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Multicultural education in the classroom.

For years I have been offering "Teaching in the Multicultural Classroom" as an elective course in our current "old program." I have periodically modified this course to enhance cultural sensitivity among education students whose multicultural experiences may be limited. Since all of us have a culture, the first order of business in the course is to learn about and share out heritages.

As we examine our cultures, we note differences and universalities. For example, everyone has a family, but structures and styles of authority differ. Everyone values education, but what is considered worthwhile knowledge differs.

Next, we discuss the place of "microcultures" in the American "macroculture." Should we aim for cultural assimilation, amalgamation (the "melting pot") or pluralism? Should we replace the older melting pot image with the idea of a "vegetable soup" in which each different ingredient is an important and valued constituent of the whole?

The course proceeds by studying newer cultures represented in the larger society: Native American, Southeast Asian, African American and Latino cultures. We discuss differences in cognitive and linguistic styles, perceptions, gestures, idioms and dialect. We are, therefore, better able to anticipate where problems of miscommunication might arise in classroom interactions.

Observing and tutoring in culturally diverse classrooms is part of the course requirements. My students return from these experiences with stories about parents who "respectfully" stay away from the classroom teacher's business, children who perceive insults where none were intended, children whose home and neighborhood life is group-oriented and thus have difficulty "doing their own work," children who never question the teacher and children who challenge everything.

In response to differences in learning, behaving and valuing, we discuss ways teachers can organize students, select materials and topics for study and balance curriculum standards with the interests and needs of their particular students.

Finally, we talk about constructive ways to resolve conflicts. By teaching children to solve problems we also teach them to think clearly, communicate well and respect each other. Active listening, role play, mediation and negotiation are important elements of this final part of the course.

As we finish the course, it becomes obvious that "multicultural education" simply means understanding the needs of every child and responding to each child sensitively, fairly and effectively using a variety of teaching strategies, materials and subject matter. Multicultural education requires cooperative learning and direct teaching. Teachers need to use process- and discovery-oriented learning, as well as clearly constructed presentations, concrete materials and examples related to their own lives. We should teach children about the contributions and concerns of all cultures and encourage them to think, explore and take risks. In other words, "multicultural education" begins with the experience of the students.

"Responding to diversity" means being curious about children, respecting their differences and responding to their experiences. Our wonderfully diverse children's histories, geographies, language and minds will turn out to be at least as interesting as what's between textbook pages.

Mary-Lou Breitborde, Associate Professor of Education, Salem State College, Massachusetts
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Title Annotation:Teacher Education
Author:Breitborde, Mary Lou
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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