Breaking through preservice teachers’ defensive dispositions in a multicultural education course: A reflective practice

Ukpokodu, Nelly

Promising Practices

The Urgency To Prepare Preservice Teachers for Diversity

As we begin a new millennium, nothing is more important to parents, leaders, educators, and communities than the quality of education that all children receive. During the 2000 U.S. presidential election campaign, education became one of the top issues in the parties’ and candidates’ platforms and continues to receive priority in the new administration’s agenda. Today, there is widespread recognition that many of the nation’s schools are failing their students, especially students from minority and low-income backgrounds (Darling– Hammond 1997; Riley 1999).

In 1999, former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley publicly acknowledged that many African American, Latino, and other minority children still do not get the top-notch education they deserve. He pledged a commitment to ending “the tyranny of low expectations that has held these children back, and declaring that quality education for every child is the new Civil Rights Movement” (Riley, 1999). Also, Quality Counts 2000, the fourth annual 50-state report by Education Week, detailed the dismal academic performance of many students, especially those in urban schools and argued that the ill-preparation of teachers is one of the factors contributing to the problems of low academic achievement for a vast majority of minority and low-income children.

Achieving quality education for all students means teachers must be adequately prepared to develop the essential knowledge, skills, and dispositions to work with students from diverse socio-cultural backgrounds as today’s students come to school with an array of backgrounds and needs. As Darling-Hammond, Wise, and Klein (1995) point out: “If all children are to be effectively taught, teachers must be prepared to address the substantial diversity in experiences students bring with them to school– the wide range of languages, cultures, home conditions, learning styles, exceptionalities, abilities, and intelligences” (p.2). The challenge of student diversity has become as real as life itself. For example, demographics reveal that more than one-third of the students in the nation’s schools are students of color (Banks, 2000). Projections are that by the year 2020, students of color will comprise about 48 to 50 percent of the school-age population (Banks 2000; Nieto 2000) and by 2035, 50 percent of the public school-age student population will be children of color (Tamayo-Lott 1993). Hodgkinson (1993) notes that this demographic trend is projected to continue at a rapid rate and that states experiencing the fastest growth-California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and Texas-already have the highest percentage of minority students.

In addition, in many schools, whether in rural or urban communities, an increasing number of students speak languages other than English. Some schools have documented over 100 different languages spoken by students. In other words, many students in the nation’s schools are Second Language English learners. Further, many students in the nation’s schools are poor. Hodgkinson (1993) reported that more than 23 percent of America’s children were living below the poverty line and thus were at risk of failing to fulfill their physical and mental promise. An equally related issue is that many students come from homes other than the traditional two-parent type, including those headed by single parents, and those with differential sexual and family orientations. These demographic, socio-economic, and cultural conditions and trends have significant implications on students’ learning motivations, achievement patterns, and education in general in the 21st century.

Despite this reality of student diversity in the nation’s schools, current data on the teaching force reveals that those in teacher preparation programs are predominantly white, low-middle or middle-class, monolingual, and rural or suburban (Banks 2000; Sleeter 1994; Grant & Secada 1990; Zimpher 1989). Data also suggest a small and declining population of teachers of color (Nieto 2000; National Center for Education Statistics 1996; Delpit 1995; Haberman 1991, Hodgkinson 1991; AACTE 1987). The problems that arise from the mismatch between the socio-cultural backgrounds of minority and low income students and their white, middle– class teachers have been documented to include cultural value conflict, miscommunication, ineffective teaching of students which results in dismal academic achievement, lowered teacher expectation leading to self-fulfilling prophecy, teachers’ negative racial attitudes towards and beliefs about racially and socio-economically diverse students, and low motivations by both students and teachers (Bennett 1999; Garmon 1996; Hollins 1998; Ladson-Billings 1994; Nieto 1996).

Consequently, teacher education programs have been challenged to revamp their approaches in order to adequately prepare prospective teachers for an array of teaching situations. Preparing teachers to successfully work with diverse student populations is recognized as one of the top critical issues facing teacher education today (Buttery, Haberman, & Houston 1990; Riley 1999). In addition, educators have suggested that one of the goals of teacher education in the 21st century is to help teachers acquire the knowledge (of cultural diversity), skills (for effectively interacting and communicating with), and dispositions (attitudes/beliefs transformation) needed to work effectively with students from diverse racial, language, gender, and class backgrounds and other exceptionalities (Banks 2000; Bennett 1999; Gay 1999; Haberman 1999; Delpit 1998; Grant & Secada 1990; Manning & Barth 2000; Sleeter & Grant 1999; Ziechner 1992). This suggestion is particularly critical since studies have documented preservice teachers’ parochial and inherently negative dispositions toward diversity and students who are unlike them racially, linguistically, and socio-economically (Haberman 1991; Law & Lane 1988; Paine 1988; Smith 1998; Zeichner 1992; Zimpher 1989).

