3.2: Multicultural Understanding
The issue of Multicultural Understanding in Education is really two separate concerns. One one hand, teachers have the responsibility to teach about other cultures, especially in the context of their contributions to the content area. It is important that students realize, and experience if possible, the fact that beliefs and problems in other cultures contribute greatly to their lives and their futures. On the other hand, teachers also must balance the multicultural needs of their students. It is a focus on the term "understanding." Respecting cultural differences and integrating strengths and weaknesses into the classroom. This facet of multicultural understanding is better explained on other expectations that relate more directly to diverse learners (see expectations 3.3: Diverse Learners, 5.1: Fostering a Sense of Community, and 7.4: Personalizing Learning).
My first true experience with the power of diversity came in the earliest phases of my affiliation with Pi Kappa Phi Fraternity. As part of a select group of young men that recolonized a previously disbanded chapter, we recognized the strength that a diverse foundation would build. Rather than portraying and recruiting a sculpted image, ours was left somewhat to the imagination, and that is just the way we wanted it. Recruitment efforts focused on students from all ethnicities, backgrounds, academics, and interests which resulted in the largest chartering group (67) in the history of our Fraternity.
Our members began pushing the Chapter to the top of campus athletics, academics, student leadership, philanthropy, and social and national standings. Recognition in so many areas gained a lot of respect for our young membership and what Pi Kappa Phi stands for, and it is largely accountable for the achievement of our goal to purchase a fraternity house on North Jordan within five years.
But the value of respecting diversity lies not only in the various strengths of individuals. Diversity creates an environment where exposure, connection, trust, understanding, comfort, and respectful conflict create dynamic, life-changing experiences. As teachers, we are called to recognize the differences that create variety in our classes and schools. Many times they are obvious, but sometimes not. Carefully identifying and exploiting these differences, especially among adolescents, helps to deconstruct misconceptions and turn the potential for judgment into an opportunity for learning. We must try to prevent a cultural barrier from stifling a new perspective.
The importance of diversity is recognized by our National Fraternity and clearly expressed in the mission today. And the Chapter at IU? I am still heavily involved with the Alumni and Housing Corporation managing the property and guiding the undergraduate leadership. I always tell fellow alumni who ask about the condition of the Chapter that "they are everything we ever wanted them to be." Our Chapter Still relies upon a diverse group of quality individuals to maintain both individual and Chapter excellence in all focus areas.
The Small Schools Initiative at Lawrence North High School attempts to identify academics not by subject matter, but by opportunity and interest. Each small school will be accountable to the core standards, but will now be free to approach them from different angles that appeal to the variety of the student body. Although Lawrence North currently operates the Mackenzie School, it is largely vocational and segregated from the traditional school setting. The Freshman School is intended to be somewhat segregated but still has a presence in the main building. The Small Schools concept is trying to create more areas of interest but will ultimately better define and integrate them all.
For example, one potential small school was suggested for business and technology. After some discussion, it was determined that most of the objectives of such a school are already met by the Mackenzie School, and those vocational opportunities should become more accessible to the more traditional degree programs. During the same meeting, two potential small schools, American Studies and International School, discovered that their outreach and purpose had broad overlaps. They may unite as the Multicultural School or School of Global Perspective.
Small Schools is not about smaller classes or learning styles. The concept is about reaching students academically in a relevant setting. Core mathematics content, for example, would be taught entirely differently in an arts-focused school than a science driven setting, and different still from business and trade. Different manifestations and applications add meaning and understanding that can then be explored at deeper levels when students are engaged and interested. An overall problem-solving approach within each Small School will broaden bridge understanding across the disciplines. Students have little control over what they learn, so they should have a voice in how they learn it. A recent article entitled "A Learner's Bill of Rights" was distributed at the meeting and outlines how progressive teachers respond to student-directed learning. Also distributed was a list of non-negotiable dispositions for students and teachers, a preview of the belief systems that will be expected to make the Small Schools work.
The impact upon teachers is the dismantling of traditional departmental roles and the emergence of interdisciplinary teacher leaders within each school. The responsibility all teachers have to provide consistently active and creative lessons may also be challenging. But I believe the proposal brings many opportunities to the students of the school who will be energized by the accommodating approach that prioritizes their talents and interests and recognizes the empowerment of self-direction.
The History of Mathematics:
What about the content area? Mathematics has a rich and diverse history of discovery over the centuries as solutions to cultural problems. The Romans needed a better calendar. The Arabs needed digits they could manipulate that we still use today. The Greeks were amazing architects and engineers. The Mayans were highly civilized and making keen astronomic observations in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. The Chinese made many early advances in mathematics, but were beaten to the scientific revolution by the West. Some believe it was the mathematics of the Italian Renaissance (mainly Leonardo da Vinci) with applications and observations in nature as reflected in art that catapulted Western culture ahead of the East.
By the 1600's, gravity was certainly known to exist, so what was the significance of the apple that fell on Sir Isaac Newton's head? He knew why the apple fell, but he wanted to understand how the force acting upon it behaved. The apple went from a still state into motion and back to still again, and Newton's studies defined that acceleration and other instantaneous rates of change, and so was the birth of Calculus. Coincidentally, Liebnitz was drawing the exact same conclusions in Germany at the exact same time as Newton, completely unknowingly and independent of his work.
