While the product of multicultural and social justice education (SJE) is a learning experience where diversity and content seamlessly intersect, the process occurs through teachers’ application of Diversity Pedagogy Theory (DPT) to student interactions, curriculum, and expectations. When applying DPT to the classroom, teachers use Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT) and critical reflection to work towards the overall goals of inclusion, equity, and empowerment. The value of inclusion in the classroom is that teachers create an environment where students’ learning involves cooperation, collaboration, and celebration of differences and diversity. Equity, achieved through similar actions as inclusion, is the next step in demonstrating structural change because it challenges discrimination and prejudice students may experience outside of the classroom by using a representative curriculum that meets all students’ individual needs and incorporates various aspects of their cultural identities. Empowerment is the essential and final step in preparing students to demonstrate behaviors reflective of inclusion and equity both in and out of the classroom in efforts to achieve social change.
As teachers apply Diversity Pedagogy Theory to their classrooms, they are striving to maximize diversity’s impact on content because DPT recognizes that “classroom practice [must reflect] deep understandings of the role culture plays in the social and cognitive development of children” (Sheets, 2009, p. 11). In the teaching-learning process, DPT focuses on how teacher pedagogical behaviors of diversity and creating a culturally safe and inclusive classroom, among others, can produce student cultural displays of consciousness of difference, self-regulated learning, and knowledge acquisition (p. 13). In regards to content, teachers create and teach content from a variety of sources – most predominantly the curriculum but also through supplementary materials reflecting various readings and books, the sharing of student work, and community/parent involvement. Each of these content components intersects with diversity in several ways when teachers demonstrate culturally responsive teaching.
The central goal of culturally responsive teaching is to learn about students in a way that teaching reflects the diversity of cultures in the classroom through all parts of the content. When developing a curriculum, the content should be both representative of reality and relevant to students’ lives in and out of the classroom. Gay (2003) believes that teachers must shape their curriculum in a way that is “helping students understand the realities of the social condition and how they came to be as well as adequately representing those realities” (p. 33). It is important that curriculum be both representative of reality, so that students are familiar with the content and able to engage in the learning process, and also relevant so that they can actively challenge themselves to draw deep connections between what they are learning in school and what they encounter at home and in their society. An additional way to transform the curriculum and content so that it is acknowledges and highlights “the cultures and contributions of many ethnic groups” is to draw on the students’ personal lives and experiences by creating a space for them, or members of their family or community, to share about aspects of their identity (Gay, 2003. p. 33). Kroeger and Bauer (2004) advocate for the celebration of diversity through “a student-focused mission, one that celebrates each individual’s contribution to the community, [which] may increase teacher efficacy and pride in the learning and achievement of their students” (p. 27). This connection between who students are and what teachers are teaching displays one significant intersection between diversity and content.
In addition to transforming the curriculum, the next component of implementing multicultural education involves focusing on structural change. Structural change involves creating an environment of inclusion and equity that challenges the inequalities student encounter outside of the classroom. Though CRT does focus on the ethnic culture students bring to the classroom, it also focuses on knowing the unique and individual abilities each student brings to the classroom. Knowing students well enough to meet their needs allows teachers to create a classroom where students use cooperative learning as “a key way to support [them) in coming to complex understandings of the material presented” because it “mirrors and reinforces the social constructivist process by which children learn” (Kroeger-Bauer, 2004, p. 27). The value implicitly demonstrated in this cooperative learning style is inclusion – the expectation that all students despite differences in ability, gender, race, religion, sexuality and experiences play an important and active role in classroom learning. One example of inclusion central to DPT is the process of normalization for special education students, which means meeting their needs so that all students with disabilities are treated equitably, considered as individuals, given full access to the opportunities available to non-disabled students, and allowed independence in order to develop decision making abilities (McLaughlin, 2010, p. 269). Since teacher pedagogical behaviors in DPT focus on creating an inclusive classroom where all students feel safe and equally cared for, teachers need to display these behaviors by developing adapted or modified lessons that allow special education students to participate in the general classroom. Through the development of behavior plans and individualized education plans (IEPs), teachers can create an environment that is equitable and inclusive. Furthermore, it is important to remember that the final aspect of teaching special education students within the SJE model is making sure that other students in the class develop inclusive attitudes and behaviors so that the value of equity is reflected in an overall whole-class structural change and not just the actions of the teacher.
The final intersectionality between diversity and content occurs when the classroom shifts from being the only place where students demonstrate these values and instead becomes the place where they practice the behaviors in preparation to apply them as social change makers outside of school and the classroom. The difference between teaching about issues of oppression and empowering students to combat them is the need to provide tools for social action that emphasize privilege, knowledge and differences as strengths, and create a classroom with the opportunity for students to engage in necessary critical thinking (Hackman, 2005, p. 106). This same opportunity for critical thinking should also shape the way teachers plan for diversity and content to intersect in the classroom because “teachers, through reflection, can become aware of their intuitive knowledge and engage in problem solving that helps to strengthen their teaching ability” (Pedro, 2006, p. 129). Overall, the success of a teacher’s approach to social justice education is dependent on this practice of critical reflection because all of the previously mentioned skills, pedagogical behaviors, and values come from teachers who are aware of their own culture, continuously engaging in intentional reflection and conversation about their teaching, as well as making adjustments in response to these reflections so that they can ensure diversity and content continue to intersect within their classrooms. The goal SJE is achievable when teachers rely on DPT and CRT in order to teach and prepare a class of educated and empowered students.
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