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Teaching a Diverse Student Body: Practical Strategies for Enhancing our Students’ Learning

Teaching a Diverse Student Body

Multiculturalism is a painful subject on campus today. Students don’t want to discuss it. In group interviews, students were more willing to tell us intimate details of their sex lives than to discuss race relations on campus. In fact, when focus groups were asked about the state of race relations at their college, the usual response was silence (Levine and Cureton 72).

Photo by John Baughman

Photo by John Baughman

I was the only minority and one of the few women in my class and they weren’t interested in hearing my experiences. There, silence was encouraged. “Don’t be different, be quiet.” It was never exactly told to you, but you felt it (“Vicki”, as quoted in Goldberger 345).

These two passages refer to two different kinds of silences that can happen as our classrooms become more diverse-one is self-selected, the other enforced from without. Both indicate how painful but how necessary conversations about differences can be. Teaching and learning in a multicultural environment presents challenges to teachers as well. Occasionally, faculty and TAs feel a sense of pressure to broaden their curriculum or to be sensitive to student needs that seem unfamiliar or potentially disruptive. Teachers may fear that including additional examples or material will take too much time, provoke emotional arguments, or cause the students to label them as militant or as “having an ax to grind.” Similarly, students may worry about saying the wrong thing, may be reluctant to acknowledge their own privileges, or may feel targeted or ignored in the classroom.

As Wlodkowski and Ginsberg remind us, “No learning situation is culturally neutral” (7), not even ones that appear homogeneous on the surface. Although the passages above focus on visible differences, diversity exists, even when we can’t “see” it. Pretending it doesn’t exist or ignoring it altogether perpetuates the silences mentioned above and obstructs learning, thus preventing marginalized or underrepresented learners from being “heard in their own way and on their own terms, reflecting their own interests and ways of knowing and learning” (111).

Even though it might seem risky, acknowledging and addressing issues of diversity is important. Talking about differences can be challenging but mutually rewarding, because educational equality benefits all students. Moreover, a multicultural education can promote awareness of and knowledge about human diversity that moves us beyond stereotypes. By promoting respect for the similarities and differences among persons and cultures, such an educational experience, encourages positive relations between them (Watson 10). Acknowledging other cultures and worldviews and recognizing that factors such as race, class and culture “frame how people interpret, understand, and explain others’ words and actions” (Brookfield and Preskill 129) can transform silences into productive discussions.

This chapter can help instructors create effective learning environments for students from diverse groups. Following are a series of sections dealing briefly with some of the characteristics of personal identity that combine to make our students unique, followed by a list of suggestions for creating an inclusive classroom. Please note: By mentioning the multiple factors that make up our identities separately, we do not mean to suggest that these categories exist independently of each other or that any one factor is more or less responsible for one’s personal identity. Instead, we hope to emphasize that each of your students is a unique individual with a variety of thoughts and perspectives.