Broadening Perspectives: Integrating Lessons in Multiculturalism

By Amanda Zullo
Wednesday, August 17th, 2016

education, high school, teaching, learning and people concept - group of happy students raising hands and teacher in classroomThis past March at an education conference, I asked a panel on multiculturalism and diversity about best practices to increase the multicultural teachings for my students, given their limited exposure to diversity in the school. The overwhelming response of “put your rich white kids on a bus and take them to a city” was abrupt, harsh and didn’t answer many of the questions I’ve been struggling with. I continue to contemplate, especially in the wake of recent racially-charged events connecting Americans in grief: How do we provide our students with an inclusive, in-depth, diverse experience that gives them understanding of the different people involved in these tragedies? And, by what methods can teachers help students process, cope and become an integral part of solution-oriented dialogue with what has happened in Dallas, Baton Rouge, Orlando and across the country?

Having grown up in the 1990s and 2000s, I’m old enough to clearly remember the Breaking News headlines of the CIA shootings and 9/11 terrorist attacks. Given the overall lack of ethnic diversity in my rural northern New York school, I was exposed to a limited multicultural understanding and had few resources to adequately process these traumatic events. I was, however, fortunate enough to have had a good friend Yasir, who was Pakistani. Through this friendship I developed a respect for the differences in our cultures. Our conversations gave me the insight to know that the perspectives being cast by the media about the people carrying out the attacks did not represent the many individuals in those societies.

I now teach in a school much like the one where I grew up: economically diverse, remote (2.5 hours from the nearest city), but ethnically homogeneous. All in all, the community is isolated from multicultural perspectives, with my students not privy to a broad variety of races, ethnicities, and identities. Most do not have the option to make friends from different cultures, limiting the lens through which they view such situations.

I am thankful that my school has begun to recognize the importance of education on diversity and multiculturalism. The student population in our district is 97% White, 1.4% African American, 0.8% Asian and 0.8% Hispanic. Our faculty includes just one educator from a minority group. As our Title I district spans the largest area in New York State, the demographic of families ranges from potato farmers to second home-owners, ultimately bringing in students from families with great income differences. As teachers, we recognized the economic disparity among our students and worked to provide resources and opportunities to close the opportunity gap. But, at that time, our focus on race and multiculturalism was an area that needed further development.

We began to tackle this issue several years ago by building strong relationships. Staff came to better know and understand each other’s backgrounds through faculty meeting share-outs on different topics. We began to connect more deeply with students by pairing staff and students at the beginning of the year for bi-weekly discussions. Students connected with other students through intentional discussions generated in homerooms. Being transgender, acceptance of other cultures and personal bias were just a few of the topics raised in some of these sessions. Was it uncomfortable? Yes. Awkward at times? Yes. But, as a staff, we saw progress. And progress created an upward cycle.

These open conversations provided us with the windows to hear student concerns regarding issues and events happening in our country. Dialogue around violence became particularly prevalent after the shootings in Aurora (CO), Newtown (CT) and Marysville (WA), and as over 1,000 additional shootings worldwide occurred. We’ve made our learning environments a safe space for conversations about tough topics including race relations, which help students develop a positive self-image regardless of their background. Encouraged to think critically, some begin to view society through a lens of social justice, communicating how the media would be different if people of other backgrounds were involved or if the situation occurred within a different political climate.

In confusing and difficult times, we urged our student organizations to mobilize and enjoy an open dialogue around the why and the what to do. Clubs such as Student Council, FREE (Friends Respecting Everyone Equally), Spanish and French hosted conversations that are solutions-focused and centered around awareness and condolence activities in response to tragedy. Our school groups began to discuss race and equity with respect to surrounding districts such as Salmon River on the Indian Reservation nearby. Field trips — to nearby cities such as Montreal and even to faraway countries such as France and Ecuador — became a vehicle for presentations about other cultures.

Relationships have opened the door to our classes having very honest discussions on issues in Darfur, Rwanda, Latin America and the Middle East. Deepening the learning, students, parents and community members have accessed contacts across great distances to help shed light on happenings in different parts of the world. One such example was a Skype conversation with Dr. Saba Gheni, the former president of Tikrit University in Iraq, who provided further insight to the war in Iraq and how she worked throughout to defend her university. Two seniors, Julia and Caitrin, who were raised and educated here in upstate New York, commented that learning from Dr. Gheni was a powerful experience ‘different than any other education’ they’d previously received.

Our students don’t have control over where they are born, where they live, where they receive their educations or who they have as friends. Whether we lead in an isolated environment or a more diverse and integrated system, it is up to us as teachers to prepare the students for the realities of the world beyond our classrooms. Following the panel, one of the presenters and I had coffee discussing the best practices for integrating multiculturalism. While I gained a few strategic pointers from that conversation, I was glad to learn that our little school was on the right track.

Amanda Zullo is a Hope Street Group 2016 National Teacher Fellow

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