Diversity comes in many forms including race, religion, ethnicity, community, gender, age, and socioeconomic status. This case features snapshots of classrooms nationwide and educators' responses to the opportunities and challenges surrounding diversity.
What’s Happening?
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Equity. Diversity. Achievement. Classrooms today are full of opportunities and challenges surrounding these issues. Students represent a multitude of racial, ethnic, and religious groups. They come from different geographical areas, have different community identities, represent different socioeconomic niches, and vary by gender and age. They have unique needs, abilities, and interests.

As educators working to meet these needs, we all add our own experiences and biases to the mix. The scenes below reveal how some educators respond to today’s challenges.

How does your perspective shape your teaching?

What’s Inside

Laura struggles to connect with her immigrant students.

Five years seemed like a lifetime ago to Laura Saatzer. That’s when she landed her current teaching job at the communications magnet school. Since then, her world view has been transformed. Issues that once seemed clear now look muddy; problems that had loomed large now feel almost trivial.

More than anything, Laura has realized how lucky she had been as a child. Sure, growing up in suburbia had its limitations, but it was comfortable, secure, and stable. She couldn’t imaging being a child and facing all of the flux that accompanies immigration. She imagined that the newness, change, and lack of familiarity would be overwhelming, even for an adult. She admired the tenacity of her students.

How do you deal with tension between ethnic groups within your class or school?

The Crossroads

Ray bumped along in his pick-up truck, leaving a narrow cloud of dust trailing behind him. He tapped his fingers and sang along to the oldies station as it played “The Tracks of My Tears” and reflected on how he wound up here, teaching. The responsibility of guiding his students filled him with both anxiety and purpose, brought him both satisfaction and disappointment. “It’s the toughest job I’ll ever love,” he mused as he swung his truck into the school lot.

Do you agree or disagree with Ray’s views on the importance of being bilingual? Whatever your view on this topic, how do you think schools and teachers should support these ends?

Sticks and Stones

Julie believed she deserved the respect of her students. She was working her tail off, spending long hours planning, and relying heavily on the history text to guide her instruction.

Richard was often frustrated by the version of history presented in his textbook.

She knew that the text could be dry and even uninspiring, but it covered the standards well. Because this was her first year teaching, Julie knew that she needed the structure the text provided.

Discipline had been a recurring problem in Julie’s class. Nevertheless, no matter how she looked at it, Julie’s thoughts kept returning to one simple question: Why the heck couldn’t her students just buckle-down, get busy, and do school?

The last time they reviewed for their history test, Julie saw one of her African American students flip through the pages of the text and mutter, “Here we go again…the parade of dead white guys.” Julie pretended not to hear and continued with her Battle of Yorktown review session.

She stood facing the class as Richard slammed his chair into his desk, shook his head, and walked slowly out of her room, leaving her and her students unsure of what to do next.

Julie vowed that today’s review would be different. Today, she was prepared with a Jeopardy-style game. She directed the students to form groups of their choice. She realized quickly that the students had divided themselves into groups along racial lines. She suspected that this might lead to problems, but could think of no way to quickly correct the situation.

When an argument erupted between Joey and Chris, who were on opposing teams, Julie moved toward them. She was able, with considerable effort, to quiet the boys and restart the game, which continued more or less successfully until the bell rang. As the class was dismissed, Chris and Joey resumed their heated exchange at the door. Joey bumped into Chris and threatened, “Move it!” Joey gave Chris one stiff shove and bolted into the crowded hallway.

How might teachers balance meeting curricular requirements with addressing diversity when the two contradict? How might these decisions affect student motivation and behavior?

It’s an Honor

Jessica was rarely motivated in math class.

Lucy Hamilton’s advanced math students were quite a drain. Sure, her class was small and able to speed through the curriculum, and they seemed docile enough to those passing by her door. But, the reality was that they were just like other kids: some were motivated and some weren’t. The thing Lucy found most puzzling was their lack of risk taking. You’d think being bright would encourage stepping out on a limb, but more and more Lucy found that her sharpest students were sometimes paralyzed by their fear of failure—particularly the girls.

Lucy was especially worried about Jessica. She did little more than sit quietly chewing her gum on most days. Lucy was hoping that today’s cooperative activity might help Jessica branch out a bit.

How might Lucy restructure her math lesson to better involve Jessica?

Count on Me

Peter hoped to keep a conflict between students from escalating.

Amid the familiar chaos of arrival time, Peter Flaherty reviewed yesterday’s events. He put down his chalk, approached Joseph and Cleo, placing one hand on each of their shoulders, hoping to hold the boys in place, hoping to make eye contact, hoping to make them really hear him.

There was no real agreement made, no look of understanding shared. The boys offered only one more gesture, half shrug, half nod, and moved away toward their desks, leaving Peter holding little hope that he’d settled this issue.

As the rest of the fourth grade students filled their seats, Peter finished prepping for his math class. The plan was to start with a timed multiplication drill and move into more complex problems.

Peter Flaherty reflects…

There are times when I really separate myself from the kids. I try to be the teacher up front, you know, trying to teach the lesson. But there are other times I try to shed that persona and try to get closer to the kids because there are a lot of them who don’t have that at home. They don’t have parents who care. They come home and no one is home. Their parents come home late at night. So I want them to know that in school they at least have someone to listen to them and to help them out.

I’ve got six Native American kids in my classroom. The school has several resource people who are Native Americans so we have an Ejibway teacher who comes in once a week and works with the kids. I find numbers are really easy to teach the kids because there are a lot of ways to apply those and they are easy for the kids to pick up and learn. Admittedly, it is not as useful as French might be in a global situation, but just to expose the kids to language of another culture, I think is important.

