A troubling incident occurred a few years ago in my Literature and Writing Foundations class at the local high school, highlighting the need for a focus on diversity. One of my tenth-grade students suddenly stood up, walked to the back of the room, mumbled something to his classmate, a newcomer from India, and pulled off his turban. This student, a devout Sikh, was humiliated when his hair was uncovered. He immediately ran out of the room – his long black hair exposed and flowing. When he returned with his turban in place, I directed both boys to join me in the hallway.

“Please apologize,” I implored the tenth grader. “You embarrassed your classmate. You know you are not allowed to touch another student or his belongings.”

“Why does he wear that hat on his head? He has beautiful, shiny hair.”

“Wearing a turban is an important belief in his religion. Sikh boys and men must keep their hair covered.”

“Aw, I just wanted to have a little fun. Why doesn’t he wear a baseball cap?” Then, noticing his classmate had tears in his eyes, he added, “I’m really sorry.”

Although my student’s actions were at least partially motivated by his desire for mischief, nevertheless, his actions demonstrated his negative feeling towards his Sikh classmate. This behavior occurred despite my efforts to create a culturally responsive classroom. Activities such as reading multicultural literature, sharing stories about students’ native cultures, and participating in a district wide cultural fair celebrating diversity encouraged students to appreciate diversity, however; deeply ingrained mindsets and behavior were not so easy to change.

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I recently recalled this incident after George Floyd’s tragic death led our nation to challenge systematic racism. Teachers throughout our country have resolved to discuss this tragedy with their students and develop a curriculum that includes respect for diversity and social justice. Now, however, as the COVID pandemic is changing the way instruction is provided, I wondered if teachers would be able to reach this goal.

About the Author:

Rochelle Verstaendig spent 28 years as an ENL teacher and Coordinator by the Plainview-Old Bethpage school district in Plainview, New York. She is currently teaching in the adult education program in the same district and is a professional development consultant for Nassau BOCES in Westbury, New York. She has presented professional development sessions on culturally responsive teaching strategies at NYS TESOL and in school districts throughout New York State.