The United States’ racial demographic certainly doesn’t look the way it did at its inception. Our spritely, young nation has seen monumental waves of immigration as people all over the world make the trek in search of the American Dream. These waves have steadily changed the color of America, adding brilliant yellows and pastel greens. The shift to a more diverse America continues every day. In fact, 21 of the 25 biggest counties by population are now majority-minority (according to Pew Research Center’s “Reflecting a demographic shift, 109 U.S. counties have become majority nonwhite since 2000”). While the United States continues hurtling towards a large demographic shift, we must focus on attention on how that affects the classroom.
When students of different backgrounds share a classroom, there are bound to be some hiccups. Students may turn their noses up towards other students’ lunches, they may ask questions about other students’ style of dress or religious expression, they may be confused why their classmates’ parents speak to them in a language foreign to their own. The collision of cultures compels educators to address differences in the classroom. As such, teachers must acknowledge cultural sensitivity concerns on a daily basis. According to researchers Goe, Bell, and Little’s report “Approaches to Evaluating Teacher Effectiveness: A Research Synthesis”, effective and culturally responsive teachers develop classrooms that value diversity and civic-mindedness. However, research suggests that the best way to teach cultural awareness and sensitivity is by restructuring the foundations of the classroom to include all voices. Morris and Mim’s article, Making Classrooms Culturally Sensitive says “teachers should surround students with a classroom that reflects the diversity of the world. Leave the world map unrolled so students can see it.” In other words, educators must make their classrooms inclusive, leave their own biases at the door, and encourage their students to do the same. Every person in the classroom must become “sensitive and appreciative of individual differences, without becoming judgemental,” states Morris and Mims.
Paying special attention to students’ individual culture is important
“Promoting Educators’ Cultural Competence To Better Serve Culturally Diverse Students”, a policy brief released by the NEA states, “Culture is central to student learning, and every student brings a unique culture to the classroom. And while students are not solely the products of their cultures and they vary in the degree to which they identify with them, educators must become knowledgeable about their students’ distinctive cultural backgrounds so they can translate that knowledge into effective instruction and enriched curriculum.”
As classrooms become more and more diverse—in 2015, minority students made up 50% of the population— we must magnify our focus on cultural awareness. The Equity Assistance Center posted a guide titled “Culturally Responsive Teaching,” which cites “A teacher’s affirming attitude toward students from culturally diverse backgrounds significantly impacts student learning, belief in themselves, and overall academic performance.” The approach focuses on acknowledging student’s cultural identities rather than treating all students in a similar manner. In this way, students feel seen for who they truly are and respond positively to such encouragement.
Implementing subtle changes within the classroom can make a huge difference in achievement gaps across races and ethnicities. According to Education Week, the achievement gap is “the disparity in academic performance between groups of students. The achievement gap shows up in grades, standardized-test scores, course selection, dropout rates, and college-completion rates, among other success measures.” Achievement gaps are most prevalent in African American and Hispanic communities.
However, The Michigan Department of Education wrote a guide that postulates that the achievement gap can shrink with an increase in cultural sensitivity. “Closing Achievement Gaps with Cultural Proficiency: A Facilitator’s Guide for Professional Learning” states “When school and district leaders approach achievement gaps through the lens of cultural proficiency, they delve into underlying causes that may be unique for each demographic or cultural group.” When teachers understand the world from which their students are coming from, they are more likely to mine through the cultural context and understand the cause of an academic issue. Without such context, teachers place ineffectual bandages on cracks in the foundation. As “Closing the Culture Gap” aptly states educators must help students “make the link between what they learn in the classroom and the life they know outside of the classroom.” Educators who understand the lives their students live can properly relate information, make topics relevant, and help students well beyond their academics.
Our America grows more diverse every single day, meaning our classrooms grow diverse every day. It is both exciting and trying to address the issues of an increasingly heterogeneous classroom. But there is hope! It lies in cultural sensitivity and a genuine interest in the lives of our students. Simply put, educators must learn from their students so students can learn from their educators.