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March 1, 2015
Vol. 72
No. 6

The Problem We Still Live With

Teachers often feel uncomfortable talking about diversity issues in the classroom—but such conversations are both manageable and important.

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The 5th grade students were eager to begin reading The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, the Newbery Honor–winning book by Christopher Paul Curtis. The interdisciplinary unit was designed to sharpen their literacy skills while introducing the themes of prejudice, segregation, and the history of the civil rights movement. To begin the unit, I shared Norman Rockwell's The Problem We All Live With, a classic oil painting featured in Look magazine in 1964. The picture shows 6-year-old Ruby Bridges on her way to school in segregated New Orleans. In the illustration, the black child, dressed in a crisp white dress, is escorted by four U.S. marshals, their faces not visible. On a wall behind them, we see the letters "KKK" and an ugly racial slur; a red splat makes it evident that a tomato was recently thrown.
I asked the students, "Who are these people? Where are they going? What evidence of violence do you see on the wall behind them? Why would the little girl need police escorts?"
At this last question, a white girl raised her hand and offered, "For protection."
"Whose protection?" I probed.
She replied, "The other kids at her school. She's probably really angry and might hit them when she gets there." The student thought that the marshals were there to protect the white children from the small black child.
Before I could reply, other students chimed in with questions of their own, asking her to reconsider her interpretation. What about the little girl's appearance makes you think she would be violent? Don't you think the KKK might be waiting for her at the school? Don't you think the marshals are protecting her?
This classroom exchange, which occurred in 2012, exemplifies how far we've come in discussing diversity issues in the classroom, and how far we still have to go.

Conversations About Diversity

Many teachers shy away from conversations about diversity issues because they feel pressured to cover the mandated curriculum, because they worry about students' or parents' reactions, or because they're afraid they won't know how to respond to comments that can make everyone feel uncomfortable (Ellerbrock & Cruz, 2014). This last fear, related to the risk of losing control of the class, is especially potent.
Fortunately, a number of scholars, curriculum specialists, and education organizations have shared effective strategies for broaching and managing conversations about diversity issues (see, for example, Cole, 2008; Cruz, Ellerbrock, Vásquez, & Howes, 2014; Dunn, Dotson, Ford, & Roberts, 2014; Nieto & Bode, 2011). Most of these strategies can be modified and used across the curriculum and across grade levels.
As a first step, teachers need to establish and maintain a classroom environment that affirms diversity and promotes civil dialogue. Ellerbrock (2014) asserts that attending to safety (physical, emotional, and psychological); modeling caring; and promoting civility are all key components of a positive learning environment.
Before the first day of class, educators need to draft a classroom code of conduct. For example, in a college-level instructional methods course syllabus, I include the following:
Students are expected to adhere to the highest standards of civility, ethics, and professional behavior. … Class members will treat one another and the instructor respectfully and with courtesy. Racism, sexism, and other forms of intolerance are inappropriate in a just, democratic society and especially in a discipline devoted to the preservation and expansion of human rights and opportunities to all people.
After agreeing on a basic code of conduct, students should engage in collaborative rule-making (Ellerbrock, 2014). Generating a collective list of three to five rules can help build trust, create buy-in, and model civil discourse.

Diversity Conversations with Younger Students

Although some scholars have documented that preschool children can have ethnic preferences and make racist statements (see Aboud, 1988; Aboud & Amato, 2001; Katz, 2003), others point out that true ethnic prejudice tends to emerge later, in middle childhood (Nesdale, 2001). For teachers, this means there is a window of opportunity that we can use for important conversations before children's misconceptions become entrenched.
During the 2012 U.S. presidential election, I used the activity "Who is Qualified for the Presidency?" (Cruz & O'Brien, 2012) in a 3rd grade classroom. I placed students in small groups, mixed by gender and ethnicity, and asked them to consider the personal and professional characteristics they felt were essential for the president of the United States. As students discussed their notions of the ideal age, education, former profession, and marital status of the office, I overhead a boy tell his peers, "It doesn't really matter if a president is married or not, because presidents will always be men. If he's married, he'll have a First Lady and he can concentrate on the job. If he's not married, he can just concentrate on the job."
A girl in his group asked him, "But what if a woman gets elected?"
He responded, "That hasn't happened yet, and it probably won't." The conversation then shifted to the question of education background. I opted not to intervene, knowing what the next part of the activity entailed.
After this initial, open-ended conversation, I gave students brief biographies of eight potential candidates without identifying them by name (candidates included Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt, and the two main presidential candidates that year). After each group ranked the candidates on the basis of their profiles, I revealed their identities.
Overwhelmingly, Eleanor Roosevelt and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had received the highest rankings. Students were impressed by Mrs. Roosevelt's experience as a teacher, journalist, U.S. delegate to the United Nations, and finalist for the Nobel Peace Prize. They felt Dr. King's experiences as the president of a civil rights organization, noted public speaker, and Nobel Prize winner made him ideally suited for the job.
In the debriefing, I asked, "In their day, Mrs. Roosevelt and Dr. King were not elected to serve as a U.S. president. Why do you think that was true?" A rich, nuanced discussion about gender, race, and the changing roles of various marginalized groups in our society ensued.
Research shows that classroom discussions like this one can reduce elementary students' biased attitudes (Aboud & Fenwick, 1999). Of course, it is imperative for teachers to plan questioning strategies carefully. For example, teachers should provide enough wait time after each question to enable students to think and reflect; bring reticent students into the discussion so that all voice are heard; encourage students to paraphrase one another's responses to ensure comprehension; expect students to defend their positions with evidence; and address diversity directly, modeling appropriate language in their prompts and probes. As the school year progresses and students become more familiar and skillful with discussion-based learning, teachers should increasingly become facilitators, allowing students to take ownership of the conversation and ask questions of one another.

