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The Winter Wonderland of Diversity

By Julie Dermody — December 13, 2006 3 min read

As part of a new partnership, teachermagazine.org is publishing this regular column by members of the Teacher Leaders Network, a professional community of accomplished educators dedicated to sharing ideas and expanding the influence of teachers.

My classroom was ready for the winter holidays. I carefully counted the holiday decorations and was filled with a sense of satisfaction as I counted five each for Christmas, Hanukah, and Kwanzaa. Then I thought about Sari.

Although my plan was to be sensitive to the traditions and customs of the students in my classroom, the truth was, I was not aware of all the different religious beliefs, customs, and traditions my students held. Just highlighting what I thought to be the “big three” was suddenly not enough. That year I took down the holiday decorations I had carefully counted and put up snowflakes in my North Carolina classroom.

It is with great pleasure that I have watched my classroom become more and more multicultural in the past 10 years. I have had the satisfaction of explaining American traditions to my English language learners and discovering interesting information about their countries and customs.

Just last week, among the students in my guided-reading group, we had a lively (and delicious) discussion about eating dessert. Two of the students were from Korea, one from Japan, one from Mexico, and another from Colombia. Not only did our discussion help them comprehend the text we were reading, it helped to create a bond among us as we shared our dessert stories with laughter.

It can also be amusing to hear our native students explain such traditions as Halloween to our new arrivals, who often can’t quite believe what they are hearing. “Seriously,” I overheard one boy telling another, “you just put on a costume, go with a big bag, say ‘trick or treat’ and you get free candy. From everyone!”

Our English language learners also teach us valuable lessons about not jumping to conclusions when we native speakers see someone struggling with English words that require strange, tongue-twisting sounds. My still mostly white classroom was surprised when our newly arrived Korean student outscored them all on a math test. One of my students commented to me, “I guess he knows the language of numbers!”

English language learners also know the language of kindness—both how to give and to receive graciously. During a playground game of four-square, one of my students invited a new student to join in by smiling and putting the ball in her hands. When the ball-giving student made an error, her new friend was the first to retrieve the ball and invite her back into the game. I couldn’t help but smile as the scene unfolded.

Before moving to my adopted state of North Carolina, I never needed the advice of an ESL teacher. That’s not because I don’t consult my colleagues, but because I only had native English speakers in my classes. I clearly remember our school’s Celebrate Diversity Day. After the celebration, I wondered how the students would act if we really had any diversity.

In my current school, most every teacher has students appear at their classroom doors knowing very little, if any, English. My first ELL student flew into America and within days was sitting at one of my tables. Over time, as I sought to meet his needs, he changed the way I taught and brought a new dimension into our student community. He blossomed and we grew as well.

As I take out the winter decoration box from my storage closet this year, I don’t miss my former holiday decorations. My classroom is a living example of the rich learning opportunities that emerge when children of different races, cultures and faiths come together in America’s public schools.

So I’m sticking with my snowflakes. Like my students, each one is unique, and when they come together, they form a beautiful landscape within my classroom.