How will you meet the needs of a diverse classroom?

Table of Contents

1. Introduction
2. Racism in Schools
3. Cultural Conflict in the Classroom
4. Pluralism
5. In Summary
6. References
7. Initiating Readings
8. Further Readings

-> How do the differences in Race, Ethnicity, Culture and History in the classroom shape our teaching?

-> How do these factors shape the learning, habits, and aspirations of the students we teach?


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As teachers-in-the-making, diversity in the classroom is a factor that needs to be considered as we work to develop ourselves and our teaching strategies. It is no secret that every class that we will face will be unique, and that there are difficulties that will come with each. If we are to strive to meet the needs of each student in our classrooms, we must rely upon diversity in our teaching that accommodates the diversity of our classrooms. Not only must we consider the effects of differing race, ethnicity, culture and history on our teaching, but also the effect these factors have on the students we teach. If we are to truly reach all of our unique students in the classroom, we must first attempt to understand what makes them unique. We must encourage the individuality of our students and make it possible for these students to be themselves without negatively affecting their learning ability by doing so. Truly, this is a giant task. This research essay will outline some of the difficulties created by diversity in the classroom, and explore some possible solutions that we, as teachers, can use to create a learning environment that promotes equality for all of our students. In the face of such a difficult goal, we will also explore if it is even plausible to achieve such a level of accommodation for our students.

Racism in Schools

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In society, we often stereotype a group of people based on what they look like and their ethnicity which is known as racism. Individuals may make assumptions that because people are immigrants they might not know anything or even if they lived in Canada all of their life and they are considered a minority, therefore they may assume they are not educated. Racism is deeply embedded in our schools and can often cause conflict not only between the students but also among the teachers.

Kristin Rushowy examines Toronto schools in the article “Toronto School Survey: Race and Poverty Matter as Early as Grade 3”. The article discusses a survey conducted that looked at ethnicity of students and their academics and if they were related. It found that students who were immigrants were just as equal as those students who were born in Canada. The survey found that only 25% of students in Toronto were born from parents that were from Canada. That means that 75% of the students in the school system had at least one parent that was an immigrant. [1] This proves even further that if the intelligence of students were based on their race, then three-quarters of the students in the Toronto school system would be failing. According to Rushowy, “It's not that those falling behind are new to Canada; in fact, almost 80 per cent of students in Grades 1 to 3 were born here.” [2] Several immigrants who come to Canada strive to do their best and they want to succeed. A fair amount of the students that I had the pleasure of teaching were immigrants and they loved to learn. Many of the teachers believed that since they came from poor countries in Africa that they were not intelligent and therefore did not challenge them, but all this did was robbed them of an education. They wanted to be challenged and to have an education that they would not have had in their home country.

Rushowy explains that in the survey conducted, the researchers found that Black students whose parents had emigrated from Africa did better on standardized tests than the Black students whose parents were born in Canada. [3] Yet why is this? Perhaps students just are not interested in the subject matter being presented to them. In order to solve this dilemma, educators need to be aware of the diversity of learning styles in their classrooms, and to accomdate them accordingly. Peggy McIntosh notes that people may not recognize racism because it is not happening to them because they are not considered a “minority” group. This unconscious racism allows individuals to realize that certain groups are being oppressed but does not recognize how it is benefitting them. [4] It is up to teachers to show to students that everyone is equal and that no one is better because of their race or ethnicity. Each student is entitled to the same opportunities as all the others.

Racism exists in the classroom and teachers need to deal with it. Teachers themselvesPicture1.jpg must be aware of the stereotypes that exist and they must try to not fall into the trap of grouping students into these roles. Many teachers may make their own assumptions based on stereotypes which could ultimately hurt the students’ chances of success which is not fair to the student or to the school system as a whole. Unfortunately, the existence of these stereotypes became evident to one of us during our practicum. Not only the teachers, but the entire community viewed the school as under par when compared to the other schools. The teachers said not to expect a lot from the students as the community has a high Somalian population and is in a neighbourhood with many immigrants from African countries. This is a perfect example of teachers making assumptions that lower the bar for their students, thus causing the students to lose out on a great education. It is up to the teacher to take control and set an example for the students. Indeed, Ken Dryden argues that students are individuals and that teachers must recognize this. Racism and individuality can be closely linked, and teachers must be able to stand on the side on individuality. [5] If a student is not recognized for who they are and what they have accomplished, then they are not going to want to participate in school or activities related to school.

