Friday, April 8, 2016

Guest Blogger: Patrick Kelly: The Value of Classroom Diversity

Originally posted on HOMEROOM
The Official Blog of the U.S. Department of Education

I am in my eleventh year teaching but often find my greatest educational epiphanies as a parent. One such moment occurred last spring when my daughter’s first grade class discussed de jure racial segregation of American society during the first half of the 20th century. When she came home, she shared what she had learned and asked this poignant and powerful question, “Daddy, does that mean I couldn’t have gone to school with my best friend?” At that moment, as she contextualized the reality of segregation in her head and heart, the power of classroom diversity became crystal clear.

However, the value of diversity is currently being unrealized at a rate unseen in the last 50 years. Abundant data points to resegregation of America’s schools, such as a 2012 report from The Civil Rights Project at UCLA that noted, “80% of Latino students and 74% of black students attend majority nonwhite schools.” As an educator, these statistics are alarming, since I’ve seen the value of a diverse classroom in three key ways.

First, as my daughter experienced, classroom diversity promotes student growth and reflection. In the most recent edition of Educational Leadership, Peter Levine noted that, “by talking and listening to people different from ourselves, we learn and enlarge our understanding.” This claim has proved true in my class numerous times, such as a recent discussion of an article on the demographic composition of Congress. The students’ diverse backgrounds and experiences clearly enhanced conversation and analysis of the role of gender, race and life experience in representation.

Second, diverse classrooms play an essential role in career preparation. Students are entering job markets with diminishing concern for community or national boundaries. Integrated classroom environments are important in helping students learn to collaborate and communicate with the different cultures and backgrounds found in the 21st century work environment.

Finally, diversity prepares students for citizenship. My collegiate alma mater’s motto is, “Emollit mores necsinit esse feros,” which means, “Learning humanizes character and does not permit it to be cruel.” In my classes, I have seen how diversity enhances this ‘humanizing’ effect of education as students learn to engage in civic discourse. My students routinely discuss politically charged issues ranging from wartime civil liberties to affirmative action, and diverse views enhance learning to defend and explain opinions in a civil fashion. In a recent op-ed, former Senate Majority Leaders Tom Daschle and Trent Lott stated democracy requires, “mindfulness and tolerance,” and integrated classrooms enhance the ability to learn these essential traits.

Of course the value of classroom diversity is not a new concept. Next week, my students will read Brown v. Board of Education, where the Supreme Court noted, “it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life,” without a quality education.

Both research and my experience show the link between quality and diversity in schools. Obviously, reversing racial and socioeconomic resegregation is a task without simple solutions. However, difficulty is not justification for failure to act, and that is why programs such as the Stronger Together Grants proposal in the President’s budget are essential steps forward in providing diverse classrooms.

It has been more than sixty years since the Court decreed separate educational environments to be “inherently unequal;” it remains for us to ensure all students are receiving the full promise of a quality education.

Patrick Kelly teaches at Blythewood High School and is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education. You can follow him on Twitter at @plkelly27.

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