Portfolio 2

Understanding Key Components of Multiculturalism

As Blunt has noted, “multiculturalism is a difficult term to define” (Blunt, 2006). The most cogent definition I have found so far comes from a manual to assist Resident Assistants working in dormitories at Central Michigan University:
Multiculturalism is a state (of being) in which an individual has embraced the desire, mastered the knowledge, and developed the skills to feel comfortable and to communicate effectively with people of any culture encountered and in any situation involving group of people with diverse cultural backgrounds... (Adapted from Margaret Pusch, Multicultural Education: A Cross-cultural Training Approach, 1979) (Central Michigan University)
What strikes me most about this definition is that, while idealistic, it does not fall into the trap of treating multiculturalism as something that is just celebratory (“let’s all do Cinco de Mayo and Martin Luther King Jr. Day and call it done”) but sees it as something to “enrich and strengthen the community” (ibid).
It follows naturally from such a definition that education is required. James Banks set for the “Five Dimensions of Multicultural Education”: content integration, knowledge construction process, prejudice reduction, equity pedagogy, an empowering school culture and social structure (Banks). As the National Association for Multicultural Education states, “Multicultural education enables the individual to believe in one’s own intrinsic worth and culture, to transcend monoculturalism and, ultimately, to become multicultural (NAME).
In my own school community, many teachers come from a middle-class urban background, and we are lacking both the language and tools to effectively communicate with a large part of our student population who are working in a rural agrarian or working-class world. The disconnect is obvious in many ways, from assignments which have no meaning to the students without a great deal of scaffolding to interactions with parents who do not place a high value on education above the 8th grade level. In this age of high-stakes testing, the trend is to focus on content often to the exclusion of making that same content available to the students in terms with which they are familiar. As noted by Gay, “Multicultural education means learning about, preparing for, and celebrating cultural diversity, or learning to be bicultural. And it requires changes in school programs, policies and practices” (Gay, A Synthesis of Scholarship in Multicultural Education, 1994)
Despite opinions like those expressed by Roy Beck (Beck, 2006) and Lawrence Baines (Baines, 1997), the research for effective teaching points to learner-centered, learner-aware teaching as that which is most valuable to helping students realize their potential as learners in the 21st century. Research involving the Five Standards set forth by CREDE (see Portfolio 1, Collection 9, above) “found that achievement gains in comprehension, reading, spelling, and vocabulary were greatest for students whose teachers had transformed both their pedagogy and the organization of instructional activities as specified by the Standards for Effective Pedagogy model” (Doherty, Hilberg, Pinal, & Tharp, 2003).
The most important factor in effective multicultural education is the understanding that bias, prejudice and monoculturalism exist. Once that has been acknowledged, and the over-arching belief in the superiority of dead white males has been challenged, then teachers, administrators and students may begin to move towards an understanding of the world as a place of many beliefs, many cultures, many ideologies, all of which may exist in harmony if treated with respect.
Parental involvement is also necessary for a move to a more open understanding of the “flat world” (Friedman, 2006) of the 21st century. A paradigm shift on the order of that called for by Thomas Kuhn “is in the first instance, not [tied to] a subject matter but rather a group of practitioners” (Kuhn, 1970). All adults in a given community are part of the learning culture of the youth, and as such, we must all subscribe to the understanding that the world does not belong solely to the “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant” culture, nor should it.
Using the models outlined by Banks and CREDE, as well as research-driven curricula developed by groups such as Tolerance.org and NAME, it is possible to provide students with lessons that are more meaningful to them and thus more interesting.
Elements considered essential to equitable education:
Content integration
Teachers and students working together
The basics (food, clothing, shelter, education. Health dare, and equality
The knowledge construction process
Developing language and literacy skills across all curriculum
Nurturing relationships
Prejudice reduction
Connecting lessons to students’ lives
Opportunities for optimal development
An equity pedagogy
Engaging students with challenging lessons
Protection from harm
An empowering school culture and social structure
Emphasizing dialogue over lectures
Healing from emotional or physical harm
(Center for Research on Education, Diversity & Excellence, 2002)
(Culler, 2004)