Consequently, studies imply that schools and colleges of education must embark upon preparing preservice teachers to cultivate the knowledge, skills, and values necessary to implement a culturally responsive pedagogy (Ladson-Billings 1995), and to meet the challenge of diverse classrooms (Delpit 1995; Riley 1999). One obvious response to the challenge of diversity and effective teacher preparation has been to require multicultural or diversity education courses for preservice teachers. Today, multicultural education has been well established as essential to successful classroom teaching and learning in a culturally diverse society (Banks 2000; Bennett 1999; Farley 2000; Hernandez 1997; Manning & Baruth 2000; Sleeter & Grant 1999). Recently, Evans et al. (1997) conducted a study to determine states’ requirements of multicultural education for credentialing teachers, and found that 25 states have requirements for multicultural education as part of teacher education. The study also found that various universities have established their own requirements for multicultural education even when the state department of education does not stipulate such requirements. But how well do preservice teachers respond to multi-cultural education or cultural diversity courses?

Preservice Teachers9 Response to Multicultural Education

Many instructors of multicultural education or cultural diversity have documented experiences of defensiveness, resistance, and outright antagonism toward both content and pedagogy in multicultural education among preservice teachers who are predominantly white, monolingual, rural/suburbian, and low-middle or middle class (Ahlquist 1991; Dittmar 1999; Gerschick 1995; Gomez 1993; hooks 1993; Schoem 1995; Sfeir-Younis 1995; Wiggins 1998). These educators have described experiences of student defensiveness, resistance, emotional outbursts, frustration, psychological stress, anguish, name-calling, low course evaluation, personalized negative comments, etc.

The purpose of this paper is to share my odyssey of the dynamics of teaching multicultural education and cultural diversity courses to predominantly white preservice teachers both in rural and urban universities in the Midwestern United States. Specifically, the paper discusses my efforts to provide preservice teachers with critical multicultural experiences that help them develop “quality of mind,” an openness to difference, and competency to successfully work with diverse students. The paper describes the nature of student defensiveness, specific experiences provided in the course, reflection, and strategies that have been successful in breaking down preservce teachers’ defensiveness.

Today,junior and often untenured faculty members, particularly those from minority backgrounds, in teacher preparation programs at predominantly white institutions are frequently assigned to teach multicultural education courses. Observations show that such faculty often experience harsh student defensiveness and resistance. This reality is evident in session presentations at professional meetings that focus on preservice teachers’ defensive attitudes and resistance in multicultural education courses. Often this topic attracts significant attention in session presentations at professional conferences. In most cases, participants at these sessions affirm the experiences shared by both presenters and participants. Thus it is assumed that the experiences shared in this paper will be valuable in motivating teacher educators struggling to teach multicultural education. In addition, this paper is intended to raise the awareness of administrators, department chairpersons, and other faculty members to the unique complexities that characterize teaching courses of high emotionality such as multicultural and diversity education.

The Odyssey Begins

In the last eight years, I have taught at two predominantly white universities. One was located in a rural region and the other in an urban metropolitan community in the Midwest. In both situations, the vast majority of the students have come from neighboring rural and suburban communities. As a faculty member of color, I frequently encounter students who say to me that they were experiencing diversity first-hand for the first time. In other words, they were meeting persons of color for the first time in their lives.

Initially, upon my appointment at the first university, I did not directly teach a multicultural education course, except that my social studies methods course was approached from a transformative and social reconstructionistic framework. As such, it focused on action aimed at expanding the curriculum space to allow for traditionally excluded voices-those of people of color, women, and global perspectives. It also aimed at providing experiences that foster a disposition toward challenging inequitable practices and the development of new ways of thinking and possibilities in education.

My experience with a majority of the preservice teachers who enrolled in the social studies methods course was that of extreme frustration. A vast majority of the students displayed negative dispositions and indifference toward the multiculturally infused social studies methods course. Students openly challenged the legitimacy of the transformative approach and made complaints such as: “I thought this was supposed to be a social studies course and not a multicultural education course.” “I have already taken a multicultural education course, why am I learning about multiculturalism again?” “I want to learn how to teach history, U.S. history to my students, not multiculturalism.” “The students I will teach are like me, they do not need multiculturalism.” My attempts to help them understand the legitimacy of multicultural education and U.S. history as a multicultural experience were adamantly rejected. I felt very frustrated and distressed by the students’ negative disposition toward multicultural education. It was particularly frustrating and disturbing in light of the fact that a majority, if not all, ofthe students had taken a multicultural education course prior to enrolling in the social studies methods course.

In my frustration, as a faculty of color and as an advocate of multicultural education, I questioned the effectiveness and credentials of the instructors who taught the multicultural education course as well as the content they taught. I agonized over the inadequate preparation of these preservice teachers for teaching students who are unlike themselves. As I agonized, I wished I could teach the multicultural education course, to remove the “blinders” from the students’ eyes, so to speak.

