Please welcome Maren of Malimo Mode to the blog today! She’s sharing tips on teaching equality and diversity in your classroom, which is so important in today’s schools.
When I think back back to when I was a child, the classrooms I was in always seemed to be homogeneous. Being born in the mid-80’s, divorce was not common in my area. It happened but not nearly as often as today. When I turned nine, my parents filed for their own divorce. It was a tough process, and even though we all came out of it as happier people, it changed me. We went from being mom, dad, sister, brother – to single mom and two kids, sometimes visiting their dad. Since then, our family has grown and now includes my mother, stepfather, stepsister, father, stepmother, sister, brother, half-brother, half-sister, two cats, and a dog.
After my parents’ divorce, I was always aware that my family was not one of the classic, nuclear families. Whenever I saw the nuclear family represented in textbooks in school, in movies, or out and about, I felt different. Surely, I thought, I couldn’t be the only one?
Being part of a society that labels something you are as abnormal or unusual creates alienation. How could I go about teaching that “normal” is whatever you are? It’s what we all are.
Twenty-one years have passed since my parents were divorced, and my awareness of diversity is as strong as ever. Becoming a teacher triggered another level of my awareness, because the reality of my students’ lives did not match the textbook materials we had. For example, the classrooms in Norway are increasingly multicultural. Looking out on my classroom, where the minority comes from nuclear families, the textbook illustration clashed with the real world. One of my middle school students, dark skinned and with divorced parents, said, “Wait, who actually has a family like this?”
Furthermore, when I grew up, divorce was abnormal, and now we have family compositions that are even more diverse. Children today have divorced parents, single parents, gay parents, multiracial parents, step-parents, deceased parents, adopted siblings, and so much more. That does not even include their extended families. Teaching children that today’s norm is a nuclear family simply does not feel right.
I decided to make one small contribution in the name of diversity and equality, and since then I have taught the subject through my Family and Friends Unit.
I made a list of key elements for teaching the theme:
Introduce diverse people and families and do it with a neutral and equally positive tone
Use a variety of literature that portrays diverse people and families
Have discussion groups in various sizes
Use letter books or diaries so students can have a private outlet
Take the students seriously in their thought processes and questions
Ensure that the learning climate is positive and that sharing feels safe
In essence my Family and Friends Unit is all about a fictional 9-year-old boy named Jack. Through Jack we have explored different family compositions, friends that have struggled with illness, losses, and more, such as his transgender aunt and the general life of his family. The most important part when it comes to teaching these topics, however, is discussion and reflection. The students need time to not only ask questions but also to find them. Sometimes, not all questions may be answered right there and then, but once they have surfaced, the thought process has started. Keep in mind not all questions can be answered by someone other than themselves.
Sometimes there have been immediate results, when students have had some profound comments. I always take the comments seriously and let the kids talk freely about their thoughts. At times, this needs to be in private. Private can mean in a notebook, in a small group, or even one-on-one with me. One way to have private conversations with the kids (without the pressure of being on the spot) is a letter book. I start by asking them about their thoughts, some open questions. They answer, and we go from there. An 11-year-old girl wrote this in her letter book before the summer holiday:
“My mom says something’s bad with my cousin because she loves both boys and girls. I know she’s just a regular cousin. I hope she finds a boyfriend girlfriend a lovefriend and maybe they can have a baby or a dog.”
When working on this topic, I don’t angle it to say, “What if this was you?” I want to teach acceptance of others and, through that, finding acceptance for yourself and what you need to be happy.
The most powerful event that followed working with this theme was with a group of young teenagers. Coming from a small, rural area, being different is hard. We had worked with the unit for a while, and in the fourth week one of the boys had something to say during group discussion. He calmly explained that up until this point he had been scared to let on “who he was,” because slurs and comments had been normal. Somewhere along our process, the atmosphere changed enough for him to come out. It took my all to stay calm on the outside, because inside I was cheering, sobbing, and doing somersaults while waiting to see the reactions. A few seconds felt like lifetimes. He was met with smiles and one single comment: “Don’t worry about it.”
I learned something that day. All the math skills, literacy skills, science skills, and other skills are important. They will give you tools to help you navigate toward success in education, career, and life. But the most important life skills aren’t found in those categories. Teaching compassion, empathy, caring, respect, diversity, and equality is vastly more important. We want to educate good people – as well as good workers.
My one message for fellow teachers, parents, and especially my students is this:
Although diverse, everyone is equal. Equality entails that everyone should be able to live the life that makes them happy. As family, friends, and community members, we have to facilitate the possibility of other people’s happiness through acceptance, support, and love!