By: Haley Gray
Imagine that you have to go see a presentation for your job or as part of a class assignment in college. You stroll through the door where the presentation will be held confident that it will be over quickly and that you will get on with your day. Now you go to look for a seat, but there is a problem. You don’t know anyone. In fact, everyone looks the same, homogeneous and identical. You are the one who stands out and you start to feel very uncomfortable. You find a seat at the back and try to listen as the presentation starts. However, you can’t understand what they are saying. It’s in a different language that you don’t speak. Everyone else around you is nodding and agreeing, because they understand what is going on. This additional fact makes you feel very small, so you withdraw and the presentation’s valuable information is lost for you. This is how a lot of students from different ethnicities feel every day in the classroom.
For decades, America has been painted as a “melting pot” of cultures and different ethnicities. We are told that we have large minority populations, different beliefs, and an ever growing number of ELL students. Yet, when you walk into a classroom, this isn’t always the case. Yes it is as diverse as they come with students from Asia, Europe, South America and more. And yes there are African American, Chinese, Cambodian, Guatemalan, and Ukrainian students. However, listen carefully to the instruction the teacher and how they communicate with their students. Look at the materials they are using. Do you see a representation of the students in the classroom in the books they are reading? Are the students learning about people from various cultures and the different things each important person has achieved? Is there an air of acceptance and embracing the whole child? Sadly, this isn’t present in many classrooms despite being a hot topic in education for years.
This reminds me of a classroom I observed for a field experience last year. It was a diverse classroom with students of various backgrounds. We had one child who just immigrated from Vietnam and a little girl from German. We had two twins from Nairobi, Kenya. We also had Latino students, African American students, as well as Caucasian students. I expected to see a wealth of knowledge from different cultures and creeds presented to this classroom over the course of my observation. But I wasn’t! The instruction was bland at best, with attempts the teacher to be “engaging.” She didn’t allow students time to share stories, and most of the books she read had animal characters or the bland “vanilla white” children. She seemed to be teaching the children, “This is how you have to be because guess what it is everywhere.”
I do not condone this type of education. It is doing a disservice to the students we teach and the world we are putting them into. Now you may ask, how can this be achieved? I for one am the face of the typical teacher. I am a white, middle class teacher who is currently going to a “typical university setting.” I have never visited any of the countries these kids are from nor have a studied extensively different cultures. And I don’t need to. We instead need to reach a level of acceptance and understanding that goes beyond tolerance. I would like to say that we must be culturally responsive rather than culturally blind. We live in a country with many faces, who are diverse and beautiful. As one of my favorite authors, Kristi Yamaguchi states in her children’s book It’s a Big World, Little Pig! “everyone smiles in the same language.” This should be our focus. We must bring out the books with diverse characters to show children that their culture and identity have meaning and value. Get to know parents and invite them in. They can share their experiences and provide insight for not only other students, but yourself. And be aware of things that may be different for your students such as mannerisms and customs, because it shows respect as well as acceptance. Most important teach acceptance in your classroom, not tolerance. All these factors can combine to make the education we give our students more relevant, potent, meaningful, and long-lasting. A child doesn’t remember the lessons in school you teach, but the lessons in life that they learn.