Teachers Enable Social Action in Diverse Classrooms

By Partnership for 21st Century Learning

How do effective teachers create teachable moments in diverse 21st Century classrooms?

Learning to read, write, speak, listen, and count were nice goals for a time that has passed. No more.

Today, the most effective teachers link these basics to a bigger goal necessary for this and future generations. That goal is tied to helping all students make sense of their immediate world, become problem solvers for their most pressing concerns, and improve their quality of life in a global society by taking socially responsive action in their communities. The most effective teachers make these moments come alive especially when their classrooms are filled with children and young adults from varied cultures with diverse social and ethnic backgrounds and who often can benefit from development of skills necessary to conduct deeper learning inquiry.

This "big" goal means the most effective teachers can no longer just adopt textbook-driven curriculum that is written to impart basic skills in isolation and differentiate their instruction merely by handing out different worksheets. Nor is it the best teaching simply done just to make it easier for students to pass test after test.

In today's classrooms, there are multiple opportunities to create teachable moments by connecting daily instruction to real-world, interest-driven, and relevant student concerns that encourage students to become socially active. The toolboxes of effective teachers in today's schools must be as diverse as their students so they can engage students in studying the real world issues and devising action steps that will benefit their communities. Just reading about and discussing such issues shortchanges today's students. To do this, I propose a fifth C, Cultural Responsiveness--as an essential skill to be added to P21's 4Cs.

Culturally Responsive Teaching
In too many schools, culturally diverse students are seen as dilemmas to be dealt with rather than as opportunities to simulate and stimulate innovative and diverse perspectives around real world topics and authentic curriculum within the classroom as a global microcosm. A diverse classroom makes an ideal laboratory for students to engage in explorations of their own and others' cultures, global issues, multiple perspectives on history, and the use of relevant and available technology that helps them span the globe and connect with others also seeking solutions to relevant world issues. This is particularly important in this digital age where the world and the neighborhood are quickly becoming one and the same and where multiple cultures find them selves interconnected in classrooms and across the seas.

Students today have unique opportunities to reexamine the status quo and construct entirely new paradigms for their emerging and increasingly diverse world. They can impact socio-economic structures, question inequitable class boundaries, promote multi-cultural awareness, dialogue, develop a sense of urgency about local and global dilemmas and initiate actions to close divides. In fact, it would be easy for any teacher who desires to be more effective with the new faces she or he may be facing with increasing numbers of diversity in her or his classroom to create an entire real-world curriculum grounded on the rich backgrounds and diversity of students and digital portals available to all.

A Real World Education in Real World Problems
Real world issues provide a multitude of opportunities for rich and deep inquiry-based learning topics in diverse classrooms. These local to global issues are the authentic topics, which effective teachers can use to develop motivation grounded in the innate curiosity of students, their concerns for where they live and their deepened understandings of their new classmates form different cultures. Indeed, today's best teachers empower students with the necessary thinking skills and problem solving processes for investigating significant solutions to local and global dilemmas without sacrificing the basics. Learning how to use higher orders skills to investigate real world scenarios will ultimately impact our students' futures and direct our democracy.

Our students are information-rich with unparalleled resources unlike any past generation. Our primary task is to awaken their minds and hearts to get involved in real-world issues and proactive actions that make a difference in their local communities. In the lives of many of our diverse students are their real world issues, which they need to understand and see how these issues relate to broader societal issues. Right in their neighborhoods are the problem-solving opportunities, those which will affect their future and impact their quality of life. It will be the most effective teachers who propel their students to learn how to get involved in the life of their communities, in potential social changes in their towns and cities, in investigations around the evolution of local and state laws which directly impact their day to day life, and the necessary processes to enact positive and progressive social change.

An Active Look
What might these challenges look like in a classroom filled with culturally diverse students? What can the culturally responsive teacher say and do? The transformations are not rocket science. They can be as simple as teaching beyond traditional holidays, rejecting traditional one-sided renderings of history displayed in textbooks, and investigating authentic community problems with an aim to action.

(1) Celebrating Culture Beyond Holidays
Many well-intended academic calendars are driven by superficial celebrations of diverse holidays meant to highlight past heroes and events. They fill the superficial need for school leaders to demonstrate that they are culturally sensitive and inclusive. This form of celebration has traditionally been driven by Euro-American translations of what these holidays mean and the subliminal messages they convey to students' acculturation.

