5 Keys for Teaching Diversity in Divisive Times

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5 keys for teaching diversity

Cultural diversity can take a variety of forms. Students from different areas of affluence, ethnic backgrounds and even genders are likely to find themselves divided along cultural lines. Today’s divisive political climate does little to engender communication across these lines, with ABC News polls as recent as September 2017 showing respondents overwhelmingly feel that the president is acting as a divisive figure in the United States.

Teachers can work with students of all ages directly to help them learn to appreciate, if not outright embrace, cultural diversity. Explaining differences and working to overcome bias can deliver a more harmonious classroom and help ensure that those who may feel disadvantaged get the opportunities they need to succeed in a learning environment. These five keys can give teachers a head start with working towards understanding and accepting diversity in the classroom.

Identifying Cultural Diversity Within the Classroom

One of the first steps to teaching the positives of diversity lies with identifying it in the classroom. Students come from a variety of backgrounds and ethnic groups, and even a seemingly homogenous group can engender divides along gender, wealth and societal lines. Moving diversity from ideals to reality requires determining exactly which cultures dominate the classroom and working to create an inclusive environment where all students feel they are a part of a unified group as well as diverse individuals.

A great way to do this without leaving anyone feeling left out is to have students introduce themselves along with a few short facts. A teacher may say, “My name is Mr. Alexa. I moved to this state five years ago, and my father is from Greece. I have a Blue Heeler puppy and an old, grumpy cat.” Going down the line, students will likely mimic what the teacher said and fill in their own “fun facts,” giving instructors an idea of how to appropriately create an inclusive curriculum. The sharing of the facts can help also students find common ground and jump-start the process of overcoming bias.

Building a Diverse Curriculum

Many teachers are familiar with handling overt hatred and racism in the classroom, but more subtle biases may prove a greater challenge. One of the ways to overcome this challenge is to ensure that the curriculum does not reinforce prejudices or give too much importance to specific cultural groups over others. By focusing on a wider view of how various societies and social groups have had an impact on the lesson material, it lessens the focus on certain groups over others.

A diverse curriculum also does not single out any one ethnic or racial group for either praise or sympathy. Under such a curriculum, George Washington Carver is presented as a brilliant man who discovered and invented a wealth of methods and products still in use today. He overcame discrimination, but he need not be portrayed as “a smart black man,” or “a storied African American inventor.” He is a hero to everyone who seeks to become an inventor. He’s placed in the ranks of great inventors alongside Edison, Tesla and da Vinci, not cited as a footnote due to cultural identity. Ultimately, this leads to less focus on time-specific events like Black History Month and more of an in-context expression of shared history throughout the term.

Providing Self-Led Materials

Teachers with students of differing backgrounds may also see benefits from providing self-led reading or play materials that cross cultural lines. Even if all classes are taught in English, providing access to reference books and study materials written in the native languages of students and featuring the same subjects can help deepen their understanding of classroom learning. Similarly, toys designed for kids of all genders, abilities or ethnic backgrounds are valuable for fostering inclusion among younger learners.

Such self-led materials may just line bookshelves and never be used in the classroom directly, but students should be encouraged to check out the books or toys as the lessons touch on each subject. Encouraging natural inquisitiveness and providing multiple paths to education can do a lot to lessen the divides between students and help limit the disconnect between learners from different cultures. Students should also be encouraged to discuss what they’ve learned with friends and family, in any language, once class is over. This type of reinforcement challenges bias and keeps education interesting for those who may otherwise feel frustrated and sidelined.

Group Instruction

One-one-one training and self-led discovery can be great for inclusive education, but group instruction is where the lessons taught can really be put to to the test. Even if education as a whole requires systemic change toward diversity, group sessions give educators a chance to assess exactly how biases play out and address such concerns in the moment.

Group instruction doesn’t need to be as formal as lectures or watching videos, though both are valuable educational tools. Simply working together on projects in shared spaces is enough to create the type of environment where cultures blend to create wonderful outcomes (or problem areas arise that allow for quick correction). Differentiation, by randomly assigning desks for younger learners or intentionally separating older students who may distract each other, can help prevent conflict or the formation of cliques in the classroom.

Sharing Experiences

One of the absolute best ways to overcome the prejudices and biases that students may see in the media, at play or even in their home lives is by sharing experiences. This goes beyond group instruction to storytelling sessions like the introduction method mentioned earlier and show-and-tell classes where students can learn about each other’s pasts and interests. Parents may be invited to share their careers and what it is like in the real world, and they may get a chance to experience the non-biased interactions that educators create with diverse curriculums and inclusive practices.

Lastly, don’t forget sports. Some of the greatest real-world examples of how diverse cultures can come together exist in the sports world. Differences in race, gender and ability can all lead to cultural differences on the playing field, but time spent playing together can help resolve many potential conflicts before they have a chance to form. Having students cheer for the local teams and interact, if only by sending fan mail, with players and coaches can help foster interest and inclusion with kids of all ages. Shared experiences, including a love of sports, reading or almost any other activity that crosses cultural borders, provide the ultimate reinforcement for classroom learning.


Avery Taylor Phillips is a writer with a focus in early childhood education. She is a community activist passionate about equity in access to educational resources and has developed a deep understanding of the way children learn in the face of challenges due to their family circumstance through her work. In her spare time, she works to advance the progress towards equitable education opportunities.

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