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Communication tipsWhat Every Teacher Should Know about Multiculturalism

Stephanie Menough, Class of '97, Bowling Green State University

As a recent college graduate, I think it is important for people to come to a shared understanding of "multiculturalism." It seems that in America, difference--and especially all the negative meanings attached to ethnic and racial difference--have been obscured. Today, even as an exciting multicultural movement is gaining momentum, the term "multiculturalism" is still ambiguous to most people.

Teachers need to engage students in discussions about the meaning of this term in their own everyday lives. Sometimes, it seems that individuals would rather associate multiculturalism with songs, dances, foods, and other "safe" symbols than situate the word within the context of unequal power relations. In most of my college courses, homogeneity is assumed, and people engage in few conversations about racial differences and power relations at all. Our language reflects a false notion of unity.

As technology continues to shrink our world, teachers must realize that they are educating students as citizens of not only a multicultural society, but a multicultural world. In fact, if we students, as future leaders, are to transform our world, then teachers have to teach for social change.

Sometimes, it seems that individuals would rather associate multiculturalism with songs, dances, foods, and other "safe" symbols than situate the word within the context of unequal power relations.

From my own experience, one of the things I find teachers lack the most is the confidence to let students teach themselves and the intuition to identify and capitalize on learning moments in the classroom when students can learn from each other. Teachers need to create spaces in which teachers and students can exchange ideas candidly. I have learned most from my interactions with my teachers and other students--and I have learned least from one-way transmissions of "knowledge." Passive learning is ineffective and short-term.

I have several suggestions for teachers committed to this kind of multicultural education. First, ask the right questions and allow students to talk freely and openly, but with enforced respect for the passion or apathy that may surface. Questions that require individual introspection and critique of one's belief systems can be sensitive and uncomfortable, but are necessary. Remember that people learn in different ways and at different rates. Sometimes you have to be very patient.

Second, bring in guest speakers of various cultural backgrounds. A voice of experience with inequality can be illuminating, comforting, or even threatening to some students. In any case, students will be compelled to deal with emotions that may be unfamiliar but can also be enlightening. A direct and interactive experience is invaluable to learning.

Third, multicultural education is useless if we, students and teachers together, don't recognize the myths and stereotypes that support our blinders and expose the power dynamics from which they spring. To do this, teachers need to relearn and rethink their missions as educators.

As for a shared understanding of multiculturalism? I think that for now the only thing we all share is the realization that multiculturalism can no longer be ignored and that each and every one of us has to come to terms with it. In my mind, teachers have a responsibility to help students tear down the houses that nourish prejudice and to replace these houses, brick by brick, with foundations rooted in critical, multicultural perspectives.

The goal for students and teachers alike needs to be to unleash our thinking and improve our behavior towards and our sense of social responsibility to one another. In turn, we will gain an increased sense of the richness that lies in the diversity of social systems and structures, world views, and creative thinking processes.

Communication tips

Positive attention can be a powerful incentive to transforming curriculum and teaching styles. Media will be interested in classes that are taught in new, innovative and effective ways. Students whose perspectives were altered, assumptions were transformed, or thinking was broadened by classes on multiculturalism can educate the public about the value of these classes.

This can be done by writing op/ed pieces for student, alumni or mainstream newspapers, or by speaking out at public forums or on talk shows. If you know students who had positive, transformative experiences in classes on diversity, encourage them to speak out in these ways.

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