One of the richest vehicles for enhancing students' learning in the classroom is the diversity of the students themselves. Integrating diversity into the classroom process not only enhances learning, but it can increase motivation and facilitates the development of social, cognitive, and communication skills that are necessary to enter today's multicultural work force (Burke 1996; Fried 1993; Hodapp 1996; White 1994). In today's society when we think of diversity we often focus on it as being understood to be defined as a series of identities, including: abilities/disabilities, class (e.g. parent's level of education, family income/assets), ethnicity, gender, language, race, religious preference, and sexual orientation. As a Language Arts teacher in a rural school, I have found that among the classrooms full of African- American students' diversity still exists in many different forms.
While teaching, I am expected to convey all the rules and regulations associated with proper use of grammar and how to comprehend what is being read. Many of my students know how to read the words but simply don't understand the concepts or how to answer questions which require them to think outside of the box. As an individual, you want to fault someone for the shortcomings of the students. Yet as a teacher, you can not blame the students, parents, or schools attended previously. "Education within a pluralistic society should affirm and help students understand their home and community cultures. However, it should also help free them from their cultural boundaries" (Banks, 1991/1992). In order for students to achieve success in the classroom, it is the teacher who should instill the necessary traits for learning and building character.
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Teachers are the individuals who set the tone for the classroom and create the environment. This environment should be safe and conducive for learning in spite of the cultural differences. Trying to create this environment has proven to be a challenge for many new teachers. Primarily because so many factors come into play, such as interpersonal relationships, the attitudes of the students, and the development of the teachers' own abilities to interact with people from different cultures. Teachers should strive to show each and every student that his/her differences are respected and valued in the classroom. This can be related to respecting a person's religious and cultural beliefs. For example, in my classroom I have several students who wish to pray prior to going to lunch. Some students constantly ask why they do that and attempt to make fun of them. As a teacher, I asked the students to explain to us why they pray and why do they feel it is important. By allowing the students to explain their beliefs, the other students can have a deeper understanding and respect for their practices. Ultimately, the teacher displayed sensitivity to the students' cultural orientation. This activity also allowed other students to explain some of their cultural practices at home and during certain holidays. Teachers can achieve the goal of developing an excellent learning climate by working creatively in three areas: infusing the curriculum, making instruction relevant, and implementing meaningful programs.
Teachers need to ensure that their curricula are flexible, bias-free, and relevant. For instance, course materials should encompass references to males, females, and people from different ethnic and cultural groups, and teachers should address the concerns and issues of these student populations. Teachers should ask themselves this question: Are the study materials reflective of individuals from different cultural groups engaging in similar occupations and social roles? Unless teachers examine the materials with this concern in mind, they could miss the fact that the materials may present an overall impression that promotes a stereotypical bias. If the teachers' supplemental curriculum materials ignore the existence of a student's ethnic profile, the learner gets the message that people in that ethnic group have made no contribution to the development of America (Boyer, 1990). Meaning teachers when are selecting supplemental materials, they should include some ethnic-specific magazines, music, and audiovisuals. These items can be the menu from a Mexican restaurant, Ebony or Jet, or films in the native language of a foreign student. It is not difficult for teachers to incorporate these kinds of materials into any curriculum to establish the fact that they want to develop and maintain a diverse ethnic environment within the classroom.
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Before teachers can attempt to teach diversity and acceptance of all in the classroom, they need to be aware of their personal attitudes toward culturally diverse students. It is necessary to have this awareness because one's attitudes will be reflected in the instructional process. A study indicated that teachers pass their own values and attitudes on to students both intentionally and unintentionally during the teaching and learning process (Kendall, 1983). Teachers can check on their own attitudes and values by answering themselves these important questions.
Do I respect diversity in American society?
Do I accept differences in individuals?
Have I ever rejected a student's answer because I did not understand her or his frame
Did I assume that the answer given by a student who used slang was wrong?
