Educational environments that reflect the rich diversity of the community, nation and world assist in opening students' minds and actively engaging them in their learning. Research has shown that prejudice is countered when educational environments foster critical thinking, empathy development and positive self-esteem in students. See the downloadable checklist to the right for some criteria for creating positive, anti-bias environments where respect for diversity is taught, modeled, and experienced firsthand.
It is important for teachers to think about how they can most effectively raise the complex issues of hate, bias, scapegoating, and exclusion with their students.
Educators should keep in mind that conversations about understanding and respect should not be limited to a commemorative event, or other special programs, holidays or activities but instead, should be a part of everyday business in the classroom. Creating inclusive, respectful classrooms is an ongoing effort, and working for social justice is a life-long endeavor. (See Dos and Don’ts with Special Diversity Events on right.)
To prepare for successfully raising issues of diversity and bias in the classroom, teachers should attempt to make the following practices an integral part of their daily practice:
Examine personal cultural biases and assumptions. Explore personal perceptions and understanding of situations by developing an awareness of personal cultural "filters."
Integrate culturally diverse information/perspectives into all aspects of teaching. Consider moving beyond the constraints of a cultural history month by incorporating multiple perspectives into all aspects of the curriculum.
Allow time for a process to develop. Introduce less complex topics at first, and create time to establish trust. Begin discussions by developing ground rules that allow for honest discussion within a respectful context. Recognize that the long history of mistrust between people in different groups will influence classroom discussions.
Establish an environment that allows for mistakes. Since most people have been unconsciously acculturated into prejudicial and stereotypical thinking, individuals may not be aware that certain attitudes are hurtful to others. Acknowledge that intolerant thinking will surface from time to time in others and ourselves. Educators should model non-defensive responses when told that something they said or did was offensive to someone. Assume good will and make that assumption a common practice in the classroom.
Be prepared to respond to purposely-directed acts of bias. Students will carefully observe how educators intervene when someone is the target of discriminatory or hate-based behavior. Silence in the face of injustice conveys the impression that prejudicial behavior is condoned or not worthy of attention. Make it clear to students and their families that name-calling will not be allowed in the classroom. Appropriate and timely intervention is critical in establishing a safe classroom environment where all students can succeed.
Keep abreast of current anti-bias education issues and discuss them with students. Clip articles from newspapers and magazines and post them in the classroom. Educators should let students know that they consider themselves learners, and that they see themselves as part of the learning process.
Avoid "preaching" to students about how they should behave. Research indicates that exhortation is the least effective methodology for changing prejudiced attitudes; in fact, it often produces a result opposite from the desired effect. Provide opportunities for students to resolve conflicts, solve problems, work in diverse teams and think critically about information.
Provide opportunities for students to share life experiences; choose literature that will help students develop empathy. Make the classroom a place where students' experiences are not marginalized, trivialized or invalidated. Prejudice and discrimination have a unique impact on each individual. Students and their families develop a variety of coping strategies based upon the type and frequency of discrimination they have experienced. It is never fruitful to engage in a debate over who has suffered the most. Oppression is harmful to all people in all of its forms.
Review materials so that classroom displays and bulletin boards are inclusive of all people. Insure that supplemental books and videos do not reinforce existing societal stereotypes. When such examples in textbooks are observed, point them out to students and encourage students to think about them critically and to challenge them.
Involve parents, other family members and other community members in the learning process. Understand that families and others in the community provide the context in which students are motivated to learn. It is important not to view the school and the home or school and the community as isolated from one another; but rather to examine how they interconnect with each other and with the world.
What is present and absent in the school classroom provides children with important information about who and what is important. Every effort should be made to create a setting that is rich in possibilities for exploring cultural diversity. Such an environment assists children in developing their ideas about themselves and others, creates the conditions under which children initiate conversations about differences and provides teachers with a setting for introducing activities about diversity. It also fosters children's positive self-concept and attitudes.
Educators should keep in mind that conversations about understanding and respect should not be limited to a commemorative event, or other special programs, holidays or activities but instead, should be a part of everyday business in the classroom.