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Open Discussions About Diversity with Your Students

Shannon shares best practices and advice for discussing diversity with your students. She draws from her own experience, and emphasizes the importance of building strong relationships with students, creating a safe and respectful classroom community, and how to best prepare yourself for challenging conversations.

Updated on: January 30, 2019

Teacher speaking with students

Diversity can be a tough topic. Many of us worry about saying the right things, or worse, saying the wrong things. In today’s world, we can’t afford to avoid it, though. We need to find ways to have open discussions about diversity with our students.

Accept that you don't have all the answers

First, we all need to get over the fact that we don’t know everything about diversity and honestly, we never will. Don’t expect to follow a precise lesson plan, either. Understand that diversity means different things to each individual person. In many cases, there are no right answers. We are all going to make mistakes and perhaps say the wrong things at times. If you are a secondary teacher, you will find that discussions go in many different directions depending on the class period. Accept that you don’t know all of the answers and be open to gaining some understanding. You may be amazed by what your students can teach you.

"Accept that you don’t know all of the answers and be open to gaining some understanding. You may be amazed by what your students can teach you."

Gain a clear understanding of white privilege

The reality is that most educators are white. Statistics show that about eighty percent of our nation’s teachers identify as white or Caucasian. (Yes, I am part of that majority, and I realize that this post may likely have a different focus coming from an educator of color.) If you are part of the white majority, I first encourage you to gain a clear understanding of white privilege. When engaging in diversity training, some teachers leave with an incorrect understanding of the term. White privilege is not synonymous with white guilt, nor should it make you feel guilty about being white. Understanding white privilege is about having empathy for people of color and hopefully making a conscious effort to change our views and behaviors.

Having white privilege means that as white people, certain things are not on our list of daily concerns, and we often take these things for granted. For example, most of us don't have to worry about a shop owner suspecting us of shoplifting, we don't have to be extra cautious in the presence of police officers, we feel that we can speak up and share our opinions anytime and anywhere, and we don't have to worry about others making a comment about our appearance or skin color. As white people, we need to understand that this lack of worry is a privilege. Then we can take a look at our own behaviors and empathize with the struggles that some of our students face daily.

Cultivate a safe and respectful classroom community first

Become well-acquainted with your students and cultivate trust in the classroom before bringing up discussions about diversity. Respect for the thoughts and opinions of others is imperative. Classroom conversations on any subject won’t be very productive without it. Be sure to establish classroom norms from day one. I always started the school year by creating small groups for students to brainstorm their “rules” or “norms” for the classroom. By keeping it general, my students would ultimately come up with a solid list of behaviors such as, “Listen when it’s someone else’s turn to talk. Listen while the teacher is speaking. Make respectful comments. Share your ideas. Contribute to the group.” The classroom norms will vary by age level, and you may need to nudge students a bit. (My examples are from middle school.) After each group brainstorms, create a process where you consolidate their ideas to establish the classroom norms. Then, be sure to post it in a prominent location in the classroom. This serves as a reminder and creates buy-in from your students.

Connect the conversation to the curriculum

It’s ideal if a discussion about diversity comes naturally, perhaps related to a topic of study, a work of literature, or a writing assignment. It’s less threatening to talk about the cultural differences or challenges of a character in a book rather than individual struggles. You may find that students will open up and share their experiences in relation to a character in a book. Some students respond well to writing about themselves and their life experiences.

Another way to open up conversations about diversity is by sharing some of your own background with your students. Diversity is much more than race or skin color. It encompasses everything that makes us unique: socio-economic status, education level, career path, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, religion, physical appearance, country of origin, family of origin, and political beliefs. Think about what is appropriate and within your own comfort zone to share with your students. Conversations about foods and cultural traditions can be a softer way to start talking about diversity. Students of most ages are curious about cultures that differ from their own, and we all like to eat!

"Respect for the thoughts and opinions of others is imperative. Classroom conversations on any subject won’t be very productive without it."

Don't force the conversation

Allow students to share, but don’t force anyone to join the conversation. Students will come with varying levels of comfort. Some will openly share while others will prefer to sit back and listen. Respect how each student is feeling and acknowledge what each student has to say. Allow students time to pause and think. Some may feel guilty about things they have heard, said, or done. In some cases, they may be reflecting on what they have witnessed from parents or other family members.

Help guide your students through teachable moments

Sometimes a class discussion becomes necessary when a student makes a derogatory remark, or an incident occurs in school. Unfortunately, students of all ages make mistakes and say hurtful things. Sometimes a racist or hurtful comment is intentional, but it can also be due to ignorance. In my experience, many middle school students make racist comments intending to be funny. We need to gently teach them that racist remarks or jokes are never funny and aren’t acceptable at any time. Remember that your students are not adults and their brains are still developing. It’s our job to guide them and help them understand appropriate ways to express themselves.

Do Your Homework

Finally, do your homework. There are numerous resources about diversity and cultural understanding. If your school or district offers diversity training, take advantage of the opportunity. If your district or building has resources to bring in a speaker, by all means, do! If funding is scarce, create a book study within your school, or better yet, suggest a staff book study to your building principal. We all can increase our learning and understanding when it comes to diversity. Every step that we take will benefit our students.

Here are some additional resources to prepare for open discussions about diversity with your students: Facilitating Productive Class Discussions About Current Events, Celebrating Diversity Through Young People's Literature, How To Talk To Children About Stereotypes, A Flag About Me.

How do you discuss diversity with your students? Share with us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

Author Bio

Shannon Krzyzewski is a veteran educator with over twenty-five years of experience teaching Spanish, English/Language Arts, and Social Studies at both the middle and high school levels in the Seattle area. She is now a freelance writer, editor, and educational consultant residing in Montana’s Flathead Valley.

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