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Multicultural Education: More Than Books and Posters

I was in a graduate class the other night and we began discussing the subject of culture and its role in the classroom.  A fellow student, who I will call “Amy,” began talking about how multicultural her preschool room is; she has books and posters all over that feature children from all different races and cultures.  The superficiality of this form of multiculturalism can be seen in Amy’s later use of the word “ethnic” while describing a student’s speech.  In short, she believed that one of her black students was too forceful in her tones and Amy wanted to “correct” her way of speech.

Amy’s view of multiculturalism is usually termed “heroes and holidays” and can be viewed in classrooms where students may learn about a famous person of color, or a celebration from a different country, but the core curriculum remains unchanged and students are expected to assimilate to the dominant culture.  True multicultural education is more than posters and books; multicultural education is changing your mindset and allowing, nay, encouraging students to bring their cultures, identities, and backgrounds into school with them.

A teacher who implements multicultural education into her daily lessons first and foremost cares about each and every student.  Because she cares about her students she will take the time to learn about her students’ home cultures and languages, which can then be integrated seamlessly into the curriculum.  This should not be done on a superficial basis; ideally, a teacher should find a home-school connection in every unit, if not lesson.

Additionally, multicultural education needs to provide educational equity for all children; every child has the ability to learn and needs to participate in a fully inclusive setting.

Furthermore, multicultural education should integrate Dewey’s Education for Democracy model and encourage students to question the status quo and look for deeper meanings and answers.  Teachers need to promote social justice through encouraging students to look to the common good and by emphasizing fairness and equality.  Students are also encouraged to challenge inequities when they appear and to analyze power relationships.  Any multicultural classroom should also incorporate collaborative learning communities that promote social communication skills.

Multicultural education involves teaching required content while paying attention to individual students’ background, cultures, and funds of knowledge in addition to creating an environment that promotes critical and higher order thinking skills and questioning of the status quo.

In order to do the above, teachers need to examine their own identities, backgrounds and cultures.  Many teachers are idealistic, middle-class, white females with good intentions.  Without realizing and acknowledging the privilege that comes along with this background, is very difficult if not impossible to truly create a multicultural environment for students.

Amy, by denying her student’s way of talking, was in fact denying that student’s identity.  I didn’t speak up the week when she referred to her student as being “ethnic” and I beat myself up about it afterward.  The following week’s discussion once again turned to culture and Amy made more uneducated and ignorant remarks regarding the same child and this time I did call her out on it.  These comments included the fact that it was “not a cultural issue because other black students in her class do not act that way,” referring to said black students’ families as being African, and claiming that her own personal culture is not the dominant culture in the classroom, all while continuing to claim to support multicultural education.  To my surprise many people in class supported me when I challenged her views and I was given the opportunity to educate someone and perhaps Amy will think twice next time she claims that her classroom is multicultural because of some posters and books.

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7 replies on “Multicultural Education: More Than Books and Posters”

Mona, I’m glad you posted this. As a parent of teenagers I know I am on the other side of the line in education. Right now I’m in listening mode, wanting to hear from educators on the front lines instead of just saying “Teachers need to do___” or complaining about the ones I know.

It’s encouraging to hear people like you are out there teaching your comrades, and learning from each other.

In my experience in predominantly WASPY Bankersville people’s minds are frozen in time. The parents rely on their own personal experiences and aren’t up to speed with topics unless they are directly affected in profound ways. And I believe the same can be applied to the teachers I’ve come to know in 16 years of being a parent. I don’t blame the teachers, but I experience frustration and want to bridge gaps.

A fellow parent/friend recently told me that she doesn’t waste energy on anger, the couldas/shouldas/wouldas. She sees what should have been, but presses forward with what specifically can be done now and in the upcoming year. Lesson taken to heart.

I was very fortunate to be in a very diverse group of grad students when I got my MA, so our classes on multiculturalism were fantastic. Were it not for the discussions the students created in our classes, however, it would have been a brief overview of some kids’ lit with non-white protagonists and a vague concept of racism being bad.
This is one area where I believe teacher education programs are faltering, b/c again most of the teacher educators are from a limited slice of our population.

I agree whole-heartedly. Taking a multicultural ed. class is required for an ESL/Bilingual certification; however, it’s not required for any other certifications. Most of the things we learned about in said multicultural ed. class pertained to all children, and not just second language learners.

Many critical schoars have termed this lazy mindset as “liberal multiculturalism.” Although it might come from a good intention, this attitude — the cultures are neat little boxes of foods, languages, and ‘customs’ — fundamentally leaves the binary of “us/them” in tact. There is absolutely no real enlightenment about what “culture” actually entails. Rather, it has become a substitute for race based group-identity.

This is the same reason why those who hate “multiculturalism” can point to the complaint that minorities are not “assimilating” and are causing divisiveness (just as Garisa shared in the comments). This tendency also elucidates how many racists try to defend themselves by saying they are appalled by So and So’s group’s “culture” and not their “race.”

Have you ever seen “The color of Fear”? It’s a honest, round-table discussion featuring men of varying backgrounds discussing race. It’s fascinating and brings up the view that not assimilating causes divisiveness, just as you mention.
If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.

I applaud you for actually standing up to Amy and saying something about it. There have been so many times where I have stood quiet while hearing very discriminatory things being said.However, I do remember when I was in college and in one of my classes my professor was talking about race in America. The students in my class were actually discussing African American culture and one of them said that African Americans just needed to integrate to the culture because slavery happened a long time ago. My professor actually agreed and I was so frustrated and mad I stood up and walked out. There were only 15 people in class so it was very noticeable. However, I wished I had explain my point of view instead of getting my emotions get the best of me.

As I mentioned, many of my classmates backed me up, which really surprised me. I had thought that most would have been of the “assimilation” view.
One woman, who I had totally assumed some things about, actually brought up her own acknowledgment of her privilege and how she has always subconsciously considered “White” to be the default culture/race/everything and how she is actively changing the mindset.

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