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Implementing Diversity in the Classroom?

Posted by Katherine Ireland
7 November 2012 - 2:30pm


I was thinking about how odd the term “implementing diversity” sounds in a classroom context, as though it isn’t already there. Some classrooms are certainly less diverse than others, and diversity is not acknowledged to the degree that it could be, but it is there.  In a unit I taught for my Master’s research study, I hoped to draw out the notion of diversity through the topic of immigration in Canada between 1865 and 1914.


The idea for this topic stems from my reaction to a particular outcome in the New Brunswick K-2 curriculum which integrates science, health, and social studies, called You and Your World.  In Unit 4 of the Grade One Curriculum, which is called Communities, the social studies outcomes state that students will:

1.4.1 Students will be expected to demonstrate an understanding that the way people live in their community evolves over time;

1.4.3 recognize that Aboriginal peoples’ relationship with place has changed over time;

1.4.4 explain how interactions between communities (local, national, and global) have changed over time (p. 97, You and Your World Curriculum: Kindergarten – Grade 2, 2005, Province of New Brunswick Department of Education).  


The suggestions for teaching and learning note: “It is important that the learning experiences avoid becoming a stereotypical study of early Aboriginal peoples. The goal is for students to realize that Aboriginal communities, like all communities, have evolved over time” (p. 102). However, there is no clear link between the activities suggested, and the stated outcome. The suggested activities include comparing traditionally Aboriginal lands with current Aboriginal lands, and exploring traditional Aboriginal customs, art, music and games. Though the curriculum states to teach about progress and decline, there is no reference to how these activities will help students explore how and why Aboriginal life in Canada has changed. The suggested assessments include involving students in an Aboriginal talking circle and asking students to demonstrate their understanding of early sports, games and traditions, which appear to be only superficially related to the stated outcome. Unfortunately, the curriculum outlines what does amount to a stereotypical, superficial study.


As a former elementary school teacher, this token treatment of Aboriginal heritage had concerned me, and to see in this document both the assumption that the relationship with the land has in fact changed (which it arguably has not, in spiritual terms), and such a blatant disregard for the historical context in which their relationship with the land was changed, suggested to me that I could explore a more critical way to approach it. For my Master’s I had wanted to research early elementary students’ historical thinking ability, and I thought, what better topic to explore to see what kind of inquiry young students can engage in? I hoped to convey the point that all of us who don’t have Aboriginal heritage have a history as immigrants, and that diversity doesn’t just mean not being white and not speaking English as a first language.


I structured the study as 7-lesson unit, including maps, photographs, posters and certificates as primary source evidence. We studied the treaties that were made with the Aboriginal people and the implementation of the reserve system, European settlers such as the Mennonites, the Home Children, the Komagata Maru incident, and the Chinese Head Tax. The Grade One students in the class engaged in a photo study, whole-group lessons, role-plays, drawing activities, and a family history project, as well as before-and-after interviews. I was surprised (though not as surprised as my supervisor and the classroom teacher!) to find that the students could not only tell me their version of the story that happened, they showed an emergent ability to look critically at the social justice issues the emerged from our study of this topic.


For example, in response to the question, “Was anybody allowed to come to Canada during the Immigration Boom?” Aiden replied: “No, they weren’t. They didn’t want the Chinese people to come, cause they didn’t want them in Canada. But it’s their fault that they kept coming, because they wanted them to come to do the railroad.” During the photo study when I asked who they thought wouldn’t have been allowed to immigrate, Jake P. pointed out a photograph of a Chinese family, and said: “Me… my family, because we’re from there, like China, we’re different. But now it would be okay.” When I asked the class why people wanted to immigrate to Canada during this time, Jake D. said: “Because some of them it’s cause they wanted to, and some of them the government wanted them to come, to help them farm. So they could help get that land that was all blank. But the First Nations were in it, so they made them move. They had treaties.” Showing the most sophisticated awareness of the group, in a role play where her group was questioning the Canadian government, Izzie asked: “Why did you give better deals to the Mennonites than [to] the First Nations people?”


I thought I could consider the unit a success, based on the fact that students were not only considering diversity as something much broader than “people who aren’t like me,” but also identifying and questioning issues of discrimination in the history of a diverse country like Canada. One approach I didn’t take, which I wish I had done, and hope to do the next time I teach this unit, was to look at the Aboriginal relationship with the land from an Aboriginal perspective. My study was pretty narrow in this regard, and I wonder what the results would have been if we had explored this perspective as well. I think it is an invaluable perspective that this unit was lacking, because it will provide students with another lens through which to view this era in Canadian history, as well as further challenge thier own notions of diversity.

How do you engage with diversity in your lessons/museum visits? What are strategies to stimulate critical thinking rather than stereotypical narratives?