Coincidentally, I was asked that semester if I would like to teach the multiculturalism in education course. I was excited and couldn’t wait for the following semester to begin. My goals for the course were laudable: to assist preservice teachers in learning to deconstruct their white hegemonic assumptions, beliefs, and values and to be empowered to cultivate a more liberatory mind; to help them develop skills for challenging undemocratic practices including critiquing the curriculum, the content they teach, the instructional strategies and materials they use, their beliefs about the learnability of diverse students, and the policies and procedures used in the school. I wanted the preservice teachers to examine personal values, attitudes, beliefs, social privilege, power relations, and social and educational inequity and injustice to enable them develop a new vision of students and a working model of empowerment for them and their students.

Over the summer break I prepared an elaborate syllabus and developed ideas, activities, and strategies that supposedly would transform my students’ ethnocentric and negative dispositions. Then the semester started. On the first day of the course, I entered the multicultural education class beaming with excitement, energy, knowledge, and confidence. The students appeared to be full of excitement and interest, perceiving the course to be about exotic cultures of the Third World, particularly Africa. Individually, students communicated to me how excited they were to be in my class and that they hoped to learn a lot. It was so obvious that the students were excited about my cultural characteristics, cultural knowledge, and the expectation of learning about interesting exotic cultures of the Third World.

Unfortunately, it was not long before all the excitement that both the students and I had at the start of the semester began to dwindle, giving way to frustration and disillusionment. Students were disappointed as they realized that, after all, the course was not about exotic cultures of the Third World. They expected a “cultural recipe” course (Young 1998), a celebratory-based course-food, festival, dance, costume, heroes, folklores (Ladson-Billings 1995),”tacos and blintzes” (Greenman & Kimmel 1995), and “microwaved candy-coated” multicultural education (Thompson 1994). They wanted to cook Italian, Chinese, Indian, and African food, to learn how to do traditional dances, crafts, and games, etc.

They were baffled to discover that the course was an exploration of issues of oppression, power relations, social privilege, structural exclusion, educational and societal inequities, dehumanizing attitudes, and diversity due to race, gender, class, religion, linguistic differences, and sexual and family orientations, all from a critical perspective. But most disillusioning for the students was the perception that the course was scapegoating the dominant culture and their view of it as a critique of and challenge to the white race, dominant culture hegemony of which they were affiliated. It was apparent that the students were determined to protect their cultural hegemony and to resist any attempt that focused on experiences that examined a system of domination or power-relations and privilege.

During the course several experiential activities were provided, and students responded discriminately to them according to the extent to which they felt implicated by the issues involved in the activities. Students felt relatively comfortable when topics and issues related to physical lifestyles of microcultures, including gender and exceptionalities, were discussed, but exhibited defensiveness when activities related to topics/issues of race, privilege, injustice, and inequities were addressed. Defensiveness is defined in this context as the perceived feeling of being attacked or blamed and hence the tendency to resist the attack, and to defend or protect oneself. Studies have documented student defensiveness and resistance to multicultural education courses due to the content or topics of study (Ahlquist 1992; Dittmar 1999) and pedagogical approach utilized (Sleeter 1995).

Critical multicultural education deals with issues of diversity, social privilege, power relations, social inequities, and social injustice/justice that challenge some of the beliefs, social positions, and power of those of the dominant culture, in which many preservice teachers claim membership. Students will engage in defensive behaviors depending on their perception of the extent to which they feel implicated by the issues or topics. Dittmar (1999) observes that students who feel empowered by multicultural understanding will be more receptive to it than those whose anxieties are aggravated by such knowledge. What specific factors/experiences trigger defensiveness among preservice teachers? These factors I have called “triggers” of defensiveness.

Multicultural Content as a Trigger

Recent proposals and policies for adequately preparing preservice teachers for diversity suggest attitude transformation. Thus, one of the competencies identified in the multicultural education course was to engage students in experiences that foster a development of a clearer sense of their own ethnic and cultural identities, others’ cultures, social privilege, and attitude decolonization and transformation. To accomplish these objectives, students were required to critically and reflectively analyze two articles-“Skin Deep,” which documents a white man’s journey as a black man and his experience of downright contempt and differential treatment (Washington Post, 1994), and Peggy McIntosh’s (1987) “Unpacking White Privilege.” Both articles and accompanying assignments generated serious defensiveness and antagonism. Some students refused to complete the written activities but spoke with outrage about the articles. Many of the students’ initial reactions to the articles were that a discontented person of color had written them. Even after it was revealed that McIntosh is a white woman, they would not change their criticisms.

Another activity that generated a strong feeling of defensiveness among the preservice teachers was the use of the video 500 Nations to teach about the concept of multiple perspectives and the issue of trust in a cross-cultural relationship and interaction. In teaching the multicultural education course, I devoted an entire module to examining the worldviews, contributions, historical struggles, and racial/ethnic experiences of microcultural groups-African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, Latino Americans, and European Americans. In studying Native Americans, I presented the video 500 Nations hosted by Kevin Costner. This video presents the Native American perspective of the encounter/conflict between Europeans and Native Americans that culminated in the event the Europeans called “the Battle at Wounded Knee.” A Native American student enrolled in the course pointed out that this was a massacre, not a battle, and so re-titled it the “Massacre at Wounded Knee.” White preservice teachers reacted negatively to this movie and challenged my decision to show it in class. They criticized the material for being too graphic, exaggerated, biased, and designed to evoke their guilt and shame. But was it the graphic nature of the material that aggravated the students or their unwillingness to accept the perspective?

