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Teaching in a Multicultural Classroom

Understanding Classroom Dynamics

Each time we teach a course, it is essentially a new ballgame. The content changes over time, our students change, and we change. The complex dynamics involved in the processes of teaching and learning take on new layers of meaning when we stop to consider the ways in which we are similar as well as different from one another.

Before we consider the differences, take a moment to listen to some stories gathered from a PBS project called, Story Corps. Have your tissues handy, because what I found there was a mountain of ways that we are very much alike in things that have the deepest impact.... Story Corps

Consider some of the aspects that combine to make up who we are as individuals: our age, gender, ethnicity, race, intellectual ability, socio-economic level, language, culture, education, religion, birthplace, where we grew up, learning styles, multiple intelligence preferences, personality types, hobbies and interests, career paths, values, etc. etc. etc. Take all this, mix it up in the classroom, and you can't help but have a very different experience each time you start with a new class.

With all these differences, what can faculty members do to build a positive, respectful, and supportive environment that fosters learning for all students?

1. Realize that you, as the faculty member, are also part of the chemistry that occurs in class. You bring your unique personhood to the mix. So it isn't just about how our students may differ, but about what happens in our classes when we are all interacting in and through our uniqueness.

2. Be aware of the power structure inherent in your role as a faculty member as well as that of the dominant culture. Listen and watch for assumptions about right/wrong ways to do things just because the dominant culture does them that way. Consider other ways to tackle problems, interpret issues, and demonstrate learning that may be different from what you or others have experienced.

3. Try to become aware of the possible biases or assumptions that you may bring to the classroom. Get your students to also think about the assumptions they may be making about how and why we do things. Foster a broader view. Model the behavior you want to foster in your students.

4. Aim for an inclusive curriculum.

5. Speak up at once if students make distasteful remarks. Take a look at the Power of Words Curriculum available at for ideas about how to address the use of words in the classroom.

6. Avoid making individuals "spokespersons" for their assumed cultural or ethnic group.

7. Support English language learners in your classes (see the section below).

8. Use group work to broaden student perspectives. As soon as people come together to work in groups, different approaches and ideas come to the surface immediately. Work with students to provide strategies that allow them to work through the differences in constructive ways. Foster and reward openness to new and creative approaches to problem-solving. Build into group processes ways to consider, use, and value the "lone voice crying out in the wilderness". Visit this site to find out strategies for group process

In a recent interview by Matthew Szulik, CEO of Red Hat Inc., a leading provider of LINUX and open source software, on the skills that employers need from new hires, Szulik states that American workers are really struggling to compete in a new globally competent workforce. The workers hired recently from US higher education environments struggle in similar and key ways: to collaborate effectively in a global business reality, to adapt quickly to change, to be flexible in working with people from diverse cultures towards a common goal, to realize the global implications of their actions, inability to work at a fast pace, lack of innovation, and willingness to embrace lifelong learning as a necessity in his fast-paced business. When Szulik needs skilled professional employees, he often recruits outside the US, where he can find educated workers who are also globally sophisticated and flexible in working with people from diverse cultures and backgrounds. His US employees have a more difficult time moving out of the "We do it this way" mindset which limits the vision and creativity of his company.

Creating a classroom environment that fosters respect and welcomes diverse viewpoints and approaches to learning supports the growth and development of all learners in the classroom.

Strategies to Support ESL Students in Content Classes

Information graciously provided by Columbia College English Department - and used with permission from Dr. Ken Daley, Chair, English Department, Columbia College.

Understanding Lectures and Class Discussions: What You Can Do to Help

  • increase classroom interaction and check comprehension
  • encourage students to ask questions and to take the initiative in resolving comprehension difficulties
  • create time and forum for questions and clarification (question pauses, written questions)
  • put students in small groups and give them two minutes to summarize the main points of the discussion (group summary)
  • take the last two minutes of class and ask students to write what they learned and what they are still unsure of, collect them and use their questions as a starting point for the next class (minute paper)
  • wait longer than you usually do (give 10-15 seconds) to let an ESL student formulate a response during a class or group discussion
  • use e-mail and/or journals as a forum for students to ask questions and discuss what they understand or do not understand
  • assign leadership roles in group work
  • rotate students as group facilitators, recorders, and reporters
  • establish guidelines and expectations for group participation
  • use explicit organizational cues
  • make your overall aim, structure, main ideas and transitions clear
  • preview and/or outline the main points of the class verbally or visually
  • let students know when something is very important ("you might want to write this down.")
  • use audio/visual support
  • repeat and clarify main points
  • explain unfamiliar vocabulary

Be aware of your assumptions of shared knowledge. Culturally based analogies and examples may not be understood by students from other cultures.

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Framework for Designing Effective Writing Assignments

The following questions can help you frame the assignment with clear, accessible instructions:

* Context

What is the reason for the assignment?
How is the assignment related to what you want students to learn?

