Although many U.S. schools, from kindergarten through high school, have embraced lessons about diversity and inclusion in the past 20 years, education experts still debate how the topic should be broached in classrooms across the country.
Students who attend diverse schools think about issues more deeply, are problem solvers and are open to working in a collaborative environment, which will benefit them when they enter the workforce, observed Eileen Gale Kugler, president of Embrace Diverse Schools in Washington, D.C.
As a consultant on strengthening diverse workplaces, she said cultural awareness training is helping students move beyond the ethics and moral code of the Golden Rule: Treat others as you want to be treated. “Now the ‘Platinum Rule’ is emerging, where students are treating each other with sensitivity and kindness,” Kugler said. “With the Platinum Rule, everyone has value.”
However, she said, she questions whether diversity training in other schools has become centered on exploring various ethnic groups, rather than the inclusiveness she promotes.
Jen Ganley, a Spanish teacher at Beaver Day Country School in Chestnut Hill, Mass., said the private school once had a Unity Day where students and staff attended workshops about religion and gay-straight alliances, but it has been canceled.
“[Unity Day] seemed very forced and out of context,” Ganley said. “[Beaver Day Country School] has a diverse student body, but I feel they do not know how to navigate this diversity well.”
Beaver Day Country School’s website, 25 percent of the school’s population consists of students of color, who self-identify as black, Asian and Hispanic. Although Ganley noted that the school recognizes a Student of Color Group, other faculty members said they believe that it reaches out to only black students who do not score well on assessment tests.
Preparing Students for Cultural Literacy
“Schools are training young people to develop their literacy skills, but how about implementing lessons on developing character and ethical behavior?” suggested Mark Fowler, managing director at
Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding. “This is an opportunity to shift the landscape of education.”
In the book
Innovative Voices in Education—Engaging Diverse Communities (Rowman Littlefield, 2012), Kugler delved into how educators should not only teach kids how to read and write but should create a curriculum that “addresses silences”—to teach children to become the kind of adults who see unfairness in the world and have the knowledge and the language to stand up against it.
“Many teachers admit, when issues of race, class, gender or physical ability arise in their classrooms … they feel ill-equipped to lead any sort of discussion,” she said.
The framework Kugler developed for educators to address silences within a diverse and inclusive classroom includes the following:
Choosing topics for the classroom.
Listen to what students are talking about outside of school. By doing this, teachers will not be planting ideas and thoughts into students’ heads but will be creating a safe space for discussion.
Eliciting students’ background knowledge.
Along with asking students what they think or know about a topic, teachers should find out what they’ve heard others say about it.
Reflecting on background knowledge.
At this phase, children should see there are many ways to view a single issue and, and, therefore, they should be empowered to make choices about their own views.
Taking social action.
Children can now challenge identity and cultural norms and realize that the world is not black and white. They can assess people who have multiple identities.
Lessons from Global Classrooms
Kugler noted that Canada leads the way in teaching diversity and inclusion in schools. Toronto is the country’s largest multicultural city, inhabited by numerous first-generation immigrants. According to Statistics Canada’s 2006 Census,
there are nearly 2.2 million people identifying as a “visible minority,” almost half of the city’s 5.1 million residents. In some of Toronto’s public schools “new Canadians” make up 80-95 percent of the student body.
“Canada has been so successful around multiculturalism because no one [in Canada] has ever forgotten that we’re all immigrants,” said Michael Bach, founder and chairman of the advisory board at the Canadian Institute of Diversity and Inclusion in Toronto.
The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) has integrated diversity practices beyond the classroom. Through
Community and Faith Walks, educators in inner-city schools have exposed pupils to different cultures since 2008. Teachers and students visit parks, grocery stores and community centers to interact with locals, as well as places of worship, including mosques, temples and churches.
“The goal of the [Community and Faith Walks] is to support educators in being responsive and relevant in their teaching practices by bridging any gaps between the home, school and community,” said Donna Quan, acting director of education for the TDSB, in a news statement.
Under Quan’s leadership, the TDSB will open
Ontario’s first high school with a focus on African heritage in the fall of 2013.
Meanwhile, South Africa’s educational system is developing methods to improve diversity and inclusion awareness in its classrooms.
“In my experience, teachers and senior staff struggle [with discussing diversity and inclusion] as much as pupils, colleagues and parents,” wrote Brian V. Moore, managing director of Celebrating Humanity International Group, in Durban, South Africa, in an e-mail to
In response, Moore created
The Dream Dynasty, a program that supplies schools with diversity speakers and training sessions, as well as team-building gatherings and conflict-resolution programs.
The Dream Dynasty was offered first in December 2012 at the
Centenary Secondary School in
Durban, a low-income institution that caters to more than 1,000 students of different religious, cultural and language backgrounds.
Educators say they are preparing students for the working world by developing their curiosity and skills and by instilling in them a respect for all people, despite differences in background or heritage. They expressed hope that this quality will prepare students to integrate into a diverse, global workplace.
Fowler, Tanenbaum’s managing director, said, “It’s important to invest in young people early to get them ready for the workplace, even if they don’t attend college.”
The nonprofit Tanenbaum, based in New York, works closely with global companies to help them develop skills and resources to effectively manage religious diversity in the workplace.
Fowler recommends that companies include diversity and inclusion practices beyond orientation so that employees feel like they have a future at the organization.
Senior leaders should also be aware of diversity training, Fowler said, because it will have lasting implications on their business.
“Every individual has a responsibility, not just teachers,” Bach added. “We have a role to play in creating a world that is free from bias. If every person takes it upon themselves to say, ‘I’m going to respect everyone,’ then we’re going to see a dramatic change in the world.”
Catherine Skrzypinski is a freelance writer in Toronto,