It has been 20 years since I completed my doctoral research on educational equity in public schools. During one of my initial classroom observations, I shadowed a group of English learners in a kindergarten classroom. The students had just completed an engaging circle time discussing the color yellow. When reading a book about colors, the students counted the number of yellow objects on each page of the book. During their small group activity, each child was given a worksheet with four objects that are normally yellow. The students were instructed to color the objects; the expectation was that all objects would be colored yellow. As I walked around the table, I noticed that one little girl found a green crayon and proceeded to color the lemon green.
My first reaction was that the child was confused about how to complete the assignment. I immediately caught myself and realized that the student had lived in Mexico where there were many limes but no lemons. I soon learned that the context of many of the classroom activities and assignments had different meanings for students from various countries and social economic classes. I wondered how these children could perform successfully in the American schools with preconceived expectations of institutional knowledge at specific grade levels. Additionally, many of the economically challenged students had limited experiences participating in community programs, visiting libraries, attending cultural events, and traveling to different localities beyond their neighborhoods. I learned that when parents have limited resources, these students may not have the same experiences as their fellow classmates.
My initial classroom observations in urban schools had a lasting effect on my work with culturally and economically diverse families. When working with diverse students in your classroom, review the following:
- Consider the competencies of the students relative to their cultural and economic experiences when creating lessons and small group activities.
- Integrate culturally diverse topics during classroom group discussions.
- Provide contextual background when introducing new concepts and before assigning activities to students.
- Have students pair and share during small group instruction to verify knowledge and contextual understanding of the lesson.
- Assign native speakers to provide mentoring support to students who are new to the school or classroom.
- Visit families in their homes to learn more about students’ cultural and environmental backgrounds.
- Develop group projects for students to learn more about their classmates’ cultures.
- Incorporate performing arts activities in your lessons and invite parents to help with projects.
- Create service projects for students and their families so they can learn more about their community.
- Encourage parents to participate in classroom activities and school celebrations.
Additional information to support diversity in urban schools can be found in Randolph Ward’s book on Improving Achievement in Low-Performing Schools, edited by me, and Courageous Conversations About Race by Glenn Singleton and Curtis Linton. Both these books view their schools as assets within their communities. Each book provides specific guidance in how to engage the school’s teachers, staff, students, and parents in constructive dialogues and community building activities in schools that ensure academic success for all.