Using classroom simulations and technology to expore multicultural issues in a middle school classroom

Using classroom simulations and technology to expore multicultural issues in a middle school classroom

Green, Tim

In The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz (1997) writes about four ideas that can positively transform our lives. One of these ideas is about making assumptions. Ruiz explains:

Find the courage to ask questions andto express whatyou really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life. This idea is especially useful in teaching us to learn from others and control our reactions to what we hear, see, and feel. Ruiz states this idea simply-don’t make assumptions.

This is easier said than done. We often have problems relating to people because we imagine things about them based on the way they look, talk, or behave. We’ve all been guilty of this at least once in our lives, and have seen our students engage in this behavior as well. If this behavior goes unchecked, it can grow into an unhealthy, unproductive habit, which can ultimately lead to bigotry.

Finding the courage to ask questions and communicate with others clearly, as Ruiz explains, will help us to check our reactions to people based on superficial elements. As teachers, it is important that we are able to model for our students this ability in order to teach them how to do the same. It is also important to provide students with opportunities in which they can safely ask questions and express themselves, especially about people, concepts, and ideas that are unfamiliar. This article describes an experience, such as this, where a group of six-grade students were provided the opportunity to explore different cultures and wrestle with a variety of multicul-total issues in a collaborative manner with a pre-service teacher cohort through the use of classroom simulations and Web-based technology.


Over the past three years I’ve been fortunate to have the on-going opportunity to volunteer in a sixth-grade classroom at a local middle school. I’ve graded papers, chaperoned on field trips, and taught social studies lessons. My involvement in this classroom has allowed me to keep my K-12 teaching skills sharp and provided me with a great deal of perspective on current issues facing middle school students. During this same time, I’ve also been fortunate to work with cohorts of pre-service teachers in methods and foundations of teaching courses as an assistant professor of elementary education.

Because I have access to this sixthgrade classroom, a regular goal I have for my methods courses is to carry out collaborative activities between my pre-service teachers and the six-grade students, whenever this is practical. The emphases for the collaborations have varied, but are typically based upon a combination of the current needs of the sixth-grade students and state requirements for the pre-service teachers.

The latest collaboration, which is the topic of this article, focused on multicultural education and technology (California requires that credential programs integrated technology and multicultural education knowledge and skills throughout their curriculum).

In consultation with the sixth-grade teacher, we planned a two-month integrated unit that included language arts and social studies that would include multicultural issues and technology. The unit had several goals. The content goal was to introduce elements of literature (such as, figurative language, plot, setting, characters, symbolism, point of view, cause and effect) through the exploration of different cultural groups. The exploration of the cultural groups would help the students encounter multicultural concepts like diversity, racism, prejudice, and tolerance. We wanted to design a learning experience that would allow our students to explore other cultures and explore any misconceptions they might have had about these cultures. We wanted to challenge our students to tackle the tough issues of racism and bigotry. The main learning experience that helped achieve these goals was a simulation called Neighborhood. In addition to this, we incorporated another simulation called RaFa, RaFa (both are described in more detail in the next section).

The demographics of the six-grade students were 63 percent Hispanic with the remaining students being a mixture of mostly Caucasian with a small percentage of Asian and African-American. The preservice teachers were in their final semester of a two-semester teacher credential preparation program. The pre-service teacher demographics were mostly Caucasian with a small percentage being Hispanic and African-American.


As mentioned, the major learning experience for our collaboration was a simulation. It was not the only learning experience we utilized, but it did frame most of what we did in language arts and social studies for almost two months. Why did we use a classroom simulation? A classroom simulation can provide students with opportunities to encounter complex knowledge, ideas, and skills in a safe environment. A simulation is designed to replicate a real-world situation where students take on various roles in order to gather data, analyze the data, and make decisions based on the data.

As a simulation progresses, students perform various tasks that provide them with the ability to learn and have their learning evaluated (Joyce & Weil, 1996; Brown 1999; Millians 1999). Because the concepts we wanted our students to explore could bring about intense feelings and emotions, we felt it was important that students were given opportunities to explore these in a safe and controlled environment. A classroom simulation helped us to accomplish this.

The first simulation we used was Neighborhood. Neighborhood is a simulation developed by Charlotte Jaffe and Marilyn Lieberman for Interaction Publishers. The primary goal of Neighborhood is to “simulate a multicultural neighborhood where families from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds unite in their respect for each other and in their desire to create a pluralistic neighborhood” (p. 1). The simulation is designed for integration into language arts curriculum for upper elementary students through high school. Students work on a variety of literature elements such as, figurative language, symbolism, point of view, and cause and effect, as they experience different ethnic groups.

In the simulation, students were organized into “families” of four to six members. There were six different ethnic groups: African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Irish-Americans, Jewish Americans, and Native Americans. The families were randomly given an ethnic group as the focus of their two-month investigation. The families worked collaboratively to complete a variety of reading, research, and writing assignments such as, famous people reports, cultural projects, literature analysis, and exploring the nature of discrimination and stereotyping. The families divided up assignment responsibilities and shared their results with their families. A part of each day was devoted to working on the assignments and sharing the results with family members and other families.