Teachers need to develop a frame of mind that allows them to be accepting of student differences. For instance, teachers should make sure to use examples of minority persons or groups that highlight their successes or respected positions in the community. This can be looked upon as "culturally relevant teaching." Gloria Ladson-Billings (1990) describes it in this way: "It is the kind of teaching that uses the students' culture to help them achieve success. The teachers work within three important dimensions: their conception of themselves and others, their knowledge, and their classrooms' social structure".
When attempting to create the ideal classroom, teachers should rely of the views of the students and others who are sensitive to cultural differences. A helpful exercise is to have students identify information that is culturally specific. Because all minority persons do not have the same kinds of concerns or problems, it is unrealistic for teachers to assume that it is possible to address the needs of every student with a single approach. Teachers do not have to be experts on different cultures, but they must be sensitive to the fact that cultural differences must be respected.
Teachers should also provide opportunities for critical-thinking and problem-solving activities where no answers are labeled as incorrect. This allows all students to build self-confidence. Teachers should use open-ended statements in their questioning that make reference to different groups of students. For example, a good open-ended question should spark conversation and allow the student to talk in detail. The student will give an explanation that includes details and references. In a closed-ended question, a single answer will be provided. And in most cases, the answer is "yes" or "no". A teacher's questioning techniques should personally involve students. This practice will permit the students to respond differently, reflecting their cultural diversity for their fellow students to see and understand. Whenever possible, teachers should use resource persons from the community who are representative of the ethnic make-up of the student population. Teachers should also make sure that bulletin board displays reflect the demographic mix of the community.
A positive relationship between teachers' expectations and students' academic progress will have a positive effect on learning. Research has shown us that if teachers believe that a student cannot learn or improve, then that student will not make progress. This holds especially true in the case of minority students. Therefore, teachers need to avoid giving up on a student because it appears that the student is not capable of understanding. Unconsciously, the teacher may be reflecting a bias that believes that "these kinds" of kids will never learn. Teachers who have this type of attitude about the amount of progress minority students can make normally do not go that extra step to foster school success.
Students need to see teachers as role models who accept and value diversity. Some things that can affect their perceptions are the tone of a teacher's voice when he or she responds to certain students and the eye contact that the teacher does or does not make with students. The teacher's own belief about the value of cultural differences is reflected in such verbal and nonverbal communications. Teachers need to be honest and sincere with students. Students will sense it. There should always be a social distance between teachers and students. Teachers must remember that it is far better to respect students' differences than to try to become part of the group.
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A conscious effort must be made to avoid segregating students by cultural groups or allowing the students to separate themselves in this manner. Such student groupings can defeat everything else that teachers do to promote a diverse classroom. Seating should be arranged so as to encourage students to interact with one another and accept one another's differences. An important activity to have students engage in is role -playing. By doing so, it allows situations where students can reflect their personal perceptions of a problem and uses their cultural outlook to apply a solution, is a viable way to promote the understanding of differences. Such an activity will go a long way toward developing an atmosphere conducive to educating all students.
When evaluating students, teachers need to select student assessment methods that are appropriate for the diverse student population. For instance, teachers should make sure that the language of assessment instruments is free of ethnic or cultural biases, omissions, and stereotypes. Teachers should consider and use, when possible, multiple approaches to assessing students. Assessments can be written, verbal, hands-on, or even an artistic drawing. By using a number of assessments, the teacher is not limiting the potential of the student as a whole.
In conclusion, there is no one approach that will allow teachers to meet the needs of all students. Understanding cultural differences is part of a life-long learning process for the teacher and the students. Teachers must continue to search for ways and techniques to help them become more effective in teaching diversity in the classroom. The first step for teachers is to become more knowledgeable about their own attitudes toward cultural differences. The best learning climate should be productive for all students, and not limited to just minority students. In these excellent classrooms, teachers can generate experiences that promote diversity, respect, and acceptance of others while at the same time providing students with the opportunities to learn about the benefits of diversity.