Teacher’s Corner: Helping Students Understand and Appreciate Cultural Diversity

The world has been getting smaller for some time. It now seems to be shrinking at warp speed, rapidly erasing the last vestiges of cultural isolation. Never has it been more important to understand other cultures and to recognize and appreciate cultural diversity. Fortunately, in preparing kids to live and work in the even smaller world they will inherit, there’s much that can be done in the classroom to promote cultural awareness and to help them understand people whose cultural heritage is different from their own.

How a classroom looks communicates ideas and shapes students’ perceptions of the world.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a collection of pictures that reflect cultural diversity communicates the idea that the world is made up of many different cultures, each one unique in its own ways. Displaying multicultural bulletin boards of people, places, and customs sends the message that all cultures are interesting and worthy of attention. Many color photos of multicultural bulletin boards (K-12) can be found online, good examples of teaching without saying a word.

Respecting and appreciating cultural diversity can be taught by modeling.

When teachers recognize and appreciate diversity among their students, their actions indicate clearly that cultural differences should be respected and explored, not ignored or rejected, so that we can better understand ourselves and others. They send the message that it’s good we’re not all the same. Some ways to make the point:

  • Show an interest in students’ names. Besides making sure to pronounce them correctly, express an interest in the etymology and cultural significance of their names.
  • When working with ESL students, use an online translation site to write occasional notes or make comments on their papers in their own language. Regardless of what the note or comment might say, it’s the underlying message that’s important: Your language and your culture are valued.
  • Give kids opportunities to explore their ethnic backgrounds and the cultures that make up their heritage. A few activities that would allow them to do it:
    • interviewing parents, grandparents, and other relatives familiar with family history
    • researching the history of a family surname
    • making a family tree
    • researching a country of family origin (the language, food, music, holidays, traditions, shared beliefs and values, social norms, or whatever else they want to find out)
    • creating posters or PowerPoint presentations that reflect what they have learned through their research
    • writing about the cultural traditions observed in their own families

Have students share their findings with one another so that they can develop a greater understanding and appreciation of the diversity that exists among their friends and classmates.

Lessons with opportunities for students to read and write about other cultures promote understanding and appreciation of cultural diversity.

There are hundreds of age-appropriate multicultural books and stories for elementary students, including multicultural folk tales and legends. For secondary students, many novels, short stories, and poems famous in world literature reflect the cultures of different countries. For students of any age, literature that draws them into cultures different from their own fosters their understanding that although we are not all alike in national origin and cultural heritage, we are united by universal feelings, conflicts, and experiences that transcend our differences.

Participating in the traditions of different countries is fun and constructive.

A quick internet search produces dozens of class activities that allow kids to learn more about different countries and to enjoy participating in some of their traditions. A few examples:

  • 1-1 copyHave students research some common phrases in different languages (please, thank you, you’re welcome, pardon me, etc.) and use them in class for several days.
  • Acquaint students with an unusual game that’s popular in another country, and play it as a class activity.
  • Organize students into teams to create a cookbook with several traditional recipes from another country and illustrated with pictures or drawings that reflect the culture. Have the kids share their cookbooks with other teams. If possible, prepare and sample some of the dishes in class.
  • Have students work in teams to research the music of a different culture and lead the class in a song that represents it.
  • Recognize holidays celebrated in different countries throughout the year, and observe them with holiday class activities; dozens of them are described in many online sites designed for teachers.

Helping students understand and appreciate cultural diversity benefits them now, as well as in the future. Learning about different cultures around the world makes it easier for kids to understand and relate to the family next door or down the block that speaks a different language or follows the customs of a different heritage. It makes it possible to forge relationships at school and in the community with those unlike themselves, because they’re learning that despite people’s differences, they have much in common to share.

Most important, understanding cultural diversity illuminates and underscores an essential truth about humanity: The whole really is greater than the sum of its parts.

This is a guest post from eNotes Staff Writer, Susan Hurn. Susan is a former high school English teacher and college instructor. She loves writing for eNotes and also enjoys good books, creative writing, and all things related to history. Let us know if you’re interested in contributing to the eNotes blog.