Diversity Conversations with Older Students

As I was ending a lesson for an ethnically diverse group of high school students that covered the landmark 1966 U.S. Supreme Court case Miranda v. Arizona, one student (a white male) asked whether plaintiff Ernesto Miranda was a U.S. citizen and spoke English. Before I could answer, another (Latino) student interjected, "What difference would that make? All people in America have basic rights, no matter what."
I addressed the entire class: "Is that true—that all people in the United States have certain rights, regardless of their legal status or language ability? What documents could we consult for a definitive answer?" I quickly decided to change the homework assignment, asking students to do independent research to answer the question and to bring in any relevant documents they found.
When the students arrived in class the next day, they found five signs posted around the perimeter of the room: Strongly Agree, Agree, Not Sure, Disagree, and Strongly Disagree. I explained that we would be exploring the issue of immigration and language policy by providing evidence for our positions.
As I posed strategic statements (for example, Anyone who wishes to immigrate to the U.S. should be allowed in and English should be declared the official language of the U.S.), I asked students to stand by the sign that best represented their position. Students then had the opportunity to defend their position by citing works they had found in their research and by reading from documents they had brought to class. Several students had brought in Chief Justice Earl Warren's summary of the Miranda decision; two brought in dissenting opinions by Justice Harlan and Justice White. Other students brought in the U.S. Constitution, and one student brought in a copy of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
It was interesting to watch as some students moved to different signs when they heard their classmates' explanations. Rather than create an adversarial climate, this activity encouraged students to think critically about issues and use evidence to support their contentions.
As adolescents approach adulthood, their curiosity about the world and their role in it intensifies. Fostering a democratic classroom where the discussion of controversial issues is encouraged and supported can promote the development of tolerance and also influence political engagement (Hess, 2004). Action research and social action projects can be effective in engaging students at this age and helping them develop positive relationships with others outside their group (Spencer, Brown, Griffin, & Abdullah, 2008).
Cooperative learning is another strategy that has been shown to foster positive peer interaction among different ethnic groups (see Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006; Slavin & Cooper, 1999). But in adolescence, intergroup relations might become problematic (Dessel, 2010), so it's important for teachers to craft well-defined cooperative learning activities that encourage positive collaboration. Elizabeth Cohen and Rachel Lotan's Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogeneous Classroom (Teachers College Press, 2014) is a useful place to start.

Preparing Teachers to Lead Diversity Conversations

"If you were asked to develop an elevator speech about your teaching philosophy, how would you concisely relay what you believe about teaching and learning?" I posed this think-pair-share question to my teaching methods students on the first day of class. After giving them time to craft their philosophy and share it with a peer, I asked for volunteers to share theirs with the whole class.
One student offered, "I believe that all children can learn, and I will teach all students in my classroom, regardless of ability."
Another student challenged, "You really believe that all students come to school ready to learn? And that their parents have prepared them for that? I've observed at a school with a high number of students who receive free and reduced-price lunch, and they can barely hold a pencil." An uncomfortable silence settled in the classroom, all eyes turning to me.
I decided to distance the comment from the speaker, saying,
We've all heard the comments about poor families and how students in poverty do not succeed in school. Have you ever wondered about what the research says? Are there any successful models for educating children in poverty? For next week, I challenge each of us to find one scholarly work that discusses a promising program or practice for working with low-SES students and families. Be prepared to share your findings with the class.
This strategy accomplished three things: It disconnected the student from the comment so that he had time to reconsider his impulsive outburst, it positioned the issue within the context of scholarship and encouraged students to find evidence-based approaches, and it encouraged the class to come together and collaboratively examine an important issue. During the next class, students discussed the researchers and frameworks they had found, including works by Martin Haberman, Ruby Payne, and Eric Jensen.
Ideally, teacher preparation programs will incorporate and model discussions addressing issues of diversity. However, many practicing teachers (especially older teachers and those who were certified through alternative programs) may find that their training was deficient in equipping them with the knowledge and skills to effectively address diversity in their classrooms. These teachers can embark on a course of self-study—for example, attending professional development workshops and academic conferences that specialize in diversity issues.
Virtually all professional education conferences nowadays include a diversity strand. School administrators should support this work by offering teacher release days, sponsoring in-school workshops, and supporting conference travel. School media specialists can also provide support by acquiring professional literature and making it available to the staff. (See "Online Resources for Promoting Diversity Dialogue" on p. 19 for a few good places to start.)