I primarily teach what I feel is effective to the kids. They do have training sessions how to present different cultures and how cultures should be included. You have to do the two together so I teach the kids about their individuality and their commonality. You have to bring that into the education. You can’t just leave that aside and teach the content areas totally separate from that. You need to try to blend them together which I think Anderson School is looking towards and doing a good job at.

I tend to concentrate more on the skills of sitting, listening, doing their assignments – so that they learn to learn…..I think that can be good for the self-esteem to some extent of the African American kids but I think it can be over biased to the Afro centrism and not bring in enough perspectives of other cultures so it can be just as bad as the straight Eurocentric education we’ve always done. I just go by what I feel is right. The whole term of political correctness, I just sort of throw out the window. If there is something that I feel is important for the kids, I just go ahead and do it.

Read the video transcripts below:

How might you blend teaching students to appreciate their individuality and commonality with teaching content area standards?

An Exact Science

Department chair Harriet Vaul calls the meeting to order and glances at the agenda. “Okay, the first and most important item is the selection of the outstanding senior in science. I see that the faculty has nominated three students: Arthur Foltrain, Lin Wonting, and Meg Chase. I’ve had all three in one class or another. Good nominees.”

John Harrington, senior member of the department and resident jokester, raises his hand. “I have a suggestion to save time. Since we have given this award to a Chinese-American student every year for the past six, why don’t we just name Lin, move on to the rest of the agenda, and go home. Let’s not do a Far Eastern torture routine pretending someone else will win again.” John rolls his eyes.

Harriet hopes he is joking, but the nature of the joke disturbs her, and she wonders what the others think. She chooses not to treat the remark seriously, saying, “Very funny, John, but let’s get on with things now.”

The discussion becomes lively. Trish McTigue, chemistry teacher, observes, “I think all three are pretty even. I’ve also had each of them in class and they’re all good.”

Fred Chandler, biology teacher, says, “You know, each of the last six years, the winner has gone to a prestigious college with good scholarship financial support. As I recall, each of them came from pretty affluent parents. The winning student receives a $1,000 cash award. I wonder if financial need should enter into our discussion.”

“Good idea, Fred,” says Ron Orwell, biology and chemistry teacher. “It would also give us a way out of the Chinese dynasty.”

Harriet interrupts and reiterates the guidelines of the award. “The only criterion for this award is academic excellence.” She pauses, glances around the table, and considers her colleagues. “I find the remarks about the ethnic backgrounds of students unacceptable, even if they might have been meant as a joke.”

“You’re right, Harriet. I apologize for my weak attempt at humor. But I do think it would be nice to consider economic need. I had forgotten the stipulation.”

Daniel Sears, physics teacher, adds, “I’m glad that the award is for academic excellence only. Otherwise, we’d be getting pretty far off track if we try to figure out economic need for students in these situations. For all we know, each of them could be facing some stress. I know that Lin has two older siblings in college right now.”

Phyliss Barnhardt, lab supervisor and teacher of earth science notes that “Lin had been extraordinarily helpful and reliable in working with freshmen and sophomores in the labs. I don’t know what I would have done without him.”

Discussion ensues for another 20 minutes; the faculty studies the students’ test scores and report cards and finds them remarkably similar.

See test scores and report cards below:

Ron moves that they vote. Fred seconds the motion.

Harriet reminds the group, “The student with the largest number of votes will be the winner, no matter how close the result.” She passes out the ballots listing the three names. After a quiet moment filled only with the scratching of pencils and sifting of papers, the votes are passed in and counted. “The result is five votes for Lin, four for Arthur, and two for Meg.”

Using his best radio-voice, John murmurs, “China 7, America 0. Please remember that no revealing of the vote count is permissible.”

Do you think criteria other than achievement (such as socioeconomic status and/or ethnicity) should be considered in offering academic awards and recognition?

Quiz Me

Barbara enjoyed interacting with the students during her multicultural awareness quiz.

As she reflected on the quiz she gave earlier that day, Barbara Shin stood watching the students pour out the double doors and onto the blacktop. Some were laughing and joking with friends, some struggled with their coats and bulging backpacks, and others simply blinked their way homeward.

Barbara always liked to admire the students from a distance; she liked seeing them milling around school and liked imagining all that they brought with them when they arrived each day: their experiences, their thoughts, their cultures.

She was proud of her staff’s progress in diversifying the curriculum to reflect the many cultures represented in their building, and she was looking forward to meeting with the other members of the administrative team to discuss their progress.

After the last bus pulled away, Barbara enjoyed a brief moment of sunshine and then moved through the double doors and closed them behind her. The team meeting would begin in twenty minutes.

Sometimes an individual’s teaching practice does not match their articulated teaching philosophy. In which ways has this proven true for you? What might you do to move the two closer together?

The Pledge

Sandra heard that shrill tone in her voice that usually served as warning, but she just couldn’t stop herself. Not saying the Pledge just didn’t seem right, and she was tired of debating this with her homeroom students. This morning during the Pledge she turned to glance at the flag, and when she looked back at her students, it seemed that half of them were seated.

She’d been round and round with Dana about freedom of expression, patriotism, and her family’s faith, but neither of them was able or willing to budge on this one. Sandra knew that after class she’d be joining Dana and the principal in the office to discuss this, and she wondered if she had anything new to say.

How might teachers and students address their political and religious beliefs in the classroom?