Reflections on Defining Multicultural Education for School Reform

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Reflections on Defining Multicultural Education for School Reform

Reflections on Defining Multicultural Education for School Reform 

Elias Tavares, Touro College, GSE, TESOL Advanced Certificate Program

Jasmin (Bey) Cowin, Ed.D., Touro College, GSE, Assistant Professor and TESOL/Bilingual Practicum Coordinator 
As Touro TESOL/Bilingual teacher candidates prepare for their vital work in TESOL/Bilingual education, it is essential that they take an active role in their professional and personal growth through reflection. A critical component of their journey at Touro College, GSE, TESOL/Bilingual Programs are reflective journals. “Journals often focus subjectively on personal experiences, reactions, and reflections while learning logs are more documentary records of students’ work process (what they are doing), their accomplishments, ideas, or questions” (Equipped for the Future, 2004). 
Articulating subjective reactions help candidates identify key learning events. Elias Tavares’ journal Reflections: Defining Multicultural Education for School Reform was both analytical and descriptive. His focus on Multicultural Education for School Reform was selective rather than comprehensive. Mr. Tavares supported his analysis with evidence and references to wider reading while keeping the tone of his writing personal, not rhetorical.
Equipped for the Future (2004). Teaching/Learning Toolkit. Learning logs.

Touro TESOL/Bilingual candidate Elias Y. Taveras reflects on Defining Multicultural Education for School Reform


    I have chosen to write about chapter two of Affirming Diversity, The Sociopolitical Context of Multicultural Education by Sonia Nieto for this reflection. Chapter two is titled Defining Multicultural Education for School Reform. The chapter begins with Sonia Nieto explaining that for many years she heard through conversation with educators that multicultural education is a “done deal” and unneeded. Such a statement reflects on how misunderstood diversity is in our country. Furthermore, when people begin to have conversations about diversity, it is usually about sensitivity training or units about ethnic holidays, food festivals. When schools take this approach to multicultural education, the potential for lasting change is decimated.

    The chapter breaks down the definition of multicultural education as an essential tool for school reform by analyzing seven primary characteristics. The definition highlights the lack of achievement for students of diverse backgrounds and promotes the content and process of education. It is also mentioned that multicultural education will not serve as the solution for the achievement gap, put an end to boring curriculums, or stop vandalism in the communities. Nonetheless, multicultural education can provide change and reform to the educational system.

The chapter breaks the definition of multicultural education into seven characteristics meant to keep us from developing one way of understanding multicultural education. Instead, the characteristics are meant to foster deeper thinking on the interplay between societal and school structure and context and how those factors affect learning. Sonia Nieto defines multicultural education on a social-political basis: “Multicultural education is a process of comprehensive school reform and basic education for all students. It challenges and rejects racism and other forms of discrimination in society and accepts and affirms the pluralism (ethnic, racial, linguistic, religious, economic, gender, and sexual orientation, amongst others) that students, their communities, and teachers reflect. Multicultural education permeates the school’s curriculum and intuitional strategies as well as the interactions amongst teachers, students, and families and the very way that schools conceptualized the nature of teaching and learning” (p. 32). The chapter continues to dig deeper into multicultural education.

    Reading the chapter brought a mix of emotions, and it forced me to reflect on my past experiences as a professional educator. Specifically, several of the chapter examples brought up topics and lessons that I had already thought about in the past. Moreover, if I could select an emotion that overwhelmed all the others after reading about the topic, it would have to be an embarrassment. I felt embarrassed reading about the different levels because there were numerous aspects of multicultural education that I had no idea about. Also, there were many realizations about my behavior and that of my colleagues that were indeed embarrassing. Reading the chapter, I first felt embarrassed when Sonia Nieto mentions: “unfortunately when multicultural education is mentioned, many people think of lessons in human relations and sensitivity training, units about ethnic holidays, education in inner-city schools, or food festivals. If multicultural education is limited to these issues, the potential of substantive change in school is severally diminished” (p. 32). I felt deeply embarrassed because at my school and specifically in my classroom, we have celebrated many events about a different culture. For black history month, we would briefly go over historical figures and their impact on history. For Ramadan, we would read a book about Islam and have the kids discuss it. However, the worst of the worst was when Cinco de Mayo would roll around, and all across the school, we would be celebrating Mexican culture with a holiday that real Mexicans do not even celebrate. After doing these food/cultural events, we would feel proud and check the box for multicultural education.

    One major assumption I had before reading chapter two of Affirming Diversity was about my way of teaching history and historical figures of the black community. Here I thought about the sufficiency of my approaches and methods of teaching multicultural education. One major example of my pedagogy I reflected on was my approach to teaching Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and his achievements. Whenever the time of the year came for this holiday, I simply rolled out the tapes and recording of “I had a dream.” I would make the students watch the speech and discuss the importance of the events that led to the speech. Later, I would introduce the language objective, focusing students on ways they could make the world better through their dreams. This was achieved using the infamous and famous starter words of ‘I had a dream.’ Students would first think of ways the world needed to be changed, and then they would use the sentence starter to initiate their solution or their ideal world. I was assuming that it was enough to stop there and move on from teaching students more about Martin Luther King Jr.