A Clarion Call

It is heartening that talking about race and racism can reduce prejudice and that students can gain new perspectives through the influence of their peers. However, such conversations require guidance from dedicated, skilled educators.
The conversation in the opening classroom vignette was the result of a university-school partnership to infuse more diversity discussions into the curriculum. The dialogue that ensued was possible because the students felt comfortable enough to express their ideas; they knew that they would be heard and encouraged. The white student who initially perceived a small black child as a threat was challenged, but in a positive way. She went on to develop one of the best research projects in the class, examining how the Voting Rights Act of 1965 affected voter registration and congressional membership.
Diversity discussions do not have to alienate. With thoughtful instructional planning and a supportive environment, such discussions can change students' minds, and perhaps even their hearts.

Aboud, F. E. (1988). Children and prejudice. New York: Blackwell.

Aboud, F. E., & Amato, M. (2001). Developmental and socialization influences on intergroup bias. In R. Brown & S. Gaertner (Eds.), Blackwell's handbook of social psychology (pp. 65–85). Boston: Blackwell.

Aboud, F. E., & Fenwick, V. (1999). Exploring and evaluating school-based interventions to reduce prejudice. Journal of Social Issues, 55(4), 767–785.

Cohen, E. G., & Lotan, R. A. (2014). Designing groupwork: Strategies for the heterogeneous classroom (3rd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.

Cole, R. W. (Ed.). (2008). Educating everybody's children: Diverse teaching strategies for diverse learners. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Cruz, B. C., & O'Brien, J. L. (2012). Teaching and learning about the U.S. president. Social Studies and the Young Learner, 25(1), 22–26.

Cruz, B., Ellerbrock, C. R., Vásquez, A., & Howes, E. V. (2014). Talking diversity with teachers and teacher educators: Exercises and critical conversations across the curriculum. New York: Teachers College Press.

Dessel, A. (2010). Prejudice in schools: Promotion of an inclusive culture and climate. Education and Urban Society, 42(4), 407–429.

Dunn, A. H., Dotson, E. K., Ford, J. C., & Roberts, M. A. (2014). "You won't believe what they said in class today": Professors' reflections on student resistance in multicultural education courses. Multicultural Perspectives, 16(2), 93–98.

Ellerbrock, C. R. (2014). Cultivating positive learning environments in college classrooms. In B. C. Cruz, C. R. Ellerbrock, A. Vásquez, & E. V. Howes (Eds.), Talking diversity with teachers and teacher educators: Exercises and critical conversations across the curriculum (pp. 28–52). New York: Teachers College Press.

Ellerbrock, C. R., & Cruz, B. C. (2014). A vision of diversity in teacher education. In B. C. Cruz, C. R. Ellerbrock, A. Vásquez, & E. V. Howes (Eds.), Talking diversity with teachers and teacher educators: Exercises and critical conversations across the curriculum (pp. 13–27). New York: Teachers College Press.

Hess, D. (2004). Discussion in the social studies: Is it worth the trouble? Social Education, 68(2), 151–155.

Katz, P. A. (2003). Racists or tolerant multiculturalists? How do they begin? American Psychologist, 58(11), 897–909.

Nesdale, D. (2001). Development of prejudice in children. In M. Augoustinos & K. J. Reynolds (Eds.), Understanding racism, prejudice, and social conflict (pp. 57–72). London: Sage Publications.

Nieto, S., & Bode, P. (2011). Affirming diversity: The sociopolitical context of multicultural education. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Pettigrew, T., & Tropp, L. (2006). A meta-analytic test of intergroup contact theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(5), 751–783.

Slavin, R. E., & Cooper, R. (1999). Improving intergroup relations: Lessons learned from cooperative learning programs. American Psychologist, 58(11), 647–663.

Spencer, M., Brown, M., Griffin, S., & Abdullah, S. (2008). Outcome evaluation of the intergroup project. Small Group Research, 39(1), 82–103.

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