This leads to the point that teachers are not going to understand everything about their students, but it is important for them to express their individuality. Dryden tries to find ways for students to want to go to school. He recognizes that students want the opportunity to express themselves [6] and this can be seen in schools created just for a certain race of students. In Toronto there are both separate schools for Aboriginal students and for Black students which focus on cultured-based education. In the public schools, the drop-out rates for Native and Black students far exceeds any other group. The subject of race-based schooling is very controversial and in her article “Amid debate, race-based school thrives”, Louise Brown found that these students felt excluded from and could not relate to the lessons and the curriculum
to which ultimately lead to them dropping out. [7] The curriculum in the Native schools consists of “...native art, literature and history. Students can study Ojibwa as well as a range of high school credits, and community elders help lead field trips to learn trapping and snowshoeing.” [8] Questions can be raised about the material that they are learning and whether or not they are being exposed to the same curriculum as the students in the public schools, but ultimately it would seem that these schools are having a positive effect on students. Yet one could question this process. By separating students based on their race and ethnicity, does that mean as a society that we are creating racism? Has it come to the point where students are only going to learn in their culture and race and therefore create more racism? These are important questions that do not have a clear answer. In a way we are segregating people based on race, but at the same time the school system is trying to find the best way for their students to excel.

City of Dreams: Africentric Schools

The video on the left is a trailer for a documentary called City of Dreams. The documentary explores the controversies and debates surrounding the decisions made by the Toronto District School Board with regard to Afrocentric schooling. A video description is provided below:

'City of Dreams' is a provocative, powerful and eye-opening look at race and education and ultimately challenges its viewers into re-thinking multiculturalism, segregation, integration, separation, assimilation, racism and education.

The Africentric Debate

We have decided to include this video because, although it is lengthy, it clearly outlines the differing views concerning the establishment of an africentric school, specifically the one in place in Toronto. The full video description is as follows:

Registration for the Africentric school initiated by the Toronto District School Board has been less enthusiastic than organizers would have liked. As the deadline for sign-up approaches, many wonder if the school is really wanted by the African-Canadian community and debates continues over whether it is needed at all. Discussing the issue are Grace-Edward Galabuzi, a Ryerson politics professor and proponent of the school, school board trustee Josh Matlow, who opposes the school, Toronto District School Board trustee Josh Matlow, who also opposes the school and George Whitfield, principal of an Africentric school in Akron, Ohio.

Cultural Conflict in the Classroom

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The issue of racism can be a challenging one for any teacher to address, particularly when the impact of racism is direct. However, less overt situations can also be difficult, which require a particular degree of sensitivity and awareness. The focus on racism within the classroom also leads to the inevitable discussion of how we deal with issues of cultural conflict both within the narrow scope of our classroom, but also on a larger scale within the curriculum and the community.

According to Timothy J. Stanley, "school is about and for white people".[9] When one considers that statement, it becomes no wonder that there is a 50% drop out rate among Aboriginal Peoples,[10] and as Stanley points out, “few First Nations students are likely to identify with a curriculum that begins with the exclusion of their peoples and continues treating them as disrupters of the national progress”.[11] Similarly, other minority groups also feel excluded from the curriculum, particularly African Americans. While First Nations students find their people belittled and frowned upon in the curriculum, African American students are forced to learn a history that is “one sided” and that provides little to no mention of Black people, save for Black History Month.[12] external image afrocentric-algebra.pngYet, it is interesting to note that despite the lack of curriculum material being taught on Blacks, “demographers predict that by the year 2010, school-age students of color will represent approximately 40% of the public school population”.[13] Furthermore, the study also notes that “only 12% of the teachers in America’s classrooms are minorities”.[14] So why is it that a culture that is so prevalent in our schooling demographic is so unrepresented in our curriculums and our classrooms? As teachers, we are often told that the most important tool in preventing student drop-out is to ensure that students stay engaged, by being able to relate to the material they are learning. Yet, if Black and Native students are feeling as though they are becoming victims to ghettoization [15] in their classes, what chance do they have in maintaining their interest in school? Indeed, Jordan notes that “culturally compatible, culturally competent teachers are essential to decrease Black student alienation and increase their academic achievement”.[16] There are several schools that have begun entertaining the idea of race-based schooling, and indeed, it is not as much about race as it is culture. As shown at the Native Learning Center program in Toronto, culture-based education can make a difference. Many, if not all of their students “have tried high school before”,[17] with no success. What makes this school different, is that all learning is immersed in a culture that is familiar to the students- gone is the alienation and belittlement found in mainstream schooling. A culturally relevant curriculum is crucial, and denies the use of a “Grand Narrative”[18] to tell history. As Stanley points out, we, as educators, need “to enable each student to explore his or her [own] past”[19] something that cannot be done with one Grand Narrative of public memory. We must realize that language, gender and cultural factors produce different kinds of pupils with multiple narratives that cannot be told by one voice alone.


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What is pluralism?
The Pluralism Project at Harvard University defines pluralism using four main points, however three are used here.

