September 25 — 1:31 pm, 2002

‘Doing’ multicultural education is continuing a struggle for democracy

multi photo Photo: Harvey Finkle

In big and small ways, people throughout Philadelphia and the country are “doing” multicultural education in efforts to improve the quality of education in our schools.

Yet rarely do people reflect about what it means to “do” multicultural education well and why it is integral to good teaching and learning.

The terms multiculturalism and multicultural education have been used in so many contexts that one can easily dismiss them as buzz words that simply encourage the affirmation of our diversity.

But at its core, multicultural education is much more complex. Like the civil rights movement that spawned it, multicultural education is a process, a collective struggle to uphold the nation’s democratic ideals in our schools.

It is at the heart of all comprehensive strategies for building robust and rigorous educational environments that improve teaching and learning by honoring, respecting, and nurturing students as well as the experiences, cultures, learning styles, and critical perspectives that they bring to their classrooms.

Contrary to popular belief, multicultural education “is not special or compensatory education – it’s just good education,” explains Enid Lee, an advocate for multicultural and anti-racist education.

It strives to provide a more complete, multifaceted view of the world in which the perspective of white European males is one of many, and the voices of “others” move closer to the center.

The quarterly journal Rethinking Schools defines multicultural education as “an ongoing process of questioning, revising, and struggling to create greater equity in every nook and cranny of school life – whether in curriculum materials, school staffing policies, discipline procedures, teaching strategies, or course offerings. It is a fight against racism and other forms of oppression, including those based on gender, religion, sexual orientation, physical ability, or national origin and language. It is a fight for economic and social justice.”

That fight is central to the current educational debates here in Philadelphia, where political leaders have said in word and deed that the “status quo” in Philadelphia schools is unacceptable. In this period of school change, a focus on multicultural education is critically important.

Throughout the District, courageous students and teachers have been using the concepts of multicultural education to challenge the status quo. Their actions are sanctioned by the District’s Policy 102 (see Policy 102: the District’s stated commitment to equity for all), which identifies educational equity for all students as a goal.

The student organization Youth United for Change (YUC) provides one example of those who “do” multicultural education. They view multiculturalism as a way to break down the barriers between schools and the rest of the world and to make the substance of education more relevant to students.

YUC is an organization of high school students at four of Philadelphia’s neighborhood high schools. The organization itself is rooted in multicultural practices, such as affirming diverse student voices, providing learning opportunities for students with different learning styles, and organizing to fight for social justice in education.

They also talk explicitly about issues of race, class, and power and how they affect what goes on in their lives.

YUC student leader Derrick Smith of Olney High School wishes that there was more of that in school.

“I think if you could have somewhere you could talk with a group of people who face the same problems that you do, a lot of things
wouldn’t be going on that are going on now,” he says.

“But you’re not given that opportunity, that space to talk about your problems, and to talk about the problems in society, so you continue to bundle it up. . . . [If] we had a class where students could have a lengthy discussion on how everyone feels and get it all out in the open, I think it would be good for students.”

Smith would call that class “Social Change.”

YUC students understand that, like the fulfillment of democracy, multicultural education requires community participation to develop creative alternatives based on multiple perspectives. They also advocate for schools to adopt policies and practices that are more culturally inclusive and respectful of all members of the school community.

Over the past year, they worked closely with teachers and members of their school administration to develop strategies to infuse multicultural education into their schools.

Students also conducted library research, interviewed leading scholars, and attended national conferences in an effort to increase their understanding of multicultural education. This research informed their report entitled “Student Research on Teaching and Learning.”

Their hard work paid off.

Beginning this fall, YUC students are working with teachers in Edison and Olney high schools to pilot a “teacher-student alliance” in order to develop and strengthen the multicultural education initiatives in those schools.

Additionally, YUC students at Edison High School have argued for and won the inclusion in the school calendar of “relationship-building days” for students and teachers. This reflects a belief that multicultural education is most effective when members of a diverse community work together to examine and change the school experience and the social relations in schools.

Many teachers and administrators throughout the District agree with these students. They say that multicultural education must go beyond celebrations of food, fashion, festivals, and February, which are intended to make students feel better about themselves.

Education professionals have learned that in order for multicultural education to be meaningful, it must be infused into the culture and practices of schools and into educational policies. That requires a change in the way that we commonly think of schools and the people who make up school communities.

Caltropia Wilder, a teacher and Project SEED (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity) leader in the District, argues that educators must realize “that there are human beings in these classrooms who have feelings and values, [that] they have a background and they come with a culture.”

“They just can’t leave it at the door or put it in their backpacks and say ‘Okay, I’m gonna zip it up,’ and go by the standards and the norms that are acceptable to someone else’s agenda,” Wilder explained. “Our own literacies and our own life texts have to be blended into standards that have been set by the state.”

Committed educators throughout the District who share Wilder’s view work both individually and collectively to confront and address the complex issues in their curriculum, classroom practices, and school environments that often go untouched.

Formal teacher networks such as Project SEED and the Philadelphia Writing Project, along with informal teacher support groups, have formed to support and sustain those efforts (see Policy 102: the District’s stated commitment to equity for all). These networks vary considerably and at times have engaged parents, administrators, teachers, and students in discussing difficult education issues.

Charles Carroll High School Principal Delores Williams, a SEED participant, adds that administrators’ commitment to multicultural education is also vital. She explains, “As a principal, it is my responsibility to make staff aware of diversity and to have them question and change their assumptions as to how they treat children who are different from them.”

At the district level, multicultural content specialists in the central office – Maria Mills-Torres, Carolyn Holmes, and Debbie Wei – work with Cathy Balsley, the director of the curriculum office, to offer support and to
provide opportunities that will help education professionals infuse multicultural education into their curriculum.

Balsley concludes, “We’re doing a lot of things. It’s uneven throughout the District. There are wonderful people – teachers and administrators who need to be supported. . . . It’s an incredible challenge.”

Advocates for multicultural education agree that educators and students both bring valuable resources to the educational table.

Multicultural education is essential to the democratic process as it encourages the people closest to the system to work together, to rethink their roles, and to make change that will benefit our students and our communities.

It recognizes that high quality education depends on strong, inclusive communities that respect and recognize differences while creating common experiences. It supports intellectual growth through an academically rigorous curriculum that encourages students to think critically.

At its core, the goal of multicultural education is educational equity and justice for all children.

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