Cultural significance is not only geographic, but we can also identify women, African-Americans, and persons with disabilities who have made major contributions to mathematics as well. The rich history of mathematics and the men and women who interpreted and developed it are key components to making connections with students from various backgrounds. Landmark mathematics from certain cultures or individuals may instill a sense of pride, history, or even ownership that might inspire a connection or a desire for deeper understanding. Below is a list of additional links to mathematical timelines, cultural contributions and biographies.
African-American Role Models
Talk of the Nation, July 7, 2004 · He lambasted their language, decried their decorum and panned their parenting. No wonder Bill's Cosby's remarks about African Americans have created a stir. Were his words a welcome wake-up call? Or a misguided attack? Bill Cosby joins NPR's Lynn Neary to discuss his controversial comments. Plus, hear how teachers are using Cosby's words in the classroom.--www.npr.org
If you have heard any of Mr. Cosby's recent comments, you are aware of his concern for the African-American culture and the state of apparent self-perpetuation he believes that segment of our population has created.
It seems like the more educated an African-American becomes, the less he is admired, respected and modeled within his own community. The perception is that they are selling out to a different, a "white," culture. As a result, very few are aspiring to their potential in reaction to the successes in their own culture. It is astonishing that in 2004, the United States graduated only one PhD in Mathematics to an African-American, especially when you consider all of the financial opportunities that exist for minority candidates.
I believe very strongly that Mr. Cosby's message should not be deemed offensive, but should continue to be discussed openly. He is desperately trying to communicate the power of a sound education and good citizenship practices. More African-American families and students must recognize the opportunities they do have, model the successes in their community, positively exploit the freedoms they have, and embrace their humanity and natural desire to advance. As teachers we should be doing everything we can, in and beyond our disciplines, to raise awareness of scholarships, continuing education, job markets, role models, and family or community benefits. By modeling high standards of citizenship and ethics, we add yet another sphere of influence to help these students break the cycle.
Bueno! No Bueno!
When I first became a Manager at PF Chang's I oversaw the Server Assistants and Food Runners. These important roles are key to the Guest's experience, and my time spent as a Server had observed areas I felt needed attention. After several weeks of talking and asking and talking and reminding and talking and begging, I finally decided a better form of communication and accountability was needed to effectively communicate with my largely Spanish-speaking departments. I set out to create a clear, concise handbook of my expectations called "Bueno! No Bueno!" I took photos of the current offenses (No Bueno!) and placed them alongside a photo of my expectations (Bueno!). I clarified the differences between the two in English and Spanish, and added an introductory excerpt from the Spanish Employee Workbook. Through an active and alternative training process, the standards were at last made perfectly clear. No more excuses or confused stares.
As a mathematician I understand research and data. As a productive member of society and the business community, I understand a little about behavior, trends and appeal. We use generalizations all of the time to theorize or make reliable judgments and predictions. Why then does stereotyping have such a negative connotation? I do believe that stereotypes exist for a valid reason, but that does not make the practice socially acceptable. It is important to make the distinction between a stereotype and a generalization. Statistically speaking, generalizations are usually supported by data, experiences or historical evidence that conforms to a certain standard within a balance of precision and confidence.
Now, the first problem that arises from stereotyping is that one must always be mindful of that balance and how it also describes the part of the population being studied that does not conform. A standard deviation in statistics is generally a fair indicator, but still only selects 68% of the entire group. That means more than 1/4 of the population deviates from the "average" by a reasonable margin. This consideration is often missing from the sort of blanket labels that stereotypes assume.
Secondly, as a social phenomenon and not a scientific one, stereotyping often unfairly and ignorantly makes claims that have no substantial support or validity outside of one's personal and often isolated experiences and beliefs.
Lastly, where human beings are involved, so are their emotions. Whether the assumption is true or not, offense is often taken to being included (or excluded) from a certain stereotypical group or behavior.
In my management role with staff and guests, I can often predict their behavior, concerns or compliments they may have, objectives they hope to gain from a conflict, what solutions will likely satisfy them, etc. I conscientiously approach individuals differently according to generalizations I have made from similar past experiences. These groups may be categorized by age bracket, ethnicity, family make-up, gender, profession, level of intoxication, etc. I am clearly generalizing in my approach to problem-solving, delicately creating a framework for the first step of my approach. I am quite often right, but there are exceptions to every rule. Sometimes the model does not fit and a new approach must be formulated. I am occasionally forced to retreat, change my approach or simply observe a scenario that is headed down a path I have not traveled before and learn something from it.
I anticipate taking this technique into the classroom with me. I feel this belief is actually the gateway to multicultural understanding. If we cannot draw reliable conclusions about a student's or colleague's background, then how do we approach it and begin to understand it? The unassuming style may be wasteful if a problem needs to be addressed, and the subject is not yet ready or willing to share. A carefully and confidently constructed generalization may even provide insight or security to a student who is unable to articulate an obstacle to learning.
Absolute, oversimplified or uncritical stereotyping is certainly problematic. Teachers must be conscientious, empathetic, inquisitive and open-minded enough not to act often or exclusively as judgmental and uncaring professionals (for parents and colleagues) or models (for students). Certainly genuine and honest communication with teachers is the most desirable. But when students shut down or out, a thoughtful, moderate use of reliable generalizations may build common ground faster and will lead to the more individualized relationships and objectives we strive to provide.