How to Lose a Diverse Student in 8 Days
A couple of years ago my daughter tried out for the cheerleading team. As part of the process, the girls were required to wear their hair in a long ponytail with spiral curls plus a bow. Although there is nothing surprising about these expectations, it caused me to pause. My daughter is African American with very thick hair (think The Lion King). In order to style her hair in a ponytail, there is a lot involved. There is hair washing, drying, and straightening. In addition, there is holding gel, curling tools—and this is just the beginning! Although with time, sweat, and effort, we could accomplish this ponytail ideal, I began to think about the other African American students that did not have the natural hair length needed in order to create a long ponytail with spiral curls. Wow. I could not believe that something as simple as a hairstyle could serve to separate students from one another. More importantly, it seemed that something as simple as a hairstyle could separate the opportunities afforded to particular students.
I do not believe that the coach intended for the cheering requirements to be exclusive, but I do feel that if we as school leaders are not purposeful, sensitive, and responsible in our actions, we will fail to reach all of our students.
After reading work by Peggy McIntosh on how our own background, culture, or "hidden knapsacks" may impede our ability to interact with one another, I was inspired to reflect on my experiences with diversity in the classroom. I thought of all of the missed opportunities and the "disconnections" suggested by McIntosh. I figured that without purposeful actions, in a week or so, we could lose the opportunity to connect with a diverse student. After some reflection, I composed a list of how an educator might lose a diverse student in 8 days:
- Day One: Act upon a too narrow definition of diversity. (Remember that diversity can entail race, culture, sexuality, class, ability/disability, etc.).
- Day Two: Focus on own "knapsack" and fear to approach, learn about, or even build on the "knapsack" for the range of students in our classroom.
- Day Three: Accept stereotypes of learners without question and ignore individuality and negative case samples which in return block learning.
- Day Four: Allow stereotypes to guide teaching. (Please review the classic study done by Rosenthal and Jacobson on the expectation theory [PDF]).
- Day Five: Try to acknowledge culturally sensitivity, but do not critically explore own statements. (Think about when we say "my best friends are ..." [insert a specific ethnicity, religion, class, etc.].)
- Day Six: Utilize a curriculum that is limited to multicultural heroes and concepts for one unit or one time a year, instead of incorporating substantial changes through out the school year.
- Day Seven: Show YouTube clips or videos during class that are not representative of all of students.
- Day Eight: Fail to expose students to living, up-close professional models of diversity in the school. (Are the individuals holding leadership roles in your school a mixture of colors and abilities?)
Can you think of any other examples to add to the list? As far as the cheerleading try out, my daughter did not make the team. (It had nothing to do with her hair; she simply did not master all those different jumps, kicks, splits, etc.) On the upside, the try out process did give my daughter and me the opportunity to discuss diversity, and the need for the sensitivity of differences within the school community. How do you envision a diversity sensitive or culturally responsive school? Your insight would definitely help to keep the conversation going.
Jennifer Davis Bowman is a recent graduate of the Special Education Doctoral Program at the University of Cincinnati. She serves as an adjunct professor for both education and psychology courses at the University of Cincinnati and Cincinnati State Community College. Read more of her writing on her ASCD EDge blog, on SmartBrief's SmartBlog on Education, and in ASCD Express. Connect with Davis Bowman by e-mail at davisj5@ mail.uc.edu.
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