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Viewing classroom diversity as an asset, not a problem

STANFORD -- "Diversity" per se is not a problem in American schools - it's the way, over the years, educators have dealt with such issues in the classroom.

That was the conclusion of several speakers at an education conference on "Helping All Students Learn in Diverse Classrooms" held at Stanford the week of Feb. 1.

David Tyack, the Vida Jacks Professor of Education, was keynote speaker at the session "Voices from Research and Practice," sponsored by the Stanford/Schools Collaborative at the School of Education.

To illustrate his point, Tyack recalled taking a group of schoolchildren to the top of Hoover Tower, from which there is a view of much of the San Francisco Peninsula. While they played a word game with the sights, he noticed that one Spanish-speaking boy, who tended to be shunted aside by the others, was unable to participate.

"But it was Jose's golden day. I told the children, 'Jose has a different word for everything you see. If you are nice to Jose, he just might tell you the word.' "

"We have to see diversity as an asset," Tyack said. In general, he added, the real problem is not "top-down, hierarchical teachers," but simply a matter of "how to help kids be good to kids."

There is "hardly anything more topical" than the subject of diversity, he said. For example, "We read every day about the horrors of ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia - where being Moslem is arbitrarily defined as worthy of being raped or killed or put into a concentration camp."

Tyack, an historian, also noted the recent media focus on "fanciful constructions of what it is to be gay in the military."

Noting the widespread public perception that homosexual teachers would "recruit" in the classroom, he recalled a graduate student, years ago, who analyzed incidents of sexual abuse at schools - and found that they were overwhelmingly provoked by "straight," not "gay" teachers.

"But the facts won't put to rest cultural constructions of differences," said Tyack.

"Women are dexterous with their hands - they are good at knitting, for example. Yet hardly any are brain surgeons. It's the social construction of differences. Women have had to fight a definition of themselves that comes from someone else."

Tyack described the arbitrariness of the treatment of race and ethnicity in American history. He recalled an army case in which one of two brothers was classified as "colored" and the other was placed in a "white" military unit.

He also spoke of a U.S. Supreme Court case, in which a Chinese girl in Mississippi challenged her placement as "colored" in the badly funded segregated schools of the era. The Supreme Court agreed that she was "colored."

"If you are black in that environment, how do you fight that? If you are a woman, you might be raped; if you are a man, you might be lynched. What do you do to keep a sense of identity?" African Americans, Tyack said, had "made it clear through a rich lode of black humor that they understood what was going on."

"If you can't accept the cultural definition [of who you are], the trick is to keep reminding yourself that you are something else."

The task of education, however, "is to try to understand what life is like if you are black, or Chinese, or a woman."

Noting that "we are politically allergic to talking about class," Tyack said that people often comment that "we're all middle class in this country."

"But not talking about class is a way of deliberately ignoring social differences."

Whether they are acknowledged or not, "People act on those differences as if they count. Blacks and women employed full-time have historically earned three-fifths of what their white, male counterparts make. That's a fact."

Anthropologists have noted the different ways hermaphrodites are treated in some societies, said Tyack. "It reveals a lot about the way a culture views diversity.

"In some cultures, hermaphrodites are wise counselors to be honored. In others, they are stoned to death as agents of the devil.

"In this culture, we say, 'You gotta choose. And then we'll fix it with a knife.' "

Differences used in the competitive game

In another conference session, Education Prof. Ray McDermott, an anthropologist, said, "Every difference can be a point of celebration as well as a problem. It can be a source of colossal learning; in fact, it's all the learning I've done.

"It's not a problem in schools," McDermott said. "It's the tip of an iceberg. The problem for us is that we have a divided society - not divided by diversity, but by access to resources. One group is getting richer, the other group is getting larger . . . this gets packaged as 'diversity.' "

"Groups are nothing but borders. What happens in an Irish home is not as important as how it defines how we are different from the Italians, blacks and Hispanics down the block."

McDermott decried the current organization and values of schools, in which the central task of schoolchildren is too often "arranging it so that they are not getting caught not knowing something - and getting caught knowing something."

"School is about competition. Kids know that in the first grade," McDermott said. "Whatever differences come up are usable in the competitive game. Everybody in the room is ready to climb off the back of the kid not learning."

McDermott said that he had grown up in an Irish household, "in a changing and increasingly black neighborhood. I went to an Italian high school, and then a mostly Jewish college, where I studied Chinese. Anthropology came as something of a relief. Somebody had figured all this stuff out."

He told the educators at the conference: "Never forget that your job is infinitely larger than having the kid get over the hurdle. It's about getting around differences. The trouble you are having is not just the kid's problem - it's your problem, too. You are part of the group that makes that kid different."

"We are all racist to the core, ethnicists to the core, sexists to the core - and we have to fight that all the time."

Lists of 'Learning Styles'

Prof. Richard Snow, a psychologist, acknowledged the differences in the way students learn - and these differences have been discussed as far back as ancient Chinese writers, the Roman Quintilian, and the Jewish Haggadah.

The question is, "What do you do about it? The history of what to do is long." Snow said that classifying children is not necessarily harmless and must be justified by its outcomes: "It's quite a feat to prove you're doing good for students by treating them differently - and that's the criterion."

He said that one of the latest waves of educational research has attempted to distinguish "learning styles" - he then read from a long list of such learning styles, among them "spatial," "analytic," "memory," "verbal risk preferences," "study time preferences," "posture preferences" and "lighting preferences."

"It's a big bandwagon. But is there anything of value there? I don't mean to poke fun at it. It's a serious effort on a big problem."

However, Snow warned, "We run the risk of channeling children in ways that are not optimal. I'm not just talking about labels that stigmatize.

"Stop and think about what you are doing to the kid. What will it do to the kid's learning when you label kids 'visualizers' or 'verbalizers'? How will it affect what activities they pursue?"

He said that teachers and educators can contribute a good deal to this discussion. Too often, "The knowledge and intuition of teachers disappears into the air."

Snow encouraged teachers "to keep track of experiments with log books, and to explore them in the give-and-take of the classroom. If we could build up a set of case studies, we could be more intelligent and wise."

Education Prof. John Baugh, a linguist, urged his audience to "be more tolerant of diversity." In particular, he warned educators not to link speaking standard English with "inherent cognitive skills."

"Language and SES [socioeconomic status] go together," he said. For standard English speakers, "What's expected at school is expected at home."

But students speaking non-standard dialects may be "torn between cultural norms - loyalty toward their group" and getting ahead. Adopting standard English may "look like they're selling out and rejecting their home culture."

"We live in a socially stratified society - and we have linguistic parallels to the stratification."



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