The source of my assumption that sanitizing historical figures was a way to teach multicultural learning is unknown to me. There could be many different reasons why I had this assumption. On the other hand, the best answer to this question could be ignorance. Before reading this chapter, I was not aware of the term sanitizing the curriculum. Moreover, I grew up in the Bronx embedded in a Black and Latino population. I met no white students until university. The teachers that gave me my education in middle school and high school were mostly white. The few teachers of color I had all taught these topics the same way or similar to me. It is possible that because I grew up watching the educators of color teach about prominent historical figures by only touching the surface of the topic. There was no deeper connection to us or our experience as individuals of color in the United States. We were also never taught of the negative actions of these figures so part of my assumption could have been a result of always merely scratching the surface.

    Reading this chapter was shocking, embarrassing, and eye-opening at the same time. This was because it allowed me to humble myself and learn about a practice or assumption that I had in the past. My assumption that teaching about rich, colorful, and deep historical characters by merely mentioning them or scratching the surface of what they are known for was invalidated. Often, I avoided talking about racism and speaking openly about the problem with many historical figures and events. This was invalidated when Sonia Nieto said: “Too many schools avoid confronting, honestly and directly, the negative effects of history, the arts, and sciences. Michael Fine has called this the “fear of Learning,” and it is part of the system of silencing public schools,” (p. 33). At this instant, my previous opinion was checked. Avoiding diving deeper into history and inclosing the negative sides of what happened to us was wrong. Evading speaking to my students about the racism that their ancestors faced was not doing them any favors or improving the deep of conversation they could have with each other. In order to protect their feelings, I rejected talking about people and perhaps painful experiences crucial and similar to theirs. Maybe I did not want to remind them of something that they experience every day, but it was the wrong choice because instead, I sanitized or cleaned up the topics my students could embark on.

    Chapter two provided me with many realizations or aha moments. The most significant one that I can think of because I teach it every year to my students was when Sonia Nieto used Dr. Martin Luther King Jr as an example of sanitizing characters. It was a perfect example of scratching the surface with a topic to fulfill a curriculum requirement. Sonia Nieto states: “The only thing children know about him is that he kept “having a dream.” School bulletin boards are full of ethereal pictures of Dr. King surrounded by clouds. If children get to hear or read any of his speeches at all, it is his “I Have a Dream” speech. As inspirational as this speech is, it is only one piece of his notable accomplishments. (p.33). Nieto continues to explain that educators barely explore more of the life of Dr. King: “Rare indeed are allusions to his early and consistent oppositions to the Vietnam War; his strong criticism of unbridled capitalism; and the connection he made near the end of his life among racism, capitalism, and war. This sanitation of Martin Luther King, a man full of passion and life, renders him an oversimplified, lifeless figure, in the process making him a “safe hero” (p.33). Reading this hit home because I am certain that if I were to ask any of my students from this past year about Dr. King, they would say I have a dream. My students would not even possess the knowledge or the academic language to explain further the accomplishments of such an important person in our history.

Furthermore, that is why I am extremely thankful to have gotten the opportunity to read Affirming Diversity. I would not have thought about how my students are affected by the lack of real colorful, and truthful teaching. I now understand that it is extremely important to push past discomfort, have uncomfortable conversations, and challenge students. Without this kind of work, students will walk out of my class without the ability to properly discuss the world around them.

    Due to the realization that my prior assumption was invalidated, I have now realized that there can be many changes made in my teaching. I must begin to plan out units to identify the topics that are going to be impactful for them. I want to allow students to have an impact on some of the material that we study in class. I want to allow students to be surveyed and to share their opinions as to what they should learn. Subsequently, also allowing them to bring in their own experiences through inquiry questions. I plan to have questioners at the beginning and end of every unit. In this way, I could use their prior knowledge to guide the direction of the unit. I can also use these questions to find out if any of the students have possible real-life connections to the topic. For instance, if we are learning about ending slavery and Abraham Lincoln and through inquiry, I find out that one of the students has a relative that has a connection or history with slavery or the ending of. It could be possible to contact that person to come in to speak to the students. To have the students prepare questions and make their experiences and the ones of their family members validated and appreciated by all. Another major step I must take after my realization is planning how I am going to teach my third graders stronger academic language that will help them understand the complexities of history and politics. If we plan to research Dr. King beyond “I Have a Dream,” my students need to understand ideas like communism and capitalism. In the end, there is much work to be done that will be active and heavily involving of the student’s opinions, experiences, and expectations. The reason why it will be difficult, but rewarding is that antiracism education is not done inactively. As Sonia Nieto stated in chapter two: “To be anti-racist is not a passive act; it proposes working actively to combat racism…it means making anti-discrimination explicit parts of the curriculum and teaching young people skills in confronting racism.” (p. 33).

Mr. Taveras, a Touro College TESOL GSE CR-ITI Grant recipient, serves as a bilingual teacher in the Bronx, NY. He emigrated from the Dominican Republic when he was in middle school and grew up in NYC. Mr. Taveras received a Bachelor of Art in Journalism from SUNY Buffalo State and later completed his Master’s in Bilingual Education at The City College of New York. In a personal introduction in one of his Touro College, GSE courses he wrote “…above everything else, I am a single father and a teacher of kindness.”


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