I used the 500 Nations video to illustrate the issue of trust white teachers might experience when they encounter students in their classrooms or colleagues who are Native Americans. The use of this video and assigned activities generated tensions and complaints from the students. For example, students complained that they should not be required to take the multicultural course since there was no way they were ever going to work in Native American Reservations or with minority and lowincome students. I encountered students who offered expressions like: “I know where I am going; there are no minority and people from the `Housing Project’ or Reservations there, so I do not need this multicultural crap.” Some ofthe students openly expressed dislike for multicultural education.

The most explosive activity, which generated tremendous defensiveness, was the mystical racial transformation activity. This activity was designed as a subtle way to help students recognize the reality of social privilege and its effects. In the activity, students were asked to identify their racial membership, the social privileges they derive from it, and the challenges they face in society as a result of their racial membership. Next, they were to imagine that one night they went to bed and a mystical phenomenon occurred: they had been transformed to a different race-the Negroid race (African descent), Mongoloid (Asian descent), etc. In other words, they had become African Americans, Asian Americans, Latino Americans, Native Americans, etc. Now they were to identify the social privileges and challenges of their new racial identity. Many white preservice teachers completed this activity poorly or refused to complete it.

Playing the game of “one-upmanship” (Bryant 1993), some students asked if they could use other variables. For this particular activity, I refused to be manipulated. I insisted that the same activity would be completed when issues of gender, class, and exceptionalities were examined, but that the racial transformation was first in the series of activities. Prior to this activity, the class had been engaged in a discussion about social inequities, access, privilege, and other dehumanizing behaviors. A vast majority of white preservice teachers denied the reality of social privilege and downplayed other groups’ complaints about white privilege, claiming that everyone in America has equal opportunity, that racial/ social inequality was a thing of the past.

Some students who failed to complete the activity, resulting in a low score on the assignment, later complained to the department chairperson that they were being threatened by the course. They also charged that the problems of minorities were being blamed on them and the white race. They viewed the multicultural education as a “blame and shame” course. Ideally, the mystical racial transformation activity was designed to engender students’ critical reflection and to generate a reassessment of their view of the reality of social privilege.

Pedagogical Approach as a Trigger

Another factor that generated behaviors of defensiveness among preservice teachers was the pedagogical approach utilized in the course. Although multicultural education has been well established as a field of study and a requirement in teacher preparation and licensure, little has been written about what pedagogical approach is most effective for teaching such a course, especially in helping students deconstruct their ethnocentric beliefs and values, at the college or university level. What is available are theories, models, and typologies of multicultural teaching that are more directed toward public school teaching, particularly those of Banks (2000), Gibson(1984), and Sleeter and Grant (1999).

Although these approaches exist, there is little research or consensus among proponents as to how they can be utilized to facilitate critical experiences for preservce teachers. As Banks (2000) notes, “although researchers have amply documented the nondemocratic attitudes and interactions teachers frequently have with students of color and low-income students, little work has been done on effective techniques that can be used to change teachers’ racial attitudes and behaviors” (p.307).

This lack of a clear direction leaves instructors who teach multicultural education courses to their own devices, and their effectiveness may depend on their knowledge base, level of experience, commitment, and goal. For example, some instructors may utilize a transmission approach, which is didactic and “safe,” or take the “tourist” approach with exclusive focus on the superficial life styles of microcultural groups. But how well does the “safe” or the “tourist” approach facilitate preservice teachers’ ability to develop critical reflection and examination of beliefs and values, or to cultivate skills necessary to function as transformative intellectuals and agents of social change? How well does a “safe” approach foster the kind of education that Dewey (1966) defines as “humanistic in quality, not because it is about human knowledge of the past, but because of what it does in liberating human intelligence and human sympathy” (p.230). Some multiculturalists have criticized the safe approach for its limitation in helping students engage in values clarification and critical reflection (Banks, 2000; Lee, 1998; Moodley 1995; Sleeter 1996). For example, Banks (2000) denounces the life styles approach, which he believes diverts attention from the real causes of structural exclusion. Sleeter (1996) describes it as superficial and ineffective.

In light ofthe studies on the documented parochialism among preservice teachers (Parajes 1992; Zimpher 1992), Zeichner (1993) developed a comprehensive review of teacher education needed for preparing preservice teachers to successfully teach diverse student population in terms of what they should know and be able to do. Among his recommendations are: to help students develop a clearer sense of their own ethnic and cultural identities, to examine their attitudes toward other ethno-cultural groups, to teach them about the dynamics of prejudice and racism and how to deal with them in the classroom, and to teach them about the powerful effects of social privilege, economic oppression, and school practices that contribute to the reproduction of societal inequalities and injustices.

