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.