Guest Post: Classrooms around the country are generally becoming more diverse. From kindergarten through college, the percentage of diversity has grown considerably over the past 10+ years.
While we’d like to think that classroom diversity will naturally translate into culturally aware students, the truth is that students often need learning opportunities designed to develop these traits. Not only will this help them in the classroom, but it will also guide them to develop skills and a worldview in the adult world.
Cultural awareness in the classroom also translates to greater civic participation and creativity later in life.
No matter what you teach, it’s important to incorporate activities into your classroom culture. Here are 10 ideas for things you can do with your students to help make them more culturally aware.
1. Language Learning
Incorporate languages in your class. Even if you’re not a language teacher, you can add language lessons into your classroom relevant to the subject you teach—even math!
For example, you could teach students how to count in different languages. Or you can just teach different subject-related vocabulary in different languages. Both of these are great activities for younger children, though teens may also enjoy them.
Food has always been a great way to introduce people to new cultures, so why not bring it into the classroom?
Have students bring in a food dish from their culture to share. They can say a few words about the dish they bring in. They could discuss the dish’s cultural relevance, but they could also talk about its relevance in their family. For example, maybe a recipe was passed down from a family elder, who brought it with them when they immigrated.
Ultimately, sharing cultural foods can help bring students together and foster a greater understanding of and connection to other people’s cultures.
3. Multicultural Media
Today’s students are largely multimedia learners, and media content related to diversity and culture are always good learning tools. Not only is it important to incorporate videos that talk about diversity, but also videos with culturally diverse people showcasing people of different backgrounds doing everyday activities helps to normalize diversity.
Instructional videos are a good place to start. These might cover topics, such as how to make something from a culture (like how to draw Japanese calligraphy, for example). Videos created by members of different communities can also be helpful to highlight differences and similarities between cultures.
But multimedia doesn’t have to be just video. It can incorporate music or books from different cultures as well. For example, younger children might enjoy learning traditional children’s songs or possibly traditional dances from other cultures. Or if you do story time in your classroom, read books by authors from a wide range of cultures.
Student-led leaning is an excellent way to ignite passion and excitement around a topic, and learning about culture is no exception. Letting students explore a particular topic of interest and have them present their topic to the class can help them become more knowledgeable while inspiring a love for learning.
There are a number of routes you can take when it comes to student-led diversity and cultural awareness lessons. One idea is to have students who are multi-lingual prepare a brief presentation or lesson on their language and culture to share with their classmates.
Students can also create presentations and learn about other cultures that are very different from their own. You might even encourage them to do an “Around the World in 80 Days” type of assignment, where students use a green screen to talk about the different places they would visit on such a trip. Or maybe they simply incorporate a video of their favorite musical act from other countries.
5. “Who Am I?” Creative Projects
Everyone at some point in their life asks themselves, “Who am I?” It’s human nature to question our existence and how we came to be here, and that is often tied directly into our own identities.
“Who Am I?” projects are excellent opportunities for students to probe their own cultural identity and background, while also giving them a platform to share that with their peers. These projects could be genealogical in nature, but they can also be another opportunity for students to research and discuss their own cultural backgrounds. While these topics and exercises are often more suited to teens, younger children may also enjoy sharing and learning about each other’s culture.
6. Multicultural Decorations
Art projects are always an excellent way to give students hands-on experience in working with complex subject matters like diversity. The best part is that both young children and teens typically love hands-on art projects. Some ideas include:
- Create a diversity quilt.
- Assign each student a country and have them create a poster about their culture.
- Make musical instruments from everyday objects that represent different cultures.
7. Small-Group Conversations
We’ve discussed how to incorporate cultural awareness learning as an entire classroom, but small-group conversations can also be a positive and fruitful learning experience.
Small group discussions tend to be low-stress compared to big presentations, but they’re also a great way for students to engage each other in an informal way. Of course, it’s a good idea to provide some sort of structure to these discussions in order to keep the students focused.
8. Sensitivity vs. Awareness
While learning and sharing information about different cultures is important, it’s also important for students to learn how to be aware of and sensitive to culture differences. What’s more, we often talk about these two concepts interchangeably, even though they are slightly different.
Cultural awareness generally refers to being open to other cultures. Sensitivity is more nuanced, referring to knowledge of a culture’s difference but not viewing those differences in terms of their value. They’re often viewed on a spectrum, where awareness leads to sensitivity.
In terms of the classroom, it’s important for students to understand how to interact with people from other cultures. This can be a formal lesson, such as how different cultures greet each other respectfully. Another good approach is to lay out some ground rules that both you and your students follow, such as listening respectfully, not attacking or insulting anyone’s cultural identity, and to prohibit any uses of cultural slurs or other derogatory phrases. \
9. Volunteer Projects
Volunteer projects are excellent ways to get your students involved in a vibrant civic culture, but they’re also great opportunities to learn about people from different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. Here are a few ideas for volunteer projects that can reinforce cultural lessons from the classroom.
- Volunteer at a soup kitchen
- Organize a diversity celebration at school
- Organize a school-wide poster campaign supporting diversity
- Sponsor a classroom located in other cities or countries
- Mentor younger students in underprivileged neighborhoods
- Organize a diversity parade (at school or elsewhere)
With volunteer opportunities, students will have a chance to give back to the community and feel like they are making a positive impact in the world.
10. Supporting Inclusivity in Your Curriculum
If you want to develop students with good cultural awareness, then it has to start with the teacher and the curriculum. Teachers should lead by example by making their curriculum as inclusive as possible. Take some time to review your all your materials with a critical eye towards ensuring that minorities and different cultures are consistently well-represented in all your videos and visuals. You might also want to incorporate materials from other cultures into lessons that aren’t necessarily focused on that culture itself.
It’s also essential for teachers to be aware of their own cultural biases and to ensure they don’t let those influence how and what students learn. To that end, teachers need to make sure they’re cautious about things like body language, touch, and humor.
Want more ideas for incorporating diversity lessons into the classroom? Check out our blog for more resources and approaches!
About our guest writer: Daniel Waldman is a former agency owner turned expat freelance writer and event manager with nearly 20 years of experience working with a wide variety of brands, organizations, and individuals. He got his start as an editor at a vanity press, and later went on to lead marketing and communications at a variety of agencies before starting his own business. He lives in France with his wife, two daughters and four cats.