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.
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.
With some school districts opting for remote learning or hybrid instruction, would teachers still be able to help students recognize racism and overcome prejudice? Would they be able to encourage students to build relationships with their classmates who look and act differently? Would teachers be able to use technology to create a classroom embracing empathy and compassion for all?
Using tech to promote diversity and explore student attitudes and beliefs
Before change can happen, teachers need to be aware of existing student attitudes and beliefs. SurveyMonkey is an online platform that helps teachers create and send surveys. The format may consist of yes-no, multiple choice, or open-ended questions. These questions should be thought-provoking and may reveal students’ views on diversity. After information from the survey is analyzed, it may be presented to the class during a Google Meet or Zoom meeting.
Discussing the results of this survey may lead to some interesting observations. Students may wish to talk about the survey and examine their feelings in designated Google chat rooms. During this time, they may also be willing to share something personal about themselves and disclose an act of discrimination they might have witnessed. Writing about their beliefs and opinions on Google Docs or Seesaw, will, hopefully, encourage students to think more about their attitudes towards others from different backgrounds.
Digital platforms to foster relationships between students of all cultures, races, and religions
Friendships give meaning to life, but how does one foster relationships between students of different cultures and races when students cannot interact face to face? Many digital platforms facilitate student contact. Flipgrid is an excellent tool to produce short videos. Students can use this app to introduce themselves and tell about an object that is important to them. Another idea is to assign small group projects using Google Slides or PowerPoint, and purposely mix students of diverse backgrounds. As students work together, they will get to know each other better, and will form online friendships. Teachers may also pair students of different cultures, races, or religions with a buddy, who can help them prepare assignments in Google Docs or Google Classroom. When a newcomer joins the class, the teacher may suggest classmates contact him or her on Google Hangouts or FaceTime. Hopefully, when the pandemic is over, these newly discovered friendships will be able to blossom.
Creating virtual classrooms that support charitable causes
Getting students involved in charitable causes will broaden students’ world view and introduce them to diverse groups of people. Technology can facilitate conversations by bringing together people who are thousands of miles apart or who live on the other side of town. Before the pandemic, a teacher in my district used Skype to have his students speak with middle school students in a classroom halfway around the world. They discussed similarities and differences between schools in America and Israel, and as a result, students developed an appreciation for a different culture.
Three years ago, another teacher assigned her students A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park. This book told the true story of women and children living in South Sudan who walk up to eight hours a day to collect water from the nearest well. A fundraiser was initiated and recently a new well was built in South Sudan. Current students might want to design posters on Canvas to support this ongoing fundraiser or add comments on Padlet. During the pandemic, many schools organized food drives to help their neighbors, who were struggling financially and with health issues. Social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, facilitated this effort. Humanitarian causes help students develop feelings of empathy and compassion toward others and inspire them to make their own contributions to society.
Technology is a tool that enables students of all cultures, races, and religions to have meaningful communication with each other. Lessons like those described above will help students form positive interactions with each other, and those interactions will lead to mutual respect and appreciation.
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