“It is time for a redefinition of White America. As our percentage of the population declines, our commitment to the future must change . . . The future calls each of us to become partners in the dance of diversity, a dance in which everyone shares the lead. And because we have been separated by race and ethnicity for so long, we may feel awkward at first with new moves . . . But with a little help from our friends in other cultures, even White folks can learn to dance again, as we once did among the great stone circles of ancient Europe.”
– Gary R. Howard, “Whites in Multicultural Education” 1993
Classrooms today are reflective of the diversity that surrounds us in our country. Children, regardless of age, want to feel seen, accepted and proud. They therefore should be provided with a literature-rich environment that enhances their self-image by mirroring each child, as well as exposing them to the richness of the diversity that surrounds them. Good literature can become a positive influence. It not only offers a reflection of the world, but can serve to shape the thinking about and develop a comfort with otherness, while also reflecting what we have in common and what connects us as citizens and human beings.
Teaching diversity in the classroom should begin with children in Pre-K and Kindergarten. Books portraying different regions of the world, traditions, hairstyles, games, clothing and songs, provide opportunities for discussion. Young minds can share what they notice is the same and different and talk about their own experiences by way of storytelling.
As they enter first and second grades, children begin to go beyond their dependent egocentric worlds and wonder about friends and people in their families and neighborhoods who may differ from them in various ways. As they grow, they are more able to deal with the significance of language and think critically about the expansive world.
Teachers can promote critical thinking by encouraging children to ask questions about customs, attire, holidays, traditions and heritage that may not reflect their own. Questions can lead to collaborative thinking, discourse and reflection. These are opportunities to explain how clothing, for example, can reflect a person’s heritage, culture, traditions and religion without ‘difference’ defined or thought to have a negative connotation.
As their journey continues, they may become thoughtful about their own identities and can now begin to explore issues of discrimination, biases, predispositions, prejudice and a sense of belonging or not belonging.
As always, it is the imagination, creativity, professional development and adeptness of the classroom teacher that matters. S/he must be grounded in self-awareness and comfortable with difference herself/himself. S/he must become educated as to what is available, developmentally appropriate, and find the resources to collect and provide children with an array of books reflecting inclusivity embracing race, gender, and ability.
Increasingly, one of the challenges of a homogenous teacher population teaching an exponentially growing heterogenous student body from diverse families and backgrounds requires rethinking what teaching and learning means in the 21st Century. It becomes the responsibility of teachers to challenge social -isms and phobias so as to create safe cultural school environments that accept, affirm and build on the identities of all students with respect, dignity and integrity.
Doing so can assist in creating a new generation of globally aware citizens who feel comfortable acknowledging and accepting difference, stepping across multicultural boundaries without reservation or fear – becoming the future beacons and advocates for social justice, equity and mutual respect – enhancing the quality of life of all fellow human beings.
“For White educators, it is especially important that we lift the curtain of ignorance and denial that has protected us from understanding our location on the broader stage of hierarchical social arrangements. We need to see how the lives of our students have been scripted by their membership in groups differing in degrees of social dominance and marginality . . . lean into the discomfort of critically examining the larger social drama and trauma of dominance.”
Gary D. Howard “We Can’t Teach What We Don’t Know”
White Teachers, Multiracial Schools 1999