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Multicultural education is more than celebrations, requires different thinking

“Everyone is diverse. And the role of teachers is to learn how to teach all students who walk through the classroom door,” said Sonia Nieto, Professor Emerita of Language, Literacy and Culture at the School of Education, University of Massachusetts.

Nieto spoke on Multicultural Education, Teacher Preparation and the Education of Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Populations during her recent Project ESTRELLA-sponsored presentation.

Learning to teach all students, however, requires thinking differently about much of the terminology and systems used in the educational system. For example, there has been much discussion about the achievement gap in the nation’s schools. “We need to reframe the discourse so the burden isn’t placed on finding ways to fix deficient students,” said Nieto.

Nieto urges educators to challenge the defeatist perspective that surrounds the term achievement gap and similar concepts. So, instead of talking about an achievement gap, we should talk about a resource gap in schools. Instead of examining at-risk students, we need to look at risk-producing environments. Instead of negatively labeling special education or non-English-speaking students, we should talk about children with special needs and Spanish-speaking students.

Multicultural education

“Multicultural education is not just celebratory,” said Nieto. “Multicultural education is about social justice.”

In part, this means providing students with the resources necessary to learn to their full potential. Beyond material resources like books, computers, buildings and curriculum, students need emotional resources as well. This means teachers need to communicate that they believe in their students’ abilities and worth, that they have high standards for achievement and that they can help students navigate the larger world.

Social justice in education also means drawing on the resources, talents and strengths students bring to their own education, such as the ability to speak a second language. “It’s about affirmation and respect for students of all backgrounds,” said Nieto.

In addition, social justice in education means creating a learning environment that promotes critical thinking. “There are lots of ways to look at the world,” said Nieto. “Kids need to be taught how to question, explore and critique.” 

More diverse students

According to the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality and Public Agenda, a large number of teachers are unprepared for the challenges of dealing with ethnic and racial diversity that they find in the classroom. This is at a time when many schools have increasingly varied populations.

“It can be difficult if a teacher hasn’t had exposure to or experience with diverse populations,” said Nieto. However, she encourages teachers to find ways to gain those experiences. “Let it be an adventure,” she said.

“A lot of teaching is learning on the job” said Nieto. She encourages educators to “go to the schools that need you the most and establish solid relationships with mentors who will help you improve your teaching.”

“Teaching is a sacrifice, but you’ll get more out of it than you’ll put into it,” said Nieto.

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