We added additional elements-interactions with the pre-service teachers and a one-day simulation (RaFa, RaFa). The interactions took place through a Webbased course management software called Blackboard. Blackboard allowed the sixgrade students and pre-service teachers to engage in threaded discussions to share what the students had learned and to discuss issues related to discrimination and stereotyping. Each student family was paired with a pre-service teacher family.

The pre-service teachers went through the Neighborhood simulation in their social studies methods course to complete identical assignments at the same time the students went through the simulation in their classroom. This provided the pre-service teacher families with the knowledge to be able to lead discussions. The pre-service teachers were instructed to ask probing questions about discrimination, racism, and stereotypes. The six-grade student families would log on to Blackboard at least twice a week to respond to the questions. The preservice teachers would log on at an average of at least three times a week to respond to student questions and comments, and to post additional questions for the students.

At the end of the third week of the simulation, the pre-service teachers visited the six-grade classroom for the first time to conduct a two-hour simulationRaFa, RaFa. The purpose of RaFa, RaFa is to help students build sensitivity toward cultural differences. The simulation can be used to help students:

* build awareness of how cultural differences can profoundly impact the way people live, think, and behave;

* rethink their behavior and attitude toward others;

* understand how stereotypes are developed, barriers created, and misunderstandings magnified; and

* identify ways of behaving that make everyone feel as though they belong.(Simulation Training Systems, 2002)

RaFa, RaFa is facilitated by splitting a group into two “cultures”-each with their own rules, norms, and mores. The groups are then isolated in two different rooms and are told how their society operates (both societies communicate using animal noises but have different rules for how the communication process is conducted). There are typically three rounds in the simulation which last 15-minutes each. Two ambassadors are sent to the other society during each round to gather information about the other society. The purpose is to learn enough about the other society in order to successfully co-exist.

When ambassadors return (and often before the 15-minute round has finished because they have violated the society’s rules and have been removed) they share what they have learned to their own members of their society. Two new ambassadors then go over to the society and the process is repeated, as mentioned, typically three times. Once the three rounds are completed, the two societies return together into one room to discuss what took place and they feelings they had as they experienced the simulation.

The pre-service teachers facilitated the simulation. They organized the societies, described the rules, kept the various rounds moving, and lead the final discussion. The discussion took place with the pre-service teachers and students mixed together in a circle talking about the experience. Questions were asked about how the students felt about the other society, how it made them feel to interact with the society, and how this simulation matched with what they experience in real-life. The discussion lasted 45-minutes and was very animated and engaging. Issues of stereotyping and discrimination were discussed during this discussion.

The culminating event of the Neighborhood simulation was a festival. The festival was designed to showcase the work the families had accomplished. With the help of the pre-service teachers, the families created booths where they displayed posters, written work, and artifacts portraying the ethnic groups they investigated. In addition, posters dealing with discrimination, racism, and stereotyping were displayed. Students took responsibility for working the booths to share what they had learned.

The pre-service teachers, along with community members (mostly parents), made ethnic food to share. Additionally, they organized games that were developed by the different ethnic groups represented. The festival lasted an hour and a half on a Friday afternoon, and was attended by over 100 students and community members.


Although I have no empirical data to support the long-term impact of this learning experience, I like to believe that it did have some positive impact on the six-grade students and pre-service teachers. I strongly believe that the simulation, along with the Web-based discussions, provided both groups with multiple opportunities to explore sensitive issues and become aware of their own thinking about others.

One student explained that being able to write his ideas online allowed him to not feel embarrassed about asking questions that he would probably never have asked in class. He stated, “I could ask questions about things I didn’t know and about how I felt about things.” A pre-service teacher wrote, “The experience allowed all of us, actually forced all of us, to tackle sensitive issues. I enjoyed having the opportunity to ask students questions online, share with them what we, our family, had learned, and respond to their questions. It was amazing to read the questions and responses they had. It blew me away!”

Another area where I believe positive impact was made was with the students and pre-service teachers discovering the similarities that the ethnic groups shared. As I read through the online threadeddiscussions, I noted several comments students made about the many similarities the ethnic groups shared and how little they knew about the ethnic groups. One pre-service teacher made the following comment, “I never realized how little I know about other cultures and people. I can see how easy it can be to fall into the trap of making assumptions about people when you really don’t know who they are or what they believe in.”

Finally, I believe the learning experience provided the students and pre-service teachers with the opportunity to use technology in a meaningful way that helped facilitate interactions that could not have taken place otherwise. Through the use of the threaded discussion element of Blackboard, the students and pre-service teachers carried on discussions without having to physically be together. This helped to continue important discussions over the entire two-month experience, and provided an added element of motivation for completing assignments on time and with care. The students and pre-service teachers both stated that they felt motivated to be ready to discuss and share. One student stated, “I have to read and do my family assignments. If I don’t, I will let my school family and teacher family down.”


As Ruiz stated, we need to find the courage to ask questions and communicate clearly to avoid drama and sadness in our lives. We need to learn to stop making assumptions based on how people look, sound, and act. Can using technology in the classroom help us to achieve this? I am skeptical, but also hopeful. Future research will help determine if the use of Web-based technology (such as, threaded discussions) with varying learning experiences truly does positively impact the attitudes of our students toward others.

Copyright Caddo Gap Press Winter 2002

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved.