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Importance of Multicultural Classrooms


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Back to school means back to the basics, and in North Carolina classrooms today, this means more than just reading, writing and arithmetic. Schools across the state increasingly recognize the importance of a multicultural education, with teachers educating students about our global society. Parent-teacher associations also involve parents in the process, and families are bringing home the lessons of diversity and inclusion.

Carnette Debella, a teacher who heads up the multicultural fair at Pearsontown Elementary in Durham, believes multiculturalism is an important component of a well-rounded education. "A student's knowledge base is increased by learning about different cultures," she says, citing lessons in world geography and history, national flags and languages.

Debella also says current events and international disasters can teach kids about other societies — from government and economics to family structure and housing. Through studying disasters, such as the earthquakes in Chile and Haiti and famines in Africa, children's minds are open to lend a helping hand when others are in need. "If our young people have been taught about different cultures, as adults they will be more willing to help in times of need," Debella says.

Nurturing open minds

Gilmara Johnson, an English-as-a-Second-Language teacher at University Meadows Elementary in Charlotte, believes strongly that multiculturalism is a valuable part of education. "Cultural content helps (students) review their preconceptions about a certain culture and hopefully treat everyone the same," she says.

Johnson says teachers should be aware of the nationalities represented in their classrooms to share knowledge and to prevent misunderstandings that may arise from language barriers or the expression of varying customs. In her classroom, new students are encouraged to present information about their home countries to their classmates. Johnson also frequently incorporates activities about her own home country — Brazil — into her lesson preparations.

"I usually make a compare-and-contrast activity, especially about holidays and monthly events," she explains. "I also have a world map on the wall and the name of each student on an index card with a thread linking to the country where the student comes from."

Technology enables children today to live in a global society, where they can view and communicate instantaneously with others around the world, says Roanne Ornelles, director of diversity at Summit School in Winston-Salem. "However, children cannot truly understand, appreciate and communicate with others unless they have experienced the culture in an authentic way," she says.

Parents understand the importance of multiculturalism, too. Tuyet Huynh, a Raleigh parent of three children, appreciates that her kids were exposed to different cultures at an early age. She says she feels her children, as a result, will grow into open-minded citizens who will more easily work and live within a global society.

Celebrating diversity

As students move beyond high school and college into the workplace, they will enter jobs that require not only critical thinking skills, but also acceptance of others' differences, since corporate offices, retail centers and manufacturing plants are hubs of people from all over the world. To translate academic achievement into a successful career, today's children need to graduate with a different set of skills than their parents.

"Students who learn to accept others of different cultures will have success in the diverse workforce they will find themselves in as adults," Huynh says. "They'll be open-minded, productive team players."

Beyond English, math and science, Ornelles says children must also learn "adaptability, effective communication, problem-solving and collaborative working skills for them to work well with others."

School communities that foster acceptance and inclusion among families are paving the way for the next generation of doers and leaders.

Providence Day School in Charlotte held a Global Day last fall, which was an outreach event from the school's Global Studies Diploma program. More than 600 faculty, staff, students, families and community members attended. Every region of the globe was represented, with exhibits featuring indigenous crafts, regional cuisine and facts addressing issues ranging from poverty and disease to economic development.

"The children really enjoyed learning about the cultures of some of their friends and experiencing some of their traditions," says Lisa Sicard, a Providence Day parent. "They particularly enjoyed watching the Indian dancing, playing backgammon in the Middle Eastern tent and trying out some fencing moves."

Many schools hold similar events. At the Pearsontown Elementary Multicultural Fair in Durham, children share art they create based on their impressions of the countries they study. Members of the community also are invited to participate.

"This year we had Chuck Davis and his famous African Dance Ensemble," Debella explains. "Previously, we had representatives from a local Turkish Cultural Center."

At Cary's Davis Drive Elementary, the PTA supports the cultural arts program, which offers performances that expose students to different cultures and forms of arts, such as the Liang Chinese acrobatic show.

Frank Porter Graham Elementary in Chapel Hill holds family focus nights in an effort to strengthen the school's connections with minority families. During Latino Family Night and African-American Family Night, families are invited to bring foods that reflect their cultures.

"Each event offers brief presentations by the staff and the community regarding opportunities available for families and children," says Susan Pegg, interim principal at the school. "The main goal is to reach out and say, 'We are here for you and your children. Please let us know how we can help.'"

Taking global awareness home

Whatever the format of a school's multicultural efforts, one of the ultimate goals is to encourage further exploration at home and within the community.

Scouting organizations provide excellent opportunities for students to gain a global awareness. Cassie McGowin, a Fort Mill, S.C., mom of twins, says Girl Scouts World Thinking Day promotes girls and their families getting together to learn about traditions in other countries.

Families can watch cultural programs on television, visit museums, and attend local festivals that celebrate cultures from around the globe, like the area Latino festivals this month. (See our Calendar Highlights page for more information.

Ornelles says the best way for parents to teach children to empathize with others is to model acceptance through their own interactions with others. "It is absolutely true that children learn by what respected adults do as much as by what they say," she says.

Lee Rhodes is a freelance writer in Waxhaw.

Diversity Increasing in the Triangle

More school-age children in the Triangle, or their parents, are from another country compared to the state as a whole. Of children ages 6-17, 6 percent in the Triangle are foreign-born compared with 3.5 percent in the state as a whole.

In the Triangle, in that same age group, 19 percent of children had at least one foreign-born parent, as compared with 13.5 percent in North Carolina.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Durham and Raleigh-Cary metro areas for Triangle populations

Wake County Public School System demographics reports show that diversity has increased in the state's largest school system during the last 20-plus years. The percentages of Asian, Hispanic or Latino, and multiracial students have increased significantly while the populations of white and black/African-American students have decreased.

Below are statistics that show growth for various race/ethnicity groups between 1987-1988 and 2009-2010.

American Indian/Alaska Native
1987-1988: 0.2 percent
2009-2010: 0.3 percent

Asian/Pacific Islander
1987-1988: 2.1 percent
2009-2010: 6.1 percent

Black/African-American
1987-1988: 26.7 percent
2009-2010: 25.9 percent

Hispanic/Latino
1987-1988: 0.5 percent
2009-2010: 11.8 percent

Multiracial
1987-1988: 0 percent
2009-2010: 4.8 percent

White
1987-1988: 70.5 percent
2009-2010: 51.1 percent

Source: Wake County Public School System

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