The DNI Journal
Diversity Network Institute • 701 South Dobson Road • Suite 333 • (480) 649-2929
Fall 2006

Multiculturalism Motivates Teachers & Students

Incentives for the Workplace at Large

by Paul D. Christiansen, Ph.D.

What classroom, anywhere in the nation, couldn’t benefit from a significant decrease in discipline problems and teacher burnout? A multicultural demonstration school in Tempe, Arizona is achieving just that! On the surface, this school appears to look like many of our nation’s elementary schools. Students learn their 3R’s in typical-looking classrooms with desks, blackboards and, of course, teachers. During recess, children’s voices fill the air as they dash to and from the playground. The principal, the liaison between the district, school and community, guides the neighborhood’s educational direction. On closer inspection, this school’s children become actively involved in major theme-focused cooperative learning. From literature, writing, illustrations, modes and techniques of visual art media to physical education, music and media center, the theme is repeated throughout the curricula. The cooperative learning process doesn’t end there. Numerous field trips, guest speakers, artists-in-residence and parents who willingly share their cultural heritage, enrich the learning experiences. “My own upbringing was lacking in any kind of diversity of cultures,” said one teacher. “By recognition of students of varying races, cultures and creeds, I have come to appreciate all students—and ’on-the-job training’ as it were.”

In this school’s third grade unit on community, for instance, pupils study the City of Tempe, then compare and contrast their community with a city and its people in China, Africa, Mexico and New Zealand which are the city’s sister cities. Stories written about and by individuals from these cities are read and discussed with follow-up themes in literature and reading; then by using ideas about these communities and their citizens, students develop their own written works. Story problems reflecting the cultures and statistics from these cities, as well as their contributions to the field of mathematics, enhance lessons in this discipline. Similarly, the same theme would influence lessons in art, music, physical education, science and so on.

People—not as statistics or labels placed on specific groups of individuals according to their genetic and/or heritage variables—make the difference in transiting to a multicultural workplace or classroom. People need to relate to one another, not as members of groups, rather as individuals. “We no longer lump all children into one category, assuming that all celebrate the same holidays,” noted another teacher.

Teachers, given the opportunity and latitude, worked cooperatively and collaboratively to develop, conduct and implement a multicultural curriculum, established on an integrated thematic unit basis, infusing multicultural, technological and media-library outcomes. All other disciplines were integrated with social studies as the main strand. By working as a team with common goals, the entire staff served as a model for students. While students did not directly work in the development of the multicultural curriculum at the school, they were able to sense the group cohesiveness within the school and its staff.

In becoming multicultural individuals, people can achieve unity, that is, diversity in harmony. Unity, in general, has often been perceived as conformity. But history has demonstrated, time and again, conformity cannot be achieved without some external force. Yet, a successful transition to a multicultural workplace or classroom can be achieved by mutual respect for one another regardless of individual differences and methods of doing things. It is also important to recognize the similarities among people and the universal needs people have in common.

No one can force another person to become multicultural. The changes must first begin on the inside of a person and then work its way out through internal transformation resulting in changed or modified beliefs leading to changes in expectations, attitudes and behaviors. This is accomplished by developing an awareness and an understanding of the differences and similarities among people including basic needs which are common to all people. We as multicultural individuals should learn to appreciate others as human beings regardless of their cultural backgrounds. We should begin to reflect positive attitudes toward all people in our workplaces, classrooms and communities regardless of cultural backgrounds.

Attending the workshop "Investment in Cultural Diversity" (Learning to Live without Labels) made me consider things that never even entered my mind. Sometimes it is difficult to admit how narrow and unthinking the mind can be. It made me realize that reluctance to accept may often be caused by a fear of not being accepted and from feeling uncomfortable in an unknown situation. "Knowledge and sharing can help to alleviate these uncomfortable feelings,” said this multicultural demonstration school teacher.

“Teachers were empowered with greater knowledge and understanding which encouraged them to build bridges between the cultural backgrounds of their students and the materials, methods and instructional content of their classroom,” another teacher said. “The behaviors of children were now examined with increased insight about possible causes for unacceptable responses and new methodologies were employed to facilitate greater understanding and success within cultural perimeters.”

This multicultural demonstration school not only achieved its goal for a multicultural learning environment by avoiding pitfalls. Rather than participating in useless multicultural debates or forcing on students who could be categorically labeled as a member of a minority group, this school was restructured from being district and administration-centered to being multiculturally teacher and student-centered. Multiculturally-based education is more effective when multiculturalism is infused with the entire curriculum then in a single discipline. Rather than forcing multicultualism on teachers, they need to be given opportunities to embrace the concepts and principles of multiculturalism and be provided time in addition to their regular teaching and duties to develop a multicultural curriculum. A few minutes during staff meetings is not the time to deal with multiculturalism. Significant and meaningful staff development needs to be planned and implemented for all staff members.

Successful multicultural classrooms, no matter the school’s location in relation to the rest of the country, should start with a district level multicultural specialist who is a multicultural individual, not in looks, but in beliefs, expectations, attitudes and behaviors reflecting a respect for each individual and a strong background in curriculum development, staff development and teaching. The multicultural specialist should be able to assist in developing culturally sensitive resources for staff and community. If the specialist discovers a lack of resources, this individual should be able to develop additional materials, as this school district did with its book, Unity Through Diversity: Multicultural Perspectives or Educators and Community. Next, the community-school-based multiculturally-oriented strategic plan needs to be developed. New, not revised, multicultural and cultural diversity staff development seminars for all staff members need to be implemented. Teachers need to be empowered and encouraged to develop a school-level multiculturally-based curriculum, ensuring adherence to state and district standards, skills, goals, objectives and so on. Sensitivity should be given to teachers and staff members for time to change their beliefs, expectations, attitudes and behaviors

“My eyes were opened,” a teacher said, “to a broader concept of what can and should be taught. Multicultural education is not necessarily teaching about a {culture} or a minority, but instead it is to look at concepts and content from the different perspectives of different cultures and races.” Another teacher summed up this multicultural demonstration school’s multicultural transition well. “Years ago, …{the school}…was a mixture of Anglo- and Mexican-American children {who} were vaguely aware of their culture but not especially proud of it. As the years passed, the school population began to change. After the war in Viet Nam, children from Southeast Asia began to arrive in our area with an entirely new culture. Over the next decade, the numbers increased and so did the areas they had left behind. We became aware of peoples and customs from areas of the world we hardly knew existed. The last decade has increased the number and variety of students and has truly given our school an international flavor. I have just had a student join my class from Istanbul, Turkey by way of Italy. Thanks to the multicultural school curriculum and the readings that have become a part of my life, this is a challenge I look forward to rather than dread. …Our world is becoming a place that is being strengthened by diversity. We are fortunate to be in on the ground floor of these changes. …{This school}…will become a center of learning not only for our students, but the community as well.”

Thus, the key to implementing multiculturalism within our workplaces and classrooms lies in working toward unity, that is, diversity in harmony through internal transformation, not by applying external means to achieve conformity—a false sense of unity.

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