By Alyssa Nucaro
Mohammed was one of the new students in my class last year. He had recently moved to Tennessee from Africa and spoke only French; he started 6th grade knowing barely a word of English. I tried my hardest to help him understand my lessons, and he got help from his ESL teacher. Still, Mohammed simply could not grasp some of our readings. As time progressed and I had him for a second year, I realized that it was the cultural differences rather than his inability to read the material that made the lessons so challenging.
We hear a lot about the achievement gap, the school-readiness gap, and the funding gap. But there is another gap that has flown under the radar: the very apparent cultural gap that exists in many of our nation’s classrooms. Letting my many diverse students experience “culture” has to extend beyond sharing family stories, recipes, and religious traditions. A culturally diverse classroom, for me, means stimulating student interests by breaking down stereotypes and creating interconnectedness amongst us all.
The goals of multicultural education are varied, but generally follow the same basic principles. We encourage students to affirm themselves and to accept and respect the differences of others’ individual identities. We focus on promoting a basis of appreciation of cultural diversity and the many diverse groups in American society. We provide opportunities to engage and develop strategies that respond to issues happening in our schools and communities.
Here are some of the ways in which I have integrated multicultural education into my classroom:
1. Virtual Field trips: Scholastic.com offers virtual field trips that inform students about a range of topics such as Black History, Women’s History, Ellis Island, and Hispanic Heritage. My students are able to tour through museum artifacts, play games, and create virtual scrapbooks through interactive websites to understand diverse cultures or diverse groups of people in American society. The lessons help my students to better understand and appreciate the different groups of people and their influence on our culture.
2. Editorial Cartoons: Tolerance.org provides many ideas to incorporate cultural diversity and concepts of tolerance into lessons. In my classroom, I have used cartoons as a medium to inform students about cultural differences and how to be tolerant of others. The lessons begin with a basic strategy for interpreting editorial cartoons. Each lesson helps build students’ background knowledge about a particular social justice issue. The lessons, which include topics such as censorship, class, race, hate, and bullying, challenge students and promote critical thinking skills.
3. Service Learning using math: In this project, students utilize math skills to understand the interactions of class, wage gaps, and race through the use of a holiday food or toy drive. This project helps deepen students’ understanding of the dynamics of poverty in the United States, and helps them gain an appreciation for giving. It has also helped my students address real human needs, while affording them the opportunity to understand the humans with those needs by advocating tolerance.
As I consider the lessons I teach, I think about Mohammed, his first day of class, and his subsequent growth. I think about the different types of literature I introduce to my students, and the many viewpoints that could be represented in any given lesson. More importantly, I am always mindful of engaging my students in learning through thinking about their own voice, history, and culture.
Alyssa Nucaro is a 6th grade English teacher at Lowrance School in Memphis and a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alumna.