Given these recommendations, I believe that teaching from a critical inquirybased and social reconstructivist perspective would be the most effective strategy if I were to be successful in accomplishing Zeicher’s suggested goals. To avoid experiences that help students come to grips with their racial identity and understanding of the dynamics of racism, power, privilege and its impact and ultimate effect, is to defeat the whole purpose of the course. Brandt (1986) clearly captures the importance of teaching from a critical perspective when he states that “the deconstruction of institutional [racism] must be direct and at a conscious level. It is dangerous if not downright racist to concentrate on something else, like culture for example, and hope that the rest will follow and racism will end” (p. 71). Sleeter (1996) echoes Brandt’s sentiments when she notes that a “safe” approach does not engender critical reflection.

Consequently, right from day one, I discarded the “safe” approach to multicultural education that emphasizes the exotic, superficial/physical lifestyles-foods, arts, crafts, dance, music, heroes, and folklores of minority groups-the tourist or tokenism approach. Instead, I wanted to focus on the examination ofthe life chances of minority culture groups, especially minority students’ chances and access to obtaining quality and equitable education. In addition, I wanted to provide experiences that would enable preservice teachers to challenge their beliefs, values, and assumptions about human diversity and the interrogation of social realities of privilege, power and cultural hegemony, issues or topics that often are skirted when a safe or celebratory approach is utilized.

Of course, this approach was unsettling to the students, who have been habituated to a safe and passive learning, what Freire (1970) metaphorically referred to as “banking education.” Students made comments such as: “I am very upset about this whole course; it seems to be blaming whites for all the problems that blacks have; my ancestors were dedicated and hardworking, and deserved allthe good things they worked for.” “It is unfair to blame them for the problems of blacks who are lazy and just wait for handout-welfare.” All my attempts to help them understand the vestiges and dehumanizing effects of involuntary immigration, enslavement, and Jim Crow laws, and internment did not impact their thinking but instead evoked their defensiveness. As Levine (1996) rightly points out, “the quest to understand the past and the present in their full complexity and ambiguity can be discomforting and even threatening” (p. xvii). And borrowing Howard’s (1999) analogy, many preservice teachers “have never looked directly into the eyes of the snake of white dominance, and when invited to do so, they feel blamed rather than enlightened” (p. 27).

Overall, the students felt vulnerable and threatened and therefore became defensive. I was glad when the semester ended. The students’ feelings and dispositions were well reflected on the end-of-course evaluation. The evaluation was low, with many written negative comments such as “racist”, “unfriendly”, “defensive”, “unsympathetic”, “white-hater”, “stickler”, “slavemaster”, etc. Some students commented that I am not an American and I should not teach white students. I felt very disappointed and disillusioned because of what is at stake-the lives of many young children, which could be harmed if touched by some of these preservice teachers-and because I had worked so hard to help them develop a deeper grasp of social reality. I wanted them to become aware of the persistent and pernicious nature of dominance and privilege, so that they would recognize that as teachers, that each choice they make regarding what and how to teach and interact with students would have implications for equity and social justice. I felt a sense of failure. My overall goal to produce multiculturally literate and competent practitioners was defeated.

Valuable Lessons: Insights Gained

What a learning experience that semester was! Over the winter holiday, I reflected deeply on the experience. In retrospect, I could recognize some important lessons. Firstly, it is important to know your students, where they are coming from in terms of their multicultural development. I did not know who my students were, nor did I realize that their multicultural literacy was next to zero. As teacher educators, we do a good job helping preservice teachers understand the importance of knowing their students and starting teaching from where the students are (Giroux, 1988) but rarely do we apply the same principles when we work with preservice teachers.

I have learned to be patient with preservice teachers, to guide them in ways that are empowering and non-threatening, and to help them become not only cognizant of the reality of privilege but to act in ways that advocate on behalf of those who are not privileged. For a majority of these students, who have lived encapsulated lives, the multicultural education course is the first opportunity they have for studying about others in terms of race, class, and gender, and for examining the social institution and the dynamics ofpower relations, privilege, and social justice. Haberman (1991) believes that it is inappropriate to prepare young, inexperienced people for cultural diversity, when they themselves are still developing and are at a stage of sorting out who they are. Many of the preservice teachers I have worked with have been raised and socialized in middle-class or lower-middle class homes and communities lacking in cultural diversity. Thus they face issues, dilemmas and values that may be contradictory to the issues of diversity. Since the majority of my students came from rural or suburban communities that are racially homogenized, perhaps using an anti-racist approach may have exacerbated their insecurities, although I believe that for some white preservice teachers, there is no approach that is gentle enough when it comes to teaching about issues of diversity, particularly race-they will never see beyond their myopic world.

Secondly, it is vital to understand that preservice teachers experience the multicultural course differently based on their prior experience with diversity. Students’ previous personal experience may influence their positive or negative response to the course. For example, I noticed that students who had some prior experience with diversity or international perspectives were more open-minded about the course than students who had never had any contact with diversity. These students with prior multicultural experience became my supporters and defenders when unwarranted challenges were posed.

