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Education conference shines light on multicultural teaching

on November 13, 2013

Standing beneath a blue and red banner, Angela Davis, the political activist, scholar and author, gripped the sides of the podium as she spoke emphatically to the hundreds of audience members at the National Association of Multicultural Education (NAME) convention on Saturday evening in Downtown. “If we don’t stop pretending that racism is a thing of the past,” Davis warned a rapt audience, “our historical traumas and unresolved issues will haunt us until we decide to confront them head on, and work through them.”

Over 1,000 scholars, students, and parents attended the five-day conference, held at the Oakland Marriott City Center, which featured panels, interactive workshops, school tours, and film screenings.

This year’s conference theme, ‘Erasing the Shadows, Embracing the Light: Re/Visioning Multicultural Education,’ reflected the organizers’ goal of opening up a dialogue around inequities in the classrooms.

Throughout the week, presenters addressed the unspoken presence of racial profiling in schools. Many noted that there was often a disconnect between minority students and their teachers, because they came from different cultural backgrounds. Dena R. Samuels, an Assistant Professor in Women’s and Ethnic Studies at University of Colorado, presented the results of her national survey, which found a discrepancy between how teachers and students experience racial differences in the classroom. Samuels found that while many university instructors believe that inequity isn’t a problem, and saw themselves as prepared to deal with diversity in the classroom, many minority college students had a different experience and reported feeling unwelcome on campus. Samuels spoke of a need for teachers to assume “cultural humility” or to not make assumptions about their students based on their race, but to invite students to share their personal stories.

Other sessions included presentations by 16 new student teachers enrolled at the University of San Francisco’s Urban Education and Social Justice program who conducted research in San Francisco United School District classrooms. Examining the role of diversity in the classroom, the student teachers found that it was important to teach students about their heritage and the local history.

A nonprofit that advocates for multicultural awareness in schools, NAME was created in 1991, in conjunction with the Association of Teacher Educators, with the goal of creating a more inclusive environment in schools. Over the past 33 years, the association has provided a platform for teachers to share successful curriculum and teaching strategies that promote diversity.

The convention also appealed to international educators and students who want to introduce multicultural awareness in their native countries. HyeKyoung Lee, a doctorate student from Utah State’s Cultural Studies program who is originally from Daegu, South Korea, taught at an afterschool multicultural education program in Daegu for four years. She says that conferences like NAME allow her to interact with people who have similar values and who can teach her different skills. “I can expand my horizon,” she says.

Lee notes that Korea has experienced an influx of immigrants in the past decade, but that social studies textbooks don’t always reflect that increasing diversity.

She says she hopes to use what she learned at the conference to create “a more equitable, or more just school culture” in Korea by introducing practices used in the American education system, like including minority cultures in textbooks and instructional videos.

Although the conference mainly championed the successes of inclusion practices, some panelists shared their experiences about feeling excluded as a minority in America. Lee Mun Wah, a filmmaker, poet and educator who taught in San Francisco for 25 years, now believes that appreciating your heritage is essential to creating a productive dialogue about race relations. But he also admits that he initially struggled with his identity as a first generation Chinese-American growing up in Oakland. In third grade Lee hid his traditional Cantonese food under the schoolyard lunch table until the other students noticed the smell. After that, he waited for the other students to leave the classroom so that he could throw away his food. “It was only until years later did I realize that I threw away more than just my food. I threw away who I was,” says Lee.

Some educators in Oakland said they hoped that the skills they were learning at the conference would allow minority students to more openly celebrate their heritage. Rachelle Rogers-Ard, who taught at Castlemont High School in East Oakland for ten years and is now the manager of Teach Tomorrow in Oakland, a program that supports the hiring of local, diverse teachers, says she thinks that the conference is important for making sure that multicultural education gets incorporated into daily instruction. “We have to work with our educators to help them understand that multiculturalism is not something you trot out in February for Black History Month, and in May for Cinqo de Mayo,” Rogers-Ard said. “Rather, it is a way of teaching. It is a lens; it is a purpose; it is a way of being.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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