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UIC TA Handbook - The Strengths of a Multicultural Classroom

By Ruth Garner

Former Professor
UIC College of Education


Classrooms at the end of the 20th Century are more diverse than ever, with cultural and language difference the norm, rather than the exception. Most teachers in multicultural classrooms want what is studied and what is said in their classrooms to build on the strengths of an increasingly diverse student group, but they aren't always certain about how to achieve that goal. I hope to provide a bit of assistance, paying particular attention to the variety of discourses that any group of students brings to the classroom.

Language scholar James Paul Gee has argued for years that a discourse is a sort of "identity kit," a way of saying, writing, doing, valuing, believing that separates some language-users from others. So, in Gee's view, there are primary discourses learned in the home, and there are also discourses of lawyers, academics, adolescents, and women. Discourses are not equal in status. Some carry with them social power and access to economic success, and some do not.

Think about gender differences as an example of what happens when a member of one discourse community attempts to communicate with a member of a different dis­ course community. The acknowledged expert on the topic is sociolinguist Deborah Tannen, whose 1990 book, You Just Don't Understand, has been read widely by academics and non-academics alike. Tannen demonstrated that women and men have very different conversational styles--many men having become accustomed to using conversation as a negotiation in which they try to achieve and maintain the upper hand, and many women having learned to use conversation for seeking confirmation and reaching consensus. These style differences often interfere with well-meaning attempts to communicate, because men and women interpret the same conversation very differently. Misunderstanding results.

Misunderstanding, misjudgement about another person's intentions, are a frequent consequence of conversation across other discourse communities as well. If you doubt this, think about people you know with very different identity kits -- for example, those who interrupt a speaker mid­ sentence and those who find this well-established discourse pattern rude, or perhaps those who disclose considerable personal detail about their lives and those who are shocked by the revelations. As part of our recent research on students' cross-cultural Internet conversations (Garner & Gillingham, 1996), we encountered still another example of misunderstanding: Yup'ik Eskimo students sending very brief messages to peers in Illinois were considered to be mostly uninterested in a long-term connection until the teacher in Alaska explained that Yup'iks believe that language is very powerful, something to be used gingerly. Even within families, affection is seldom verbalized by Yup'ik children and adults; it is expressed in other ways.

Nitza Hidalgo (1993) gave us still another example of misinterpretation: A U.S.-born teacher believes in individual­ ism and self-sufficiency. A Puerto Rican female student in his class believes in interdependency and family obligation. Neither has any occasion to make deeply-held values explicit in class, so when the woman is repeatedly absent from class to care for a sick family member, the teacher assumes that she has little interest in her academic work--a misjudgement based on the teacher's and the student's having very different identity kits.

How can misjudgements in multicultural classrooms be reduced? Four thoughts:

  • Perhaps most important of all is to entertain the possibility that your initial interpretations of events might be flat wrong (in the same way that the Illinois students misjudged the Yup'ik students ' interest and the U.S.-born teacher misjudged the Puerto Rican female student's academic commitment.) By asking questions and listening hard, you can learn more about students. Accept the existence of many different identity kits in your classroom (including your own, of course), and accept the consequences this situation has for misunderstanding and misjudgment.
  • Become aware of how your curriculum (what you ask your students to know, read, discuss and learn) is more familiar to some, less familiar to others. Acknowledge this and, where possible, allow multiple entry points to the discipline (e.g., reading different works of literature from a set of books that meet literary standards). This point applies to pedagogy (how you teach) as well as to subject matter (what you teach), so consider varying lecture, small-group discussion, and individual activities during the semester.
  • Be careful about assuming that what a student says is exactly what he or she knows. As Lisa Delit (1995) pointed out, indirect highly contextualized, and reticent responses tend to be devalued in academic, middle-class U.S. culture. A student providing this sort of response may know just as much about geography, chemistry, or any other subject matter just as much or even more about geography the person who provides a linear response with clear conclusions in a decontextualized paper-and­ pencil exercise (the latter being the ideal in most academic settings).
  • Even as you make an effort to become aware of identity kits, avoid stereotyping based on culture. Expect individual differences. Many Asian-American students are very high achievers, but some need instructional assistance from you. Many Native American students refrain from participating in large-group discussions, but some do not and want to be called on to display their knowledge of subject matter. As Deborah Tannen (1989) noted, culture only establishes a range within which individuals vary.


Delpit. L. (1995) Other people's children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York: New Press.

Garner, R., & Gillingham, M.G. (1996) Internet communication in six class­ rooms: Conversations across time, space, and culture. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Hidalgo, N.M. (1993) Multicultural teacher introspective. In T. Perry & J.W. Fraser (Eds.), Freedom's plow: Teaching in the multicultural classroom (pp.99-106). New York: Routledge.

Tannen , D. (1989). Talking voices: Repetition, dialogue, and imagery in conversational discourse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tannen, D. (1990). You just donY understand: Women and men in conversation. New York: William Morrow.

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