Responding to Diversity and Inequity in Schools
When children arrive at school, they may or may not find a cultural environment that reflects themselves or the diversity of the American population. The school environment reflects the attitudes of the people who create it. If the teacher sees only the dominant culture as valuable and therefore worth recognizing, the classroom will show only white faces in the pictures on the walls, will acknowledge the heroes and holidays of dominant culture only, and will contain only books written for, by, and about dominant culture people.
Sometimes teachers who have this attitude don’t realize the limitations of what they offer to children. If they are European Americans, they might not understand any culture but their own, which they naturally see as normal and right—the only way. Such culture-blind teachers may claim to be color-blind. In their attempt not to be bigoted, they ignore differences, thinking that noticing them shows prejudices.
Other teachers regard differences as important and take an ethnic studies approach toward acknowledging them. They accept and promote differences in an attempt to increase understanding and acceptance of them. Taking a “multicultural tourist” approach, these teachers may emphasize ethnic holidays, serve ethnic foods, and teach about customs, history, art, or artifacts of assorted cultures. This approach can make some children feel accepted who wouldn’t otherwise feel that way, as well as broaden the view and experience of all the children in the classroom. A difficulty is that studying cultures in bits and pieces tends to trivialize or exoticize them. A multicultural tourist approach may also focus more on foreign cultures than on how those cultures have evolved when transplanted to the United States. This approach represents an add-on to the curriculum, rather than a change in it. The classroom reflects the multicultural tourist curriculum by having pictures displayed and books available that show, for example, African tribespeople, Balinese dancers, and Chinese New Year’s celebrations. A typical theme for December in a multicultural tourist curriculum is “Christmas Around the World” or the broader “December Holidays,” showing celebrations of Hanukkah, Christmas, the Santa Lucia Festival of Lights, and Kwanzaa.
Some teachers approach diversity in the classroom by looking at commonalties in the everyday world rather than just celebrations. “We’re all ethnic and cultural beings—same and different at the same time” is the message. This approach may take the theme that we all have needs, but how we meet those needs varies. Teachers may have their children study, for example, ways of carrying babies or kinds of grains eaten by various cultures. Studying breads from around the world as a theme is an example of approaching diversity from the we’re-the-same-but-different angle.
Other teachers—more and more since Derman-Sparks’s book, Antibias Curriculum, came out in 1989—see the importance of changing their whole curriculum to reflect an attitude of respect and dignity toward differences. An antibias approach aims at true integration and equity, regarding empowerment as an issue. Teachers who use this approach teach their children to be sensitive to realities different from their own as well as to think critically about injustice. Antibias is not just a cognitive approach; it includes feelings and actions, too. A full antibias curriculum includes promoting equity for all aspects of human diversity—culture, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, ability, and age.
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