  1. Not just tolerance, but the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference
  2. The encounter of commitments. Pluralism does not require us to leave our identities and our commitments behind, for pluralism is the encounter of commitments. It means holding our deepest differences not in isolation, but in relationship to one another.
  3. Pluralism is based on dialogue. Dialogue means both speaking and listening; however it does not mean everyone at the “table” will agree with one another. Pluralism involves the commitment to being at the table -- with one’s commitments.[20]

“How does pluralism affect teaching? How do you deal with pluralism as a teacher?”

Classrooms in today’s society are extremely diverse and therefore teachers are faced with a desire to create a pluralist classroom where they attempt to understand the differences that are apparent among their students. Moreover, teachers hope that the class as a whole will be committed to listening and speaking about these differences; however, teachers quickly realize that it is not an easy achievement resulting in the question; “is pluralism achievable within our schools/classrooms? Or is it simply something we desire and can never achieve? The pluralist ideal strives to provide individuals with an understanding other histories, cultures, races and ethnicities that are different from the “main stream,” which results in teachers attempting to include these in the classroom so that all students feel that they are represented in their subjects.

An article written by Brenda J. McMahon entitled “Putting the elephant into the refrigerator: Student engagement, critical pedagogy and antiracist education,” also illustrates this pluralist ideal as she demonstrates a curriculum that is multicultural and anti racist and focuses on those histories and experiences that are left out of the curriculum (McMahon, 2003). Many teachers’ want to ensure their students feel represented within their subjects. However with so many differences it is hard to do this in a genuine manner and at times this inclusiveness may feel forced as teachers do not fully understand where their students are coming from and therefore would have a hard time incorporating these differences into their classes.

Ken Dryden’s article argues that many teachers try too hard to understand the lives’ of their students and use this pluralist ideal as a means of incorporating a part of “them” into their education. Dryden argues that it is impossible for a teacher to understand a student’s life; they can never understand the hardships that some students endured to come to Canada, or a student’s life at home, how they are abused or ignored by their parents (Dryden , 1996). Furthermore he argues that a number of students come to school to become someone else and do not necessarily want a constant reminder of their past, students do not want teachers to smother them with sympathy for their “hardships,” they want their teachers to help them move forward to success (Dryden, 1996). In order for pluralism to be achieved teachers would need to seek an understanding of the apparent differences their students embody. The ability for them to do this seems rather impossible as they have probably never endured half of the hardships their students may have faced in their lives’. Therefore the goal should be focused around, acceptance, fairness and equity within the class room and not so much focus on trying to express that you understand where your students are coming from because it is nearly impossible.

Students tend to associate with other students that they consider to be “like them” where they feel comfortable sharing elements of their life with those they know have had similar experiences as well as similar customs and beliefs (Dryden, 1996). Dryden demonstrates that students tend to separate themselves from those that are “different.” He suggests that this separation is extremely visible as it can be seen by walking into the cafeteria of any high school, students tend to associate with those that are “like them” and do not tend to mingle with the “other.” Furthermore, educators encourage students to mingle with the “other,” not considering the fact that the bond that stems from sharing one’s race, culture and ethnicity is extremely strong as they are more likely to understand each other’s experiences (Dryden, 1996). For example if we look at the strictly Aboriginal and Black schools in Toronto we can see that these students are more successful because the curriculum is tailored to their similar experiences, which results in a substantial decrease in the dropout rate that was apparent within “main stream public schools” (Brown, Toronto Star).

Pluralism in the class room is desirable in theory; however in practice it is nearly impossible to understand the life and experiences of another person if they are from a completely different “world.” Thus incorporating this into a lesson becomes very difficult as it could result in students getting offended if you are unaware of a specific culture. Perhaps teachers should focus on why certain cultures are left out and not so much on trying to understand so much about their students’ backgrounds. Teachers need to ensure that their classroom is filled with acceptance, respect and fairness so that every student has the equal opportunity to be successful.

School's Diversity Gains National Attention

The video on the left describes the success story of an elementary school that provides education to a very diverse group of students. Note that the emphasis is not on a pluralistic approach for accommodating the background of each student. As shown in the video, one of the students struggled at first but once he learned more English he was able to make friends and do his homework. The school embraces a global perspective in the education process. As a sign in the video displays, "We all smile in the same language"

In Summary

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The issues caused by differences in race, ethnicity, culture and history are very real in present day classrooms and schools. If we as teachers are striving to provide a quality education for all of our students, then we must take these issues into careful consideration. It is not possible, nor is it always beneficial, for a teacher to try and meet the unique needs associated with the backgrounds of all of his/her students. If we were to do so, we would be unable to prepare those students for the real-world, in which not every aspect of life will be tailored to meet the needs of their racial, ethnical, cultural and historical differences. Instead, we should continuously strive to understand our students’ backgrounds in order to create a learning environment that promotes equality. We need to encourage our students to understand and respect each other’s differences. We must support the individuality of our students, but also help them work together to create a sense of community that can be shared by all, regardless of differences. Although this is a lofty task, we as teachers must continuously reach for this goal if we truly desire to provide equality in our education of students and self.