Thirdly, I learned that preservice teachers did not want to be overwhelmed by an overload of information with which they had no prior connection or experience. Preservice teachers are at a stage where they would like to talk and share their experiences rather than listen to the instructor. I learned, therefore, the importance of involving students in multiple ways in the learning process.

Fourthly, I learned that as a faculty member of color, as a female, as a human being from a Third World country, and as a person with a linguistic difference in an allwhite classroom, I have to work extra hard to create a learning environment of mutual respect and establish my credibility as a person with objectivity. Most importantly, I learned that students who feel implicated in what they are learning will become defensive and reject not only the content of the course but also the “messenger.”

Rethinking and Redesigning the Course

The lessons above were very valuable in redesigning and subsequently reimplementing the course. The experiences of the subsequent semesters have been exciting, exhilarating, meaningful and enriching for both the students and me. The end-of-course evaluations have been significantly and consistently high. The friendships, complimentary comments, thank-you notes, and social actions that have evolved are only a few of the positive outcomes from the course.

One significant social action that has evolved from teaching the multicultural course is the formation of the Student Association for Multicultural Education (SAME), organized and pioneered by white preservice teachers who had enrolled in the course. This association has been active in promoting activities that foster multicultural awareness on the university campus, engaging in social activism, and acting as a powerful voice for multicultural education or diversity.

In class, students have described the course as one of the best experiences they have ever had in their college years. Students have been more positive and more constructive in the ideas they express, and defensive behaviors have been minimal. But most importantly, students have been able to move to that defining moment when they confidently and truly embrace multiculturalism on a more substantive level. This is not to say that I still do not encounter some students who engage in defensive behaviors, although the number has been significantly lower. I assume that some readers may identify with some of the experiences shared in this paper. Thus I would like to describe some specific strategies and activities that transformed the multicultural education course experience.

Establishing a Community of Learners

Creating a positive learning environment is crucial to successful teaching and learning in a multicultural education course. In this regard, setting the tone through well-defined expectations is indispensable. On the first day of class, I present an overview of the course, clearly delineating the expectations and requirements. I explain that some of the issues to be explored in the course will be “touchy,” “too close to home,” and will challenge what we know and believe, and perhaps create disequillibrium.

I point out that the course is not an attempt to scapegoat or evoke anyone’s guilt. Rather, it is to help us identify and reconcile contradictions between democratic ideology and social reality. I also caution that only ideas and not the personhood of each individual can be challenged. I start off by engaging students in stimulating initiatory activities that work to disarm them, captivate their interests and get them hooked. The following initiatory activities and experiences have been extremely successful.

The Kola Nut Activity

As a culturally different person, I tend to integrate my cultural experiences into the course, and students have been deeply appreciative of the cultural perspective I bring to the course. The kola nut exercise is the first cultural experience that I share with the students. On the first day of class, I instruct students to sit in a circle where we all can see each other. Next I bring out an African basket that contains a packet of Starburst candies that substitute for the African kola nut. The kola nut offering is an aged cultural tradition that is practiced in some West African societies, especially Nigeria. The kola nut is a lobe-sided chewable nut that contains some bitter stimulant. The kola nut offering is a symbol of welcome, peace, and hospitality to guests.

I explain to the students that the kola nut offering is my way of welcoming them to the course and symbolizes that our class meetings and deliberations throughout the semester will be conducted in peaceful and positive manner. On this first day, I initiate the conversational tone and collective corporate spirit with the use of “we,” “our,” “us,” etc. The basket of Starburst candy is then passed around for each person to take a piece and pass on to the next person. Students are instructed to eat the kola nut (candy), if they so choose.

Next, I invite the class to share their own experiences or traditions ofhow guests are received in their cultures. I am occasionally fortunate to have some students who are culturally different or have experienced other cultures who share their own welcoming traditions. For example, some students have shared about traditions in which a new mat is spread out for the guests) to sit on, and others serve tea, soda, etc.

The Human Knot

On the first day of class, I divide the class into small groups for participatory activities. The human know activity is a cooperative building activity. In the activity, students get together in their small groups and grab hands across from each other to form a knot or to get tangled. Next, they are required to unknot or untangle without letting go of their hands. Students work together to accomplish this goal. This is a fim activity that gets everybody excited, talking, and cooperating to accomplish the goal.

In debriefing the activity, students learn the need for cooperation and working together. I sum up by telling them that the goal toward successful teaching and learning in a multicultural course is to create a community of learners, where members cooperate with one another, help each other, take responsibility, and respect each other’s differences in a caring way. The effects of these icebreaker activities cannot be underestimated. Students leave the class excited. By the next class period I will have had several students begging to enroll in the closed class.

