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Combating Racism in a Multicultural World: Classroom Ideas

We all want students to become global citizens who can successfully engage with an increasingly diverse world. But how do we facilitate interactions and learning experiences that foster acceptance and understanding of a range of people and cultures? How can we inspire them to work for social justice and actively counter bullying, stereotypes and racism?

Here are nine tips for teaching diversity skills, defined as the ability to learn about differences, talk about them, accept them and (if conflict is involved) peacefully resolve them.

Building these skills isn’t as hard as you might think. It’s really about nurturing a healthy curiosity and developing a comfort level with asking about—and sharing—personal cultural traditions and other characteristics that make individuals unique.

Bring learning to life.

Integrate multisensory “props” into lessons to deepen learning about a variety of cultures. It’s one thing to learn about Mexico from a social studies textbook. It’s another to let students see, hear, taste and feel interesting items such as music, Spanish words, folktales, personal stories of immigrants, musical instruments, artwork, crafts, foods, photographs, fabrics and jewelry.

Expose students to a variety of people and environments.

Breaking down barriers begins with getting to know people and spending time with them. If you can manage an off-site field trip, try an ethnic fair or festival, ethnic neighborhood, or ethnic restaurant or grocery store. Beforehand, have kids do some reading or research about the culture(s) that will be explored through the field trip. Encourage students to ask polite questions of people they meet, or arrange in advance someone in one of these locations who is willing to spend a few minutes talking to students. Perhaps as part of the experience, they can learn a few words in another language.

On-site options include virtual (Web-based) “pen pals” or pairing up with a classroom in another country. Or, bring in speakers of a particular cultural group and have students prepare questions in advance. Even school staff and students can serve as speakers, but be careful not to single them out or put them “on the spot.” If a local museum makes on-site visits, ask them to bring artifacts, artwork and other cultural treasures to share.

Let students pursue their interests.

Children are natural explorers. Encourage students to study a culture they find intriguing. Use KWL charts to stimulate curiosity and document learning.

Ensure that cultural learning goes beyond parties.

Holidays and foods are important, but make sure to dig deeper to help kids understand the day-to-day experiences of diverse members of a particular culture. This includes people in other countries as well as those in the United States. Do some members of a group or culture face discrimination and racism, inadequate healthcare or other challenges? Do recent immigrants face employment and language barriers? How have events (such as the American Civil Rights Movement) changed the experiences of a group of people over time?

Discuss how race/ethnicity, religion, culture, geography and socioeconomic status intersect, resulting in vastly different life experiences for different groups of people.

For engaging pictures and stories about children living in widely varying contexts all over the world, check out James Mollison’s book Where Children Sleep. This title is a great conversation-starter for exploring differences. For example, see the EducationWorld lesson plan The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Through Children’s Eyes.

Use books to explore tough topics.

Stock your classroom with books that share the personal experiences of diverse individuals. Engage students in discussion after reading as a group, or have kids choose a book that interests them and then report back to the class about what they learned. Don’t be afraid to read books that explore challenging themes such as bullying, acculturation/assimilation and racism. For ideas, see EducationWorld’s comprehensive Book Suggestions: Multicultural and Diversity. If the school library doesn’t have titles of interest on the shelf, have kids help raise funds to buy new ones.

Help kids get “below the surface” with those from other cultures.

Often out of politeness, fear of the unknown or fear of offending a person who is different from oneself, we hesitate to ask questions that would help us learn about and appreciate diversity. In addition, when young people fail to engage with others who are different from them, stereotypes and misconceptions can flourish. Letting students practice asking questions will increase their comfort level, help them avoid preconceived notions about groups of people, and give them the means to build relationships with diverse individuals. Here are some sample questions to try with students: source 1, 2, 3 and 4.

Implement explicit lessons about racism and conflict resolution.

When we teach about different cultures but avoid conversations about the challenging aspects of human differences, the message students may take away is that “because all cultures are interesting and fun, everyone gets along.” Instead, make time for thorough and concrete lessons about overcoming racism and dealing with cultural misunderstandings, mistreatment and clashes. An excellent source for lessons is Kaylene Stevens’ Unit on Racism and Teaching Tolerance in the Classroom.

Teach about social justice.

Teach about the work of key organizations (list 2, list 3, list 4) and movements that work to promote tolerance and understanding around the world. Discuss career options that involve this kind of work. Engage kids in school-wide and community social-justice work.

Related resources

Five Lessons for Teaching Tolerance
Social Justice Activities for Students
Teaching Tolerance: Resources
Racial Inequities: What Schools Can Do
Black History Month Resources
Hispanic Heritage Month Resources
Asian and Pacific-Island Heritage Month Resources
Native American and Alaska Native Heritage Month Resources

Article by Celine Provini, EducationWorld Editor
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