Thursday, August 20, 2015

Cultivating Diversity as a Resource

-- Dr. Becki Cohn-Vargas, Not In Our School Director
As a follow-up to our post last week on “Teaching Practices for Identity Safe Classrooms,” we are sharing a piece on cultivating diversity as a resource an outcome of a partnership project of Not In Our Town and the Center for the Collaborative Classroom (CCC). Watch the companion webinar to this collaborative series and read the whole series here. 
I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Many teachers believe that the best way to live Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream is to be colorblind, to ignore the differences among children. And yet, Dr. King did not really intend to make differences disappear.
When teachers ignore differences in an attempt to be colorblind, classrooms are not identity safe. Students from negatively stereotyped groups can feel stereotype threat—a sense of not belonging, or not being seen as capable. These students may worry that they will be judged or treated according to a negative stereotype, or that they might do something to inadvertently confirm it.
In contrast, in identity safe classrooms, teachers aim to include and honor each student’s background in the curriculum, activities, and classroom environment. By cultivating diversity as a resource, everyone is encouraged to fully participate in a challenging curriculum, while sharing responsibility for the classroom. High expectations for all are expressed in the context of regular and authentic use of diverse materials, ideas, and teaching activities. Students who are struggling to meet the high expectations are provided with additional support and encouragement by the teacher so they can persist in their efforts.
  • Using diversity as a resource for teaching means that teachers should involve the curiosity and knowledge of all students in the classroom. Teachers do not need a specialized curriculum to meet the needs of all students. Instead, they continually ask students to share from their lives and backgrounds. In this way, they also break down stereotypes of each other’s cultures. For example, one teacher invited students to bring music to play during writing. At first, they only brought popular American tunes. So she brought in music from India, where she was born. Then a Mexican student brought ranchero music, and a Nicaraguan student brought marimba music. Then the teacher shared some salsa to show the students other types of music from Latin America. Sharing this music from different countries gave students the chance to enjoy and appreciate the similarities and differences in the music with their classmates in a positive, curious context.

  • Using diversity as a resource also means learning the hard lessons of history and having difficult conversations about the effects of bigotry, always at the students’ developmentally appropriate level. For current events, one fourth-grade Latina brought in an article about a rogue video game where players hunted for “illegal aliens.” The teacher, while mortified, did not shy away from this painful topic. She held a discussion, acknowledging the reality of racism and breaking down the negative stereotypes. The teacher emphasized compassion by attending to feelings that resulted from the distressing article. She reminded students that some of their teasing and games, although less cruel, also hurt their peers.

  • Teachers should support each student in high-level learning with high expectations and academic rigor. Too often, teachers believe that hanging up pictures of people from diverse backgrounds and providing a few books reflecting diverse cultures is all that it takes to cultivate diversity as a resource. But when some students are provided with curricula focused only on remediation of skills, it tells all students that some of them are capable and others are not. Even students who are not strong readers or writers have important ideas that need to be shared and cultivated, so they can develop their conceptual understanding of the world and find their place in it.

  • A challenging curriculum motivates each student by providing meaningful, purposeful learning. As part of the era of “No Child Left Behind,” many schools focused on preparing students for standardized tests. The arts, science, and creativity were often sacrificed. For students who were below grade level, rote learning and a checklist of standards left them bored and more likely to misbehave. In contrast, a challenging curriculum is vibrant. Teachers motivate students to become engaged through inquiry learning, project-based curricula, and open-ended activities that link to their lives. The class becomes a safe place for thinking, where zany ideas are encouraged and all voices are heard. Instruction can be differentiated to accommodate a range of academic levels while everyone is exposed to activities to do together. Students must analyze and synthesize what they are learning, compare and contrast, and explain their thinking to others in an atmosphere of intellectual excitement. It is not possible to have an identity safe classroom when some students are assigned only remedial, skill-focused work, while others are involved in meaningful, challenging work that relates to their own lives.

In identity safe classrooms, cultivating diversity as a resource is a way of life that creates equal status for all children. This approach allows them to get to know each other, show respect and caring for others, and build from their own experiences and backgrounds. By intentionally not being colorblind, teachers create conditions where students see themselves reflected in every aspect of their classroom. They feel capable of handling rigor and challenges because they belong and are supported in their efforts.

This blog was co-authored by Dorothy M. Steele, EdD. Dorothy is co-author of the new book, Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn, and former executive director of the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity at Stanford University. She is an early childhood educator who is interested in public schools, including teaching practices that are effective for diverse classrooms, alternative assessment processes that inform teaching and learning, and strategies that build inclusive communities of learners in schools. Her work with the Stanford Integrated Schools Project was an attempt to look at these various aspects of schooling in a large urban school district.
Becki Cohn-Vargas, EdD is currently the director of Not In Our School (NOIS), designing curriculum, coaching schools, and producing films and digital media on models for creating safe and inclusive schools that are free of bullying and intolerance at national nonprofit the Working Group. She also teaches online courses on bullying prevention for the University of San Diego. Becki worked in educational settings for over 35 years as a teacher and administrator. She co-authored the book Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn with Dr. Dorothy Steele. The book was published by Corwin Press.

Additional Resources:

Crossing Borders with Digital Storytelling – As a way to cultivate diversity as a resource, we recommend our lesson plan for K-12 teachers for launching a digital storytelling project on immigration in their own classrooms. With applications for sharing stories with family and community members, digital stories are a powerful way for teachers to create opportunities for “empathetic moments” among students and shape classroom environments. 

We encourage you to take a pledge to stand up to hate, bigotry, and bullying. The American Immigration Council offers free lesson plans, resources, book/film reviews, and grants to #teachimmigration. We also welcome student reviews and contributions to our blog. Email us at and follow us on twitter @ThnkImmigration.

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