My experiences as a teacher from a minority culture pushed me to become an activist in my school. The result has been a change in our school culture and an improved learning environment for our students. Here’s how this change happened.
I have always wondered about how diversity affects learning and to what extent our curriculum supports diversity. Does our education system prepare students to embrace diversity and take pride in their own heritage? As teachers we are driven by curriculum expectations. It is easy to lose sight of how students’ classroom experiences will shape them as members of society and of how to make learning more meaningful in the long term.
Growing up in the metropolitan city of New Delhi, India, I was always aware of diversity, as people from my native country’s various provinces represent a variety of cultures, religions, and races. My perspective however, was that of a member of a majority cultural group.
After I immigrated to Canada, diversity took on a different meaning for me. I was no longer part of the majority culture and became more aware of my race and ethnicity. In 1999, as a new classroom teacher, I attended several workshops focusing on teaching ESL students where I was often one of the few visible minority teachers. During both the formal and informal discussions, I heard new immigrant families referred to as “basement people” and their clothing called “costumes.” I also heard comments like “Immigrant families should be forced to learn English”; “They all come to Ontario just to beneﬁt from the welfare system”; and “English is a much more advanced language than their heritage language and that’s why they have difﬁculty learning it.” It wasn’t long before I realized that I had to take a proactive approach to deal with various “isms” I was encountering.
My students were a diverse group. Research suggests that students who see themselves reﬂected in the curriculum are more engaged in their learning1. But I found a big gap between my students’ cultures and those depicted in the teaching resources and picture books in my classroom.
Providing students with authentic experiences from various cultures allows them to take pride in their own heritage and to better understand other cultures. A safe environment where they can express their ideas freely enhances their chances to be successful in various subject areas. I will never forget the ﬁrst time I wore a sari to school for the Hindu festival of Diwali and brought sweets, artifacts, and storybooks to share with my students and colleagues. My students, irrespective of their own cultural background, were excited and interested. In the following weeks several wore their own cultural dress with much pride. I began purchasing books and other mate- rials that dealt