Pre-Instructional Diagnosis

Since I want to know where my students are, and to engender their motivation, I administer a pre-instructional diagnostic test. This test consists of concepts to be encountered in the course. The format is open-ended and students are asked to explain what they know about them or what they symbolize. Concepts include Ellis Island, Angel’s Island, Seneca Falls, Title IX, 1964 Civil Rights Act, Lau v. Nichols, the 13th, 14th, & 15th Amendments, E Pluribus Unum, diversity, equality, affirmative action, glass ceiling, cultural pluralism, melting pot, intellectual racism, cultural assimilation, Plessey vs. Ferguson, macro-culture, microculture, prejudice,Japanese interment, Wounded Knee, pre-prejudice, NAACP, NAAWP, social stratification, social justice, socioeconomic status, American Creed, Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education, race, and culturally responsive pedagogy.

Each time I have administered the test, nearly all the students do poorly on it. Students are often baffled by how little they know about America, their country and its history-multicultural history. Students often express disappointment and question the education they have received. Most of the students have commented that after taking the test, they realized that they did not know anything about their society and history, that as educated persons and future teachers they wanted to know what these concepts represent before graduating from college.

Book “Expert” Presentation

This is a cooperative learning activity similar to the jigsaw puzzle. Students are divided into small groups and are assigned to read a book or chapters of a book and make a presentation about the significant multicultural experiences, issues, themes, and implications in the reading. In addition to the required textbook, Multicultural Education in a Pluralistic Society by Donna Gollnick and Philip Chinn, I require three other books, A Different Mirror by Ronald Takaki, White Teacher by Vivian Paley, and You Can’t Teach What You Do Not Know by Gary Howard.

Students take on the responsibility of helping their classmates understand the concepts and perspectives reflected in the books and the implications of the issues. I have, to my great dismay, observed students criticize themselves and their classmates about how they have been miseducated and how they suffer from “dysconscious racism” (King, 1991) that prevents them from realizing their racial attitudes and white privilege. These book “expert” activities have been extremely significant in empowering students to cultivate a more positive disposition toward multicultural education. Students have described the book “expert” activity as one of the most beneficial experiences of the course.

The Alpha and Beta Simulation Game

Games and simulations are fun and powerful ways to learn about multicultural education. The Alpha and Beta game is a self-constructed, inexpensive, and easy to implement game I developed. It differs from the commercialized alpha game. I drew on my cultural and immigrant experience to design it. In this game, students are divided into groups and assigned the alpha or beta culture. Each group is given a script that describes its culture as presented below. During the scheduled simulation, two classrooms are used as homes for each culture group. Each culture group selects teams of students that take turns visiting and interacting with the other culture group.

This is a stimulating activity that enables students to walk in another’s shoes. The debriefing is the most revealing of all. After the simulation is completed, students sit in a semicircle with Alpha on one side and Beta on the other. Each culture group is asked to assess and describe the other group in terms of sophistication, intelligence, language, social structure, socialization, behavior, etc. Stereotypes, devaluations, beliefs, and prejudice all play out in this activity.

For example, Alphans describe the Betans as low in intelligence and uncivilized because they did not use language, and played the game incorrectly (not realizing that they had different rules). The Betans describe Alphans as obnoxious, arrogant, intrusive, naive, and unintelligent because they played the game incorrectly (not realizing that they played with their own rules) and for laughing uncontrollably. Students have expressed how in reality they had labeled individuals or groups based on their physical characteristics and how the activity enabled them to gain new insight into human behavior, diversity, and cross-cultural understanding.

I am always astounded at the impact of this simple activity on the students. Students begin to reflect on their individual attitudes and behaviors and to realize how they had been guilty of prejudgment or prejudice. The Alphan and Betan cultures are described below:

The Interview Report

In this activity, students are asked to interview people who are public school teachers, administrators, professors, counselors, and other professionals. Students are given a questionnaire to use in gathering information about their interviewee and to develop an assessment of the interviewee’s multicultural literacy and practice. The assessment component indirectly assesses the students’ knowledge concerning the content of the course. For example, students often view the course to be about ethnic groups. But this activity helps them to develop a broader understanding of multicultural education, as they must assess their interviewee’s multicultural knowledge relative to diversity due to race, ethnicity, gender, class, and multicultural practice.

On the sharing date, students sit in a circle to share their reports. This exercise provides an excellent opportunity for students to learn how multiculturalism is implemented in the schools and other work settings. One student’s comment is worth mentioning here: “As I listened to each student share their interview reports, I couldn’t help noticing that many educators think of multiculturalism as dealing with exotic cultures of the world. This was how I used to think before I took this class.”

The Reflection Paper

This is the culminating assignment of the course. Students are required to write a reflective analysis of the total course experience and assess their multicultural development. They are specifically asked to assess the multicultural experience relative to their ability to function as effective and professional members of a culturally diverse society. Students demonstrate an understanding of the basic ideas, understandings, skills, and perspectives they developed as a result of the multicultural experience. I have been surprised and pleased by the insights, perspectives, connections, advocacy, and social action plans the students reflect in their papers. I could fill the rest of this report with students’ reflective papers but a few examples will suffice:

Before enrolling in the class, I was not multiculturally aware. Many people often think because I am an African American that I am multiculturally literate. Through this class I discovered that I did not know about my own culture, let alone other cultures. It is sad that I am a few months away from graduating from college and I am now learning about my culture and others that I coexist with.

