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Meeting the Diverse Needs of All Students
by Josephine Scott

Today, American society is more diverse than ever before. The 1990 census showed significant increases in our country’s minority populations, and this trend will likely continue. Currently, 27% of our public school enrollment is made up of children of color.1 This percentage reflects the changing racial and ethnic makeup of our country; and immigrants, both legal and illegal, account for much of this change.2 By 2000 one of every three students will be nonwhite, and by 2050 the white population is expected to decrease to 60% with the African American community increasing slightly, the Asian population increasing tenfold, and the Latino population almost tripling in number so that by the last quarter of the next century those who are now referred to as “minority” are expected to be in the majority.2 In the midst of this expanding student diversity, the teaching force remains at the opposite extreme. Currently, 91% of our teaching force is white and English speaking and this percentage might even increase over the coming years.

A unique feature of this diversity is the significant increase of students who are now living in poverty. More than 300,000 school-age children are homeless at any given time in the United States; and over 20% of this nation’s school-age children live in economic poverty, over one half of them white.3

While examining these statistics, it is fairly easy to understand why multiculturalists are calling for schools to begin considering the appropriateness of many of the schooling traditions still being embraced. For all of America’s students, schools must begin a focused and concerted effort to provide for today’s students the skills, attitudes, and knowledge they will need to be successful in the pluralistic and interdependent world in which these students will live and work as adults. Among these competencies are the ability to be multilingual and the ability to be cross-culturally competent.

Why Multiculturalism?

Given the continuum of sentiments regarding multiculturalism today, Howe’s comments to us seem most timely. Howe says that the challenge we face today is that of refusing to accept that commonality can be achieved only at the price of diversity, that unity can exist only if we demand conformity. He says that we need to commit to finding new terms of unity that are based on respect and on meeting the needs of all students equitably, to gain courage in our demands for full inclusion, to swallow our fears of diversity, and to wade deep in the waters to discover and create the terms of mutuality and respect that can bind us together.4 Embracing multiculturalism in our schools gives us a chance to put the basic tenets of democracy into practice and to stress with students the "unum" and "pluribus" ideas on which this nation was founded.

What Is Multiculturalism?

Multiculturalism strives to integrate multiethnic and global perspectives, both present and past, into the traditional curriculum that is primarily monoethnic and Anglo-European. It is an idea(l), a process, a reform movement, and a commitment.3,5 The process is one in which a person becomes multicultural and develops competencies in multiple ways of perceiving, evaluating, believing, and doing. It means that one has to focus on developing the ability to negotiate cultural diversity. Singer says that developing a multicultural perspective requires dialogue between people with different points of view, acknowledgment of different experiences, and respect for diverse opinions.6 It creates space for alternative voices, not just on the periphery but in the center. We are called upon to recognize the validity of one of the ideas of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and of many other fighters for human rights; that is, to allow injustice anywhere is to promote it everywhere. We must be concerned with prejudice and discrimination in all forms against anyone. Schools must sensitize students to these issues and must enable them to develop appropriate attitudes and skills toward these issues as well as strategies to confront them when necessary.

Finally, multiculturalism requires of all of us that we examine ourselves to identify our own biases and ethnocentrism and that we develop behaviors to transcend them. This is especially crucial for teachers if they want to be effective with students from diverse backgrounds. A multicultural classroom, then, is one that features positive teacher expectations for all students, a learning environment that supports positive interracial contact, and a curriculum that is multicultural in content and varied in pedagogy.

Multicultural Content

In considering content, an educator’s primary concern should be that of enabling students to develop an understanding of our collective history—the places in time and space where people’s lives intersect but also the lives of groups of people prior to and after such intersections. Such an approach will allow students to fully understand the roles and contributions of various groups of people to human civilization and culture.

One critical element for a multicultural curriculum is to include experiences that allow students to explore events, concepts, issues, and themes from multiple perspectives. These perspectives over time should be broad so that students don’t end up inadvertently creating new stereotypes of different groups. Primary sources in the voices of the people they represent should be used as frequently as possible. Such an approach will help students to understand that one issue or event can be viewed in different ways by different people. As James Banks comments in an interview with Ron Brandt,7 the westward movement in United States history was not westward for all. For the Lakota Sioux it might have been the invasion from the east since the destination of those headed west was the homeland of the Lakota Sioux.

A second important aspect of the curriculum is that it should be relevant to the lives of students and should reflect their images as well as their natural experiences. The content, therefore, should reflect everyday aspects of living and the daily experiences of students. This will sometimes create a necessity for teachers to select illustrations, create analogies, or relate allegories that will connect new information to the experiences of the students. To do an effective job in this area, teachers will need to develop their knowledge about the sociocultural backgrounds of their students.

It is also important to give depth and meaning to information. This is especially true when looking at historical figures. Students should be given an accurate well-rounded view of people. Dr. King, for example, should be portrayed as a peacemaker but he should also be portrayed as a warrior, as a family man, and so on. It is also important that historical figures and their accomplishments be shared with students in regard to their historical time period and the social, economic, political, and geographical conditions in existence at that place and time. The dress, eating habits, and other customs of a people can be appreciated when viewed from these perspectives. The significance of an invention or discovery can also be more appreciated by students in today’s technological society when viewed in this way.