Rather than continue this superficial holiday schedule, which all too often monopolizes authentic opportunities for deeper learning, effective teachers can invest in curriculum-deepening approaches, which provide authentic educational opportunities and multiple perspectives of historical pivot points. In project-based learning units, effective teachers can empower their students to make critical connections with informed and varied perspectives and be appropriately prepared to affect and articulate their desired future.

Sample Primary Prompt:

Who Am I? What are my family's roots? How has my heritage shaped my life?

 Brainstorm ideas and then set up a bulletin board with students' answers to one or both questions. Work with students to make a survey with questions such "what do you know about the country of your family's origin? The town, the region, the country?" Help students find their country and town on-line and see what visuals they can download to show what they learned from their parent(s). Print out samples and have students make solo collages and name the pictures. Post a large global map and ask the students to connect a picture of their family taken on a phone with colored string to the site marked on the wall map. Find other pictures in magazines or other places to link to the family picture that show some things they have learned about the country or town of origin. Give each child a chance to talk about what he/she posted to the class and then to tell how some of the items learned are part of the family's life today. Add a discussion of the stem "What I learned about my heritage." Conclude with two or three children from a single nation making a collage showing what they learned and sharing the results at a parent night.

(2) Rejecting Superficial Points of View.
Today's effective teachers will challenge children to go beyond the written words of a traditionally 'allowed' author's points of view. They will engage students in building relevant and thought provoking arguments about what they read, see and hear. They will encourage multiple perspectives as they help children develop the critical skills necessary to participate and lead in a true democratic society. If our children are to be global citizens who are challenged to create a better tomorrow, they deserve the chance to do so with multiple-sided versions of events past and present. We cannot expect our students to develop an awareness and respect for democracy if they have not experienced it.

Sample Middle Prompt:

How can an author/poet from my parent's (grandparents') homeland help me understand my family's traditions?

Show a video about a traditional American holiday. Discuss the word "tradition" and what Americans do that is a tradition. Brainstorm a list to post. Next, provide the students with reading selections by an author from their family's homeland and which will show/discuss that nation's traditions. Group students by selections/heritages and schedule reading time with guiding questions about the traditions. Invite each group to agree on what traditions are still most prominent with their families and decide on how they will "show and tell" their classmates. After each "show and tell" add the key traditions to a matrix on the bulletin board. The matrix will list the selected traditions under each nation's name. Guide an all class discussion, which focuses on how the traditions in the columns are similar and different to each other and to the American traditions discussed at the start of the unit. Conclude with the creation of a plan to share what they have learned about similarities with others in the school community. Schedule time and resources so that the class can create a visual (e.g. hall collage, digital video, enactment) to present their ideas to the school community.

(3) Investigating Authentic Issues

Today's students live in small towns and urban neighborhoods. No community is short of problems, issues and concerns that impact the student's quality of life. Whether it be the local river overflowing each spring into basements, a bully making it unsafe for students of a different color, dress, or sexual identity to walk certain routes home, streets that mark gang territories or major droughts leading to local water shortages, students know serious problems on a daily basis. These become the issues for authentic investigations in projects that build students' inquiry skills, encourage multiple perspectives, and push them to apply both basic and higher-order design skills to their problem solving.

Sample Secondary Prompt

Illegal immigration: What are the ways people in our community think and feel about undocumented immigrants?

Invite students to read articles from at least three on-line sources and give the pros and cons to each point of view. Make a survey for parents and business owners in the neighborhood to collect their thoughts about this issue. Do a statistical analysis by age and ethnicity of the adult responses and prepare a blog post to share the statistical results and analysis.

Teachable Moments
Effective teachers in diverse classrooms know the importance of helping students understand and value their own families and heritages. They know why it's important for students to value the heritages of others and discover that the world is interconnected. They also understand that their students hold different opinions about the issues that impact this world and matter to them. These teachers know how to help their students investigate their heritages through constructive learning that deepens their understanding and turns the toughest global and community issues into rich and rigorous teachable moments that are close to home.

By Deborah Esparza, Illinois Consortium for 21st Century Skills 

Views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.