Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Valuing our Differences & Embracing Diversity

Growing up in a very culturally diverse area of Ontario I had always thought about diversity as multiculturalism. I thought about people from different cultures coming together in our schools and communities to share their stories and learn from one another about these cultural differences. This can be a very rich aspect of diversity, however, in more recent years I have learned that diversity is so much more than that.

In my post secondary studies I learned about the many diverse backgrounds children experience - not just their culture but the type of family they may come from, their individual skills, abilities or exceptionalities, their socio-economic status, gender identity and more. Before attending University I had no idea diversity encompassed anything but culture and race.

Webster's dictionary definition of diversity is "the quality or state of having many different forms, types etc." - so where did I get the idea that diversity encompassed only culture and race? Was it simply because this is all that was discussed in my schooling?

As I reflected on my own schooling experiences I began to recall where I heard the word diversity used. The first image that popped into my mind was a culture fair - a variety of booths set out around the classroom, bristol boards with the flags of many countries, trays of different foods from around the world. My teachers would talk about our class as being diverse and so everyone would share a dish and some basic facts about a country where they or their families came from. Though culture fairs can be used in very beneficial ways, in my experiences we were only skimming the surface of what cultural diversity meant while neglecting to note that culture could extend anything beyond our countries of origin.

As I participated in volunteer teaching trips overseas the diversity that can occur beyond culture became even more apparent. Now I’m not undermining the importance of cultural diversity, as I am extremely passionate about learning about different cultures and the way in which they are different but also similar to my own. I just believe that as teachers we need to learn to recognize diversity as more than culture and use diversity as a term to include all aspects of a child’s history and background.

When I taught in countries where cultural diversity wasn't nearly as prevalent as it is in Canada, I learned to value all of our differences - culturally and beyond. I taught in the small town of Katatura, Namibia where all of my students came from the same cultural background. Nevertheless, they were such a diverse group with so many interesting stories. Their family structures varied immensely as did their socio-economic statuses and their beliefs about education. When I taught in Lima, Peru I found the same thing - it wasn’t uncommon for all children to be from the same cultural background, but this did not mean they were not a diverse group of students. All of my previous experiences had been in Canada, where we often refer to our society as a “melting pot”. A country where we are so fortunate to be able to have individuals of a variety of cultures among us everyday. Teaching in an area where students all came from the same or similar cultural backgrounds really allowed me to appreciate diversity beyond culture.

Grade Two Math Class, Namibia

Grade One English Class, Peru
I recently engaged in a professional dialogue with one of my fellow teacher candidates and in our talk about diversity we found ourselves sharing travel experiences and the feelings of being a minority. It's certainly a challenge not knowing the language and the customs of where you are. But when people are eager to help you and learn about your culture, it is easy to feel more welcome. This is an idea I will certainly embody in my own classroom. It's important to recognize that students come from a variety of backgrounds, cultural and otherwise, and this can present a number of challenges. It is critical that as educators we take all necessary steps to make all of our students feel welcome and included as a part of the class and school community. 

As teachers we must be aware of the whole student and the unique and diverse qualities that come along with that. We need to be sensitive to our students' differences and not put them in uncomfortable situations - providing subsidy for school trips when needed, providing dual language posters and books, making students feel comfortable to ask questions about mental health and gender identity. No student should ever feel unwelcome or uncomfortable when a teacher embraces diversity and acknowledges the whole student. 

Furthermore, by embracing these diversities in the classroom students can learn to think critically about each and others' uniqueness and in turn learn from one another. It's important that when addressing cultural or any other type of diversity we are not just skimming the surface and providing the students with basic facts. We must challenge our students to think deeply and critically about the world around them, ask questions and engage in rich discussion for them to really gain an understanding of what diversity really means. 

Embracing Diversity in the Classroom 

"In diversity there is beauty and there is strength"
- Maya Angelou 

In my recent studies of the Ontario Health and Physical Education curriculum I became interested in the grade three topic of embracing visible and invisible differences. As a part of a recent assignment a few colleagues and I designed an introductory or hook lesson to discuss various visible and invisible differences in the world around us. We used the book called "The Cutest Face" written by Rebecca Zak. This book is near and dear to my heart for a few reasons. It's written by a former teacher and mentor of mine, someone who I have looked up to since the age of 13. It is also short in text with rich pictures that can be used in a number of ways to explore students' uniqueness. 

Click here to learn more about "The Cutest Face" and see the Free Teacher Guide
A great way to introduce students to visible differences is to go through the text and discuss ways in which our appearances differ. I would then have students look at an outline of a body and record the visible differences they may see around the outside of that body. Afterwards I would engage my students in a rich discussion about ways in which we are different that we cannot see and have them record those inside the outline of the body. This a great "minds on" activity to get students thinking about how each of us is unique and can be furthered as the unit progresses into valuing, respecting and learning from those differences. 

There are so many ways to value your students' many unique features and backgrounds. I would love to hear more about the ways in which you embrace diversity in your own classroom! 

Let's get our students critically thinking about what diversity means to them and how we can value diversity at both a local and global level