* Content

Is the assignment accessible to all student writers, culturally and otherwise?
Does the assignment allow for multiple approaches?

* Language

Are the instructions comprehensible, unambiguous, and clear?
Are vocabulary and syntax appropriate?
Does the prompt give the students enough information?

* Task(s)                                                                                                back to top


Can the students accomplish the task within time constraints?
Does it further students' knowledge of classroom content and skills?
Does it allow students to demonstrate their knowledge?

* Rhetorical Specifications

Do you provide clear direction concerning the shape and format of the assignment?
Do you provide organizing principles for students and suggest a sequence of tasks that will result in the expected product?
Are instructions regarding register and tone (i.e., audience) provided?

* Evaluation

Do your evaluation criteria (what you will be looking for and how you will grade) assess what is being taught?
Do the criteria assess what you asked students to do in the assignment?
Do you share your criteria with the students before they begin the assignment?

* Addressing Plagiarism

Ownership of ideas is not a cultural universal and conventions of academic prose differ across disciplines and across cultures. In many cultures, "good writing" entails demonstrating knowledge of the ideas of others, not writing about one's own ideas. Students may not be accustomed to the concept of acknowledging the source for ideas that they consider far more important than their own. They may also not understand our expectation of building one's own argument. To read more about writing conventions in different cultures, GO.

Consider the assumptions behind your explanation of plagiarism and your policies.

Teach your students to avoid plagiarism by exposing them to model texts that use the documentation you require. Practice integrating quotes and paraphrases in papers with proper documentation. Explain what is acceptable and what is not acceptable.

Ask to see multiple drafts of student research papers so that you can address a plagiarism problem before the final paper is turned in. It may also help to ask students to turn in copies of their sources.

Read more about Academic Integrity and teaching strategies to avoid plagiarism. GO

ESL Reading                                                                                                  
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ESL students need a working vocabulary of approximately 5000 words for basic reading comprehension at the college level. They may need extra help with vocabulary specific to your discipline.

An average reading speed of 200 words per minute is generally necessary for college level reading. ESL students tend to read more slowly in English because of the very complex processing. It may take them more time than you anticipate to get through a reading.

Previewing a text by discussing what it is about and how it is structured can help students get much more out of their reading.

Encourage students to be active readers: taking notes and annotating while they read, keeping their own vocabulary logs, writing questions about what they don't understand, etc.

Check student comprehension reading by asking them to use the content in some way (minute papers, group summaries, charting key ideas).

Students often think they have fully understood, but may not have understood a reading. Misapprehension of ideas is as much of a barrier as lack of comprehension.

Read more about working with ESL student's writing at this link from the University of Hawaii at Manoa   Working with ESL Students' Writing

Education as the Practice of Freedom

hooks, b. 1994. Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York: Routledge.

It can be difficult to step out of our own perspective to understand how others experience life and the world, especially when it is different from what we know. If not from the dominant culture, a person's experience of the world can be restrictive and very painful. Often, those within the dominant culture can be wholly unaware of what it feels like to be outside the dominant culture and what the negative experiences can be. Acquiring an experiential understanding of what it means to be "outside" the dominant culture can lead to new and fruitful awareness which can lead to positive classroom changes.

How can this awareness be built?
1. Reflect on a time when you were in a situation of being in the minority (and not holding the power position). Ask yourself what it felt like, and what restrictions, if any, did it place on your behavior and achievement?  If it was a positive experience, what about it made it positive? What role did power play in the situation?  How would this affect you in a learning situation?

2. Talk to friends who are members of minority groups and ask them about their experiences in academia and elsewhere in terms of the impact of being outside the dominant culture.

3. Read texts by authors who have experienced what it is like to be "outside". bell hooks, in her text, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, provides a powerful description of what her experience in the educational system (from de-segregation through the tenure track process) has been. She provides rich insights for both personal and pedagogical practice.

4. Visit the New Americans website at PBS for more stories about the experience of immigrants coming to the US


To read more about this important topic, visit the links below.

Multicultural Class Activities - PSU Teaching & Learning with Technology

Diversity and Complexity in the Classroom  - University of California at Berkeley

Teaching for Inclusion - University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Teaching in a Multicultural Classroom

Student Resources 

Creating Inclusive College Classrooms - University of Michigan

Multicultural Pavilion

National Association for Multicultural Education

Taking Learning Styles into Account

Access for all - Students with Disabilities: A Multicultural Approach

Diversity Resources - PSU Office of the Vice Provost for Educational Equity

PSU LIVE Newswire on Diversity Issues

PSU Commission on Racial/Ethnic Diversity

PSU Affirmative Action Office - Diversity Education Services

Diversity World at Penn State Dubois - Diversity and second language learning support

TRPI Report on Building Latino Access in Advanced Technology Careers

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Page last updated 06/18/2009
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Suzanne C. Shaffer,M.Ed., MS.Ed.
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