The most obvious benefits of multicultural education include students feeling safe and accepted in an environment in which they spend as much time as they do at home and consequently feeling more involved in their own learning. By tearing down walls of misperception and distrust, each child (and teacher) is better able to be open to the interactions of the classroom, and to carry the lessons learned out into the wider world.
The world is, indeed, becoming flatter. For students to be able to operate as informed citizens, they need to be able to “respect differences and appreciate diversity” (Tolerance.org). Pointing to the use of the Internet as a powerful force in the 21st century, Friedman says there is, “an even greater potential to nourish diversity to a degree that the world has never seen before.” (Friedman, 2006)
Removing mental biases that are founded in such external concepts as gender, skin color, level of income or even athletic ability will allow teachers to teach the whole child, and allow the child the opportunity to reach her/his full potential within the safety of the classroom and beyond. “By claiming that they [teachers] do not see color or that they treat all of their students the same regardless of their racial and ethnic backgrounds, they skillfully avoid confronting the fact that race and ethnicity greatly impact every person’s life experiences” (Ndura, 2004). It is my hope, that in the online project I am planning for the final part of this course, my students will move outside the narrow boundaries of Tarkington Prairie and experience the reality of people as people – not just labels.
Funding for such projects can be found at many levels. The U.S. Department of Education (U.S. Department of Education, 2008) offers grants for individuals that range from the International Research and Studies Program (supports surveys, studies and development of instructional materials to improve and strengthen instruction in modern foreign languages, area studies and other international fields) through the Women’s Educational Equity program (promotes education equity for women and girls).
State agencies also offer (limited) funding, as do online communities like Tolerance.org (Tolerance.org, 2008). CREDE and LoTi, like many other sites have kits available at reduced prices for schools, which address curriculum development as well as effective practices in the classroom. The multitude of sites with multicultural lesson plans has my del.icio.us account (Burleson, 2008) filled with over sixty references, which I will be sharing with my colleagues.
In the Tarkington community, the churches are the most likely sources of funding. This will be something we teachers will have to work on as a community, to help overcome any fears that might arise because of long-held beliefs.
It is going to be quite an experience for me, to go into churches and homes, to talk with residents of Tarkington about their social system, and still manage to keep my mouth shut about my own beliefs. This may well be the hardest part of this course, as I tend to be easily frustrated by what I perceive to be injustice. I am doing my best to keep an open mind, and know that I will learn a great deal about what makes my students “tick,” but I am nervous about it at the same time. I do not want to offend anyone, and will have my questions written out ahead of time.
I suspect I am going to find two basic areas of study/difference: wealth and religion. Since our beliefs are informed by our surroundings, the community of Tarkington has a very strong set of social rules regarding who can mix with whom. Race is sometimes a factor (I will be interviewing the parents of a student of mixed race), but more often division comes up based on income: the haves versus the have-nots. The religious aspect, I will confess up front, is very important to me because of a hypothesis I have been playing with for the four years I have been teaching in the community. There is a very strong Protestant community, though divided up between over a dozen churches in the area, and I have hypothesized that the religious view of the place of humanity (condemned since the beginning of time) influences the interaction of teacher and student. If one believes that a child is inherently bad, is it possible to keep offering that child the opportunity to do good? I cannot ask the question outright, but it will be in the back of my mind as I go through the various activities of Portfolio 3.
Update: After spending several hours with long-time residents of Tarkington Prairie, I found three threads that seem to help shape the students I see in my classroom daily: wealth, religion, and, to my surprise, language.
Wealth/income divides the community geographically as well as psychologically. Those who have a middle-class or higher lifestyle live “on the Prairie,” while those who qualify for free/reduced lunches, for the most part, live “in the River Bottom.” The two groups only seem to mingle at church, but there are distinctions there, as well as at school.
The religious divisions I observed seem to influence behaviors in school. (Yes, I am making sweeping generalizations.) Those students whose families attend the strictest church have a deferential attitude overall while in school. Students observed attending the more “liberal” church seem to be more comfortable interacting with school personnel in the church setting, but may not be quite as compliant in the classroom setting. They appear to be more willing to discuss or even contest things they believe to be unjust. It struck me, as I was re-reading up my notes from each of the visits, that I did not observe any of the families of the “trouble-makers” in attendance at any of the churches. This is not to say they are not members of a religious community, simply that they were not in attendance at the churches I visited on the days I was present. Still, this is something I would like to explore more, just to satisfy my own curiosity.
The discovery of language usage as an indicator of respect for people not from the local community was what startled me the most. This crossed both income and religious grounds; students (and families) who speak heavily accented English, and by this I mean English with a very heavy Texan accent, seemed to be less open to the idea of having a visit from an outsider. I was not denied a visit, but there seemed to be a great deal of strain going on during the visits. This was not an indicator of value for education, as families both with and without this marker had about an equal amount of respect or lack thereof for the institution of education. However, upon reflection I realized that many of the students with heavy accents are also in the lower level reading classes. I wonder if there is a correlation to be found there.
If I am going to help my students prepare for life in the real world as I believe it will be in the next few years I must work diligently to keep my own mind open, to keep my studies of other cultures current, and to accept each of my students for who s/he is, where s/he is. The moment that I allow myself to start applying labels, I must remind myself to stop looking at the outside or at the behavior and see the individual within. I must design lessons that will intrigue as well as offer the opportunity for critical thinking, and I must encourage the use of higher-order thinking skills no matter what the task. Allowing my students to have more autonomy in the classroom, making myself available to them at all times (i.e. not hiding behind the lectern or the computer), and encouraging the open exchange of ideas will help all of us as we move through the semester.
This will not be an easy task, as I want to model what I believe for my fellow teachers just as much as for my students. Any time we are confronted with something that is contrary to what we believe to be true, it seems to be a human reaction to put up walls and try to pretend the difference does not exist.
By opening up myself, and encouraging others to explore and adventure into new realms, I believe we will be able to stretch the boundaries of Tarkington Prairie and let the learning continue in the vast expanse of the world. By utilizing the tools at my disposal (primarily the technology lab and access to the Internet), I hope to help all of us open our minds to new ideas, new people and new places.
When I have used Google Earth in the past, the first thing the students (and the teachers!) have wanted to do is find “home.” If we can afford the bandwidth, I want to start letting them explore much more of the world, and develop a knowledge of and appreciation for what is out there. With knowledge comes understanding. With understanding comes respect. With respect comes a sense of responsibility.
I only hope I can live up to my responsibilities.