Finally, a multicultural curriculum should be focused on the integration of content across disciplines. Students need to understand that all things in life are interconnected, that they use science and math, for example, in many activities in their daily lives. When we teach content as separate entities, many students come to believe that one discipline has nothing to do with any other.

Multicultural Context

The classroom environment needs to be a demonstration to students of the value the educator places on diversity. This means that instructional design, activities, interaction patterns, behaviors, and expectations must be fair and equitable for all. In a pluralistic society, educators need to be keenly aware that many of the traditional school patterns accommodate some students and work consistently against others. One example is interaction patterns. Some students’ learned communication style is more indirect than direct; some students require thinking time before responding to a question; some students answer questions indirectly and give extraneous information in the process. Other elements that need examination include student mobility in the classroom, classroom organization, promotion of relationships (between students and between students and teachers), use of tone (hopefully a positive one), and use of nonverbal communication, which frequently conveys more than verbal communication.

Overall, in the area of classroom climate, the classroom needs to be inviting, its decorations should reflect images of all the students, and the focus should be on active involvement of the students. We as educators, to be successful in this and other areas with diverse student populations, must examine our assumptions of what schools and classrooms are supposed to be and do.

Multicultural Instructional Strategies

A final area that requires changes when trying to design a multiculturally sensitive classroom is that of instructional methodology. We know from classroom research, especially over the last twenty to thirty years, that people learn and process information in different ways. This knowledge creates a necessity for teacher usage of a variety of teaching strategies or techniques.3,8,9 In multicultural classrooms, teachers hold high expectations for all students, and the use of a variety of pedagogy and learning activities reflects the teacher’s commitment to providing equitable access for all students to the opportunity to achieve socially, vocationally, and academically.

What, then, would be some of the pedagogy and learning activities in a classroom structured for the academic success of all students? Obviously there are many techniques that could be used with students over a period of time or within one instructional block. Additionally, different strategies make sense for different kinds of activities and knowledge-building opportunities, and the appropriateness of a given strategy to the content being taught is just as important as the use of a variety of methodologies. Some of the instructional strategies and activities that an educator would want to master and use effectively and appropriately would include the following: whole class and small group discussion, cooperative learning strategies, direct instruction or lecture, peer teaching or tutoring, student questioning, role play and simulations, interactive lectures, critical thinking or problem solving activities, panel discussions, inquiry-based activities, the use of manipulatives and learning centers, and activities geared to teaching students study, memorization, listening, coping, and test-taking strategies and skills.

Obviously the use of these types of instructional strategies and activities requires the arrangement of a suitable physical environment and thoughtful instructional sequencing. Related to instruction and other areas requiring reflection are the teacher’s view of knowledge construction, the socialized communication patterns of both students and teacher, teacher planning, and assessment. People construct knowledge for themselves, usually based on the prior experience and prior knowledge they have relative to a subject. For example, the plight of Jack London’s major character in “To Build a Fire” might be very difficult for a reader who has always lived on a very warm Caribbean island to appreciate. In this regard, educators need to come to view themselves as facilitators of learning rather than as information givers. Students also come from cultural backgrounds that sometimes have produced in them greater facilitation with some types of communication strategies than with others. Thus, instruction needs to be reflective of an appreciation for this range of communication patterns students are likely to have mastered.

Finally, assessment in a multiculturally sensitive classroom must be reflective of the same appreciation of diversity that curriculum, climate, and instructional strategies show. It is, therefore, important that assessments are done through a variety of techniques—in both written and oral forms, but also through portfolio collections, performance projects, observations, and so on.

Summary and Recommendations

For educators there are some critical questions that deserve serious reflection. Among these are those raised by Valerie Ooka Pang. Pang says that teachers need to answer the following questions for themselves.10

  • Who am I? Am I prejudiced?
  • What do I think about culturally diverse communities?
  • What does multicultural education look like in a classroom?

In answering these, the first question should be framed from the idea that each teacher is a cultural being, one who has undoubtedly been socialized to see certain world views as valid and valuable. Educators learning about their own cultural orientation should recognize that others—their colleagues, students, parents—have also been socialized in these ways. Diverse populations mean that these others might have been socialized to see opposite views, values, and traditions as valuable and valid. It then becomes a duty of all engaged in the teaching and learning process to understand the importance of negotiation in creating a classroom environment comfortable for all.

Many of us as educators have been taught to think that education is neutral and apolitical. As Bennett reminds us, education is neither neutral nor apolitical.3 Every educational decision that is made at any level of education reflects someone’s socialized world view and cultural orientation. If we are then to create classrooms and schools that are truly multiculturally sensitive, all elements and traditions that are a part of the schooling process must be examined and restructured.

Educators committed to multiculturalism should consider implementing the ideas presented under the content, context, and teaching strategies sections of this article as well as the following.

  • A curriculum that is antiracist and antisexist
  • The promotion of critical consciousness in students and a curricular focus on social justice issues
  • A multicultural curriculum that represents basic education for all students since they will all need this knowledge for success in their adult lives
  • Multiculturalism as an ongoing process that crosses all content areas and all other aspects of schooling

Teachers embracing multiculturalism will offer for some of their students the first opportunity to stand in the center of life’s stage. They will demonstrate that the democratic ideals on which this country was founded apply to their school life and to their personal lives.

Josephine Scott is Director for Reading, Language Arts Initiatives for the Columbus Public Schools in Columbus, Ohio.
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