Why Diversity in Your Classroom is Important by Nancy Heuer-Evans, Curriculum Coordinator

Classroom climate and classroom culture directly impact learning.

Diversity –  I’m not sure why this became the buzzword because it implies only 2 sides or 2 types of anything, which we know is silly. I suppose the way to make the “di “in diverse work is to think of it as your perspective, experience, reality and someone else’s—ANY someone else’s who is different than yours. I would actually submit that we should change the word to multiverse, implying that many versions of reality are true, all at the same time, all with the same inherent value and importance, both in the real world and in the classroom. There is so much richness in the multiverse, so much to draw from. Classroom climate and classroom culture directly impact learning. These ideas meet, and we have a tremendous opportunity to give our students better access to learning.

One of my mantras is “Meet them where they are and help them figure out where they want to go.” But in order to meet your students where they are, it is your responsibility to learn where they are. 

I usually visualize all of our different backgrounds, cultures, genders, ethnicities, biases, and prejudices as planes that intersect at any given time. Our job, as instructors, is to encourage an awareness of all of these simultaneously occurring realities.

Why is this important? Have you ever surfed through Netflix or Hulu looking for something to watch? You scan past things that aren’t relevant to you, that don’t speak to a reality you recognize, right? You don’t watch horror movies or cop dramas or home improvement shows based on your life and who and where you are. This is true in our classroom. It is our job as instructors to make our content resonate with our students. If you don’t understand what it’s like to be a black female in today’s world, it is YOUR job to do the work and figure it out. If you have not raised a child of color, then it may be difficult for you to understand the fear of that child’s parents every time the child walks out the door. If you’re not from the Far East, you may not know which behaviors cause you to lose face. If your family is not Hispanic, you may not know it’s disrespectful to question authority, particularly in public. If you don’t understand that topics vary in acceptability from one culture to another, that’s on you, too. Every student we have represents a whole universe, their universe. Our classroom is a multiverse. 

Every student we have represents a whole universe, their universe.

So why is this a critical part of teaching adults? Adults come to us with a lot of their universes well-populated. They have traditions, beliefs, values, priorities. Why should this be something we think about when we’re preparing to help them achieve their goals? Here are the benefits of changing your teaching paradigm to the multiverse:

Creates positive learning outcomes – One of the best things we can do for our students is SEE them. See, accept, and celebrate ALL of them, not just the part that needs to learn our subject matter. This is especially significant for the developmental learner, who is relationship-driven. 

Improves Cognitive Skills and Critical Thinking—By encountering viewpoints and cultures different than one’s own, we are nudged toward examining our own beliefs more thoroughly

Helps Younger Students Enter Adulthood – Helps students navigate the world’s differences in a safe place, where they are free to ask questions, exhibit curiosity and interest in the unfamiliar

Prepares Students for Engaged Citizenship – It is a lot harder to denigrate a culture or gender if you have personally known someone from that protected group. This promotes a voting body who has a deeper understanding of our differences and our similarities

Promotes Creativity – think of culture as paint colors; the more you have at your disposal, the more amazing your artwork will be. 

Creates a Culturally Responsive Environment—promotes understanding and inhibits fear of “other”; we help our students learn to become more aware of other cultures and more curious about them by modeling this behavior for them.

What is the difference between diversity and inclusion? Some people use these terms interchangeably.

Diversity, according to the experts, is recognizing the differences in our students. Inclusion is embracing and incorporating them. 

If you are new to this, start small. 

Get to know your students and their stories. Are they living in a house with 3 or 4 generations because that is what is expected in their culture? What is important to them? Perhaps some assignments could be designed to help them write their story, help them understand their multiverse better.

Diversity…is recognizing the differences in our students. Inclusion is embracing and incorporating them.

Do you have reading assignments? This one’s easy. Start including samples from different cultures. Discuss your students’ reactions to them. If you’re teaching history or social studies, you may wish to focus on areas that seem most relevant to the people sitting in your seats. This can often lead to some of the lesser known aspects of history and social studies, which is more interesting anyway. Are you teaching Art or Music, or using Art or Music to teach another subject? Be sure you’re using examples from all over the world, representing different cultures, different aesthetics. The same for film, architecture, urban planning—whatever your subject matter, there is a way to look at it from the multiverse perspective.

In addition to differing multiverses, you also have diversity to learning styles. Help your students figure out their learning style. Perhaps it would be helpful to take a learning style assessment. There are many free ones online, with descriptions of the various learning styles. This information would be helpful in their own education, but also that of their children down the line. 

This acknowledgement, acceptance, and actual proactive address of our differences sets the tone for a far more open dialogue about what they need from you. If you’re like me, it may even lead to some major changes in how you approach your teaching.

In order to begin or continue your journey toward the multiverse, here are some excellent resources:

➤Black and White Styles in Conflict by Thomas Kochman

➤You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation by Deborah Tannen

➤Yellow—Race in America Beyond Black and White by Frank H. Wu

➤Half and Half—Writers on Growing up Biracial + Bicultural edited by Claudine Chauwei Ohearn

➤Nickel and Dimed—On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenriech

➤Beyond Heroes and Holidays A Practical Guide to K-12 Anti-Racist, Multicultural Education and Staff Development Edited by Enid Lee, Deborah Menkart and Margo Okazawa-Rey 

➤How to Be A Perfect Stranger: A Guide to Etiquette in Other People’s Religious Ceremonies Vol. 1 & Vol. 2 Edited by Arthur J. Magida

➤Multicultural Education: Issues and Perspectives by James A. Banks 

“Multiple Intelligences” by Dr. Thomas Armstrong

Learning Style Inventory

Diversity and Inclusion Exercises, University of Houston 

Economic and Social Justice: A Human Rights Perspective by David Shiman