learning. Most students learn autonomy and self-discipline at home and in the early grades, but some do not. Teachers can facilitate this development by enabling students to manage their own behavior.

 

Nine Developing Curricula for Diversity

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Let us take up curricula that reflect diversity. The previous chapter explains broad-based strategies, but not the method for organizing specific content. Ideally, diverse materials, experiences, and activities permeate the teacher’s entire curriculum to assist students in learning about the self and the other. This chapter describes the following steps for building a unique curriculum rich with diverse experiences and activities:

 Understanding how knowledge is constructed

 Teaching about culture

 Using ethnic studies

 Selecting curriculum materials

 Fostering student-created curricula

 Involving parents and others in the curriculum

First, let’s define what is meant by curriculum.

A classroom is defined by teacher and student interactions. The qualities of these interactions are forged by the teacher’s academic leadership through a program of study (defined by state and school district curriculum guides) to which he or she has given a unique and personal twist. The unique touch is the teacher—what he or she teaches beyond academic standards and curriculum guides.

 

Ten Building Community in Diverse Classrooms

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Diversity is a fact of life. Community is not. It must be envisioned, nurtured, and fostered to thrive. Schools are called upon to assist families in rearing children to live well. Bringing up children to live successfully in the greater community has been a shared responsibility for a very long time. More than a hundred years ago, Jane Addams wrote in Democracy and Social Ethics:

The democratic ideal demands of the school that it shall give the child’s own experience a social value; that it shall teach him to direct his activities and adjust them to those of other people. (1907, p. 180)

The adage “It takes a village to raise a child” rings true. In fact, schools are like village commons, the place in communal living where individuals pull together for the development of the self in conjunction with others. Each honors the rights of others so that others will honor hers or his. This is an old ideal, a social contract inherent in e pluribus unum.

In prior chapters, I focused on the intellectual development of students via instruction guided by three universal goals: (1) learning autonomy, (2) intellectual effectiveness, and (3) cultural efficacy. I examine those goals again in this chapter through the lens of socialization (social development), which is mainly “caught” rather than taught in daily classroom and school interactions. First, I examine the relationship between socialization and diversity; then I discuss the characteristics fundamental to a community, from which I make inferences for building community in the classroom. I conclude with a discussion of the school as a village commons.

 

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