As I sat down to report on this course, I couldn’t help but think of where I came from and my view of the world before this class. I was born and raised in a small rural community in Northeast Missouri. There was little diversity. You could count it in a less than a second. In my graduating class, out of65 graduates, there were two African Americans and an Egyptian. I was very good friends with the Egyptian-Kareem. His father was a local radiologist who made a comfortable living but I can still remember some of the terrible things people said about the family. Kareem’s parents came from Egypt before he was born and their accents showed it. I watched how people would talk to his parents like they were not intelligent. Kareem’s parents were extremely well educated people who spoke with an accent. I can remember kids teasing Kareem about his parents and their accents and I think it really hurt him, though I didn’t realize it at that time. Looking back now, I realize that I was just as guilty as the people who were making fun of my friend. I never said anything. My silence was just as bad as the teasing. This course has helped me to reflect on my experience and opened my eyes. I have started to be more critical about my background and ignorance of other cultures. I really started understanding the importance of multicultural education when an African American girl in the class said she did not really know much about her culture. That day, I realized how teachers of the past did not teach us about our multicultural world, and the need to teach all students from a multicultural perspective.

If someone said to me, “What did I get out of the multicultural course,” I would say, “a new pair of eyes.” I first took the course because it fit into my schedule. I thought the course was to teach students about cultures of the third world countries. I am glad I did not drop the course because I would have missed out on so much. I think that all students should be required to take this course rather than an international studies or ethnic course. Presently I work on ajob that allows me to meet many people every day. I never felt that I was prejudice toward anyone, but realize now that I have judged people by the way they look. For example, there have been some scruffy people who come into the office to pick up application. I frequently doubt their ability to read because they looked nervous. I would refuse to let them take the application form with them if they asked. But if other people came in neatly dressed and asked to take the application with them I would assume they were on a lunch break and allowed them to take it. From this course, I realized that I have been discriminating against other individuals based on their racial or socioeconomic characteristics. I frequently hear racial jokes directed at culturally different individuals but have never challenged people who made them. Since this course, I have been challenging people when they make remarks that are inappropriate.

What I have learned in this class, I will carry with me forever. I can’t say that about many classes but this class has been postive and an eye-opening experience. I thank you for this because you are a teacher who has experienced challenges and you helped us understand more by sharing your experiences and vast knowledge. You did not just teach, you know what you teach, and you showed that in many different ways rather than just lecture. Because of this class, I understand more about social and educational inequities and injustices. I had no idea of these because I have never really had to deal with any of these discriminations, so to speak. l feel l have had it pretty easy in dealing with society so far but I am now aware of what others may go through because of the differences they may have.


Teaching a multicultural or diversity– related course can create a tremendous challenge, and if not carefully approached, can generate and escalate students’ defensiveness and negative dispositions, which can contribute to defeating the whole purpose of multicultural education. Greenman & Kimmel (1995) note, “the road to multicultural education is paved with good intentions, but rutted with potholes of resistance” (p. 1). My personal odyssey sheds some insights. As I look back on that first experience of teaching multicultural education, I can safely say that the students rejected the ideas I presented because they felt impacted by the issues which they perceived scapegoated the white race of which a vast majority of them claimed membership and because they were determined to protect their cultural hegemony, which resulted in defensive attitudinal behavior.

Hence, Dittmar suggests that teaching of multicultural education should be reserved for graduate students, who are “freed by their emergent strength to appreciate diversity without feeling implicated in the inequities our society rationalizes as a function of difference” (p.236). Other educaters have echoed similar thoughts about the inappropriateness of preparing developing young adults as teachers. “For example, Haberman (1991) has consistently commented “those still engaged in the struggle to develop their own identities are the last people we should seek to place as teachers with children and youth who need confident, competent role models” (p.285). Haberman recommends that more experienced and “older constituents” should be sought and prepared for teaching.

In my eight years of working with preservice teachers, I absolutely agree that a vast majority of preservice teachers lack the knowledge, skills, and the humane values and commitment needed to teach all children with an array of needs and to promote their intellectual, social, emotional, and moral development. While I agree with Dittmar and Haberman’s perspectives, unfortunately the teaching force does not have the luxury of a large pool of teachers. Although teaching is one of the most important professions, it is not a lucrative one that attracts the best in the work force. In fact, it is suggested that in the next decade, the teaching force will need about 2.2 million teachers (U.S Department of Education 1999.). Many states and especially large school districts in urban centers are already experiencing acute teacher shortages.

Most teacher education programs are at the undergraduate level, and those of us in teacher education who teach multicultural education courses will continue to struggle with ways to prepare preservice teachers who are inexperienced and parochial in their worldview and who exhibit high levels of defensiveness when enrolled in a multicultural/diversity courses. Yet, in each class, I do believe that the multicultural experience surprisingly touches some and makes a difference in their lives.


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-Nelly Ukpokodu is a professor with the School of Education at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Kansas City, Missouri.

Copyright Caddo Gap Press Spring 2002

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

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