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Defining the Term
The term multicultural education is used to describe a variety of practices within curriculum and classroom instruction. In some districts, it means a distinction in the ethnicity or gender of a particular class of students. For instance, girls-only classes or classrooms designed to address the particular educational needs of African-American or Hispanic-American students.
In other cases, the term is used to discuss a curriculum which encompasses education on a wide variety of cultures in an effort to enhance the students’ knowledge and awareness of the world in which they live. It is this second use of the term that is of greatness value when addressing the majority of students in the United States.
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The Importance of Multicultural Education
As the world seems to be getting smaller and smaller with the widespread use of technology, the importance of multicultural education in K-12 classrooms grows exponentially. Students who have access via the Internet to international gaming, shopping and social media sites need an even better understanding of the similarities and differences between their own cultures and those of the world around them. Likewise, the ever-present reality of conflicts between nations reinforces the importance of multicultural education as the need for people of varying backgrounds to have a better understanding of one another has international implications for future generations.
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Bringing Culture to Life in the Classroom
With this in mind, teachers should be prepared to teach units that fully address the cultures of other nations throughout the year and across the curriculum and not just around the holidays. These units should discuss the food, music, history, stories, clothing and belief systems of these cultures using age-appropriate curriculum.
Whenever possible, bringing actual souvenirs or artifacts from the country being studied can be a wonderful teaching tool for all ages. Examples of such items might include a costume which demonstrates traditional clothing, a piece of jewelry, a woven basket, a small figurine or statue, or foreign currency. To accomplish this part of the lesson, it might be necessary to ask around among the faculty, friends or parents to see who has traveled and what souvenirs are available.
Since America has long been known as a melting pot of nationalities, multicultural education can often begin by sharing about the cultures, races, and ethnicities already present in the classroom. If the class has a representation of African-American, European-American, Hispanic-American, Indian-American, or Native-American students, begin by exploring the cultures of these various influences. In this way, multicultural education addresses both the students and the curriculum. Allowing students of differing backgrounds to share about the foods they eat at home or the first-language of their parents or grandparents offers a rich foundation for multicultural learning. Incorporating the ethnic diversity in the classroom into the curriculum should not single students out as different, but contribute to the whole classroom's understanding of the diversity present in our world. Teachers should consider having parents involved in these lessons, too, if this would add to the students' experience and understanding of multiculturalism and diversity.
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Reaching Pre-Readers with Multiculturalism
For younger students, multicultural literature offers a means to bring the importance of multicultural education into the classroom. Reading a picture book,such as “Jambo Means Hello,” a Swahili counting book by Muriel Feelings, is a great way to introduce a foreign culture. The story can then be augmented with photos from magazines or the internet to remind the children that the places are real and not just imaginary. Classroom instruction might include listening to folk music from the country being studied, eating a simple food from that nation, or doing a craft that replicates a piece of traditional jewelry.
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Reaching Older Students with Multicultural Lessons
Older elementary students and middle school students also benefit from multicultural education. At this age, it is important to help the students understand that there is an entire world of customs beyond their own. While young children accept this easily, they also have very little understanding of the size of the world in which they live. Older students grasp the map and their place in it, but do not know much about life beyond their own existence. This is where multicultural education makes the biggest impact.
One way to illustrate the world and the people in it is to bring in a fabric world map. These are available at most retail fabric stores.To prepare for this exercise, clip out 20 or 30 magazine images of people from foreign countries. Number the pictures 1 through 20 and make a list of each photograph and the country you think the people in the photo belong to. Then have the children try to match each photograph with a spot on the map. It is important that it be a fabric map as the children will likely step on it and pull it slightly and the fabric is much more durable than a paper map. When the game is done the map should be covered with faces from all around the world. Teachers can then point out similarities and differences, such as racial similarities among regions of the world.
Older elementary and middle school students might also appreciate reading short stories or books about fictional or historical characters from around the world. Assignments can relate to the books being read and go beyond the story to further discuss the national setting.
When it comes to high school students, teaching about world cultures can be easily accomplished through assigning individuals reports. The students should be required to learn about the location, politics, history, climate, geography and culture of the nation assigned. Oral presentations can help the entire class learn from each students research. Teachers can choose whether oral reports should cover basic information or whether the students should choose a particular element about the nation's culture to share with the class. These reports can be as structured or fun as the teacher permits. Students might be encouraged to dress in a traditional costume from their country, or perhaps even cook a simple dish for the class to sample.
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