My Theory - by Boonaa Mohammed

The video on the right is a recording of an inspiring poem written by a young Spoken Word artist from Toronto. He describes being a minority in the classroom and the importance of individuality over conformity.

Thanks to Idil for the video link!


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  1. ^ Rushowy, Kristen. Toronto school survey: Race and poverty matter as early as Grade 3. http://www.parentcentral.ca/parent/education/article/594545--race-and-poverty-matter-as-early-as-grade-3. February 28, 2009. Date Accessed: December 5, 2009.
  2. ^ Ibid.
  3. ^ Ibid.
  4. ^ McIntosh, Peggy. A White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. [Independent School pg. 32]
  5. ^ Dryden, Ken. In School: Our Kids, Our Teachers, Our Classrooms. [McClelland & Stewart Inc. Pg. 113]
  6. ^ Ibid. Pg. 120.
  7. ^ Brown, Louise. Amid debate, race-based school thrives. http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/nativeeducation /article/108088--amid-debate-race-based-school-thrives. September 15th, 2005. Accessed December 5, 2009.
  8. ^ Ibid.
  9. ^ Stanley, Timothy J. Nationalist Histories and Multiethnic Classrooms. Education Canada 42 (3), 2002, pp. 14].
  10. ^ Statistic from http://www.leaderpost.com/news/Aboriginal%20drop%20rate%20draws%20failing%20grade/2141 183/story.html Published: October 24th, 2009. Accessed on: December 11th, 2009.
  11. ^ Stanley, Timothy J. Nationalist Histories and Multiethnic Classrooms. [Education Canada 42 (3), 2002, pp. 14].
  12. ^ Ibid. Pp. 14.
  13. ^ Jordan, Mildred. Cultural Conflicts in the Urban Classroom: Black student alienation and academic failure. http://www.brooklyn.liu.edu/education/home/eum/Jordan.pdf Accessed: December 11th, 2009. Pp. 5.
  14. ^ Ibid.
  15. ^ Stanley, Timothy J. Nationalist Histories and Multiethnic Classrooms. Education Canada 42 (3), 2002, pp. 14]. Definition: The process by which minority groups are forced out of the mainstream either physically or culturally.
  16. ^ Ibid. Pp. 9.
  17. ^ Brown, Louise. Amid debate, race-based school thrives. http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/nativeeducation /article/108088--amid-debate-race-based-school-thrives. September 15th, 2005. Accessed December 13th2009.
  18. ^ Stanley, Timothy J. Nationalist Histories and Multiethnic Classrooms. [Education Canada 42 (3), 2002].
  19. ^ Ibid. Pp. 15.
  20. ^ The Pluralism Project Harvard University- http://pluralism.org/pluralism/what_is_pluralism.php

Initiating Readings

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Lisa Delpit, The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People's Children [from Other People's Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom, New York: New Press, 1995, pp. 21-47].

Peggy McIntosh,
White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack [Independent School 49 (2), Winter 1990, pp. 31-34].

Ken Dryden, Monday, March 7, 12:45 p.m.
[from In School: Our Kids, Our Teachers, Our Classrooms, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Inc., Ch. 6, pp. 103-125].

Tim Stanley, Nationalist histories and Multiethnic Classrooms
[Education Canada 42 (3), 2002, pp. 12-15].

Malcolm Gladwell, “None of the Above”
[The New Yorker, 17 December 2007].

Further Readings

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Brenda J McMahon, “Putting the elephant into the refrigerator: Student engagement, critical pedagogy and antiracist education”.

Rushowy, Kristen. Toronto school survey: Race and poverty matter as early as Grade 3. [http://www.parentcentral.ca/parent/education/article/594545--race-and-poverty-matter-as-early-as-grade-3. February 28, 2009.]

Brown, Louise.
Amid debate, race-based school thrives. [[[http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/nativeeducation /article/108088--amid-debate-race-based-school-thrives]]. September 15th, 2005.]

The Leader Post [http://www.leaderpost.com/news/Aboriginal+drop+rate+draws+failing+grade/2141183/story.html Published: October 24th, 2009.]

Jordan, Mildred. Cultural Conflicts in the Urban Classroom: Black student alienation and academic failure. [http://www.brooklyn.liu.edu/education/home/eum/Jordan.pdf]
[McGill Journal of Education. Montreal: Spring 2003. Vol.38 Iss. 2, p. 257-273]