An Approach to Teaching Multiculturalism in the Classroom

Sharon Switzer relates the story of a preservice teacher whose pride in her cultural heritage was reawakened by literature, an experience she used to inform her own approach to multicultural teaching. See Alvino Fantini's Communities of Practice column, "Implementing Cultural and Intercultural Exploration," Essential Teacher, September 2008.

Diana grew up in New York City, the daughter of Puerto Rican parents. She was a bright student who was eager to learn everything that her teachers could teach her. She loved learning, she loved school, and she loved her teachers. She also loved visiting her extended Puerto Rican family in New York and Puerto Rico. However, she struggled with the conflict between her school self and her home self. At times, it seemed that being Puerto Rican did not have a place in the classroom that she loved so dearly.

Diana lived in Puerto Rico for 2 years as a teenager and felt the prejudice from the native Puerto Ricans; anyone who was not born in Puerto Rico was treated as an outcast in the school system. However, this did not stop Diana from throwing herself into her schoolwork, at which she was exceedingly successful. After completing her education, she became a missionary in Colombia, which is where she met the man who would become her husband and who later became a missionary himself. Together they worked in Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. For nearly 20 years, Diana lived in Latin America, where she and her husband raised three wonderful boys.

Four years ago they returned to the United States and now reside in the Lehighton area of Pennsylvania, about an hour away from Diana’s family in New York City. Diana returned to school and is completing the degree requirements to be a certified teacher. It was with an understanding derived from living and breathing a multicultural life that she undertook an assignment given to her by her literature professor to read the poem "AmeRícan," by the Puerto Rican poet Tato Laviera (2007). 

Diana found herself profoundly moved by the words of the poem. She experienced an intense connection to her Puerto Rican and Latin American roots. Unlike her public school experience as a child, in which her Puerto Rican heritage was never acknowledged, Diana found herself in an environment where this heritage was described, even revered. Her response to the poem was to get up and salsa right there in the classroom. Diana had grown up dancing salsa at home, but she had never felt comfortable with it in a non-Hispanic environment. But she now felt that this poem's acknowledgment of her Puerto Rican heritage enabled her to reconnect to her own culture with pride and joy. Not only was this an acknowledgment of her own cultural background, but Diana saw that when she began to dance in class, the other students immediately made the connection between the poem and the dance. In the class discussion that followed, students discussed how they had developed a deeper understanding of the cultural context of this poem. Diana credited her teacher with providing an atmosphere conducive to responding with empathy and openness to multicultural experiences.

When the class was given an assignment to develop a final project demonstrating an understanding of teaching multiculturalism, Diana drew on this episode with "AmeRícan" to create a classroom experience that could elicit the same response in a ninth-grade class. She created a multimodal Microsoft PowerPoint presentation with links to Web sites containing the music, poetry, cultural events, and historic context of Mexico. Diana proposed incorporating all of this to set the context for exploring The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros (1991). Rather than simply introducing the story for reading and discussion in class, perhaps through literature circles or as part of a theme or unit, Diana's approach was to introduce a broad understanding of the context in which The House on Mango Street is set.

The use of multiple modalities of communicating cultural understanding (e.g., music, art, poetry, Web sites, video) and narrative also appeals to students' diverse learning styles. According to Gardner's (1983) theory of multiple intelligences, the wise teacher provides multiple modes in the classroom so that students can connect with the one that is most likely to enhance their understanding. Diana’s approach of incorporating these multiple modes of literacy (communicating thoughts and ideas in ways over and above reading and writing) is one way to do this.

Diana's approach also calls for students to respond to the work under study through multiple modes of literacy. Students are encouraged to create a variety of presentations (e.g., posters, PowerPoint presentations, short video clips for interpretation, drama, art, music) in addition to the more traditional responses of writing in a variety of genres (e.g., poetry, narrative, informational pieces).

Diana's approach was based on her own experience, one in which she responded to the words of a poem set to music by dancing. However, she also realized that this spontaneous dance grew out of her rich heritage. Situating a work of literature in a wider, multimodal landscape offers students a glimpse into the rich heritage that gives it meaning. By providing such learning experiences on a regular basis, teachers can give monocultural students opportunities for deeper understanding of literature as well as deeper understanding of themselves.

Somewhere within every person can be found each of Gardner's (1983) intelligences to a greater or lesser or degree. But cultures and heritages also are imbued with each of these intelligences to a greater or lesser degree. Teachers can offer students opportunities to connect to those intelligences in themselves and in other cultures. Typically, mainstream schools in the United States emphasize the logical, mathematical, and literate intelligences, whereas the kinesthetic, musical, spatial, and other intelligences are reserved for special circumstances. Diana’s approach to teaching multicultural literature allows students from other cultures, or those who are gifted in other intelligences, to shine in the classroom. It also helps those from the mainstream U.S. culture find ways to expand and develop new ways of understanding.

References

Cisneros, S. (1991). The house on mango street. New York: Vintage Books.

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind. New York: Basic Books.

Laviera, T. (2007). AmeRícan. In L. Antonette (Ed.), The Pearson custom library of American literature: Multicultural American literatures (pp. 144–146). Boston: Pearson.

Sharon Switzer (sswitzer@po-box.esu.edu) is an assistant professor in the Education Department at East Stroudsburg University, in Pennsylvania, in the United States.