Why Multicultural Education?

The first time I remember modifying curriculum to fit my students’ needs was during my fourth year of teaching. It was my last year living in Mexico, and I had a small group of seniors whom I had taught since they were freshmen. Predominantly female and predominantly born to Korean parents living in Central America, that group of young people had a wide range of abilities and interests, most of which I drastically misunderstood at the time. I loved them, though, and I wanted to see them succeed, both in my classroom and beyond. They were struggling to read the selections in my textbook – who knew that a British literature canon of dead white men wouldn’t speak to them? – and I struggled to keep them engaged. 

What do I do after graduation? What if college isn’t what I want? How do I honor my parents if I don’t want the life they imagined for me? How do I honor them if I don’t want the life they sacrificed for me to have? Am I really Korean if I have never been to South Korea? Am I really Mexican if I eat my tamales with chopsticks? My students were asking some very real questions, and I didn’t have the answers. 

I was 24 and oh-so-under-equipped, dealing with my own questions. Was I willing to give up my dreams of graduate school to stay in the country I loved so much? Was I willing to give up the country I loved so much in order to pursue an education? How much time did my elderly grandmother have left, and what would I do if she passed while I was so far away? Was teaching really the career I wanted for myself? If not, then what?

Faced with a problem I didn’t know how to solve, I looked to the place that so often provided me answers – literature. I went to my director and asked for a class set of a book that had spoken to me during times of uncertainty, Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke. I love the collection of letters full of wisdom written in response to a young man living with a lot of uncertainty. One quote in particular has stayed with me over the years, and it was this quote that prompted me to teach this text to my students:

“You are so young, you have not even begun, and I would like to beg you… to have patience with everything that is unsolved in your heart and to try to cherish the questions themselves, like closed rooms and like books written in a very strange tongue. Do not search now for the answers which cannot be given you because you could not live them. It is a matter of living everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, one distant day live right into the answer.” – Rilke

My director said yes, and as I placed a copy in the hands of each student in the room, I explained that I had chosen this text because I thought it would be meaningful to them. It was. For the first time all year, my students were engaged in both the reading and class discussion. They connected to the text because it was relevant to them, and they were willing to put in the hard work because the reward was greater. 

I do not consider this one of my greatest successes as a teacher because I feel as though I still fell short of what they needed in that moment. Had I known what multicultural education was – “any form of education or teaching that incorporates the histories, texts, values, beliefs, and perspectives of people from different cultural backgrounds” – how much more effective would I have been? If I had chosen literature by writers who looked like them, spoke like them, lived life in a strange third-culture space, and spoke three languages and had two names, how much more would my students have been affected and empowered? 

I did, however, catch a glimpse of how much more a student could learn when the curriculum even remotely reflected their own lives. That was the 2011-2012 school year, and four years later I would find myself in a classroom at the University of New Orleans learning the value of educational equity for all students. 

Multicultural education is not throwing out the canon. It is not lowering standards or expecting less. It is not anti-white or anti-American. It is not just for multicultural students. 

Multicultural education is about facilitating education for ALL people because ALL people have a right to learn. It is about opening the eyes of our students to a world that is wonderfully diverse and colorful. It is about tearing down barriers, crossing borders, and taking into account a student’s identity, heritage, and culture. 

I found this article that gives a great definition of multicultural education. In my next post, I will share how I do this using a TedTalk that has changed my life and my teaching. What are some challenges you face as a teacher? How do you adapt to meet your students’ needs? What do you need in order to be more multiculturally aware? 

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