Last night, a teacher friend called me to vent about losing a day of teaching because someone from her district office wanted to come in and talk with her students about diversity.
“I can’t say no to them, because that’ll make me look like a horrible person,” she complained. “But it’s not going to make any difference. I’ve seen the lesson plan, and what they don’t get is that these kids aren’t going to care!”
It’s true. Her complaint wasn’t about the merit of the topic – it was the administration’s method of trying to address it. She’s a good teacher. She understands and connects to the students in her classroom. So if she says her teenagers won’t care about this lesson, she’s probably right. “The kids are just going to be thinking about race – and they don’t think of themselves as racist, so they’re just going to tune out and think it’s stupid. If we’re going to talk about diversity at all, we should be discussing how everyone is different, how no one is the same as the person sitting next to them. We should talk about prejudices based on a wide range of factors and get discussions going about how each one of us is different.”
She told me that the homework the administrators assigned was for students to write down an example of diversity they see in their lives. “Their answers are going to be so surface level, and probably pretty lame,” my friend raged. “Teenagers are egocentric! If we want them to connect to this lesson, we need to get them into discussion about times they’ve been treated in a way they didn’t like because people thought they were different. Then maybe we can get them to connect that to how they treat others. But not before.”
“Really, what the administration should do is just let me teach this topic as part of one of the stories we’re reading in class, instead of taking away one of my teaching days and turning it into an after-school special.” She told me they’re reading “The Scarlet Ibis”, a story about how a young man deals with the fact that his little brother is physically disabled. Let a good English teacher lead a strong class discussion on a story like that, and students will naturally begin to talk about how they deal with people who are different. That is what makes being an English teacher so cool. We can naturally teach those life lessons while teaching our designated content.
Because it’s true that teens need to learn how to look beyond themselves and accept those who are different. It’s also true that spending a day in the classroom telling them “be nice to people who are different” isn’t going to mean much to them, no matter how detailed your cooperative learning strategies are. They’ve heard that message before, and unless you can connect with them as individuals and meet them where they’re at, they aren’t going to take your words to heart. It’s not because they’re bad or mean. It’s just that you haven’t given them a reason to care.
Besides, I always have to shake my head at the Midwest notion of diversity, anyway. We learned about multiculturalism in my college education courses, but in Wisconsin, “multicultural” usually means the black and Hispanic kids. I spent two years of my high school education in the melting pot that is the Washington DC area. I don’t remember my school ever talking about multicultural awareness. We just lived it. At my daily lunch table, I sat with girls from Thailand, Greece, Brazil, Botswana, Sri Lanka, and Portugal. Guys on the basketball team came from Lithuania, Spain, England, and various African countries. We also boasted a large population of Korean exchange students. The teachers didn’t have to tell us to be accepting of each other’s differences because if we weren’t, we wouldn’t have been able to make friends!
My junior year I was in our high school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Several couples come together by the end of the play, and in our cast, all of those couples were of mixed races and nationalities. I was paired with a black/Korean guy. The exotic-looking Sri Lankan girl paired with the tall, black guy from England. Another Caucasian boy paired with a second-generation Chinese girl. And the list goes on. You get the idea. After the show, an audience member came up to the director and praised her on what a wonderful statement she’d made by casting us that way. She laughed. “It wasn’t meant to be a statement. That’s just who tried out!” Our sense of diversity was so inherent to our school that none of us had even realized that every couple was mixed until that audience member pointed it out!
I learned about diversity by living in it. And when I taught in Boston, I was in the minority as a white woman. I sometimes joked that our school had one “token white girl”, but she was in 4th grade, so she wasn’t in any of my classes. When I brought a bratwurst to school for lunch, my students didn’t know what it was and thought it was weird. They were also surprised that I’d never eaten some of the things they ate on a regular basis. I didn’t refer to my black students as African-Americans, because many of them were neither African nor American. Many of their families hailed from Jamaica, Haiti, and Trinidad and Tobago, for instance. I appreciated the open, honest conversations we had about our individual lives and families. I learned from them as I taught them.
So living in the Midwest and hearing people talk about “multicultural awareness” and “understanding diversity” makes me chuckle a little. Because here, even the people saying those things are still usually talking about people born and raised in America. Maybe they mean different skin colors and cultural heritages. Maybe they mean differences in learning styles and needs. But too many times I feel like they miss the point. Like my friend said, we’re all different. Until you’re willing to look at an individual for the individual’s sake, until you’re able to see what makes a person tick without making assumptions ahead of time based on stereotypes, are you really living in a way that embraces diversity?