Monday, April 10, 2017

When We Know Better, We Do Better: Multiculturalism in the Classroom

Upon some reflection this semester, I realized how common the theme of cultural awareness has been in my education classes. If instruction on multicultural education was not the whole purpose of the class, it was spoken of a great deal, even having learning objectives or entire projects centered around it. To clarify, multicultural education is a dynamic reform movement for equal educational opportunity for all students, regardless of their social background. This is not an entirely surprising topic to run into in EDS 203, School and Society, and especially not (at least I would hope, anyway) in EDS 206, Multicultural Education. However, it was extremely prominent even in EDS 308, Foundations of Literacy; now having been through the course, it makes a lot more sense to me as to why.
I certainly had my eyes opened to many issues and their significance in the classroom in 203 and 206. Education is for the purpose of providing students with knowledge on subject content, exercising certain skills, and preparing them for the real world. A world which has different cultures and beliefs that they will inevitably encounter throughout and beyond their education. These efforts can include using texts and materials that include perspectives and references from multiple cultures, educating students and teachers on the backgrounds of others in the school, and encouraging students to discuss their personal cultural experiences. This is not to say students should be forced into ideologies for or against those of certain socioeconomic statuses, races, religions, etc. Rather, the importance of practicing moral, social, and academic values such as being kind, understanding, aware, and inclusive should be instilled upon them by way of learning through, about, or with such groups and their members. Through active integration of multicultural education into content, school culture, and social structure, we enrich the minds and open the hearts of our youth by broadening their worlds to different perspectives, arts, stories, issues, and values, thus reducing prejudice and assuring students of minority groups of their significance in the process.
Being a teacher to twenty-six or so students includes meeting a certain baseline of knowledge and courtesies due to each student. This, for instance, would be ensuring each student can understand your written and verbal directions, and communicate to you and their peers. It can be difficult for students to learn when all they can focus on is their difficulty connecting with others and feeling as though they do not belong. It is important to modify the classroom and instruction to be welcoming to students who might be of different backgrounds than myself or the student majority. This (Foundations of Literacy taught me,) can include understanding that the meanings of words and gestures are different among cultures, and even speakers of the same language can communicate their ideas differently. We see this in the existence of different social and economic languages such as African American Vernacular English. Another example of this is in the difference of meaning in various hand gestures across the globe. Where one gesture may mean “good job,” it could be quite offensive somewhere else. Incorporating multicultural literature in instruction is a helpful way to build awareness in the classroom, strengthen the pride of minority students, and better suit students’ educational rights such as providing access to a variety of knowledge, as well as a sense of belonging.
In my studies of multicultural education, I have found one of the most important things to focus on is respect. This can refer to both accuracy and consideration of the studied group’s feelings regarding specific aspects of their history and culture. This is an obstacle I encountered in a group assignment in EDS 308 last semester. We were to go to North Woods International Elementary School and teach a literacy lesson using a book which represented a minority group. My group used the book Grandmother’s Dreamcatcher, by Becky Ray McCain, about a little girl who spends the
weekend with her Chippewa grandmother and learns about dreamcatchers -- what they do/represent and how to make them. My task was to explain to our group of second graders who the Native Americans are. I wanted to do so in a way that would make sense to them, so, looking back on my education, I knew who Christopher Columbus was as a second grader and decided to use his story to aid my explanation. After more thought, though, I realized I did not find it right to introduce the concept of the Native Americans and their beautiful traditions by using Colombus to define them. I have learned, over time, of the horrors Columbus inflicted on the Native Americans, but it was not until well into high school that my sister informed me of this truth; Columbus is not someone the Native Americans revere. My lesson was then modified to exclude Colombus from what I was determined to be a respectful and beneficial educational experience.

Multicultural education is not solely about ensuring minority students understand what is going on in class, it is not about eliciting some massive epiphany in students or becoming a savior, expert, or official spokesperson; it is about spreading awareness, appreciating other cultures, and building pride in our own. Multicultural education is about equality and accuracy, and I will not be a teacher who shelters or lies to her students. Instead will work to do each student justice in their education by teaching them their lessons in a way that includes all angles.
As I sit here, typing away, though, I cannot pretend to be an expert on multicultural education (and, if we are getting into shortcomings, with not even two full years of study under my belt, I really cannot pretend to be an expert on general education either!). I am a white Catholic woman from an upper-middle class family who grew up in one of the wealthiest, whitest, most conservative counties of Wisconsin. Not to say this is bad, necessarily, but it isn’t an area which has been able to provide me with a lot of diversity from which to build a knowledge base on this topic -- I only have so much of a leg to stand on. While I have had a lot of eye opening experiences here at UWL, a great deal due to my very informative classes, I have a long way to go. Even after the many years to come, I do not think I will ever truly get there. However, while an active and constant approach of multicultural education is an expectation, perfection is not. When you know better, you do better. Just to put in genuine effort, be always working to meet proper multicultural ed criteria -- that is what makes the difference in our practice and students’ learning.